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How to Estimate Your Expected Salary

While salary is not the only driving force behind our career decisions, it is important to consider. How much will you make? This can be a big, and often unanswered, question for students and job seekers. We don't usually have an answer until a job offer is accepted, but there's a lot of information available to help you estimate your potential income in the meantime.


Salary Surveys and Calculators


There are several national-level reports available to give you a better idea of what you can expect to earn. These surveys usually present salary averages according to broad career categories, and sometimes break the data down by major or job title. The three publications featured in this post – from the National Association of Colleges and Employers,, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – represent the variety of resources available.

  • The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) recently released its latest Salary Survey for the Class of 2011. This report combines multiple sources of salary data for college graduates and finds "the overall average salary for Class of 2011 graduates is up to $41,701, which is 2.3 percent higher than the Class of 2010's average of $40,766. This increase is good news, but varies when you look at the numbers by career category. Computer science and business salaries had the most significant increases, 4.1% and 3.8% respectively, while health sciences and math and sciences salaries had the lowest increases, each at 1.1%. Salaries in the engineering category had the highest overall average at $61,872. Take a closer look at the report summary [PDF] for more information about average salaries by academic major and industry. NACE also offers an online salary calculator to help you develop an estimate that includes additional factors based on your input.
  • is another resource for salary information. This site provides a salary estimate calculator, as well as detailed reports based on "salary and career data from more than 30 million people, covering 12,000 job titles, and 1,100 distinct industries in 150 countries." PayScale's quarterly Compensation Index recently reported that jobs in both energy and technology related fields had the highest salary gains during 2011. This index follows a wide range of occupations representing all levels of education and experience, but a College Salary Report is also available. This is an annual publication that ranks degrees, and even schools, based on salary potential for Bachelor's Degree holders only. The 2011-2012 edition features engineering majors as those that lead to the highest salaries, with seven different engineering majors listed in the top 10, along with physics, applied mathematics, and computer science. 
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is known for providing a host of publications and tools to assist with career exploration and planning. Among these resources are statistics on pay and benefits that include not only occupation and industry, but also geographic area. Comparison reports among metropolitan areas present wage differences by industry between regional locations and the national averages. As an example, it may not be surprising to learn that pay for management, business, financial occupations in metropolitan New York, is higher than the national average [PDF]. 

As you explore these surveys and other similar tools, consider the origin (i.e. who responds to the surveys) along with the breadth and depth (i.e. specific to college graduates or representing larger range of education and experience) of the data reported. The volume of data provided can be overwhelming. Focus your attention on the resources that inform your decisions about career options. And don't hesitate to involve your school's career center advisors in the discussion. They are experienced at interpreting these detailed reports and can recommend additional resources related to salary estimates.


Fine-Tuning Your Estimates


As a new graduate from your online academic program, what can you expect in terms of potential earnings? Well, it depends on multiple factors. The national surveys are a helpful place to start, but you can get a better idea of expected salary in your desired field by extending your research into the following areas:

  • Level of experience: Someone with 10 years of experience within a field can usually expect to earn more than someone at entry level. This is an important consideration as you look at job announcements and prepare to negotiate salary, especially if you are making the transition to a new career or work environment.
  • Level of education and training: Certification in your field, if applicable, can increase your value to a potential employer, also increasing your estimated salary. And in some industries those with advanced degrees (e.g. law, medicine and healthcare, engineering) may be able to command higher compensation rates.
  • Local and regional information: The economy in your local area, or the area in which you want to relocate, has a big impact on the compensation employers are able to offer. Research the cost of living information available for your target state and town.
  • Type of employer and industry: For-profit and non-profit organizations often have very different pay scales, even for positions that may have very similar job tasks. Employee unions also impact wages and compensation in industries where they are active.
  • Gender and ethnicity: Current research indicates that while the gap in pay for men and women performing the same jobs continues to close, differences in compensation still exist. These gaps can also exist among ethnicities and can differ across industries.

Salary calculators, like those from PayScale and NACE, do factor in some of these variables. You can also find additional reports from professional organizations that provide salary information focused on specific types of work and industries.

As you search for information about the jobs you are interested in, some will be more difficult to assess in terms of salary simply because they are new occupations. In 2009 for example, O*Net added "153 new and emerging occupations" to its database, including titles such as "Sustainability Specialists," "Online Merchants," and "Video Game Designers."


Compensation Considerations


Keep in mind that salary is just one form of compensation offered by an employer. Look for additional information related to a wide range of benefits and other financial compensation (i.e., commission, bonuses, overtime) that may be typical with employers hiring in your field. And remember that estimating your expected salary is just that, an estimate. Know that there are no guarantees, because employment compensation fluctuates as markets shift and industries decline and expand. Compare multiple sources of information and continue your research to find out more about the potential compensation you can expect from your next career move. 

January 19th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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