How I Tripled My Salary In Just 5 Years

Photo: Photofest.
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 journalist in D.C. who entered the work force in the middle of the recession and negotiated hard for a salary she thought was fair.

1 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
After finishing undergrad, I had a lot of trouble finding work in journalism. This was at a time when newsrooms were laying off staff left and right. So, the first job I took after graduating was as the manager of a small bookstore. I thought it would hold me over financially, while I kept trying to get work as a reporter or writer. At $13.50 an hour, it was the most money I had ever made. The job was pleasant and easy. Toward the end of my year at the bookstore, I asked for and received a modest raise, based on how well the store was doing financially.
2 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
While working in the bookstore, I continued looking for full-time work as a journalist but wasn't successful. At an interview, one newspaper told me: “We just laid off a reporter who had been with us for 20 years. Why would we hire someone with less experience than him?” So I took a big risk and moved to L.A. to take an unpaid internship at a magazine I loved, hoping it would lead to a full-time position. To make ends meet, I worked part-time as a receptionist and burned through all of my savings. My then-boyfriend also helped me out a lot, for which I am very grateful.

When the internship ended, my editors told me they didn’t have a position for me but they hooked me up with some part-time contract work at other publications. I moved to the Bay Area and for the next year-and-a-half, did a combination of freelancing and a lot of part-time contract work. I continued to contribute to the magazine, getting paid $1 per word for print pieces and nothing for web pieces (I contributed both). At one point, I was juggling several part-time jobs: I was a contract blogger for a media website, a contract writer for a think tank, an associate producer for a radio show, and a book researcher for a local author. Still, I made a very meager living and by the end of 2011, I enrolled in grad school, hoping that would improve my job prospects.
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3 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
While in grad school, I worked as a graduate student instructor, which paid me a small stipend and covered the cost of tuition. I also received two rather large scholarships that I used for travel related to my master's thesis, and to pay my way through an overseas summer internship. I continued to work part time as a researcher for a local author, to make a little cash to live on. My total "income," including stipends and scholarships, was about $26,000. Money was really tight, but grad school was a great decision for me. I developed professional contacts overseas and on the East Coast, which later came in very useful. And I learned new skills like video and programming that helped me compete in a tough job market, where veteran journalists were still being laid off from newsrooms.
4 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
I turned down my first offer, which was a post-grad fellowship in San Francisco that paid only $12,000 a year. I wanted to see if I could find a job I loved that would also pay a living wage. For a couple of months, I put the job hunt on hold because I got funding to do an extensive reporting project in Myanmar. Again, it was a great decision for me, and my work ran in a major international newspaper — but I wasn’t paid for it. When I came back to the U.S., I was starting to get desperate, and I ended up taking a post-grad fellowship at a relatively prestigious magazine in Washington, D.C., making a salary of $24,000 a year. It got me to the East Coast, which has turned out to be good for my career. But I was unhappy with the culture at the magazine, unhappy with the nature of my work (I was basically a glorified intern with a lot of administrative responsibilities), and unhappy with how little I made. At the time, I was living in a house with three other women in a high-cost city, and scraping by month-to-month.
5 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
After less than a year at the magazine, I started looking for other work. My chief concern at this point was salary. I needed to make a living, pay my student loans, save, and just be financially independent. Around this time, I also started dating a lawyer, who gave me a new perspective on how much I should be earning. He felt strongly that magazines like mine were capitalizing on their prestige to exploit highly skilled workers, and he strongly encouraged me to apply for other jobs and negotiate a salary I thought I deserved. The first offer that came was from a political publication. It was $40K; I negotiated up to $45,000 but at the last minute decided to withdraw and hold out for more money. My new boyfriend called in a favor at a large media company, and I landed an interview for a multimedia job. (It’s worth noting that I had applied for three other jobs at this company, but never received an interview until someone inside the company referred me.) After a few rounds, they offered me $64,000 per year, an $8K bonus, and great benefits. I accepted without negotiating.
6 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
After six months at the media company, I came to two important conclusions: 1. I didn't enjoy multimedia as much as I enjoyed reporting; 2. I was making significantly less than many of my peers. (That's what I get for not negotiating or asking around about pay.) So I decided to go after a different position at the company that was more in line with my interests. Once I was installed in the new position, I petitioned for a raise. To strengthen my case, I prepared a report on how much I had contributed to the company so far, and what my goals would be in my new role. I asked for total compensation of $85,000, noting that I was flexible about how much was salary versus bonus. (I was advised by a manager at the same company that this approach is more successful than asking for a salary bump alone; sometimes managers have more flexibility with bonuses than salaries.) The company came back with an offer of $78K plus a $4K bonus, which was $82,000 total. I happily accepted, and patted myself on the back for negotiating.
7 of 7
Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
It wasn't long before I realized that, despite the significant pay bump, I was still making less than my peers. At this point, I realized that my starting salary had been so much lower than the average, that it would take me several moves to simply achieve parity with other reporters. So, I applied for yet another position at the company in the hopes of again increasing my salary. After a few months of interviews and an excruciating subject matter test, I was offered the position. I immediately inquired about salary and was told by HR that according to company policy, I wouldn't be able to negotiate for a salary increase until I'd been in the role for three months. (At my previous position, it had taken me at least three months to build up the confidence to ask for a raise, so I never knew about the policy.) I’ve now been in my new role for about a couple of months and making note of every win. I really want to build a strong case for a raise when the time comes. When it does, I plan to ask for a bump that would bring my total comp up to $95,000. My goal is to crack six-figures within the next two years. I think it’s doable.
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