Your starting salary as a new grad affects everything from where you can afford to live to how easily you can repay your student loans. So it's important to have an accurate sense of your earning potential.
Some grads are in for a rude awakening: Most college students are overly optimistic about what they'll earn right out of college, according to a recent survey by Clever Real Estate, a real estate data firm. The typical college student expects to earn $58,000 in his or her first job, while the median salary for recent bachelor's degree grads is $47,000, according to PayScale. That's 23% less.
The disconnect between expectations and actual earnings varies a lot by college major—with some actually underestimating what they could make.
Here's how to figure out how much you're likely to earn after you graduate.
When Corbin Cofer graduated from Chapman University in 2018, the offers received by his friends with accounting and finance degrees colored his own expectations. "I thought I was going to make $50,000 or $60,000 right out," he says. Instead, he received initial offers in the low- to mid-$40,000s for a position in public relations.
"I was caught a little off-guard," Cofer says.
As Cofer learned, setting your expectations based on your field and degree is critical. The typical early career aeronautical engineering grad earns $68,500 after completing their bachelor's degree, compared to $38,800 for entry-level zoology grads, according to PayScale's College Salary Report.
Even among grads with the same degree, there can be huge gaps, as some high-paying employers value some programs, or brand names, more than others. The median 2018 MBA grad from Harvard Business School started earning $140,000 in base salary, plus a median sign on-bonus of $25,000. Meanwhile, the typical member of the 2018 MBA class from the University of Kentucky started out earning $60,100.
Salary estimates you'll find online are usually averages or medians that lump together folks from both high- and low-cost-of-living parts of the country. That can contribute to out-sized salary expectations, especially if you end up working in a smaller market.
"New York is different than working in Kansas," says Beth Hendler-Grunt, president of Next Great Step, an early career counseling firm based in New Jersey. She says it is important that grads get a sense of what their local market pays—which can even vary dramatically across a state.
Job-seekers have access to lots of online salary resources: Companies like PayScale and LinkedIn post a wealth of salary data. Glassdoor even aggregates salaries by company for specific titles, based on anonymous reviews.
While online salary data is a great place to start, it doesn't replace the tried and true method of asking folks in your field. "Reach out to fellow alumni," Hendler-Grunt says. "If they are in a more junior role, they tend to share more. ...You don't have to ask someone what their salary is but get an understanding of the range."
She also encourages grads to be ready to negotiate: "There is no downside to asking for little more."
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