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You might not be middle-aged with three kids and a mortgage, but that doesn’t mean your salary expectations are infinitely flexible. As an educated career starter, you probably have some amount of student debt ranging from bearable to horrific. Plus, you were hoping to expand your diet beyond Ramen noodles and upgrade your shoebox apartment with a few pieces of shiny new Ikea furniture now that you’ve finished college.
But you’ve gotten your first job offer or two, and it doesn’t look like even those modest goals are going to be met. The salaries on offer are less than you expected, and once you subtract out your rent, bills and loan payments, the bottom line is pretty pathetic.
So what do you do now?
Are Your Expectations Realistic?
The first question is deciding whether the offer is fair or well below the going rate. With so little experience in the job market, this can be a tough one for young careerists to get their minds around.
“There’s so much information that it can be overwhelming. When that happens, I think a lot of young people ignore it and they get frustrated that they’re not familiar with things. They feel a little angry that they aren’t prepared for these ‘real-life things’ that come at them when getting a new job,” Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career: Your Essential Guide to Succeeding in the Real World, recently told Business Insider.
So, how does she recommend tackling this feeling of powerlessness and confusion? In short: research. She tells BI:
Compensation has a lot of fear around it particularly if you don’t have a lot of experience with negotiations or talking about money, so it’s something you have to prepare for. [You need to know] what ranges are common in particular industries, companies…regions of the country or the world also come into play. Do that research then think about the experience you have and decide whether you’re on the top or middle of that range. Industry web sites can give also you benchmark of what’s common in a field.
Chris Forman, CEO of job search organizer StartWire and HR expert, agrees that research is key. He suggests Glassdoor in particular, calling it a “great site for employer reviews and salary information—it’s like Yelp for jobs” in an email to Brazen.
Should You Negotiate?
Now you know exactly where your offer falls on the salary spectrum. Should you negotiate (Brazen has lots of tips on how), refuse the offer or hold your nose and simply sign on the contract’s dotted line?
Forman recommends that in the current economy, young folks simply stock up on bulk rice and beans and accept whatever is on offer, keeping in mind that it’s not forever. He writes:
Everyone has a ‘first real job‘ story. Your focus should be on getting a position at a great company…not the salary. It’s the proverbial foot in the door. Your first position is a stepping-stone. If you join a good, growing company you will have opportunity for advancement. If you have little or no experience, you don’t really have the ability to negotiate a salary. It’s better to take what’s offered, put your head down for a year, and earn a raise based on performance.
Self-Knowledge Through Poverty?
Pollak, for her part, views disillusionment as an opportunity to clarify what’s important to you. Whether you accept a particular offer is obviously very much down to your individual circumstances, preferences and budget. But whichever way you choose, she advocates paying close attention to what you like and dislike about these early, less-than-perfect gigs. As BI reports:
If you do take a job and realize that it’s not what you imagined or wanted—which happens often with first jobs—Pollak said that this is ‘an education thing’ that young people have to deal with and decide for themselves what it is that they want and don’t want in a job.
Exactly how much does being poor annoy you? How important or not is finding a very specific sort of job or finding your gig meaningful? The data that these answers represent will pay off when you’re looking for your next career move.
What’s your first real job story? Were you disillusioned by the work or the pay? And if so, how did you cope?
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch and GigaOM.