Answering the Dreaded Salary Question

It has probably happened to you, right? You are in an interview, well prepared and confident in your answers. Then suddenly the interviewer asks, “So, what are your salary expectations?” Blindsided, you don’t know what to say or how to even approach your answer. Should you have seen this coming? The answer is probably yes, but even then, what is an appropriate answer to that question?

The good news is, you likely will not be thrown out of the interview for suggesting a number outside their salary range. In fact, the question is designed really just to give the employer an idea of how close they are to what you need. To be clear, this is not the point in the process to be negotiating your salary. Negotiation should really start once you have received an offer. This is just to make sure that you and the employer are in the same ballpark.

Here is what I suggest: first determine what you NEED. By that I mean, what salary would you need to maintain your current lifestyle. Go through all of your expenses (car payments, rent/mortgage, student loans, groceries, gas, etc.) and determine what level of salary would cover your expenses, and on top of all that, factor in the occasional concert tickets, going out to dinner, ski passes or lift tickets, etc. so that you’re able to at least maintain your current lifestyle.

Once you have an idea of what that salary number looks like, now it is time to determine what you WANT. There are many ways to conduct research on salaries. You can use sites like or Glassdoor, but I recommend going straight to O*Net Online. This information on this site is developed under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment & Training Administration, to ensure greater accuracy. As an example, if I am searching for salary information for a Public Relations Assistant position I am interviewing for, I simply type the title of the position into the quick search bar (not every job title will be the same or even listed, so you have to find the most related occupations) and scroll down to the Wage Information section. Here you will be able to compare local and national wage averages for that particular job title!

Now that you have the number you NEED and the number you WANT, whether they’re close or not, your target salary should be somewhere between the two. Rather than presenting just one number to a potential employer, try giving them a range to show that you’re flexible, as suggested here by Allison Doyle of The Balance. You might even phrase it like this:

Based on my research I believe that somewhere between $47,000 a year (NEED) and 55,000 a year (WANT) seems realistic. I am very interested in this job and am certainly open to further discussion. Am I close to the range that you have?

Now that the employer has an idea of what you are aiming for, it will be much easier for the hiring team to consider what an offer would need to look like. Remember, this is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for determining salary requirements. Follow your gut. If the number you determine based on your expenses seems low for the type of work you will be doing, maybe you will want to start higher. Always try to keep in mind your value and worth- don’t sell yourself short!

This is not an easy question to answer, so don’t hesitate to seek help in preparing your response. You can make an appointment in Pioneer Careers Online with your Career Advisor to get tailored assistance.

By Andrew Gupton
Andrew Gupton Career Advisor