What a relief! The grueling task of finding a job is over. You received an offer, and the company presented you with your starting salary and benefits package.
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But wait. Before you hastily agree to the terms and sign on the dotted line, do some homework to find out if you're being offered a competitive salary. If not — or even if you need a few thousand dollars more to cover the rent — negotiate. It's something recent grads are reluctant to do since they're often grateful just to be hired. After all, it's not as if they have a wealth of on the job experience. It's great to be appreciative and enthusiastic, but don't forget: not only can you negotiate the salary of your first job, you should.
Here's one reason why: "It's no different than how we play poker," says Michael Ball, founder of Career Freshman, a California-based company that teaches employers how to manage recent graduates. "Employers are not coming in with their full hand. They're always coming in a few thousand below what they have to cap out at. There's always more wiggle room."
Chris Fusco, vice president of compensation at Salary.com, says negotiating often results in "about 10 percent improvement on the initial offer." He recommends saying something like "Based on my understanding of the job, the company's needs, and the skills and experience I bring, I feel I'm worth $5,000 more than what you're offering me ."
Fusco advises students to make employers aware of the work and internship experience they've had in the past, recommendations from professors and former employers, and details of extracurricular activities, to show the strong potential they have for success at the company.
If the thought of negotiating for a few thousand dollars more makes you queasy, consider this: Annual raises are usually a percentage of your salary. "That incremental negotiation you do at the front end continues to pay you back when it's time for a percentage raise," says Ball. It goes on from there, especially if you're at the company for several years.
That's particularly true for women. Among employees who work full time and are one year out of college, females are making only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn, according to a new study by the American Association of University Women.
Granted, there are variables at play, such as the jobs women chose, education received and whether they work at a for-profit company versus a nonprofit or governmental organization. But when Catherine Hill, director of research at the association and co-author of the report "Behind the Pay Gap," accounted for those variables statistically, there was still a 5 percent difference between men and women that's not explained. Women's lack of negotiating skills likely has something to do with it, she says.
Both genders should keep in mind that negotiating might have another benefit. "How a prospective employee negotiates is a good indicator of how that person will perform on the job," says Fusco. "It's an indicator of whether they'll be able to influence others to take action and if they can lobby to get resources."
Whatever you do, don't tell the recruiter how much you hope to make. It's a lose-lose situation. If you ask for too much, you can price yourself out of the job, but if you ask for too little, you're hurting yourself financially. If asked, the right thing to say is, "I'm very excited about working for this company, and I think I have a lot to bring. I'm sure we can work together to agree on salary that suits both of us."
Never go into raise negotiations without knowing what other people in your profession are making. The first place to check is your university's career center. Career counselors can tell you if the company's salary history is consistent with its offer.
From there, ask if the recruiter can put you in touch with last year's grads who received offers from that company and their competitors. If you're planning to negotiate, ask the contact how he or she negotiated and if it was successful. That person can also offer tips on how to ask for more money since he or she knows the company's culture after being there for a year.
Then, see what recent grads with similar jobs in your geographic area are making by visiting sites like salary.com and vault.com. These sites post all sorts of information from employees about what it's like to work for their organization.
Many companies hire entry-level employees into structured programs that give them an opportunity to rotate throughout the company. Salaries for those positions aren't usually flexible. That doesn't mean there isn't room for discussion, says Victoria Tracy, director of staffing at Tyco International. She recommends being completely honest. For instance, if you need help with moving costs, she suggests telling the recruiter to see if that money can be put in the form of a signing bonus.
Another way to get around a structured salary is to ask if your manager can review your performance and salary at six months instead of at the year mark, she says. "We want candidates who work for us to feel good as soon as they walk in the door," says Tracy. "We also want them to be reasonable. If they're willing to work with us, we're willing to listen to their concerns."
Keep in mind that some offers are too good to refuse even if the money isn't there. That's true for programs that will teach you unique skills or employers that have exemplary records when it comes to professional development and work/life balance. Some jobs and employers are so prestigious that having it on your résumé will help you get other, more lucrative offers.
"Too often people see their career as nothing but a paycheck," says John Leech, director of recruitment for FedEx. "It really is so much more."
Tyco's Tracy offers one final piece of advice: No matter what, never, ever have your parents call up to do the negotiating for you.
© 2012 Forbes.com