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The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?

Illustration by Julie Campbell
The First Five Years: Should I Try to Negotiate the Salary of My First Job?
Published September 18, 2018 by Mitch Goldstein

Getting started in your creative career is tough. You’ve got boatloads of ambition and energy, but you lack experience, the kind of knowledge that feels like you can see into the future because you’ve been there before. So we’ve introduced a new column that will allow you to get the benefit of hindsight before you’ve actually gone through the experience. Welcome to “The First Five Years” where Mitch Goldstein, a professor of design at Rochester Institute of Technology, answers reader questions related to the unchartered waters of beginning a career. This month, Mitch answers a question about how to determine, and maximize, your first salary. 

Q. Should I try to negotiate the salary of my first job?

Knowing what your first job should pay is challenging: this number will vary wildly depending on geography, industry, studio size, studio clientele, and so on. Make sure to do some online research first (a good start is searching for “junior designer salary” in the city you are looking at). Once an offer has been made, you should always attempt to negotiate your salary — there is no reason not to, and every reason to try.

If a company wants to hire you, asking for more money is not going to suddenly make them change their mind. They may not increase your pay, but they will not suddenly tell you to go away, either. Any company that does take an offer off the table when you politely ask for more money is not a company you want to work for, anyway.

So many people look for a job purely by trying to logic their way through the process — is this the “best” position? Will it give me the “right” opportunities? Will I get to work with the biggest name clients? Will I get a desk in a cool loft space? Do I get enough vacation days? Are the office snacks organic? These are all legitimate things to think about, but so often we forget the most important metric: does it FEEL right? Does it seem like a place you want to be for 40+ (or 50+, or 60+) hours a week? Do you want to sit next to these people all day? Are you excited to start? Always, always trust your gut — if it feels bad do not take it.

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job.

Everybody has a different situation and different needs — there are some people who can afford to take a low-paying job with a big-name studio, and there are some people who have to cover more expenses. Be very honest with yourself about what your reality is: will you have to work a shift at Starbucks to cover the shortfall in a low-paying but “impressive” design job?

You might have massive student loan debt, you might have a child to support, you might have expensive housing. Make sure to take care of business and cover your living expenses. That amazing BIG NAME DESIGNER STUDIO job might not be worth putting your rent on a credit card just for the chance to work there. An incredible job that does not pay you enough to live might not be that incredible.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job. 

Remember that it is much easier to find the dream design job when you already have a design job. You can pay your bills, you will learn how commercial practice works, you will get some valuable experience under your belt, you will make industry connections, and you will be less panicked and desperate on interviews. Just like a company can fire you, you can quit when something better comes along, so do not be afraid to take a job you will not keep forever, especially if puts you in a place where you want to live.

There is no reason to approach your first job like it’s also your last job — what you do in 10 years might be completely different from what you do tomorrow. When you do leave, you should never, ever stand up at your desk, yell “I QUIT!!” and run out into the Brooklyn sunshine. Design is an extremely small world, so give two weeks notice and leave on friendly terms.

Lastly, if your resume is filled with a dozen jobs in as many years, that might be a red flag to a possible employer (and maybe to yourself: you might be better as a freelancer than as an employee.) 

More about Mitch Goldstein

Mitch is an Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the School of Design. Over the past decade, he has also taught at Rhode Island School of Design, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Maryland Institute College of Art. He works in collaboration with his wife Anne Jordan on select client projects.

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