Entering the Workforce

As a student, joining the full-time, working world comes with a number of changes to prepare for- one of the biggest being the impact that professional employment will have on your finances! Whether you're trying to determine what employment field to enter or managing a full-time salary and navigating employer benefits, how you manage money greatly depends on what your working reality looks like!

Transitioning from the college environment and your life as a student to the working world and realities of an employee in the professional labor force is a complex process with a significant learning curve. Even if you’ve had experience working before, you’ll still need to adjust to a new organization’s culture and professional norms. As for graduates entering their first full-time professional role, you’ll need to prepare for how employment impacts your finances.

It may go without saying, but the employer you choose to work for will influence a number of aspects when it comes to your finances and how you manage your money. To help you better prepare for entering the workforce, consider the following information as you research different organizations and prioritize what you are looking for in an employer: 

  • Salary Expectations 
  • Gross Pay vs Net Pay 
  • Employer Benefits 

Researching Salary Expectations

As you prepare to enter the workforce, undoubtedly the question you’ll be asking yourself most is- “How much will I get paid?”. During the job search, you may find that some companies and organizations are transparent with their salary offerings, while other potential employers seem to keep you in the dark. Even if you know the anticipated starting salary, how do you know your being compensated fairly? Researching salary norms in your field and knowing what to expect as you receive your first paycheck in the workforce is vital step in preparing to enter the professional world.

The biggest source of information for researching salaries is the internet. There are many sites that you can use to identify a realistic starting salary:

You can also look at industry-specific websites that may tailor salaries to the field or industry:

Moreover, with growing trends and movements to increase the transparency around money and overall financial realities, countless of individuals are sharing their salaries across social media platforms like Reddit and TikTok. You may even be able to tap into your own network of peers, acquaintances, and alumni at Duke to get better insight into salary ranges of shared fields.

When researching salary expectations, keep in mind that the figures you come across are dependent on a number of factors, such as-

  • Years of experience
  • Geographic location
  • Certification/Education
  • Demand of the field and supply of workers

Proper salary research is not only beneficial for getting a sense of your financial reality as a working professional, but it can also help in negotiating salaries as well. When you know the norms for your experience level, industry, and geographic location, you have the information to make a compelling argument for why you should be paid at a certain figure.

Looking for more resources closer to home? Duke’s Career Center has several features highlighted to empower your research on competitive, yet realistic salary expectations!

Gross Pay vs Net Pay:

As you research anticipated starting salaries, it’s important to start putting those figures within the context of your financial reality providing for yourself and enjoying life. In fact, breaking down your possible income into a potential monthly budget may help you to decide what job offer is right for you based on the freedoms and flexibilities it allows you financially. However, simply using the salary expectations you research or even the offers you receive to craft your possible spending plan won’t be an accurate representation of your financial scenario.

 When thinking about your income, there is a critical distinction to make when assessing your salary: is the figure in terms of gross pay or net pay? Gross pay is the amount an employee earns before all deductions such as taxes, retirement contributions, or employer benefits like healthcare premiums or on-site parking permits. Gross income is usually the amount that is quoted on salary ranges, job applications, and offer letters. Furthermore, these figures generally take the form of a yearly salary or hourly rate, and not an anticipated monthly income. While gross pay figures do not represent the funds you’ll actually see on a month-to-month basis, these amounts do impact your finances, and are used when calculating income tax obligations, federal student loan income-driven repayment plans, and access to certain retirement savings, namely Roth contributions.

Net pay is the actual amount you as an employee will take home after all payroll deductions- amounts for federal and state income tax, retirement contributions, healthcare premiums, and the tax for Social Security and Medicare programs- have been assessed and subtracted from the gross income. Some of these deductions are mandatory, while others can be optional.

If you’re looking for general accuracy between your gross pay and what you’ll actually be taking home, you can typically assume that 25%-35% of your salary will be taken off the top to account for taxes and other deductions.

If you want a closer figure to your net income, try using a paycheck calculator to see how the various taxes and deductions will affect your salary:

Monthly Gross Pay vs Net Pay in Raleigh, NC

Breakdown of gross pay working in NC

Monthly Gross Pay vs Net Pay in Oakland, CA

Breakdown of gross pay working in CA

 Employer Benefits

When comparing employers and different job offers, solely focusing on your anticipated starting salary will not give you an accurate picture of your overall compensation. Employer-sponsored benefits can add significant value to an employment position and can even dictate your final decision in accepting one offer over another.

The types of employer benefits available to you vary drastically between industries and positions, but the following offerings are among some of the most common benefits you are likely to come across:

  • Retirement Plans- One of the most well-known benefits offered by employers, the option to save for retirement through platforms sponsored by your organization or company. Actual plans vary by employer type, see our Saving & Investing Basics page for more information.
    • Matching- In addition to the access of a retirement plan, many employers will offer what is called a matching contribution to help incentivize employees to take advantage of the sponsored retirement plans and begin saving through the account options. The matching contribution generally equates to a portion of the employee’s gross salary that the employer will contribute along with the employee’s own contribution. Most matching contributions offered are at 3%-5% of the employee’s gross salary.
      • Example: Sam’s gross salary is $62,000. Sam’s employer offers a maximum matching retirement contribution of 4%. The following are examples of what Sam may see in annual employer matching contributions based on Sam’s annual personal contributions:
        • Sam’s Contribution- $1,240 (2%); Employer’s Contribution- $1,240 (2%)
        • Sam’s Contribution- $2,480 (4%); Employer’s Contribution- $2,480 (4%)
        • Sam’s Contribution- $4,960 (8%); Employer’s Contribution- $,2480 (4%)
    • Vesting- A policy many employers use in conjunction with a Matching Retirement Contribution benefit; Vesting refers to the amount of time an employee must stay with the employer or company before the matched contributions officially belong to the employee. If the employee leaves the company before the vesting period, the employer’s matching contributions stay with the company. Companies are generally permitted to use two vesting schedules:
      • 3-year cliff- After three years of employment, matching contributions are fully vested
      • 6-year graded- Each year, a percentage of the matching contributions become vested
  • Healthcare Plans- Employers contribute a significant portion, generally between 60%-80% of the cost, towards paying for healthcare plans; you as the employee pay the remaining portion
    • Premium- Monthly cost you contribute to access designated insurance plan
    • Deduction- Out of pocket expense that must be paid by insurance holder before the insurance company your plan is through will cover remaining and future expenses in a calendar year
  • Relocation Assistance- As part of a growing compensation trend, many employers reimburse expenses associated with moving or relocating for the employment position
    • Note: Most “moving bonuses” are truly reimbursements, tend to be paid out when you receive your first paycheck, and are subject to taxes since it is a form of compensation
  • Paid Time Off- Standard benefit that speaks to the amount of personal time an employee can spend away and not working while still being paid; 10 days is the average annual allotment, and most companies allow employees to “rollover” accrued and unused time away
  • Sick Leave- Typical among employers and companies, the number of days or hours you are permitted to take time off, while still being compensated, due to an illness; 8 days is the average allotment with the ability to “rollover” any unused days a commonplace practice
  • Observances of Holidays- In addition to PTO and Sick Days, the number of observed holidays that an employer recognizes and honors for compensated time off
  • Remote/Work from Home Days- A more recent employer benefit, the option to work several days per week or month remotely may be an appealing perk to look for
  • Maternity/Paternity/Parental Leave- After the birth, and in some instances adoption, of a child, companies provide time off. However, in the United States, not all Parental Leaves are compensated. Average Maternity Leaves are around six weeks, while Paternity Leaves have historically been 1-2 weeks. According to the BLS, only about a quarter of employees receive some type of paid Parental Leave
  • Healthcare Savings Account- For employees with what is considered a High Deductible Health Plan, wherein a plan’s deductible is at least $1,400, you may have the option to contribute and save money in a Healthcare Savings Account. Funds in an HSA can be used to pay deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and some other medical related expenses. HAS contributions are made with pre-tax dollars
  • Flexible Spending Account- Similar to an HSA account, Flexible Spending Accounts allow employees to make pre-tax contributions into an account wherein funds can be used to pay certain health care costs, like deductibles, copayments, coinsurance, and some prescription drugs
  • Tuition Reimbursement- Financial support for higher education courses and degrees
    • *Note-Higher education systems as employers may even offer tuition discounts for dependents of employees
  • Conferences & Professional Development- Paid opportunities for conference attendance or presentations, and other learning opportunities like on-line training and webinars
  • Employee Stock Options- More commonplace in the tech industry and start-up companies, Employee Stock Options are essentially options to purchase shares or stock in the company at a discounted price.
  • Fitness/Wellness Compensation- One of the newer benefits in circulation, you may be able to receive discounts or gain full access to certain gym memberships, fitness classes, and wellness programs through your employer
  • At Home Office Compensation- Some employers that maintain a hybrid work environment may provide employees with an annual or one-time sum to furnish a home office

While not a benefit in and of itself, be sure to assess a company’s culture as well when contemplating your job offers and determining the right fit! Joining a team that appreciates you as an employee and makes room for your needs as a person with a life outside of work can make your transition into the workforce that much more enjoyable. When assessing the culture of an employer or organization, look for the following ideals and actions:

  • Promotes work-life balance
  • Flexibility with dependent care
  • Creates opportunity for bonding as a team
  • Supports learning and additional training
  • Fosters comfortable and accepting work environment

Additional Entering the Workforce Resources


Occupational Outlook Handbook

Interested in the long-term projections of your intended career or industry? The Bureau of Labor Statistics has compiled information on salaries, job growth, and long-term demand for numerous employment fields. 

Link to Handbook

Duke Career Hub

Duke Career Hub, maintained by Duke's Career Center, is your "one-stop shop" online resource when it comes to preparing for your professional journey. Whether you need help getting a resume reviewed, working on interview skills, or even assistance with the job search itself, Career Hub has the resources and tools that can support your path to the workforce 

Link to Career Hub

Self-Made Millennial: Starting Salary for College Graduates

Knowing what to say when asked about your salary expectations in an interview can be a pretty daunting question- especially if you are looking to enter into your professional experience for the first time! Madeliene Mann, HR & Recruiting Professional and creator of the Self-Made Millennial series, provides insight into navigating this common question about salaries!

Link to YouTube Video