Accepting a lower salary than you want

This is the third in a series of “best of the blog” entries that I am reposting while I am on vacation. The following was originally posted on July 4, 2013.

For some people (and here I’m mostly talking about new college graduates, but this could also apply to career changers), it may be necessary to start out with a lower salary than you want. . .or even than what you need to make your life comfortable. If you don’t have a lot of work experience, if your education doesn’t align with your career goals, or if you’re interested in the same job as a lot of other people, you may have to sacrifice for a while. Let’s take these situations one at a time.

Lack of relevant work experience: You may have noticed that I added a word here (“relevant”) that wasn’t in the previous paragraph. College students often take whatever job they can get to help pay their expenses, so they could have a two-page resume with lots of work experience, but it’s quite likely that most (if not all) of those jobs don’t have much to do with the career they hope to enter. For example, a lot of college students work in food service and retail, or as summer camp counselors or nannies. Those jobs are unlikely to provide the type of explicit skills that employers may be looking for. Similarly, someone who has worked in one field but wants to make a change could have a great resume, but  not one that demonstrates the required skills. If that’s your situation, you may need to take a lower starting salary (or even an unpaid internship) to build the requisite skills.

Lack of relevant education: Again, the word “relevant” is significant here. You may have a great college degree from a top-notch school, but many people major in what they love, not what is going to lead to a specific career. Ideally, you will have developed general skills that will help you no matter what field you go into, such as the ability to communicate orally and in writing, to conduct research and make an argument based on evidence, to solve problems, and to work on a team. But many jobs require specialized skills, so you may have to offer to take additional classes (for example, a course in a specific software application) or a lower salary until you are up to speed on what is needed. Many employers aren’t going to give you that option, but if this is something that you really want to do and you can demonstrate motivation and sincerity, then you have something to talk about in a cover letter and an interview that may just help you get your foot in the door.

Lots of competition for the job: This scenario is a bit different from the others because it assumes that you do have either relevant education or experience (or both), but so do many other applicants. This is the case with fields where jobs are getting scarce (such as journalism) or those that many people find attractive (such as the film industry). In addition to demonstrating the unique attributes that make you a desirable employee, you may have to be willing to accept a lower salary to start.

In all of these situations, that first job will allow you to gain skills and experience and build your resume, making you more marketable for the next job. At the same time, you’ll be able to make contacts within the industry and demonstrate your professionalism, resourcefulness, and motivation. There’s also a chance that you can move up within the organization once you have proven yourself.