How I Went From Making $55,000 To $85,000

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
In our new series My Salary Story, women with at least 10 years of career experience open up about the most intimate details of their jobs: compensation. It’s an honest look at how real people navigate the complicated world of negotiating, raises, promotions, and job loss, with the hope it will give young women more insight into how to advocate for themselves — and maybe take a few risks along the way.

Today, a corporate lawyer in Detroit, who struggles to balance her passions with her family life.
Starting salary: $23,000
Current salary: $55,000
Years of employment: 16
Biggest salary jump: $34,000
Biggest salary drop: $32,500
Biggest salary regret: That I didn't recognize my own worth much earlier. Not only did I accept salaries beneath what should have been expected, but I allowed myself to remain in a couple of employment situations where my skills, expertise, and growth potential were restricted or unrecognized. Now, I realize that money is only a small part of being valued and respected at work.
Best salary-related advice: I wish I had realized how much of an impact having children would have on my earning potential. I found that if I wanted to have time for family, I had to "pay" for it by accepting a lower-paying but flexible work arrangement. I don't regret this choice at all, but I would have prepared better both financially and mentally if I had understood what it really meant to be a working mom.
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Interested in contributing your salary story? Email salarystory@refinery29.com.
1 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I worked for a small laboratory focused on industrial and environmental microbiology. It was a really fun job. Most of my time was spent performing tests to identify bacterial contaminants in commercial products like paint, food, and industrial water sources.

The job had two major drawbacks. First, I was stuck in a lab with the same three people every day. Even though my coworkers were wonderful, it left me feeling a little stifled. Second, after taxes, I barely brought home enough money to cover my car and other minimal expenses. I pondered applying to medical school and PhD programs. Deep down, I recognized that although microbiology was a lot of fun, it wasn’t where all of my natural talents or interests lied. After a few months, I felt secure in my decision to enter law school.
2 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Many people found it strange that I made a leap from microbiology to law, as most law students seem to have backgrounds in political science or business. I first had the idea when I was a senior at university, when a professor mentioned that many pharmaceutical companies were sending their scientists to law school because they needed patent licensing expertise. I was outgoing and really loved writing and giving presentations. Law offered the opportunity to use both my technical background and my writing and presentation skills. I saved money working as a microbiologist and by living at home, so I was well-positioned to enter law school. I graduated in 2003 with only $36,000 student debt and a very low interest rate (3%) on my loans.
3 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I attended law school full-time during the day. Classes typically wrapped up around 2 p.m. I worked up to 15 hours per week as a microbiologist during my first year-and-a-half of law school. It was an unrelenting pace. I would typically return from work around 6 p.m. and then study until 1 a.m. Rinse. Repeat. I made the choice to keep up this schedule because it was allowing me to minimize my student loan debt, which would in turn give me more freedom to take a wider range of jobs (instead of feeling pressured to accept a lucrative position in an area of law that didn’t interest me).

Looking back, I have no idea how I kept up this pace! It was a lot of sacrifice, and I often felt pangs of jealousy toward my friends with jobs during that time. Most of them were already on their second homes before I had saved enough money to move out of my parents’ house. In the long run, though, I was so happy I made the decisions I did. I missed some great parties, but I walked out with a degree and less debt than most of my fellow students.
4 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I left my position as a microbiologist by my last year of law school, but kept my position as a law clerk. I made $14 per hour, but the law firm billed me out at about $80 per hour. I gained my first exposure to technology-transfer work, and I fell in love. Many lawyers enjoy the adversarial aspect of the job, but I love being a mediator and negotiator, because it helps people come together — hopefully to create something new and special. It’s hard to believe, but in the 13 years I’ve been practicing law, I’ve closed more than 3,000 negotiations successfully.
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5 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I wanted to work in biotechnology, but I live in the auto capital of the world. I took a job working with a regulatory affairs consultant, tapping out menial tasks at his kitchen table for $10 an hour. He told me I would never make more than that. The next week, I had two job offers, one for $45,000 and another for $55,000. I took the latter.

The man who told me I wouldn’t command more than $10 per hour eventually sought me out to take over his business, as he moved toward retirement and other endeavors. I’m glad I stayed in touch with him over the years. We’ve never worked together again, but he is an amazing art collector, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
6 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I accepted a position with a start-up company founded in 2000. The company was only making about $3 million a year in revenue, so I was a little nervous about stability. The pay was low compared to many local law firms, which were offering up to $110,000 for entry-level associates. I used this fact (plus my unique science background) to negotiate a generous package, including stock options. By the time I left the company, I had received multiple grants of stock and had 80,000 shares in the company. When part of the company sold in 2011, I received a payout that assisted me during a period of unemployment.
7 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Since I worked for a start-up, my employers didn’t have endless resources for salaries, but they were great about offering vacation and regular raises instead. We all joked that we were all going to work really hard for a full year and then not work Fridays the following year because we had banked so many vacation days.
8 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
By 2006, the biotech company’s revenue had nearly doubled. I was fortunate to work under leaders who were passionate about re-investing in employees, offering yearly raises and opportunities to acquire stock.
9 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
When I was hired at the biotech firm, my focus was primarily on matters regarding lab compliance. Since the company was growing so quickly, though, I started to find myself the go-to person for a wide variety of classic legal concerns, like writing the human resources handbook, advising on the best way to structure research partnerships, and even resolving commercial disputes. My role was clearly expanding.

But I was still handling a lot of administrative tasks as well. I was covering the main company phone line, while our receptionist was at lunch one day, when the general counsel of a large pharmaceutical company we were negotiating with called and asked to speak to me. I panicked! How would it look if our scrappy little biotech company had its general legal counsel answering phones at the front desk? How could he take me seriously when I pushed for more favorable terms and conditions? So, I lied and told him that I wasn’t in that day and took a message. I finally realized that something had to give.

After that incident, I went to the CEO to discuss my predicament. I was increasingly negotiating with high-level legal representatives at other, well-established companies, and they didn’t want to negotiate with someone with my job title (regulatory affairs manager). They expected to negotiate with another attorney, and my job title didn’t reflect my legal background.

I also emphasized that by helping out with administrative tasks like answering phones, I wasn’t able to add as much value for the company as I could by focusing solely on corporate legal work. I did not ask for a raise at the time, but I did ask for a review of my job title and functions. The CEO completely agreed. He called me into his office the next week and offered me the new position and adjusted salary.
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10 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I helped negotiate a deal worth over $50 million. The company had finally gone public. I was barely 30 and was representing the top-performing stock on the applicable exchange. All this plus meaningful work with awesome people?

It was too good to last.
11 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Our beloved CEO left and was replaced. The new leadership team and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on what my role should be. I was no longer working closely with customers, but doing necessary (but dull) corporate secretarial work. I also had to manage several legal disputes (all resolved in our favor).

My colleagues would hear rumors about the disputes, but they knew I couldn’t talk about them because I was protecting the company’s privacy. But I desperately wanted to shout my concerns and frustrations from the rooftops. For the first time since I had started working there, I realized that I needed to better manage my time and career. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know where to start.
12 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I spent an entire day of my life sitting through meeting after meeting where my coworkers were let go. I kept it together through the work day and was very kind and professional during each meeting. Then, I drove home and cried at my kitchen table. Although I survived the layoffs, my sense of job security was gone.
13 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
After the departure of the CEO and all the layoffs, I decided it was time for me to leave the biotech firm where I had started my law career. I have had great success negotiating severance. I believe the trick is to ensure that you go in with both soft and hard goals. Hard goals involve extended salary and health care coverage. These can be more challenging to negotiate. However, employers are much quicker to agree to soft goals, which involve making requests for everything from additional training or classes to help you transition; to what the employer will write about your separation in corporate records, how the company will respond to reference requests, and whether anyone will contest your claims of unemployment. Even if you are leaving, you still bring to the table the chance to ensure a smooth transition and help wrap up important projects.

I recommend that anyone who feels that their employment position is not secure or may be terminated explore throwing their cards down first and initiating a severance negotiation. I’ve received very favorable terms on all of the items set forth above. Let the bitterness go, and focus on advocating for yourself in a positive and professional way. You may be very pleasantly surprised at what you can receive if you just ask. Plus, it sure beats staying in a place that makes you unhappy, or waiting for the employer to terminate your position.
14 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I had interviews with the top research hospitals in the L.A. area and was making progress into the second round. I loved my apartment and planned on making a permanent move.

During this time, I paid my bills through a combination of unemployment, severance pay, stocks, and personal savings. I had only one rule: No touching the 401(k). Even if it means living on a friend’s couch for a while, don’t jeopardize your future. It is almost impossible to recoup retirement investments once you’ve withdrawn, and unless you qualify for a hardship withdrawal, Uncle Sam will take almost half of the money for taxes.

Unfortunately, I ultimately decided not to stay in L.A.

My grandmother, best friend, and cat were all dying. It was time to go home to Detroit.

Although I didn’t accept a position in L.A., I returned to Michigan feeling creatively reinvigorated and 10 pounds lighter. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is just go look at something beautiful and marvel at what can be done with dedication, loving attention, and time.

Still, there are many kinds of wealth, and it was time to focus on the wealth of having friends, family, health, and wellness.
15 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
I received a job offer in Detroit for a part-time in-house counsel, focusing on software work, for a great company. I received the offer via phone while at my grandmother’s funeral, and took it as a sign I should take the job. I was reeling from several very difficult losses, and the part-time schedule allowed me to focus on healing and learning to have a healthier work-life balance. It also gave me more time for one more thing.
16 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
In 2013, my son was born! I would have left this job years earlier if not for this huge life change. There were early signs it was not a great fit, and few opportunities to increase pay.

In 2013, I actually accepted a full-time position with a well-regarded local company. They completely lowballed my offer — it was only 20% more than what I was making at my part-time job. Still, I was willing to accept it, as I was eager for advancement in any way. The day after I accepted the offer, I informed them that I had a four-month-old baby at home and asked them if they allowed for flex-time arrangements. They immediately revoked the offer. I was dumbfounded. should have known better when one of the interview questions was “How do you feel about receiving calls at 8 p.m. at night?”

I elected to stay in my existing job, essentially “buying” the ability to be more active raising my own child.
17 of 17
Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
My last day at my current job is June 30. I’m looking forward to the next phase of my career. Back in 2011, I approached my career change with a lot of fear and grasping. I panicked at every dollar that disappeared from my bank account. This time, though, I feel empowered and excited by the chance to focus on finding work that allows me to thrive and make use of my best attributes and skills. I recently told my friend that dwelling on fear of change is like saying “deep down, I’m not sure that you are worth more / can handle this / will succeed / deserve better.” You just shouldn’t talk like that to someone you love.

I love writing, painting, technology, entrepreneurship, and teaching. I can’t wait to find ways to marry what I love with what I do. Please keep your fingers crossed for me.