5 Things You Need to Know to Successfully Advocate for Yourself at Your First Job

From negotiating salary to being heard in the workplace

Don't be afraid to speak up and ask for feedback.
Photo Illustration: Tenzin Tsepel; Sources: Getty Images

Getting your first job is a huge accomplishment, but throughout the journey of accepting that first offer and settling in during those first few months, new graduates may find themselves with many unanswered questions. How much money should you ask for in your first job? Can you negotiate for more money when you get your first job offer? What if you don’t fit in or your ideas aren’t being heard?

Whether it’s negotiating a higher starting salary, asking for your first raise or navigating the tricky world of benefits, these tips from industry veterans will help new graduates feel even more prepared to take on their first real-world job.

When you land your first job, you may be inclined to just accept the offer, no questions asked. Scoring your first real-world job is exciting, but just because you’re new to the working world doesn’t mean you have absolutely zero negotiating power.

The Creative Group, a company specializing in connecting creative talent with major companies, puts out an annual comprehensive guide to salaries in the creative and marketing fields. In the 2018 guide, 57 percent of advertising and marketing executives noted they would expect and be willing to negotiate salary with candidates.

“A lot of people don’t negotiate. So my No. 1 piece of advice is to expect that it is OK to negotiate,” explained Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group.

While you do have the power to ask for a higher salary, new graduates should be realistic when it comes to their asking price. Jaclyn Johnson, CEO and founder of Create & Cultivate suggested it helps to “have a bottom line in mind but be flexible. As a new grad you don’t have as much bargaining power out the gate, getting experience is key, but also be able to understand your growth path.”

Negotiating for more money is a great way to kick-start your professional life, but don’t come to the table unprepared. Experts suggest that doing your research on the average salary for an entry-level position in your field is critical. Johnson recommends checking out Glassdoor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics as a starting point. The Creative Group’s 2018 Salary Guide is another good starting point. Domeyer suggests having at least two to three salary data points in your back pocket.

The same advice applies for newcomers looking to snag their first raise at a company. Doing your research is critical. It’s also important to have some hard evidence to justify the pay raise you are asking for.

“You can’t necessarily walk into a negotiation and say, ‘I heard from so and so that she makes X, so I deserve Y.’ It’s not like that. It’s a data point that helps you build your narrative and what you are doing is saying ‘That’s what I’m worth’ but having a benchmark of more than one data point is really important and I think there are a lot of places to find that,” said Gillian Meek, president of Keds.

Figure out what skills you posses that set you apart from your co-workers and write those down or keep them in the back of your mind when you enter into a salary negotiation meeting. Do you go above and beyond for your company and always step up to help on new projects? Use that to your advantage.

“That doesn’t have to be technical. It can be your positive attitude and willingness to jump in. Having this in mind and using the average salary for the position, coupled with your bottom line, will help you create a range that is fair to ask for,” Johnson argued.

“Never assume that your direct supervisor has as good of a recollection of your contributions as you do,” added Domeyer.

For Meek, building a professional network wasn’t something she actively thought about early on in her career. She saw it as a formal task that took a lot of time and effort, so she shied away from it early on.

“People come out of school and get into their first jobs and they think of networking as this very formal situation but really it’s just about meeting people and learning something new about an individual and learning how that might help you develop professionally over time,” Meek said. “The more you network, the more valuable and beneficial your circle can become.”

Once you have the network of people you trust you can easily go to them with questions of any kind. Not sure how to ask for a raise, or how much is too much? Ask your mentor. Feeling like no one is listening to your ideas or valuing your opinions? Ask a trusted industry friend for some advice.

If you’re not sure how to find a mentor, talk to your manager and ask for some help. Maybe they can make introductions to colleagues or others in the industry who may be helpful to you. It all goes back to broadening your network. If you are fresh out of college, Meek suggests keeping in touch with favorite professors who you hit it off with, or try searching your school’s alumni database and ask someone in your field to grab coffee or hop on the phone.

You might come to a point early on in your first job where you feel unheard, underappreciated or that your work has gone unrecognized. It might happen in your first job or your fourth, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. Asking your manager for regular feedback can be a good way to measure how you are performing, what you are doing well and what you could improve upon.

“It’s hard to adjust to a new environment and learn how everyone works together but don’t be afraid to ask for input on your work. Showing you’re eager to learn is a good quality that will go a long way in a new position,” Johnson said.

Sometimes that first job might not be a good fit for you, or maybe you’ve worked there for a few years and you feel undervalued. If you’ve already taken the time to talk to your manager about your concerns and still nothing has changed, experts agreed it might be time to think about new opportunities. But first, Domeyer suggests you make sure there’s absolutely nothing that could be done to make you happy in your current environment.

“If you get to the point where you’ve tried the communication, you’ve contributed, you’ve spoken up and asked for feedback, then again before making a snap judgment, first of all ask yourself if there is a way that you could be happier at your current company before starting a new job search,” she advised. “You’ve already invested whatever time it is in that organization and you are still perhaps very new there and you may not know all of the possibilities.”

However, if you hit a dead end and find you’re not getting what you feel you’re worth, it might be time to find a new opportunity. At a certain point, it also becomes important to know what you want out of a company and find a place that aligns with your values and needs. If your dog is your best friend and needs to come to work with you every day, then finding a place that is dog-friendly would be important.