Dear Matt: I have 10 years of work experience and recently obtained my bachelor of arts degree. I always felt I was underpaid because I didn't have a degree. As I apply for new jobs, how am I supposed to make a fair wage if employers are trying to base my pay potential on my salary history in previous jobs -- before I had a degree?

Matt says: Now that you have a degree along with the experience, it's important that you bring that to your current or potential new employer's attention, said James C. Fox, Ph.D., managing director of Fox Lawson & Associates (, a St. Paul-based compensation and human resources specialists firm. But if your degree is in a totally unrelated field to the job that you are trying to obtain, it may not have the impact you feel it should.

You need to focus on your accomplishments and what you have done at work that sets you apart. It's important to remember that the company has a salary range for that position and is hiring someone at that pay scale, no matter what their combination of degree or experience. "Once you are in the job your performance will speak volumes about the value they are getting for the money," said Fox. "Your task is to prove that you are worth more, and that comes from performance on the job."

There are two strategies that may help you overcome these obstacles, said Kathy Northamer, district president of the Twin Cities branch of Robert Half Technology ( and The Creative Group (

First, base your pay requirements on salary data in your city. For example, if you're a graphic designer, you can use sources like The Creative Group's salary calculator ( to calculate the average pay for a graphic designer in your city. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ( also publishes salary data. Second, talk about the work you've done to increase your value to employers, which includes obtaining your degree. You might say, "My previous salary was below market because I didn't have a degree. Now that I've obtained my degree, I'm hoping that my pay will be commensurate with the average pay for this position, which my research shows ranges from $60,000 to $80,000."

"I sympathize with your frustration," said Northamer. "When you have been underpaid in the past, it can be challenging to make a case for a significant jump in pay."

Matt Krumrie is a Twin Cities freelance writer specializing in career advice.