Q: Is the salary range typically “set in stone”?

Q: I’m looking to apply for a job, but need advice about negotiating the salary. The job ad outlines the range for the position, which, even at the high end, is still much less than the cost of living (according to my research). Is the salary range typically “set in stone”? In every other way, the position seems ideal for me. However, unless I am able to negotiate a significant increase, if I were offered the job, it will actually translate to making as much, or probably less, than I am making now. I have 2-3 years of professional experience. Will this be viewed as a step down?

SM & TA: This is an excellent question and one that many people will grapple with at some point in their careers. We would like to tell you that all things are negotiable, but that isn’t always the case with salaries. Salary ranges are commonly used in job ads and they do allow for some wiggle room, and space for negotiation, but don’t expect to be able to get a salary above the range. If a range is used (vs. just a starting salary) then the high end of the range is typically the “set in stone” limit.

Salaries are tied to amount of experience, type of job, cost of living, and the salaries of others in the library and in the institution. Also, be aware and conscientious of the fact that everyone wants a higher salary, and the more experience and skills you have, the more likely you will be to get a higher salary — whether that means on the high end of the range, or that you will be able to negotiate beyond the range.

Because salaries vary so much by institution and by role and by city and state, it really doesn’t mean a “stepping down” if you do end up accepting a lower or equal salary somewhere else. Some institutions just cannot offer as much as others for the same job, and this will be something you need to consider, if it comes to it. Also, there are many things, other than the base salary, to take into consideration, such as:

  • Benefits: the cost of health benefits can vary at each institution. You can ask about the cost at your interview, and see if the benefits include dental and vision. Also, does the institution offer additional benefits such as reduced-rate child care, or gym membership, or the option to take classes for free?
  • Cost of commuting/parking: This can be a huge expense for many people. Find out how much it will be for this new job and compare it to your existing commute.
  • Professional development funding: Ask about funding to attend conferences, workshops, and other professional development classes. This is important to keeping current and staying connected with colleagues in the profession, and can be very expensive if you are expected to pay your own way.
  • Frequency of raises: You may not want to ask about raises during your interview, but after you are offered a position, it is a perfectly valid question. Some institutions provide cost-of-living raises every year (or every few years). Some positions are unionized and the union negotiates the percentage increases for the raises. It is possible that within a few years your salary could be more than your  salary at your current job, due to frequency of raises.
  • Flexibility: Some jobs and institutions will offer more flexibility than others, which can be extremely beneficial for people who need flexible schedules or who may want to work part time for a while (taking care of children, or family members, going to continuing education classes or meetings, etc.).
  • Upward mobility: Is there potential to move up in the library? Are there supervisors and levels of structure, or is it a flat management structure where everyone reports to the director? If you see yourself moving into a more managerial position in the future, then you might not stay too long in a position that is in a flat structure, with no possibility of moving upwards. And, if you are motivated and want to move up within a few years, that movement would most likely come with a raise in salary. Ask about the management structure during your interview.
  • And, don’t forget your own happiness. Will you be able to grow and learn in this position? Will the position/library/institution/colleagues help to make you a better librarian and allow you to move forward in your career and build meaningful relationships?


Apply for the job. If this is a job that seems perfect for you, apply for it. Don’t let the salary range influence you at this point. Find out if this is the job you really want, and then plan your strategy.

Do not mention salary until you are offered the position. If you bring this up too early, before you are offered the position, you might give the search committee the impression that you won’t take the job or won’t be satisfied with the salary which will make you sound greedy… after all, they took the job.

Once you are offered the position and you are told what salary they want to start you at, you can bring up your concerns. Let the director (if that is who offers you the position) know what your current salary is and tell her that you would like to get more than that. Let her know that you did your research on the cost-of-living for that city and that you are not sure you can make it on the salary this is offered. She won’t be shocked, this happens all the time, candidates are expected to negotiate. Be sure to let her know how much you do want the job. If they really want you, and there is room, she may try to get you a higher salary. If she cannot, then she will explain to you why and then you will need to weigh your options. Whatever you do, don’t make any quick decisions. Take the time they give you (typically a few days to one week), and ask questions before you make your final decision.

One word of caution: If a hiring institution posts a salary range, and you’re not content to have a salary within that range (even after considering possible additional benefits) and you know that there is no way you can or would accept a position within the listed range, you can call the hiring institution to see if the salary range is firm or if there’s some flexibility. At many institutions, once the range is posted, there’s no flexibility (especially in financially vulnerable times). So if the search committee gets all the way through the search process, having invested lots of time and money in getting to this point, and you decline the offer solely because it’s not enough money, that’s not a very graceful exit. We bring this up especially because you mention that it would be a “significant increase” for the hiring institution.

When you do call, do not identify yourself — which could potentially hurt your chances of interviewing — just ask to speak with someone about the position. You can give a first name only, and simply say “Can you please tell me if the salary range listed for X position is firm or if the salary is negotiable?” Thank them for the response and prepare to weigh your options.

Good luck!

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