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How to “Know Your Worth” if You Work in Higher Education

#careerchange #jobsearch salary Feb 20, 2022

You may have seen discussions that blew up recently around a post on salary negotiation. Recently, a recruiter posted on social media that she had extended a job offer to a candidate.  The role was budgeted for $130,000 but the recruiter offered the candidate $85,000 because that’s the salary the candidate asked for during the application and hiring process.  “Know your worth,” scolded the recruiter at the end of the post, defending her actions. 

I followed conversations about this post in the recruiting and coaching communities on LinkedIn. This post received, to put it mildly, a lot of commentary, and rightfully so.  Offering a job candidate drastically less money because they didn’t ask for the amount the role was budgeted for is horrible in itself.  Taking to social media to scold the candidate for not negotiating a higher salary is next level awful.

There are serious systemic problems with putting the burden on salary research and negotiation on individuals. Salary information is not transparent: many companies do not post salaries on their job descriptions, ask candidates to state their desired salaries as part of the application process, or, if salary information is posted, might state the salary’s compensation classification level.  What does level R06 mean, anyway?!

In addition, I might do the research, “know my worth,” and be able to negotiate.  That doesn’t mean the employer will be willing to pay me that figure as statistics on wage gaps between white men, people of color, and women show. Assuming that someone is not negotiating for a an appropriate wage because they don’t “know their worth” illustrates the interplay between salary, racism, and sexism in US work cultures. 

Also, and this brings me to the focus of today’s post, how an individual job seeker estimates their “worth” is very dependent on what they’ve previously or are currently paid, the industry in which they work. There’s a huge gap between me knowing my worth and an employer being willing to pay me for it. I wanted to write about this problem of “know your worth” from the higher ed/academia perspective because this industry poses some unique challenges for employees.   

For those of us who work in higher ed, there are jokes and memes about the “other duties as assigned” parts of job descriptions that often seem to take up a lot of our time, yet don’t seem to factor heavily into raises and compensation.  Bonuses don’t exist in higher education.  The emphasis is on being paid within your job’s salary classification band.  Ask for more money, and you may be told that your job will need to be reclassified to accommodate a salary increase. Or, if you do advocate for yourself, and this means taking on the work of documenting your achievements, making your case, and taking the risk to present this to your supervisor, you might be told there’s no additional money in the budget to pay you more.  Another answer you might hear is that raising your salary would be unfair to your colleagues.  Navigating the bureaucracy of salaries makes it feel that it’s more trouble than it’s worth to gain what is often, when you get it, a small raise.  And then there’s “merit raises” which, on paper, look like a bonus to reward high-performing employees. In reality “merit raises” mean that either only a few people in a department get any sort of annual raise or everyone gets a small raise because supervisors don’t want to leave anyone out. 

Another challenge for higher education employees is the generally lean staffing of higher education. Teams may be small, and it’s a significant disruption when a staff member leaves. Hiring timelines in higher education are frequently tied to a specific hiring season and open positions may take six months or more to fill. This means that, very often, higher education employees take on the work of open positions with little or no additional compensation.  These situations are supposed to be “temporary” while the institution works to backfill the job.  However, because of the lengthy nature of higher ed job searches, “temporary” can mean one year or more. So, if you work in academia or higher education in general, you likely believe that higher compensation is difficult to receive and, more than likely, not possible.  You’re also exhausted from doing all the extra work to serve students.

A third factor in higher education employees struggling with “know your worth” is the issue of geography. If you work in a small, university town, your institution is likely one of the biggest and best employers in the area.  If your options are limited where you are, it’s easier to feel like your current job and salary is the best option available. You also gain from the prestige of working at a desirable, local employer even if your salary is low. 

The good news is that remote opportunities have opened the floodgates for people working in small university towns.  You no longer need to be limited by what the local job market can offer you.  Some employers are recognizing that remote work opens up labor pools that were previously restricted by an office’s physical location and are excited to consider remote candidates. 

So how do you value your worth if you’re struggling with the messages higher education has given you about “worth” and your value during your career?  Here are three steps to take.

  1. The first person who needs to believe that you have and bring value to an organization is you.  Some of this is recognizing the monetary value of your contributions to an institution.  This is difficult if you’ve internalized, as I and many others have, beliefs around money. What baggage and perceptions do you have around making/spending/saving money?  There are many resources out there to help you with mindsets and strategies around money.  Find one that resonates with you, and get started.  You won’t change your mindsets overnight, but you will make changes over time that will benefit you.
  2. Ask for an outside perspective.  Write down everything that you’re doing in your current job.  Include the mundane stuff as well as the accomplishments.  Don’t worry about writing it as a resume (yet).  Just create a list.  Make it as long as it needs to be.  When you’ve created your list, show it to a trusted friend/family member who works outside of higher education. This is important.  You want someone who is free from “higher ed thinking.” Ask this trusted person for their opinion. Ask what skills and value they think you bring to your employer.  Ask what they might pay someone with your skillset. I did this a few months ago when I was applying to a job that felt like a big stretch.  I showed my resume to a trusted colleague who did not work on my team.  HIs reaction persuaded me that I should apply for higher-level roles, and it helped me land my new job which comes with a 26% salary increase.
  3. Align worth with your values in your job. Higher salary is one way to define worth.  What do you want a higher salary to look like?  Or, does worth mean greater flexibility in your daily work life, the opportunity to work on interesting projects? For me, the flexibility of remote work, the ability to be rewarded for my work through higher salaries and bonuses, and the opportunity to learn new skills and industries, were the values that were not aligned with my full-time higher education job.  Ultimately, this mismatch drove me to seek a new job that will be a better fit for me.  But had you asked me what I wanted five years ago, I might have said something different.  If you’re staying in higher ed because of who you were 3, 5, or 10 years ago, it’s okay to acknowledge that your values, goals, and priorities have changed. 

“Know your worth” can be challenging to do in higher education.  However, don’t let that stop you from learning to value yourself.  Once you have a better idea of your value, you can make a change if your current institution or supervisor don’t value you.  

Do you have questions about your job search and how I might help you?  Schedule your free 15-minute appointment today!

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