Job Hunter: A Guide to Salary Negotiation for Advanced Nurses

Nurse candidate shaking hands in an interview.

There are many reasons you might decide to seek a new nursing position. Motivations can range from the personal (like a desired relocation) to professional (like new openings for nurses in your specialty). Or maybe you’re timing your career move around a recently completed degree or certification, or a particularly strong job market.

Regardless of why you’re swapping jobs, knowing how to negotiate your salary as a nurse can be as intimidating as it is important.

How aggressively you can pursue your salary demands depends on where you are in your career as well as the trends of the current job market. For example: If the job you’re being offered has been open for a long time, you might infer that it’s been difficult to fill. Maybe you’ll use this additional leverage to push for a higher salary. Conversely, if you’re a brand-new nurse with no experience and you’re trying to land your first position, you might opt not to negotiate at all.

If you’re feeling awkward about negotiating your salary, remind yourself that this is a normal part of the hiring process for nurses with experience and advanced degrees. An employer for this type of role will typically expect you to negotiate, and they may keep your initial offer on the lower end of the range budgeted to leave room for adjustment. Plus, self-advocating shows confidence and initiative—both attractive qualities in an employee. So don’t be shy!

To help you understand and plan for this important part of your job hunt and how to respond to an initial offer of employment, we broke down some of the ways you can prepare and set realistic expectations for a successful salary negotiation:

1. Research: Know What You’re Worth

How much could you be making? This is the burning question for most job candidates.

In recent years, pay scale trends have become more transparent. It remains relatively uncommon for coworkers to discuss their compensation with each other, but it’s possible to do research on what the going average salary is for a job title you’re applying for. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example, provides statistical salary averages for nurse practitioners, which are updated annually.

The BLS is a good place to start, but these numbers are too broad for you to rely on as your sole source of salary data. You’ll see nationwide averages and employment statistics by state, but since numbers can shift considerably at a local level, and compensation can be tied closely to an advanced nurse’s area of focus, it’s important to get specific in your salary research project.

There are a couple of ways to do this: One tool you can utilize is a salary calculator. You can easily find one of these online, through a website like Glassdoor or Payscale. Like the BLS, you shouldn’t consider these to be the final authority on what you can and should be paid in your new position. However, these salary calculators can add to your knowledge and some will allow you to drill down into more specifics about what nurses like you are making.

It’s important to remember this is a range, and it varies according to a number of individual distinctions. Because there are so many considerations when it comes to hiring and salary, be flexible in your expectations. There’s no standard salary that accompanies a job title.

Compensation can be higher or lower than the average depending on:

  • Your level of experience
  • Your educational credentials
  • The location/region of the job opportunity
  • The size and age of the organization
  • Job market demand

For example, if one advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) has 10 years of work experience, they may be able to negotiate a higher salary than a more recently graduated advanced nurse.

To get as close as possible to an appropriate salary expectation for your job title, experience, region, and specialty, you can take your research a step further by reaching out to a nursing association or organization that represents your particular degree and discipline. The more specific you can get in your research, the more well-positioned you’ll be to make a salary counter-offer when the time comes.

2. Salary “Requirements” vs. “History”

Salary negotiation sometimes begins well before you receive a job offer, often even during your first conversation with a recruiter when you’ll likely be asked about your “salary requirements.” This should not be confused with your salary history. In fact, it’s actually illegal in some states for a potential employer to ask about current or past compensation. You may, however, be asked for your salary “requirements” or “expectations.”

Because this typically comes early in the interview process, often during the prescreening stage with a recruiter or even over an initial conversation, you might feel compelled to lowball yourself in answering this question. You don’t want to be taken out of the pool of applicants before you’ve even had a chance to prove yourself in an interview, and recruiters do use this question to narrow down applicants only to those who would accept a salary that falls within the organization’s budgeted range.

There are a few ways to answer this question. You can choose the approach that feels best to you:

  • Offer a range: Use your research here and give the recruiter an educated range you’d consider. This is often your best course of action because even if your range isn’t a perfect match, there will likely be some overlap, which can keep you in the mix until the time comes for an actual negotiation.
  • Ask for the company’s range: Feel free to respond to the question with a question. Know that you may not receive an answer. A company may not want to show you their cards this early in the process: it’s better for them to know your range so they don’t offer you more than they have to. But you can ask, and in some cases, you might get the information you’re looking for.
  • Disclose that you’re flexible: Whether you offer your salary requirements or not, you can let a recruiter know that you’re “flexible.” This usually signals to a recruiter that you might be willing to accept a lower salary in exchange for other benefits or forms of compensation. In fact, you should negotiate these considerations regardless. See below for more on this.

Remember that no matter how you choose to field this question, try not to sell yourself short. Give a range that you would actually accept, even if you think it might remove you from the running. If the job salary isn’t going to be suitable, it’s best for all involved to know that upfront.

3. Benefits and Other Compensation

Most compensation packages include more than just your base salary, so you can consider negotiating benefits and additional forms of compensation as well. If your prospective employer is balking at your salary expectations, discussing these additional elements can help “fill the gap” in ways that are meaningful to you and feasible to your new employer. 

Often an organization will have a set benefits package for all incoming employees, which includes health benefits, paid time off (PTO) for vacation and sick days, and sometimes additional perks like a bonus structure or an employee discount. Parts of these packages (such as health insurance options) are less likely to be negotiable while others (such as additional PTO) are commonly visited during salary negotiations.

Let’s take PTO as an example: Perhaps you’re leaving a job where you enjoyed three weeks of PTO a year. If your salary requirements aren’t being met at your new prospective job, you may ask the new employer to match your previous arrangement.

Other benefits that you may be offered could include 401K plans, additional insurance options (like life insurance or disability), a signing bonus, or a bonus structure that is tied to company performance, and even perks like discounted gym memberships.

Depending on the organization and how rigid its pay structure is, you can also ask about negotiating your job title. If you’re able to secure a more senior-level title, this may set you up for a stronger negotiating position in your career ahead.

4. Responding to Your Initial Offer

Once you receive a job offer, it’s completely acceptable to ask for time with the offer before you respond with an acceptance or a counter-offer. Be sure to thank whomever has extended you the offer, reiterate your enthusiasm for the role, and ask for a few days to consider it. Again, this is well within the employer’s expectation. This gives you time to compose your response and negotiation requests.

You may notice the offer is on the low side of the appropriate range. This is also normal, since the employer is extending an offer they assume you will want increased. Look at your offer as a “starting bid” of sorts. You’ll have to use educated judgment in negotiating its increase. For some jobs, adding 15% to the original offer is reasonable, but for others, something like 7% might be much more realistic.

You can leave the salary up for negotiation by saying you would like to discuss the offer further. You may choose to put the ball in the prospective employer’s court by proposing a higher salary or better benefits. If you’re fielding multiple offers, you may opt to use these competing offers as leverage, but beware of inventing a nonexistent competing offer—if the recruiter calls your bluff, you could be left without any offer at all.

Overall, if both parties negotiate in good faith, and with mutual respect, you should be able to reach an agreement that works for both nurse and employer. And with a long career ahead, once you have negotiated once, it will be that much easier the next time.

Before starting salary negotiations, please reach out to your local WCU Career Services department (if you’re a WCU student or graduate) so we can help you add a broad perspective on industry trends and salaries. We can be a sounding board for any and all of your offer-related questions!

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.