How I Recovered from a Lowball Salary

And how I made sure it would never happen again.

The journalism industry isn’t exactly known for having prestigious, high-paying jobs — Anna Wintour, Anderson Cooper, Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc., excluded, of course. Take my first foray into the field for example: three weeks out of journalism school, I scored my first interview at a newspaper. The executive editor offered me the job before I left his office — for the astounding salary of $10 an hour.

I’d worked my way through college, and earned more than that as a waitress. I politely but promptly turned down that offer and held out hope for the next one. It came in at a resounding $19,000 a year. I didn’t do the math to find out what that worked out to be per hour. Journalists, in addition to being poorly paid, are notoriously bad at math. Instead, I turned down that job offer and hoped, much against my better judgment, for more money.

I was so disheartened by those first two offers that when a third came in, topping the last one by $8,000, I took it without hesitation. And that set the tone for how I would approach my next job offer. I didn’t do the research to know whether I was getting a fair salary. I didn’t even check what my industry’s pay standards were at the time. I simply asked myself, “Is this more money than you’re making now?” The answer was yes, and I took my lower-than-I-should-have-accepted salary without negotiation.

I’d been at my second professional job (also at a newspaper) for a few days when I met my coworker-turned-close friend, Dan. Over a couple of beers and burgers at the local sports bar, we got to talking about my offer. I was so proud of myself. “I went from making $27,000 a year at my last job to making $36,000 here,” I bragged to him. But I could tell by his face that I should be hanging my head instead of puffing out my chest. Dan, hired just 11 months earlier with a year’s less experience in the field than I had, had snagged a salary of $40,000 a year. And to add insult to my injury, he’d negotiated three weeks’ vacation, too.

Initially, I was embarrassed. Then my emotions turned to frustration. Finally, I got focused. Starting with my next job offer, I stopped asking whether it was more than I was currently making — because of course, it should be — and started doing the work I needed to do to ensure I wouldn’t be low-balled ever again. Here’s how:

I Used Online Resources

Long before I started writing for Glassdoor as a freelance writer, I knew about their amazing salary tool. You can type in your job title and location, and the tool will populate an average salary for your specific area, plus how it compares to the national average for that same job. My third professional job was as a magazine editor at a regional publication, and by using this simple tool, I discovered editors in my area were making an average of $47,000 a year. That gave me a base on which to judge my own offer.

Another great tool is Know Your Worth, a personal salary estimator that’ll let you know how much you should be earning in base pay, taking into consideration education, location, current company, and experience.

I Talked to Employees

I spoke with contacts and coworkers until I found a connection between one of them and a former employee at the magazine. And after a quick introduction, that former employee was happy to dish on what he’d earned when he’d worked in the exact position I was going to fill.

The magic number? It was $42,000. That may sound low, but that average salary I’d uncovered included all editors, and this position was pretty low on the masthead. So now I knew I should accept nothing less than $42,000 — and I could still negotiate for more.

I Didn't Accept the First Offer

If I’d followed my previous criteria for accepting job offers, I’d have snatched up this one without hesitation. It was $38,000, which was more than the $36,000 I’d been making at the newspaper. Old me would have celebrated my raise. But new me was mildly irritated. I knew I had been low-balled. I found the courage to counter offer. I asked for $42,000.

I didn’t name the previous employee, but I stressed to my future boss that I had information proving previous editors in that position had been paid more — and said I couldn’t possibly accept less than what they’d earned. He came back with an offer of $40,000 with a $1,000 raise after six months and an extra week’s vacation. I said yes.

Sadly, after I took that job, over drinks with my new managing editor, our salaries came up. I told her what I was offered, and she started crying at the table. I was making $6,000 more than the-second-to-top editor at the publication — after she’d been there for five years, and earned more than one raise. She also hadn’t researched. And she also hadn’t negotiated.

When it comes to salary, it sounds cliché but knowledge really is power. Knowing industry standards, talking to former employees, and being willing to fight for what you’re worth not only helps you earn more now, but it sets you up for financial success in the future.

 A version of this article was originally published on Glassdoor. It is adapted with permission.

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