From $40K to $120K: My Journey Through the Salary MazeFeatured

Our 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! 😉 ).


As a first-generation immigrant and college graduate, I started my career with boundless ambition but little guidance on navigating the corporate landscape. I was entering a world where I had to learn the rules as I went along, relying on my determination and resourcefulness.

In 2008, I landed my first job in New York City as an analyst consultant, earning $40,000 a year, with a $5,000 relocation bonus. It was a big step for someone with my background, but I had no idea the journey from there would be filled with unexpected challenges and invaluable lessons.

Here's how I navigated salary negotiations, layoffs, career transitions, and setbacks, discovering powerful lessons about knowing your worth and advocating for yourself.

Negotiating for Your Worth

Early on, when I transitioned to a remote role with my company's parent company, I first attempted to negotiate a raise. I was told it wasn't possible because of costs related to my immigration sponsorship. The response was discouraging, but it taught me a valuable lesson: sometimes, external factors are beyond your control, no matter how hard you push.

For the next several years, I accepted promotions and bonuses without much question. But in 2013, I returned from maternity leave to find my peers had higher titles despite being on the same level. This marked the beginning of my awakening. I requested discussions about how career decisions were made and quickly realized there was no clear evaluation structure or career metrics. This motivated me to advocate for a career ladder, especially when I saw talented interns leaving due to a lack of clarity.

From Advocate to Director

In 2015, after completing my MBA, I was ready for a change. I sought advice from an HR consultant and, armed with salary comparisons and a solid list of accomplishments, I negotiated a new role as Director, with my salary increasing from $70,000 to $90,000 a year. This experience taught me the power of research, preparation, and building a strong case for what you deserve.

Adversity and Resilience

In 2016, life took a dramatic turn. Within a week, my father passed away, and I was laid off. The stress caused health issues, and with a non-compete agreement in place, I couldn't return to my previous industry for five years. This forced me to pivot, and after four months without work, I took a job in financial patient access at a hospital, earning just $26,000 per year.

Despite the setback, I approached this new role with determination. I undertook extra projects and pursued a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification. Eventually, my efforts paid off when I was offered a position in the quality department at $60,000 per year. While the jump from a pay grade 9 to a pay grade 16 was impressive, the HR team indicated that the salary was non-negotiable, emphasizing that I was "lucky" to make such a leap.

Climbing the Career Ladder

In 2019, I tried negotiating a raise based on my contributions, but my director couldn't secure one. When my director retired, she recommended me for her position, but the VP disagreed, saying I lacked advanced certifications or leadership training. Undeterred, I pursued a Six Sigma Black Belt and completed six leadership courses while building a strong internal network.

Despite my efforts, my application for the quality director role in 2020 was rejected because I didn't have a medical degree. Frustrated but not defeated, I leveraged my internal network and pitched a role to a director in an incubator department. A new position was created for me, raising my salary from $60,000 to $75,000. This experience demonstrated the importance of networking, creating value, and seizing opportunities even when the odds seem against you.

One of my first initiatives in my new role was to request the creation of a career ladder for my department. It provided clear metrics and pathways for growth—a structure lacking in my previous experience. However, when my manager left, I assumed her responsibilities without a formal title change. I believed I would be notified when the position officially opened for application, but instead, I was asked to be on the interview panel to select her replacement. It was too late to apply when I realized the role was open. The department hired someone else, and within a month, I was told to continue handling my former manager’s duties. This was a frustrating setback, but I used the career ladder as leverage to negotiate a promotion to a level 3 position, which came with a small salary increase of just $5,000. However, the timeline for this promotion was uncertain, and I was told that others had waited up to 11 months for similar promotions. Feeling undervalued, I started exploring other opportunities.

A New Beginning

Thankfully, I had maintained a strong network, and my former manager, who had moved to a biotech company, mentioned they might have a role for me.

In March 2022, I took a lateral move to this biotech company, and my salary increased significantly to $120,000. It felt like a fresh start, but it came with its challenges.

Though I delivered value and impact at the biotech company, I didn’t understand their promotion system. I assumed my manager would know what I was working on because I collaborated closely with the SVP and CMO, yet my contributions seemed to go unnoticed.

In December 2023, I was laid off, serving as a stark reminder that working hard and delivering impact doesn't always translate to recognition or job security. I needed a new strategy that included managing up, clearly presenting my accomplishments and a well-crafted business case for promotion.

Lessons Learned

Now, I'm older and wiser, with a better understanding of what it takes to advance in a career. I also know the red flags to watch out for, such as unclear promotion criteria and limited communication. My journey has taught me that a successful career requires more than hard work; it requires strategic networking, ongoing advocacy, and a proactive approach to career development.

Here are the key lessons I've learned from navigating the salary maze:

  • Know Your Worth: Research salary comps and understand your value based on your skills and experience.
  • Advocate for Yourself: Speak up when you notice discrepancies or inequalities.
  • Build a Strong Network: Relationships are crucial for career advancement and new opportunities.
  • Create a Business Case: When seeking a raise or promotion, provide evidence of your impact and contributions. Most importantly, what value can you contribute when promoted?
  • Stay Adaptable: Life can be unpredictable. Be willing to pivot and find new opportunities when needed.

Call to Action

Reflecting on my journey, I encourage you to take charge of your career. Know your worth, build your network, and never hesitate to negotiate for what you deserve. Advocate for yourself and others, create clear career metrics, and always manage up. By doing so, you can navigate the salary maze with confidence and reach your career goals.

My friends who are first gen immigrants have had so much trouble finding work in the US. Lost paperwork, layoffs, long periods of unemployment… your story is truly inspiring. That 5 year non-compete clause is wild! But you didn’t give up and got creative. Thanks for sharing ❤️❤️❤️
Thank you so much for sharing your story! You continue to push through every challenge, without making excuses! Great work!!
Thank you for sharing your story- what a wild ride ! What kind of impact did your sigma certificates have on your climb? Do you feel like you would have done anything different if you had known before what you know now?
The journey has indeed been quite an adventure! My sigma certificates equipped me with a structured approach to problem-solving and process improvement, which has been invaluable in driving operational excellence and innovation in various roles.If I could go back, I might have networked earlier on (before graduation) and sought mentorship. I was very focused on internships and roles then. However, every step along the way has contributed to my growth and the lessons learned have been incredibly valuable.How about you? Have there been any pivotal moments or certifications that has significantly impacted your career journey?
Thank you for your answer! I too wish I had improved my network and networking skills earlier on. So I struggled to get started and had a hard time finding the right role. I haven't gotten any tech certifications, but I study independently with MOOCs and online resources when I want to learn new skills :)
When the company pays for it, I opt for the certification. When self-pay, I study independently. What's most important is applying the concepts learned. I've found that people are quite receptive when I mention that obtaining the certification is cost-prohibitive. XYZ is what I did to gain those skills, and ABC is how I applied them.
I’m fascinated to hear you mention Six Sigma because it seems like it has not been in the conversation for years. It was in vogue in the States in the 1990s and early 2000s and then kind of disappeared. Did you attain it because your cohort did, or was this an independent decision on your part?
It was both - The hospital had contracted with an accredited organization to run cohorts for Six Sigma and would also pay for PMP. I conducted some informal interviews and decided Six Sigma was the right route. I had done project management extensively in my previous roles and observed that PMP was a more technical study rather than a hands-on approach. I wanted a certification where I gain theoretical and practical knowledge.