In our series My 6-Figure Paycheck, women making more than $100,000 open up about how they got there and what exactly they do. We take a closer look at what it feels like to be a woman making six-figures — when only 5% of American women make that much, according to the U.S. Census — with the hope it will give women insight into how to better navigate their own career and salary trajectories.
Job: Data Scientist
Location: Cambridge, MA
Degree: Media Studies/Computer Science
First Salary: $105,000, plus stock and signing bonus
Current Salary: $110,000, plus stock and annual bonus
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"Honestly, for a very long time, I wanted to be a whale trainer at an aquarium, then a marine biologist — I was obsessed with whales when I was younger. I wanted to be a doctor later on, but I dropped that one when I nearly fainted during the dissections we did in high school biology. As the awkward, quirky kid everyone excluded, I just wanted to be happy and successful and doing something difficult to prove to the other kids, I guess, that I was actually really smart and would manage to get somewhere."
What did you study in college?
"That's actually a funny story. I don't like being told what to do, and I really didn't like some of the required classes in my original major, computer science. I also really liked media studies and managed to find an obscure, flexible major that allowed you to study a humanities field and an engineering field, basically taking whatever classes you wanted with a few vague requirements, and then...ta-dah! Diploma! I only have a bachelor's at the moment, and it seems like that might be all I'll need for the foreseeable future (fingers crossed!)."
Did you have to take out student loans?
"I did not — in this respect I got really lucky. My parents started saving for my college very early on, and my school has really good financial aid that they actually granted me quite a bit of. I know my situation is pretty lucky — both getting enough aid and having parents who are willing and able to pay for your education — and I really am grateful for it."
Have you been working at this company since you graduated from college?
"I worked at another company before I headed to this one. I also had summer internships during college, which are fantastic in terms of learning how to work in different professional environments. I had a few (quite varied) research/teaching jobs during college that both helped me with living expenses and provided great mentorship."
How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
"A lot of what we want to show to customers on websites is unknown (it involves guessing what the customer wants to look at next), or would be inconceivable in terms of cost to look up (like data from outside providers), or needs a lot of magic behind the scenes to produce sensible answers (such as labeling things in images). That's where data scientists like me come in — we write the code, using machine learning and statistics (mostly machine learning at this point), that makes it happen. So my typical day looks like a lot of examining data and prototyping models. I'm also lucky in that I have a very solid excuse to look at the cutting edge of research in the domain I happen to be working in, especially because some models that involve a lot of data can take a while to train!"
Did you negotiate your salary?
"I negotiated both my starting salary and my current salary. My first company was firm on salary, but I did manage to negotiate a signing bonus, which really helped me with signing the lease for my first apartment. My second company was also pretty firm on salary — I did manage to negotiate another $5k in salary with an equal decrease in the amount of stock. I didn't really know what to ask for so much as made educated guesses from what my friends suggested and aimed a little higher than I thought I should aim for (so that we'd meet in the middle)."
Is your current job your “passion”? If not, what is?
"I'm not really sure I have a passion per se so much as a desire to live a happy and well-balanced life. I really enjoy my job right now — I find what I'm working on interesting and exciting, and my company encourages us to have a healthy work-life balance. But I'm not sure that my passion exists or lies in industry; my life goal, so much as I have one, is just to be able to do things that sustain my happiness: exercise, time with friends, cooking, time with my dog...simple things. Maybe I should aim higher, but I'm really not at the moment."
If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
"I don't think so. I think the mistakes I've made have been minor while allowing me to learn a lot, and I'm happy with the overall path I've taken. I'd like to have gotten into the data science field a little earlier, but I think the engineering work I did earlier gave me a really strong foundation for writing code, so I don't really regret it."
What professional advice would you give your younger self?
"Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man. I'm a queer woman, and it can be intimidating to sit in a room and get that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you're the only woman in the room. It's lonely when you start a new job and aren't sure whether it's safe/advisable to be out in the workplace. I've seen so many dudes with huge egos who just think they're the shit, and honestly, that gets you pretty far. I've been trying to not mitigate my knowledge and experience recently — for example, I try not to preface an idea with "I'm not sure this is right" or "Correct me if I'm wrong, but..." — and that's actually gotten me pretty far. As for being out, I'm in a place of relative privilege right now, and I think being unapologetically myself would hopefully do a little for the general visibility and acceptance of the queer community."
Are you a woman under 35 with a six-figure salary ($100,000+) and want to tell your story? Submit it here.