Our new Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.
Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously, too! 😉 ).
Breaking six figures in annual income was never in the cards for me. At least, that was my belief due to several factors I deemed out of my control.
In reality, my earning potential was something I had a high measure of control over. Acknowledging and stepping into that power was a game-changer for me.
A Self Fulfilling Prophecy
If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up as a kid, I always had the same answer: an electrical engineer or a Disney animator. I equally loved the idea of drawing for a living and tinkering with electrical things, like my Dad's old radios. But for my family, these two career options were at odds.
Most kids typically don't pick careers based on starting salary or earning potential, so as an 8-year-old, this juxtaposition was lost on me. These were just things I loved and thus things I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. But to a family like mine, filled with overachievers and career-minded people, the clear answer was the one that meant more money: engineering.
Thus was born the first limiting factor that could have stagnated my earning potential forever – the incorrect belief that money is at odds with anything else, namely fulfillment.
This belief was so ingrained in me that I saw my decision to attend art school as my acceptance of never making six figures.
When my salary plateaued a few years after graduating, I knew the inevitable had arrived. It was time to build my life around what I had because I believed that would never change much for the rest of my career. This acceptance felt like a small price to pay for doing something I had loved since I was a kid, being creative.
My salary stayed in the same range for around a decade, with slight adjustments for tenure and inflation, but never more than a 5% increase. It was enough to pay my rent, crazy student loans from attending a private art school, vehicle payments, and general living costs. I was stable and satisfied for a while. Until I wasn't.
At a certain point, this belief showed its ugly side. I felt stagnant in my career and its trajectory. Because I had reached what I believed to be the upper bounds of my earning potential, I felt compelled to stay where I was, despite this unhappiness. I grew depressed and felt increasingly trapped. Sure, I could leave and find something more satisfying, but would I make enough to live the way I had been? Could I still fulfill my responsibilities?
I realize this is the spot where so many people find themselves at. It has happened twice in my career so far, and I expect to find myself there once more. It is human nature to want stability and safety, so we can find ourselves here for many reasons. Orienting ourselves to the truth of our situation makes getting out of this cycle feel impossible. In my case, kicking myself out of this limiting belief took me being forced out of it by difficult circumstances outside of my control. In both cases, the jobs I thought were my stable pinnacle laid me off.
I learned so much from both experiences, but the biggest lesson is that there is always another avenue for you. If you tell yourself you have reached your full potential, you have, and you will avoid looking for other opportunities. Worst of all, you will forgo preparing for them. While I don't believe in a meritocracy or "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," I think that we live in a shifting professional climate that is now finding value in the diversity of its workforce, which means diversity in professional terms experiences as well.
The key to finding those opportunities is to acknowledge that they exist by letting go of our false beliefs. Money and happiness are not fundamentally at odds. There will always be places where both live, and once you find them, making a home there takes preparation.
As adults, we all have jobs. Places where we, in effect, sell our time for money. This exchange of time for money is the core of much of our working lives, and yes, it sounds depressing when I put it that way. However, career opportunities differ from jobs because they provide us with more than that fundamental transactional relationship. In some cases, that extra value could be a chance to increase our knowledge or a title that can open more doors for us in the future. It could also mean a move upward in salary. With that in mind, the common thread between all career opportunities is future thinking and advancement.
I believe the saying is, "in every career opportunity, you should earn or learn." I would add that you should also grow. Again, that growth will look different for everyone, but a powerful career opportunity offers growth in multiple places. But how do you find what sectors of growth are correct for you? The answer for me was to identify my strengths and weaknesses.
There are hundreds of ways to do this, including various paid tests, but the crux of all of them is introspection. Some quick ways to start this journey are to ask family, friends, and co-workers what they think you are good at. You can also start by making a list of things you do that make you happy or fulfilled. Don't just search out stuff you do at work; this could be a ripe opportunity to align your personal likes with your professional career. As for your weaknesses, chances are you are much more aware of what those are.
Regardless of how you unearth these things, it is crucial to have them as a baseline for identifying and evaluating opportunities. As you start this exploration, remember that this can be a point of career re-commitment, refresh, pivot, or even a complete career change. In other words, where you are or what you're doing does not need to be where you are going.
For me, this looked like stepping away from ad agency work and into teaching in higher education or, even more drastic, my career change from design to engineering. It also looked like me switching from working for a local company in an office every day to working for a company across the country as part of a distributed team.
These significant changes in my career resulted in the fortunate circumstance of both professional and monetary growth. When I became an adjunct professor, I not only increased my yearly salary by 25%, but I also learned how to be an effective communicator and overcame a fear of public speaking. By that same token, switching from design to engineering only resulted in an initial 3% salary increase, but it garnered me the opportunities to learn what I needed to increase my salary 2.5 years later by 57% when I started working remotely. Of course, being in engineering now allowed me to use the leadership skills I honed in higher education and my design career to shift into engineering management. This final move resulted in my most considerable salary increase at 87%.
While everyone's journey will likely look differently, remember that even smaller increases, back steps, or lateral moves salary-wise can mean more significant earning potential down the line. Even better, they can mean more fulfillment, but the bottom line is to embrace the opportunity even if it means change.
Practice Makes Perfect
There came a time in my professional career when I was unsure what the next move looked like. First, I have to say that uncertainty is normal and won't last forever. What I did know was that I wanted to finally merge the two things I had aspired to be as a child. I wanted to create and build. The possibilities for finding the opportunity to do those things were endless.
At this point, I learned something that changed my professional life forever. Exploration is not a commitment, and I applied for any job that appeared to even remotely offer me the kind of opportunity I was looking for. I interviewed about a dozen times in a few months. Some of them were definite no-go's for both parties, but the few that stuck out pointed me in an even more definitive direction. I was able to hone in on my next opportunity.
I kept interviewing, finally realizing that I was getting better and better at articulating what I wanted next with each interview I did. But not only that, I was getting better at selling my strengths as something the company would benefit from. It was then that it truly dawned on me how important the art of the interview was.
It is almost certain that most of us have had mock or practice interviews as part of our training or educational experiences. Yet I will tell you now that no mock interview in a safe environment can adequately prepare you for the real deal with something you genuinely want on the line. So I leaned into interviewing, taking interviews with companies I knew I likely didn't want to work at, and I practiced until the right opportunity presented itself.
Years later, I went through a period where I interviewed for almost three years straight. Of course, there were ebbs and flows to that practice, but I followed a few rules.
- I always responded to recruiters who reached out and would ask questions. If the title, salary, working arrangements, or anything did not match what I loved about my current job, I didn't proceed.
- I practiced articulating what I wanted next. These were things that would get me closer to long-term goals but also things that were missing from my current job.
- I learned to ask the right questions to unearth the details I needed to evaluate an opportunity. This skill is the crux of what makes someone strong in the interview process. It is a cue to employers that you know what you bring to the table and want to ensure this is a mutual fit.
- I identified my next "dream" jobs and started applying for them.
Throughout this three-year process, what I did was practice and, most importantly, learn to persist. Much growing happened during that time, but also a lot of rejection and even some heartbreak. I had to learn to lose and try again, something that sounds easier than it is when one of your dream jobs rejects you or an interviewer discourages you. This experience also taught me how to set boundaries and make every interview feel safe, even if it went sideways. Because at the end of the day, if it wasn't serving what I wanted, it wasn't for me.
Yet through all this practice, there was one portion of the interview process that I always struggled with. It was limiting not only my prospects but also my earning potential. My weak spot was compensation discussions.
A Word on Intersectionality Superpowers
I understand the aversion to negotiating money because it contradicts what we are taught in some cultures and spaces. This can be particularly true for BIPOC folks, women, immigrants, neurodivergent folks, and members of the LGTBQ+ community. The world teaches these groups and their various intersectionalities that they should work hard and be thankful for what they have. But we need to understand that now more than ever, there is a whole professional world out there that can benefit from the diversity of us, our identities, and our experiences. Knowing our worth and demanding it is the first step to achieving equity.
Know Your Stuff
If you have been interviewed in the last century, you know that the inevitable is coming. You can feel the awkwardness before the question leaves the interviewer's mouth. The oft-dreaded and rarely well-answered question of your compensation asks. It can come in the form of a more innocuous question regarding what you are making currently, or worse, asking what you are targeting. Regardless there are a few ways you can prepare for this inevitability.
I have often received advice from people who say you should have the company tell you what the salary range is. While I see the benefit of this, I think there is power in preparing to have your own numbers in mind, which will require some research.
As the professional world adjusted to the pandemic and quarantine, one significant change occurred. Companies had no choice but to embrace remote working. The result of this has been a broadening of almost every job sector. There are now not only more opportunities, but salary ranges were also affected.
For comparison, the cost of living in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is considerably lower than any city in California, Texas, or surrounding Colorado and Arizona. My salary potential skyrocketed when I joined a distributed team long before the pandemic forced every company to try it out. As outlined before, this salary growth was the second largest in my career at 57%.
That being said, start by looking at salaries nationally or internationally if it applies. Do not limit yourself to what your desired industry pays in the city in which you live. When I interviewed at the company I first went remote with, I learned this lesson. I was asked what I was making currently. When I answered honestly, the interviewer responded almost alarmed, "Why so little?" Clearly, my city's lower cost of living was a limiting factor I had never considered. I was lucky enough that the company I joined didn't short-change me and gave me what they had budgeted for the position, not anything close to what I was making previously. This experience taught me to research what my current title pays to answer this with that thought in mind, regardless of whether I was making that much.
There are several avenues for you to pinpoint what a specific title pays. Please note that I said title and not experience. If you are doing the job role's responsibilities, you deserve that pay regardless of experience. Period. You will need to ask questions of folks in that industry and use tools like Levels or Greenhouse Salaries. It would help if you kept tabs on every salary range given to you by any company you interview at. The goal is to use this information to create what I like to call your three numbers.
- What you will ask for. Think of this number as your dream salary. Shoot for the middle-upper realms of what you find in your research. The worst that can happen is they say no or offer lower, but this is even more important for women and BIPOC folks. Besides, you never get what you don't ask for.
- What you are truly targeting. This number is typically the median of what you find in your research. If this is a new role or title for you, this could also be on the lower end. Of course, the inverse is true if you have experience here.
- What you are willing to take. Remember that saying from earlier? "Learn or earn." If this opportunity is the former of those two, you need to have a bottom line. It is essential to stick to this and imperative that you do not ever share this number with anyone. This number should ideally still fall within the band of what you found in your research, or at least be close to it. It should also be something you can maintain your lifestyle and responsibilities with.
Please note that these numbers are base salary only. It would be best to be wary of companies offering "perks" to make up for lower base salaries. As I have mentioned in another article I wrote regarding finding your ideal tech role, "The bottom line here is that it's not real if it isn't guaranteed. Base salary is guaranteed year over year; everything else can change or disappear. "
These three numbers are all you need to negotiate. If you have practiced what was discussed in the interview portion of this article, you should have no problem letting them know what you can bring to the team. If it doesn't work for them, remember, it doesn't work for you. There is no need to downvalue yourself unless there are some significant opportunities that would mean higher earning potential in the future, and even then, have an exit plan and timeline.
The Journey vs. The Destination
I recently did a personal exercise where I mapped my salary journey in a graph. The results illustrate a lot of what I have shared with you already. You can see the jump when I made the switch to teaching in higher education, again when I went remote, and finally once more when I moved into leadership. If I look at my journey in tech or engineering alone, I can see a 210% increase in a 7-year period. This is significant as it is over the last seven years that I have employed the techniques I outlined above.
The key to these changes in my journey was recognizing and embracing my value. That recognition allowed me to pivot, embrace change, diversify my experience and prospects, and grow in new ways.
Like everything in life, your salary journey is about the journey itself and not the destination. In truth, the point is to realize and embrace that you can make money and be happy. There is strength in that realization and absolute power in discovering and stepping into your value. As the world changes and you evolve, you can feel secure that there will always be a place for you to find the opportunity to leverage your strengths, improve on your weakness, and make money.