This is a guest post by Cheryl LaMont, the CEO of Dot C Software, Inc.. She offers advice on that all important subject of negotiating your salary. While specifically directed at recent computer science graduates, her tips apply equally well to those in other fields or at other stages of their career.

How To Change The World or “Move over Zuckerburg, here I come!”

So you just received your computer science degree and you’re ready to change the world with your acquired software knowledge and creativity. You probably have a good idea where you’d like to work but worry about two things: your lack of experience and making enough money to pay back your student loans. Here are a few tips to ease the pain.

First of all, you have to narrow your search so you can be successful at achieving the right position both for salary expectations and personal satisfaction. Money isn’t everything, right? Easy to say, but when you’re facing debt repayment it is an extremely important requirement to retain your peace of mind and enable you to perform at your highest level. When you’re applying for jobs, either on-line or from newspaper ads, don’t try to fit into a job description. Some descriptions are written so broadly that you’d be writing software, fixing hardware, with some firmware work thrown in for fun. I think the more important questions are: “Is this the kind of company that I can believe in and that would welcome my outstanding skills? Do I respect this company for their products and services? Do their missions and goals match where I want to go? Where do I see myself in 5 years? Is their vision close to mine?” If you already have an idea which company you’d like to work for, don’t worry about the job descriptions they list. Author your own job description to display your best qualities in software or hardware and don’t be afraid to vocalize your goals and dreams. Many CEO’s and Presidents are impressed with an individual who has initiative and understands their own strengths and weaknesses. With such a description they can tell where you’d fit in their firm.

Be brutally honest with yourself about your expectations before you go on an interview. Imagine yourself in the interviewer’s chair and predict some questions from the company’s standpoint. Don’t exaggerate salary expectations. Because you’ll gain experience from this position, count that as an asset, as well as insurance, investments, and possibly travel and expense accounts. When you’re in a position to do your best work, the money will follow.

How should you prepare for an interview where salary will be discussed?

Figure out what your bottom line is for salary. Don’t exaggerate or underestimate how much you’ll need to survive. Literally. Make a budget based on moving out of your parents’ home, utilities, rent, food, and entertainment so you’ll have a solid number. Add a small margin for unexpected expenses. Of course, don’t forget the dreaded student loan payments. Start your negotiation at that number.

If a job application form asks for “salary expection” or “salary history”, what should you write down?

Use the number you came up with when you made your budget and be prepared to discuss your justification of that number. You don’t have to repeat every line in your budget but broad numbers will suffice, like, “rentals in this area are averaging $950-1200 a month, and with utilities and food I believe this to be a realistic number for a starting salary”.

When is the best time during the interview process to bring up salary?

It really depends on the job opening. If it’s your dream job you could take a little less at first, but don’t be afraid to ask them during the interview for the company’s salary increase schedule, progress reports, supervisor’s recommendations and advancement opportunities. It’s reasonable and perceived as intelligent when you indicate you’ve given this a lot of thought and know where you want to be and what you want to do for them.

What can I do during the interview to not only get the job but to increase the offer?

Realize from the start that you’re not trying to talk yourself into a position, but are anxious to begin your career. Talking yourself into a position that is not a good fit for you is bad for everyone. In the end, it doesn’t work out and you may go out and talk yourself into another job just to stay employed. If you’re honest about your own expectations, both what you can offer the company in terms of your talent and skills, and what they owe you, you’ll be in a much better position and will be able to live up to the commitment you’ve promised them.

My plan is to accept whatever they offer and then ask for a raise in six months after they’ve seen how well I perform. Is that a good idea?

No. Even though it’s scary sometimes to be unemployed, to be underemployed is worse. It’s self-defeating and usually results in putting you in a very uncomplimentary light, even if you’re extremely talented, because of the frustration you’ll experience both in working at menial tasks and trying to make ends meet on too little salary.

To begin negotiations, is it better to go first or wait for them to make the first offer?

During the interview, when there is an exchange between you about your strong skills, school experience, and personal goals, try to develop a rapport with the interviewer. Be honest about your expectations and abilities and let this guide the discussion for salary. If the interviewer seems very negative it may be good to let them make the first move. Then you have a chance to state your bottom line and see what their reaction is. Be prepared to politely end the interview if it feels like you’re too far apart on numbers. Many times they’ll call you back in when they review your qualifications and realize they were trying to low-ball you because of your inexperience. This is a good thing for you. It puts you in a good light.

If you really want this job, don’t be afraid to demand a reasonable salary. Keep thinking in terms of ‘career’, not ‘job’. You didn’t spend four years and much work and money to just go out and grab the first job you’re offered, did you? There is no right or wrong answer to questions asked by interviewers. They’re really gauging your ability to communicate and interact with others. That’s vastly important to your prospective employer. If you don’t get your dream job, keep trying down the line. You will end up in the right place if you take Winston Churchill’s advice and “Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.”

If their first offer is more than you expected, should you accept immediately?

Sure. Then get ready to start your first day on time and with a positive attitude.

Good luck in all your endeavors and remember, the sky’s the limit when you’re moving in the direction you chose your life to be.