During an interview it is common to be asked your salary expectations. I hate the question. Even if the interview is going well, as soon as the word salary pops up I feel like I become visibly uncomfortable.

It can be a hard question to answer. In some ways its feels like an examination of character. Essentially you are being asked what you think you’re worth. On one hand you don’t want to come off sounding arrogant, on the other hand you don’t want to under-sell yourself and look like a push over.

The question can also feel like a comment on your potential. What someone is willing to pay you, although not usually personal, can certainly feel personal, particularly if you and the employer have drastically different expectations.

The first time I encountered the salary question was during my first interview after graduating university. I was completely unprepared. I hadn’t researched salary medians for the position or field, and instead of having the where-with-all to tell them I’d get back to them, I pulled a number out of thin air.

I decided my salary expectation would be double what I’d been living off during school. Essentially my expectation was twice as much as next-to-nothing. I’m embarrassed to say I got offered the job, more than likely because I was the cheapest university graduate they could get.

The lesson I learned was to go prepared, or at least prepared to deflect. If you don’t have a well researched answer, tell them you’ll be in touch. It is also better to state a salary range than an exact figure, and explain how with your skills and experience you feel that you should be compensated towards the higher end of that range. This states your case, while leaving some flexibility on the table. You don’t want to be underpaid or price yourself out of a job.

Researching salaries is in fact a good practice for all employees. It allows you to gage your industry, know where you stand, and what you can expect. It is not only important when interviewing, but knowledge of salaries within your industry is also helpful during annual reviews and when asking for a raise.

There are a number of tools that can help you determine where your skills and experience place you on the salary scale. Online salary calculators will give you a rundown of what to expect based on your position (or title), your experience, and where you live.

Scanning job boards is another way of knowing what employers are looking for and what they are willing to pay. Researching job posting is also a valuable exercise in keeping up to speed on the skill sets your industry needs, and can give you a heads up on skill requirements you may need to think about acquiring.

So before your next interview or annual review brush up on your salary knowledge and go prepared to lay down some facts. But, if you’re uncertain or feel you need some salary expectation waiting time, remember that deflecting is an option.

Have you had any awkward moments discussing salary expectations? Do you have any suggestions for handling or approaching the topic of salary?