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When to Talk Salary in a Data Science Interview Process

You’re interviewing for a job in data science: maybe it’s your first job or maybe it’s a Chief Analytics Officer role. One struggle people have is when to talk salary with the employer. Certainly, this issue isn’t unique to data science roles, but I do think that there are some nuances in our field due to its recent rise and high market demand. I’ll cover a few thoughts tied to specific career points and then outline some general factors that lead me to recommend typically delaying salary discussions for as long as possible.

First-Time Job Hunters

To me, this is the easiest case. As a new graduate, I would recommend that you always avoid talking salary for as long as possible. For your first job, you want to talk to as many companies as possible about as many different types of roles as possible. That is how you’ll learn what types of job roles are available on the market and what various mixes of duties and skills will command in pay.

Every interview is a learning experience. If early salary discussions reveal a mismatch of expectations on either side that causes the process to end, then you’ve missed a chance to gain more interview experience and knowledge. Increasing your skill and comfort with interviewing is something that is highly valuable in and of itself, resulting in increases in your salary over time. The benefits of gaining interview experience and exposure far outweigh the cost of “wasting” time with a company that ends up offering less than you are willing to take.

Experienced Job Hunters

Things can get a little trickier here. If you’re unemployed with time on your hands, then I’d recommend following the prior advice to gain as much interview exposure and experience as possible. You’ll lose every opportunity you don’t pursue; so if you’re unemployed you can afford to “waste” time on a few processes that turn out to be a compensation mismatch. The experience will still be beneficial.

When you’re employed, there are realistic limits on how much time you can take for interviews given your job. This is especially true when it comes to making an onsite visit for a final interview because there are only so many days you can take off for interviews without risking it being noticed. If you are very selectively pursuing only a few jobs, then you can also wait as long as possible to talk salary.

If you are being inundated with opportunities (which is a great problem, and luckily a problem many in our field have), then you’re in the position to be more selective in general. Talking salary is one way to weed out opportunities that don’t appear to be a good fit. With that said, if an opportunity is of high interest relative to the others you are considering, waiting to talk salary is the better path.

Why Postponing Salary Discussions Is Usually A Smart Move

Regardless of your career stage, there are multiple reasons why I recommend not talking salary until as late as possible in the interview process. Let’s go through them one by one.

There is Almost Always Flexibility in Salary, No Matter What an Employer Says

I’ve hired a lot of people, and I’ve been hired for a number of jobs. I can say with certainty that there is almost always more compensation flexibility than what the employer will admit. The first ranges you hear are typically the ideal range the employer is targeting, but that doesn’t mean that it is set in stone. I have made the case (and won!) for paying superb candidates more than what was budgeted. That brings us to the next reason…

Once the Employer Knows Your Value, They'll Be More Willing to Pay For it!

After you’ve totally impressed an employer, they’ll be willing to push their limits on compensation for you. They won’t be willing to do that if you bring up salary early when they don’t yet know you. I can tell you that over the years, there were multiple times that I was able to get an exception for higher compensation for a candidate I loved. I couldn’t do it for everyone, but for the people I really wanted to hire, I often could. Of course, before spending time with them, I would have given the party line answer that we couldn’t afford them and we both would have lost.

The moral of the story: the more you can make an employer want to hire you, the more they’ll find a way to do what they can with compensation. As a result, the later you bring up compensation, the better! On the flip side, if you fall in love with an opportunity, you just might be willing to take a bit less than you planned.

You Can Sanity Check Without Getting Specific

Particularly for more senior jobs, a salary range can be quite large both within and across companies. For example, there are CAO jobs paying $1MM+ and CAO jobs paying $250k. Once you’re in the several hundred thousand range, there is a lot of wiggle room. This is especially true when accounting for bonuses, stock grants, and other incentives. As a result, I usually try to get the employer to lay out the general range of what they are thinking, even if it is plus or minus 20 - 30 percent. Similarly, if pressed early by an employer, I give a very broad range that varies by at least 30 percent from top to bottom. I also specify that where on that range I would need to fall will depend on the level of responsibility that I find the job entails. Unless we’re totally out of sync with each other, I then proceed without getting into any more detail and assume that if it is meant to be, we’ll find a way to make it work.

Many Companies Will Base Your Offer On What You Make, Not What You're Worth

This is one thing that has frustrated me over the years as both the one interviewing for a job as well as hiring someone. Instead of establishing what a job is worth and sticking to it, many companies will not allow more than a 20 percent (or some other arbitrary percentage) increase over what someone is currently making. As a result, if you take a job with a non-profit at an intentionally low salary, it can be very hard to get back to where you deserve to be.

Based on the prior points, I recommend you first get to know the employer and make them really want to hire you. Then you can wait for the chance to explain in context and in detail why your low pay is where it is and why it doesn’t make sense to pay you based on that. Some company policies might not let you get what you need, but many will if you make a strong case after they know you and like you.

Making The Call

For each opportunity, You’ll need to decide when salary is best discussed. The reality is that money isn’t everything on either side of the hiring fence. People want great employees and employees want great employers. The more you’re sold on each other, the more everyone is willing to get creative and do some give and take to try and make it work.

Even for entry-level jobs where there might truly be little wiggle room in salary, there are things like signing bonuses, increased bonus targets, extra vacation, guaranteed conference and training expense coverage, and more. You’ll only get access to the extended options after you’ve made the employer see that you’re worth it.

My final word: postpone compensation discussions until you’re confident that you’ve proven yourself! I am sure that there is a range of views on this topic, and I’d love to hear where readers agree or disagree with me.

Originally published by the International Institute for Analytics