Money Talks: An Advice Column for Women in the Workplace

university in Sao Paulo
Dear Money Talks,

I work in a small department of a large university. I started there as a graduate assistant, and over three years I have worked my way up to a full-time staff member in a position I essentially created for myself. I really like the job and my coworkers, I get great benefits, and I am not eager to leave this workplace except for, of course, the salary.

When I interviewed for the job I have now, I was reasonably hoping to be offered at minimum about $4,000 more than the number they put in front of me. When I asked for more money, my future boss came back with what they had offered plus $500. My disappointment almost drowned out my happiness at getting the job I had wanted. The pro forma annual raise I received after one year on the job was less than 2%. It’s not looking like my financial situation is going to get better any time soon without some action on my part.

Unfortunately, there is no one in my department I feel comfortable discussing and comparing salaries with. I would love to ask for a raise, but based on the $500-a-year comeback a scant 13 months ago, I am doubtful that I would get one. I don’t have a great rapport with my boss. So to boil down my questions a bit:

1) How do I know when to ask for a raise?

2) How do I find out if my salary is fair without making things awkward with my coworkers or illicitly snooping through the employee files (a temptation I resist every day)?

3) After only a year in my first salaried job, how do I know if it’s time to start looking for greener pastures?

Thank you for any advice you can provide!

Dear Unsure,

My first rule in life is “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.” Further, the one-year mark is the perfect time to ask for a raise! For one thing, it seems like your pro forma raise is less than inflation (2% at last check), so that’s pretty weak. The economy is not great, but it isn’t that bad (unless maybe the university you work for is having some sort of state university budget crisis, in which case I understand their reluctance, but it doesn’t make the rest of what I’m going to say any less true).

Beyond that, a year in, you also should be more valuable to your department than you were when you first started. When a company hires an employee, it is taking a small risk: a risk that the employee has the qualifications that she says she has, that the employee is going to show up on time every day, that the employee is going to end up being good at her job. Theoretically, a company prices in that risk in its original salary offer by paying you less than the perfect employee is worth to them.

Now that you’ve made it a year, you’ve shown your boss that you’re good at your job (right?) and decreased that risk, so you should be more valuable to the company. On top of that, you’ve also now got a full year of experience doing your job. Make sure you’re ready to talk about all of the valuable things you’ve done in the past year with your boss before you ask for the raise. Sometimes it isn’t just about when to ask, but how to ask.

As for knowing if your salary is fair, there are a couple of ways to go about it. The best (effectiveness-wise), is probably to answer your second question with your third: interview for other jobs. Without a doubt the best way to get more money out of your department is to show up at negotiations with a higher offer from somewhere else. Just make sure you are prepared to leave — conviction is key in this kind of negotiation. As for getting a higher offer, when a company asks for your salary requirements, give them whatever you are making now, plus at least 10%. Remember that they aren’t likely to give you more than you ask for, so shoot for higher than you are willing to settle for.

If you want to know how much your coworkers make without making it awkward around the office, the first tool you should use is the internet. Google is your friend here. It’s not perfect, but it’s never going to judge you. Secondly, try asking someone who does what you do, but at a different organization. The second tactic is to ask a coworker who is leaving the organization. If the person isn’t going to be your coworker anymore, they don’t really have anything to lose in telling you what they were making. If they do, for some reason, get offended, you don’t have to see them every day anymore. Whatever you do, don’t snoop through confidential files you don’t have access to. That’s a good way to get your income reduced to $0.

Besides the salary revelation aspect of looking for greener pastures, I’m a big fan of always being on the hunt. That is not to say that you should constantly be interviewing for new jobs, but knowing more information about your industry can only help you. The way to get that information is to get to know the people who do what you do. Sometimes that means formal interviews, sometimes informational interviews, and sometimes just basic networking. The more you know about your field, the easier it is to know when it’s time to leave your current gig.

It’s hard to know much about your specific university-related career from your description, but if you are at all specialized, you have peers working at other universities doing similar things. Get to know them! Get lunch or drinks, or if you live in a small one-college town, send some emails. Go to conferences if you can. Salary isn’t the sort of thing you should be asking people right away, but hopefully you will eventually develop the kind of relationships where you will feel comfortable asking about jobs and money. Some of my favorite people in the world I know because I emailed them out of the blue basically saying, “Hey, I’d like to know you because you do what I do and you seem cool.” If you enjoy what you do (especially if you are young and single and likely to be going for a drink after work anyway), the line between networking and friendshipping is pretty gray and fuzzy.




Money Talks is an advice column by Shane Ferro. Send your questions to with “Money Talks” in the headline.




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