Salary or Title: Which is More Important?

Up! originally uploaded to Flickr by Peter π2018 Update: We still think this is a great discussion on whether salary or title is more important — but you may also want to check out our latest discussions on salary negotiation tips.

Which is more important — your salary or your title? Reader D wonders…

I would love to see a post on the relative merits of pursing a higher title or more compensation. Would readers be willing to be paid less (or the same amount) for a title bump? Or, would they demand that any title bump come with an increase in pay? Is title more important than money? Or, is money more important than title?

Interesting question. My first reaction was “money — duh” but I suppose there are situations where a title would be more important than money. We’ve talked before about how job hopping isn’t the best idea, but in some professions (for example, magazines), historically, the way to get through all the bottom-rung positions (editorial assistant, assistant editor, junior editor, etc.) was to change jobs as frequently as possible. The salary bumps were miniscule, and the job title was, generally, ceremonial — a junior editor still had to sort reader mail as much as an editorial assistant — but they helped you advance to the real editing much more quickly. So I suppose, in today’s environment — where more and more industries are taking the Hollywood “Harvard grads start in the mailroom” approach to hiring, and where people often take internship after internship because real jobs are scarce — well, maybe I would take the title over the money. (Pictured: Up! originally uploaded to Flickr by Peter π.)

However, sometimes bosses give a “title bump” in lieu of a raise. This could be for a number of reasons — chief among them, I think, is that the boss thinks you’ll accept it instead of money. Each situation is different, and we are in a recession, but if it were me, I would demand a small raise if I were taking a new title — particularly if responsibilities are increasing! — even if it’s only 1% or 2%, and ask for a salary review on a more expedited timeline (such as six months instead of a year) to reassess.

Readers, how do you weigh salary versus title? Would you rather have a better title or a better salary?


  1. Related question: if you’re job searching, would you take a lower title for the chance to work at a bigger/more prestigious/well-known organization? Will that derail your career trajectory (moving to a lower title)?

    • I would and have. Especially if you have any longer term goals of moving out of your current area.

    • Hmmm…I am in that situation, but not necessarily in the way you describe. My company was acquired, and while my pay did not change, my title went from VP to Director, and then to a different Director title after I finished integrating the stuff associated with my old job.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to still have a job, with a great package, with a well respected Fortune 100 company. BUT, the work I do every day is very different and in that respect I really miss my old job. In looking for other opportunities, I’m looking at both a Director and VP level, but I’m priced out of a lot of non-big company Director jobs. So, in my case, I guess the title is not as big a deal as being considered too expensive for some jobs (although I’m willing to take a cut in pay for the right job). The change downwards in title is tricky to explain, but probably easier with the acquisition by a bigger company than if I had done it voluntarily.

      In the end, if you can describe your level of responsibility and achievements appropriately, I’m not sure title matters as much. But it is also a good lesson in not stretching your lifestyle to match your pay, always live below your means so that you can be flexible if your job circumstances change (voluntarily or involuntarily). I’ve been dialing back and trying to save more cash so that I can take a pay cut if needed.

    • I took my law degree off my resume for this reason. Anything I could get as an attorney would be twice as much work for a third the pay at a terrible office.

      /Don’t go to a crap law school in the evenings, kids. And don’t specialize in criminal appeals.

      • Ouch. I finished a JD in December having gone to school for 4 years in the evenings. Well, at least I have another career, but took the bar in February just to keep my options open (and to finish the whole process, for myself of course, I’m crazy in that way). My JD is on my resume, but not in the headline, just down at the bottom with my other education.

        • People won’t hire you as a paralegal if you have a J.D. They think you’ll waltz off to a magical mystical fairyland attorney job and leave them instead of thanking your lucky stars you work in an office without visible substance abuse problems.

          • This “visible substance abuse problems” part reminds me of one of those articles about summer associates who do something like hit “reply all” / cc: [the entire firm] when they gripe to their friends about the problems at that law firm. The one I’m thinking of mentioned a generally well-regarded firm where everybody had a c*caine problem.

          • Most people won’t hire you for anything except a lawyer position if you have a JD… let alone if you have ever practiced law. Especially if you have ever handled criminal law.

            These are (among the many) things I wish career services had not LIED TO ME ABOUT! Apparently, by having been a state level prosecutor, I have made myself completely unemployable with any traditional/ mainstream (i.e. decent paying, health insurance providing) employer. Not sure what I am going to do.

          • Alanna of Trebond :

            @ Susan–which firm? Or even–where can I find out?

          • @ Alanna
            An oldie but a goodie:

          • NGO Worker :

            @DA – are you interested at all in international work? There are a lot of positions for former prosecutors to provide technical legal assistance overseas (or work in DC on proposals and program management). Check out for job listings.

        • Sounds like perhaps this is not the norm at all, but I had a client who had a JD and was a Product Director at a major pharmaceutical company. Her role had nothing to do with law…

      • Appelican :

        I am not saying this to be snarky, but if you are going to specialize in criminal appeals then don’t you really need to work for the public defender or the state? By the time people are at the criminal appeal stage, most convicted criminals can no longer (or never could in the first place) afford a lawyer?

        • Yup. And to do that (at least in the major urban area I live in if I don’t want to leave my much more successful husband) I need the internships, clerkships, and clinics that one really cannot get as an evening student. I have made some not so good decisions, for sure.

          • just wondering :

            can you hang out a shingle, help private practice criminal defense attorneys with their appeals and expand your practice to include civil appeals (e.g. take some court appointed appeals cases if those are avail in your jurisdiction?). We need more awesome appellate tigers!

          • Divaliscious11 :

            I agree with Just Wondering – one of our appellate advocacy adjuncts did exactly that – she taught because she enjoyed it, but she worked for herself and wrote briefs for defense attorneys. She also did other appellate work and partnered with some of the smaller firms who could really afford a full appellate practice. You have some options but you are going to have to get out there and hustle/market yourself. Not intending to be snarky, but I think this whole concept of sueing law schools and being mad about employment rates etc.. is kind of a bunch of bunk. Your legal career starts the first day of law school, and you are responsible for it. Is it tough? ABSOLUTELY – but that is because the economy has been in the toilet – its slowly recovering but that will take a while. 14 years ago, it was booming – lawyers from crappy schools with crappy grades had multiple offers – because the economy was booming. If anyone went to law school thinking simply graduating insured them a good job – that is their issue, not the school’s. All that to say is let go of the blaming your school stuff and get out there and make your way! You sound like you are lucky enough to have a great, and gainfully employed husband, so you have the luxury of time to build the practice you want. If your good, you’ll be fine. If your not, well that isn’t the law schools fault either…. good luck in either case.

        • he Melitta :

          This “criminal appeals” track in law school is a new one for me. Our school vaunts much more generalized “tracks” (read: tax, business, and litigation) but they are entirely unofficial. At any rate, no prospective employer I have ever met really cared about them.

          Even if you were part of an official “track”, V., I bet if you omitted that on your resume and emphasized experience/organizations/interests related to other areas of the law, you would find a little more success. Doubleplusgood if you can relate some facet of your experience to the particular area of work a potential employer is in.

          • My characterization does not come from mere course selection. I practiced for a year before crashing on the shoals of unemployment. I have tried to get a job in every area under the sun that does not require formal certification. I have glowing references from everyone I have ever worked with but it makes no difference. Thank you for your condescending but doubtless well-meant suggestions.

  2. Salary. In my world, the title is a generic, meant to apply to a huge variety of tech jobs, but meaningless. I’m a Business Intelligence Developer, but my title is Senior Technology Specialist. You can’t tell that reporting, BI, and data analysis are my skills…

    • Amelia Pond :

      Did you go to business school or was this something you worked on in undergrad? I ask because I have merged into a similar role but am finding that without actual training it’s harder to transition.

  3. Title. I worked at a place for several years that was great, and had awesome co-workers, but they had no money, and said they couldn’t promote (and didn’t). I did all kinds of above-my-pay-grade work, but when it came time to get a new job (because, of course, they ran out of money), I would’ve much rather had no money and the higher title. Because to say to a new employer “Yes, I was a Fancypants Awesomesauce” seems to be much more convincing than “I was a Peon, but I did lots of stuff”, where as “I made X, but I should now get X+50million” is much more likely.

    • My new goal is to achieve the title “Fancypants Awesomesauce.”

    • I want to be a Fancypants Awesomesauce when I grow up!

    • My best friend worked in energy, specifically, power, at an investment bank.

      Her business card read:

      Jane Smith
      Global Power Team

      It was awesome. I half-expected her to do some sort of X-men transformation into a superhero or something every time I saw it.

  4. I recently signed up to do a 5k walk/run/jog as a fundraiser. The problem is that many of my coworkers are runners already so I don’t want to drag down the team’s time. I want to know what the average time it takes you to complete 5k so I have a goal to train for.

    • I think if you can do it in 10 minute mile or less you should not worry about embarrassing anyone. That’s my line where I will tell people how I did in a race, or not. I am also pretty slow, FWIW (11-13 min miles).

    • I agree that 10 min/miles are sort of the line between “real running” and not, but I don’t think you should worry about dragging down other people’s times. I say this as a person who just ran a sub 10 minute mile 4 mile training run for the first time in my life yesterday, so no disrespect to slower runners. I would highly recommend Couch to 5k as a great training program (I’m inferring that you are not much of a runner currently) as it provides a very nice progression to get used to running.

      Is there some fancy prize for the fastest team? That seems lame for a fundraiser…participation and fundraising should me the major goals, in my mind.

      • There’s no prize, but I guess people like to compare times and we each get a chip placed into our number so everything is logged online.

        • Then I definitely wouldn’t worry about dragging anyone down. Go have fun!

        • Beach Bum :

          Don’t worry about it! I have an extremely competitive personality, but when it comes to running, especially team 5Ks, I’m happy just to have people around me with a common interest. I don’t care if someone walks the whole thing. Get out there and have fun :)

    • My goal for my first 5K was to run the entire thing, and I finished it in about 32 min.

      • eastbaybanker :

        I did a 5k with a bunch of cowrokers to raise money as well. I think I ran 10 minute miles. I’m not a runner by any stretch. Everyone got major points for showing up and having fun, since it was an optional event. I wouldn’t worry about time too much. But if you are worried about running slow, maybe just kick a** in the fundraising department?

  5. Makeup Junkie :

    Money, because I have student loans to pay off and Big Firm Staff Attorney is probably the same across the country.

  6. Business, Not Law :

    Money. Titles can vary based on size of organizations (i.e. what is a director/sr director at my organization can be considered a Jr VP at a smaller company within the same field) and what is more important to me is the job responsibility.

  7. Another factor to throw in the mix is where you are in your career. I was laid off from a Fortune 200 company with a job title “Associate” in it (people often asked if I was an intern). Five years after graduating with 2 grad degrees, I’m working in a start-up with a high title taking on a much broader range of responsibilities than before and reporting directly to the CEO. I’m working below my market rate but negotiated for a higher title and for equity in the company which I think is a risk I can take at this point in my life (single, no kids, and significant savings from my last job). I wish I was making more money of course, but this was the right move for me in the long run because not many people my age have my title and it’s going to make me more marketable. Not to mention I switched into a completely different industry which is hard to break into and am learning from people who have successfully started and sold their companies. I should add I was conservative in my spending even when I was earning more so my lifestyle is more or less the same though I do go out less and cook for myself more.

    • It Changes :

      This. It changes throughout your career. The first few years out of law school, in BigLaw, title was most important to me. I so wanted to become a partner. Then I did, and I went in house, and I am older and closer to retirement and money is more important.

  8. Anon for this one :

    I think the default answer is salary, especially the first few years of one’s career – after that it gets a bit murkier where you are making choices such as “For 10-15K less at xyz job, I could be an Assistant General Counsel, because it is smaller company versus Senior Counsel at abc job which pays a bit more, but has a different trajectory” – and so forth. I think title is more an issue in certain industries and subsets of industries – ie in law, title is more important when you move into in-house or public sector, while at law firms you basically have associate, senior associate, counsel, partner. By contrast,for non-lawyers in technology and consulting, title seems to mean less, so money makes more sense.

  9. karenpadi :

    I say that, for law, money. Money talks. Titles are unimportant–except for “partner” or “shareholder”. Titles mostly indicate how your compensation is calculated anyway.

    My firm doesn’t really do titles consistently. So we have people calling themselves “associate”, ” “senior associate”, “counsel”, “attorney”, and “*niche* attorney” somewhat willy-nilly. I think that “senior counsel” and “of counsel” are honorary titles that just indicate “not partner but not a lowly associate because I used to be a partner”. We are strict about identifying law students as “clerks” for ethical reasons.

    On my business card, I go by “*niche* attorney” and I introduce myself as “outside *niche* counsel” to indicate that I’m with a firm (most of the people in my law school class are in-house by now). I guess I could be “senior associate” but it feels awkward after so many years of doing this–like calling a long-term partner my “boyfriend.” Plus, I get compensated more like an of counsel than an associate.

    • On my business card, I go by “*niche* attorney” and I introduce myself as “outside *niche* counsel”

      Not to be a pain in the ass, but isn’t that in violation of ABA Rule 7.4 d? Or are you a patent or admiralty attorney?

      (Maaan, I wish I was an admiralty attorney.)

      • I assumed she’s a patent attorney.

      • karenpadi :

        Veronica, you bring up a good point. One of my pet peeves is litigators who call themselves “patent attorneys” when they haven’t even taken the patent bar. I usually ask these “patent attorneys” how they prepared for the patent bar and get a blank stare.

        On a related note, one of the patent attorneys I work with is married to an admiralty attorney.

      • I don’t know what rock I was living under but I’d never heard of admiralty attorneys before. Besides the supercool name, what an interesting branch of law.

  10. I think it really depends on how titles are used in your industry. Are they standard across employers (does everyone know what a partner is at this point?) or is it an industry where there are 45 VPs of some description in any given office (the VP title being used simply to make the clients feel important about their contact)? I guess it all comes down to what value you can take from the title itself. It is similar to any other trade off for salary you may face – what’s really in it for me?

  11. It depends. At first I though “salary, of course! What’s in a title?” But then I thought about it… I’m currently a very unpaid member of senior staff. Would I be willing to give up my current title for more pay? Not unless it was a heck of a bump….

  12. I’m going to go with money. For enough money, I would work for the title Hapless Jackass.

  13. Maple League Admin formerly Anon Canadian :

    I have in the past, and probably will in the future take a title bump over a pay bump. At my University we call them lateral moves and it’s almost the only way that admin staff move around here. Job classes over lap so even if you’re moving up two steps in job class it’s often a lateral move pay wise, and it’s extremely hard to move up more than two job classes at a time.

  14. I think it depends on your plans for advancement. If you plan on staying with this particular employer and hope to advance through the ranks in that company, I would ask for a raise. But, if you are at your current place of employment as a stepping stone and necessary resume builder for future, grander plans, I would go with the title — with the following caveat: if the title comes with additional power and responsibility, that’s a plus; if it is largely ceremonial, and known to be so within your industry, then the advanced title isn’t actually much of a resume builder and you haven’t gotten anything.

    • I agree. I wanted to be independent and go to private practice as soon as possible. I took a high position position for a low pay in a government institution. After a few years, I resigned, packaged myself as a consultant. Basically, I could live with my retainer fees alone by working 5 days a month. Of course, I will probably have withdrawal symptoms if I stop working.

  15. Diana Barry :

    I need to get a new title soon…I have been practicing for almost 10 yrs and at this point I feel silly being just a lowly associate. Argh.

    • this is exactly why I want to get the title partner, though I do not necesarily look forward to the admin, etc. I feel like it will make me more marketable to clients, and to potential employers (in house ?) also.

  16. As a person unemployed with years of experience in management and as a previous small business owner, I would recommend take the money until you are sure you have what it takes for the title. I have over 25 overqualified replies looking for a job. While I have had fun in my career, not everyone is cut out to manage and develop people.

    What may come with the title: I have sacrificed relationships when it meant I needed to stay late, rerouted vacation plans, put others needs before my own and spent countless hours taking on projects that I thought would get me to higher and higher pay.

    Im feeling a little frustrated with the fact that I am qualified and bring a wealth of experience which I could also have gotten by taking on volunteer work or side businesses. I am confident my situation will work itself out, but I would recommend take the money until you are sure it is right for you. Learning to assess whether or not you are suited to manage projects or a team takes patience, training and a good self inspection on your ability to train others. While it is nice to take a lead, remember there is no I in team and it will always come down to one more opinion in the end.

  17. Biglaw here – and actually neither title nor money are in my top 5 factors, but title I simply don’t care about. We have associates and partners. There are various designations for staff attorneys, temp attorneys, counsel, senior counsel, etc., but that’s not the path I’m on. All our business cards say “Attorney” – no more – and our email shows our title.

    My husband is at a gov’t agency, and there, title matters more than anything else. He’s refused higher paid/graded job opportunities because the title / chain of command is lower.

  18. I cared about titles until I got the title I thought I wanted.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  19. At a previous job, I was promoted into a new position that was created just for me. My managers were very upfront about the fact that they basically pulled my new title out of their behinds. That’s all very well and good, except for the fact that the title turned out to be massively misleading – I became Manager of X, but X is a very specific and technical field and was not part of my job description AT ALL. This became especially problematic when I left the company and was trying to find a new job. Recruiters looking for someone skilled in X kept contacting me; meanwhile, no one in my actual field would consider me!

  20. Have the title but not the money. Am unlikely to get the money in this role but likely to get more responsibility as it is an umbrella title. Next step is using the title as leverage to get a better paying role somewhere else.

  21. Anonymous :

    What about taking a position as an executive assistant for a very, very respected and powerful executive? This may be a possibility for me (and would involve leaving a technical career path) and I am not sure if it would later be looked at as learning the skills of the exec or just guarantee me a life as a secretary…

    • The latter is more likely if the executive is very high-powered – I know some lovely people who never moved beyond roles like chief of staff or executive in charge of CEO’s office. Your best bet would be to have an upfront conversation with the executive about your career path once you’ve done a fantastic job as assistant – is he/ she prepared to parachute you into a role which you wouldn’t reach from your current technical path ? When can this happen and what do you need to do to make it happen ? Apply a discount to whatever gets promised – you or the executive may leave your firm before the promised promotion takes place.

    • In government it’s very common to be a staff assistant for senior people and then move on to other high-ranking roles from there. It’s not quite an executive assistant role because they usually have a secretary as well, but it’s similar to the work of an executive assistant. It’s actually a very respected job to have on your resume and is a good networking opportunity because you interact with lots of high-level people.

  22. Seattle Sue :

    This question often arises when the economy is down, as when it’s booming it’s easy tomove for higher pay & title. Having worked through four decades of ups and downs from my early 20’s to mid-50’s, there is a balance in changing fields, titles and $ and its different at every stage. In my 20’s, a commissioned minimum wage job (recruiting) taught me great job skills but the stress of commission work wore thin fast. Parlayed that into a Fortune 500 HR job with prestige and steady pay. Left to go overseas with spouse and couldn’t get a decent job, but took a rock bottom one in seasonal accounting for a pittance that led to a new career. Came back to the US in the mid-80’s recession and couldn’t get hired at my former pay ($35-40k) so took one starting over in the accounting industry for $24k (having working spouse helped). Climbed ladder extra fast due to solid job skills and wound up managing partner in a Big 4 firm making $400k+. But the money went to high taxes (including self-employment), paying full cost of benefits ($17k annually), making 100% of my pension contributions and at 70-80 hours a week, my hourly rate didn’t look so great after those normally employer paid expenses. My husband and I rarely saw each other, I had no time for friends and was very overweight. In a moment of clarity I decided what I didn’t want in a job (international as work is 24/7, disrespectfuly clients, large teams to manage,, an East Coast based headquarters (no respect for west coast thinking), etc. It took a year, but when a friend recommended I look at a position in academica paying less than half, I wound up in a 40-hour a week Director position paying less than half of my old position. Less money and title was balanced by making the same hourly rate after taking into account the job hours worked and employer paid benefits. So my advice is there is no one right answer, only the answer that is right for you. Be careful not to define yourself by your job and be open to alternative options so you don’t wind up at 50 wishing you had spent less time pursuing the career and more pursing a balanced life.

  23. Michael Goffinet’s New Book “They Call Me Superman” Available Now

work fashion blog press mentions