[Ask an Archivist]: How to Handle the Expected Salary Range Question on Applications

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Ask an Archivist Question:

I’m in the second year of my MLIS program and beginning to apply to jobs. Some ask for salary requirements, and I have no idea how to respond, especially when it’s a required question on applications. One job posting required that this information be put on my CV. I went straight from undergrad to grad school, so I feel totally unprepared to give an answer. How do I keep from pricing myself out of a job while not undercutting what I’m worth? What should a new archivist expect to make?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

This is an important question. I wish that I could give a clear cut answer, but there are so many variables. Personally, I start with my own budget and determine how much I would need to cover my responsibilities and live comfortably in the city where a job is located. There are cost of living calculators that can help you determine the salary equivalents in any city, for instance; you should be prepared to make more in NYC than St. Louis, MO. After that I take a look at sites like the occupational outlook handbook and glassdoor to see what your institution or analogous ones offer to people with that particular job title. You will probably see big differences between universities, public libraries, corporations, and independent museums, which makes sense because they have drastically different funding sources to draw from. I know that we all expect to make a certain amount because of our professional degree, but I can attest that sometimes the most rewarding work in this field does not come with an ideal salary. On the other hand, I would encourage you to approach your job search holistically, and not be afraid to set your lower limit. If you can’t have a decent quality of life in your new position, you would be better off to keep looking. I’m sure that I’ve made the picture as clear as mud… you are welcome!

Chaitra Powell
African American Collections and Outreach Archivist, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

I get the impression, from all the salary ranges I’ve seen, that if you have never had an archival job before, you will probably make something like $35k at your first job, perhaps a little less, perhaps a little more. I think that, in situations where the job is not advertising its hiring range, it’s perfectly acceptable to email or call and just ask what their potential hiring salary range is. They know what it is already, and asking the applicants to guess seems silly.

If there is already a range listed on the job application, it can get trickier, because if you want a salary that is above the listed range, you could be cut from contention without any other considerations (I know institutions that do this). But you, as the applicant, have no way of reading their minds to know the perfect answer.

If you can figure out how much you need to make to make a living wage, I would suggest doing that and trying to make that amount. It might not happen right away, but that way you know which jobs are not worth applying for.

Melissa Torres
University Archivist, University of Houston Downtown

Best thing to do is research the cost of living in your specific market to start, and then go from there. If the job is in a location with a lower cost of living, average salaries will be a little lower. It doesn’t mean you undercut yourself, but you ask for what’s appropriate based on the market and on your skills. If it’s your very first professional job, you may not be able to command a salary at the top of the scale, but if you gained some skills while in school that you know are in demand, then you may have a bit of wiggle room. Sell your skills to justify the salary. What a new archivist can expect to make depends on myriad variables, in addition to your experience. It’s also a good thing to create a budget. What do you need in order to live and pay bills or student loans? Your range should start there. This range will be different for everyone. If you find yourself priced out with that base minimum, it might not have been a good fit. Even a dream job is stressful if you have to work other jobs on the side of it just to stay afloat. Keep looking, and adjust based on the city or state economy.

Stacie Williams
Learning Lab Manager, University of Kentucky

Other folks are going to have better responses about how to handle the question of salary as a required field in an application form. But ACRL publishes a guide to minimum starting salaries — see last April’s. And ALA recommends a national minimum of $42K/yr.

ACRL Salaries – April 2015

David Staniunas
Records Archivist, Presbyterian Historical Society

This is an “it depends” question!  Starting salaries vary tremendously based on multiple factors.  The location (New York City or Vermillion, SD?), the repository (corporate archives of a large company or local historical society?), the type of position (grant funded project archivist or permanent tenure track librarian?), and many other factors can influence starting salaries.  

Your best bet is to do some research into similar positions, or entry level positions in the same geographic area (try Archives Gig — they archive the job postings from February 2014 forward) and see what starting salaries are looking like.  

If you don’t see similar positions, or see few in the geographic area, take a look at openings in other cities which might have a similar cost of living.  If you’re thinking of a move, you can also use a cost of living calculator to compare salaries based on location (for example, if I wanted to move from Milwaukee to Minneapolis, I’d have to make about 10 — 15% more than I am currently making to maintain my current lifestyle) — that could be useful if you can find what you consider a reasonable starting salary in your location, and transpose it to another location.  

You might also think about other aspects of the job — is it an organization that has the potential to offer regular raises, or is the organization in a “holding pattern” with salaries?  Is it a state-funded position, and if so what is the state budget like?  Is there an opportunity to move up in the organization, or does the job not offer an opportunity for advancement?  Does the position offer good opportunity for professional development support, or other benefits that aren’t offered elsewhere?  Those might make a lower starting salary attractive….

Finally, think about what it would take for you to go into this job….  It’s a gut-check, but what are you thinking it will take for you to be comfortable?  What kind of personal budget do you have?   Some people come to the table with families and other fixed financial responsibilities, and for the individual it simply won’t be worthwhile for them to offer something that won’t pay the mortgage.  The organization is just trying to be sure that they aren’t interviewing people who have expectations that they really can’t meet.  It’s a reasonable practice for both parties, because it doesn’t waste anyone’s time, but it is hard to do the first time you’re asked.

Good luck in your search!

Amy Cooper Cary
Head of Special Collections & Archives, Marquette University

It is rather unusual to include salary information on a CV.  If a state or local government job, those positions and salaries are in the annual budget document, which is a public document. I’d take a look at that and go about 10% under that.  

Locally, an entry level Archivist would make around $25,000 a year with benefits. There are raises in the second year at 2% per year, if the Council approves it. With a private company, I would go to say, $30,000.  It might be good to come in between these figures with some comment that this is negotiable to some degree.

When I review applications, if their salary NOW is above entry level, I look for other comments in the application that might give an indication of why they applied here. If their requirement is below, we start at entry level anyway and can’t go under that.  So, if the salary is, say $24,000 and you listed $25,000, that’s not a big concern for me and I would request an interview from you. If you put say, $35,000, I would probably not seek an interview as this position is $10 grand below your expectations.

Just remember that newly minted Archivist will come in at entry level salary for almost all government type positions. My best wishes to you!

Ken Fieth
Metropolitan Government Archivist, Nashville Public Library

I am passing along advice from two people: myself, and a friend who is more of a systems librarian (but still, he’s a librarian). His advice is to say simply “negotiable,” rather than trying to come up with a salary requirement.

My advice is more complex, because I would generally try to come up with something more specific. They may be asking for this because it’s just part of their process, but they may also be trying to weed out the folks they simply couldn’t attract. Having been on the other side of this, I’m sympathetic to their wanting to know if you are even attainable for them.

I tend to take the approach of “how much would they possibly pay me” rather than trying to figure out how much I need to survive on, or, alternatively, how much I’m actually worth. Salaries are going to vary by region, so it makes sense to gather information that is specific to that area. If you are applying to a public college or university, you should be able to find information about salaries online, through a local newspaper or even through their institutional research department. You can at least see what the range is for people who are already there. Even if you aren’t applying to a public university, this could be useful baseline information, particularly for academic institutions. Salary information for state historical societies should also be available through a local newspaper. It’s a little harder for corporate jobs and private historical societies and museums — I’m hoping someone else out there can advise in that area.

If it’s helpful, our instructor-level positions (fresh out of library school) start in the high $30,000’s, and this is at a public institution in a low-cost-of-living state. The private historical society down the road pays significantly less.

Carrie Daniels
University Archivist and Director, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

Let me start by offering my opinion that such a question for an entry-level job is simply wrong, indeed appalling.  Not only do you, as a student, have little or no knowledge of salary scales, the fact is that salary requirements vary greatly by geography (don’t expect to earn as much for the same job in Wyoming as you should expect in NYC), by institutional context (Federal gov’t positions generally pay better for the same job than would jobs in public universities), and by archival specialty (electronic records specialists can expect to earn more than processing archivists).  These differences may not be fair, but in my experience they are, generally speaking, real.  But even then, these comparisons are quite broad.  Knowing that you should ask for more money when applying for a social media position at the National Archives in DC than when applying for a reference position at the University of New Mexico gives no hint as to just what the concrete numbers for each position might be.

Having thus far ranted against the system but provided no useful response, let me offer two, one requiring rather more effort than the other.  One method for determining your rough salary needs for a given position, that is, a salary you can live reasonably comfortably on in a given geographical location, is to research the Federal income figures for the city in/near where you would work, Federal figures on the cost of housing, food, etc., and use all this information to determine a rough cost of living—then indicate a requirement at least 5-10% higher.  The other method is to look at current and past job listings for the same or roughly comparable position and in roughly comparable geographic and institutional settings—thank goodness some employers still list salary or at least salary range.  Neither option is very elegant or indeed all that accurate, but either will give you a ballpark idea of what to ask for.  Know too that regardless of how the demand is worded, if you turn out to be the best candidate, the chances are that the employer will negotiate salary even if the ad strongly suggest otherwise.

I’ll end as I began, by saying that the situations you describe are despicable, and should never happen. Let me add that even veteran archivists find ads such as these for senior level positions quite commonly—we find them not simply frustrating but incomprehensible, since they seem to be guaranteed to result in a smaller and not necessarily better applicant pool.  It is one more reason why there is a growing call for SAA to accept ads only if they include a salary figure or range. I sympathize with your predicament, and wish I could have offered more likely and more helpful suggestions.  I will hope that you find sufficient postings without these terrible covenants that you can still land that all-too-elusive perfect first job. 

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming


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