I Make $260,000 And I'm Still Paying Off Student Loans

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.
Today, we chat with a 29-year old law associate from San Diego, CA. Previously, we spoke with a 29-year old video editor from Los Angeles, CA, a 35-year old attorney from Birmingham, AL and a 31-year old Design Strategist in Denver, CO.
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“How did you land that job?” “What was your major in college?” “What has your career trajectory been like?” These are just some of the questions that pop up regularly in the Money Diaries comment sections — especially diaries from women with six-figure salaries. Given the level of curiosity, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the professional lives of women making over $100,000 a year. In speaking with them, we hope to shed some more light on their dreams and goals, educational backgrounds, and salary trajectories. After all, though career success should not be determined only by salary, the story of how others have managed to make six figures — and how they feel now that they do — is something most of us want to hear. Plus, it's a way to empower other women in their own journeys.
Job: Law Associate
Age: 29
Location: San Diego, CA
Degree: Bioengineering with a focus in Cellular Engineering
Salary: $260,000, plus bonus (last year, the bonus was $64,000)
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Initially, I wanted to be a doctor. I've always been fascinated by the human body and I knew I wanted to do something that had to do with fixing people. Then, in about 4th grade I did a "what I want to be when I grow up" project and discovered biomedical engineering. I have no idea how I even learned that it was a possible career, but from then on, I was focused on biomedical engineering. That didn't change until my junior year of college, when I found myself realizing that I didn't want to work in a lab for the next seven to ten years to get my PhD and then finally get my first professional job in industry.
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What did you study in school/college/university?
I majored in bioengineering and focused on cellular engineering. At my university, bioengineering was a very interdisciplinary major. We took the same lower division chemistry and biology classes as the pre-med students, but also all of the physics, mathematics, and computer science courses with the other engineering students. Upper division classes were more specialized. Bioengineers apply engineering principles to solve biological and medical issues, so rather than learning fluid dynamics using the example of water flowing through a pipe, my BioE class used the example of blood flowing through a capillary.
You received a scholarship for your education, what sort of scholarship was it and what was the process like to apply for and receive it?
I had several merit scholarships that covered a good portion of my undergrad tuition, and my generous parents paid for the rest. I chose to go to a public school to keep costs low, but it also happened to be one of the best engineering schools, so it was as much an academic decision as a financial one. My parents have always emphasized education, and they were happy to pay for my inexpensive undergrad. My sister got about the same amount of money from our parents for her undergraduate education, but went to a more expensive private school and therefore took out loans to cover the difference.
Law school was a different story. I took out loans to cover the full cost, including living expenses. I will be paying those off for another three and a half years, despite how aggressive my repayment plan is. I pay back $3,000/month and put about half of my take-home bonus toward my loans last year. It would probably make more financial sense to find a higher-yield investment and put my extra money into that rather than paying down my relatively low-interest loans, but I come from a very frugal family and the idea of having this debt weighing over me keeps me up at night.
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Have you been working at this job since you graduated college?
I went to law school immediately after I graduated with my BSE in Bioengineering. I started interning in laboratories during high school and did that during my summers in college as well. Once I realized I didn't want to work at a lab bench for the rest of my life, I switched from interning at university labs and focused on legal jobs.
During my senior year of college I interned at a non-profit legal defense fund, and in the summer before law school I worked as a law clerk for a small firm in a city near my undergrad. Then during my 1L summer (the summer between the first and second year of law school), I interned for a federal judge in the city where my school was located. During my 2L summer, I followed the typical biglaw route and was a summer associate at a large law firm. My first professional job was as an associate at a large law firm right after I graduated from law school and passed the bar exam.
How much did you get paid at your first job?
My first professional job (as a first year associate) paid $160,000. I was 25 at the time. Now, first year associates at large law firms make between $180,000 and $190,000. But it's important to remember that there are far more students graduating from law schools than there are biglaw jobs. People shouldn't go into law school just assuming that they will get a job paying $180,000 or $190,000 upon graduation, or that they even want that job in the first place.
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If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
I wouldn't. Sometimes I wish I had gotten my PhD or at least a Master's in Biomedical Engineering before I went to law school because I honestly love school, but that would have just delayed my eventual entrance into the legal profession. I use my undergraduate education nearly every day in my career, but my job doesn't require a PhD-level understanding of most concepts. When the science is over my head, I rely on experts and other attorneys at my firm who have that expertise.
One choice I made that I think was useful for my career is that although I got married relatively young (25, right when I graduated from law school), I waited until I had proven myself at my firm before expanding our family. I've been married for five years and we are about to have our first child. I can't predict how this will change my career, but I feel like I am on solid ground with my firm at this point.
Is your current job your “passion?”
It is, though I didn't know that until recently. I knew that being a patent litigator would check several boxes for me: I use my science background so all that hard work hasn't gone to waste, I get to spend a large amount of my time reading and writing, and my work brings social interaction (though sometimes that interaction is a bit adversarial — I'm a litigator after all).
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Now that I have started to take on more stand-up roles, I feel like I am really coming into my own in my career. I now understand that I am a trial lawyer through and through. I thrive in high-pressure situations and I love being the one to present the argument. When I look to the future, I see myself continuing on this path.
Of course, there are times when I look to some of my law school classmates who are truly advancing social justice and I wonder whether I should have followed a public service route instead. And there are times when I look to my undergraduate classmates who now have PhDs and are doing research that may change the world. In those instances, I do feel as though I took an easier way out, or even sold out for a higher salary.
I have to remember that each of us followed the path that works for us. I do pro-bono work that makes a difference in the lives of individuals — even if I'm not out there making policy changes like my friends at non-profits or the ACLU. I defend the science that my former classmates are developing, so that they can get research grants or other funding. It's sometimes tough to know that I'm not the one making the discovery, but I do believe that I'm part of the support system for those who are advancing science and technology.
What professional advice would you give your younger self?
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Take a break every once in a while. Defer law school for one year and use the time to travel and work odd jobs just to get by. One of my biggest regrets is that I was never able to study abroad or travel because I was always so focused on getting the next internship and doing the right research that I burned out of bioengineering before I even graduated. I am trying not to do that now with my career because I'm in it for the long haul. I have another 30+ years ahead of me, so sometimes I need to slow down and decompress. Now that my husband and I are starting a family, that will be even more important.
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Are you a woman under 35 with a six-figure salary and want to tell your story? Submit it here.
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