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 senior scientist in Chicago. Previously, we spoke to a data scientist in Cambridge, MA, a tech product manager in Dallas, and a marriage and family therapist in the South Bay Area, CA.
Job: Senior Scientist, Healthcare
Location: Chicago, IL
Degree: Ph.D., M.S., B.S. (Biomedical Engineering)
First Salary: $79,040
Current Salary: $110,000
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"I have always had a deep curiosity about the world around me. I especially liked to spend time with my father while he was working with electronic devices — I was mesmerized by his ability to understand how things operate in so much detail. Science and research became a passion for me from a young age, and I knew I would pursue a career that would satisfy my love of learning. At that point in my life, I recognized that the clinical-care side of a medical career didn’t interest me, so I focused on following my passions with a vague goal of becoming a 'scientist' and decided to study biomedical engineering."
What did you study in college?
"I have a Ph.D., M.S., and B.S. in biomedical engineering. My research had a heavy focus on biomaterials, nanotechnology, and chemistry."
Did you have to take out student loans?
"I was extremely fortunate to have my parents cover my undergraduate tuition. To make things easier on them, I went to a state school, where we could take advantage of in-state tuition. I also spent some time applying for external scholarship funding to keep costs down. My graduate tuition for my Ph.D. and M.S. degrees was fully funded by my doctoral program, and I also received a modest stipend during that time."
Have you been working at this company since you graduated from college?
"No. I became very sick during my first year with this company. After two hospitalizations in the span of a month, I was forced to resign my contract and focus on my health. I was out of work for the next year. It was a difficult and trying period. My marriage crumbled, and the future was full of uncertainties. My doctors and I finally had a breakthrough, and I was starting to recover both physically and mentally. I lived with my parents for a while, until I was ready to be on my own again. My divorce was finalized. I recognized that I still needed time to heal. I wasn’t ready to get back into a demanding career, but I knew I would feel uplifted if I had something to keep me busy.
"I eventually found a simple customer-support role in a loosely related technical field that was barely enough to live off of. I was paid an annual salary of $35,360. I told myself I would give myself a year before I restarted my career search. I was aware it could be difficult to explain this strange job gap/history, but I needed to be kind to myself, to heal and ensure that I could stay healthy. I lasted nine months before I was dying for something more challenging. I took my time job hunting, because it was very important to me to find something both that I could love and that would give me a healthy work/life balance. The prospect of going back into pharma, with its long commute and monotonous day-to-day duties, really encouraged me to expand my job search and to consider alternative career paths. Eventually, I found a senior scientist role in healthcare that ticked all my boxes and fulfilled my need for intellectual stimulation."
How would you explain your day-to-day role at your job?
"As a senior scientist for a nonprofit healthcare company, I evaluate medical technologies and clinical research. I use this clinical evidence to review and author medical policies. I also interact with and engage leaders in industry and government with respect to emerging technologies. I regularly get to dive deep into research, which keeps me happy. I also feel a certain sense of integrity, connection, and pride with my work based on its impact on healthcare consumers. As a heavy healthcare consumer myself, it’s important to me to 'get it right.'"
Did you negotiate your salary?
"I did not negotiate my first salary after I completed my Ph.D. I felt the offer was generous and was intimidated by the prospect of negotiating. I was simply relieved to have an offer, start my career, and prove my worth. It was also a contract position, which is common for most available entry-level R&D positions in my area. For my current role, I felt the salary was already generous. However, I had prepared quite a bit and had read all the advice on salary negotiations — the first offer is never their best. I decided to be brave and negotiate for a signing bonus. To my surprise, they approved without countering. Lesson learned!"
Is your current job your “passion”? If not, what is?
"My current job is a bit of a career shift for me, and I’m continuing to settle into it. But yes, in many respects it is a dream role that allows me to harness my research skills to ensure that technologies that promote meaningful health outcomes get the recognition they need."
If you could, would you change anything in your career trajectory?
"Interestingly, it’s not lost on me that I have always pursued knowledge with my heart and not my brain. I had vague ideas regarding what I could do with my Ph.D. but never really had a concrete plan or direction. I don’t really believe in regrets. Life always has the ability to throw you some curveballs and shake things up. That has certainly been my experience. I have been told that I am resilient my entire life, but I have never liked this descriptor. It reminds me of the suffering, and I don’t want to feel like a victim. I prefer to focus on growth and vitality. In recent years, forming connections has become important to me. I have always been an introvert, so the idea of making myself potentially vulnerable on purpose to do so is kind of a foreign concept, but it has really helped me both personally and professionally. I do wish I had discovered this magic earlier."
What professional advice would you give your younger self?
"Be kind to yourself. I have always been an overachiever and a bit of a perfectionist. There is no sense in punishing oneself twice for any perceived shortcomings or struggles, whether or not they are in your control. I think this would have allowed me to have a healthier work/life balance. I suspect that taking regular pauses for self-reflection would have brought more clarity and value to my life and relationships, and potentially my physical and mental health. When I hit rock bottom, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to be productive or 'valuable' again. Rebuilding my perspective and starting with some basic self-kindness has given me priceless confidence to pursue my dreams and excel professionally in a healthy, balanced manner."
Are you a woman under 35 with a six-figure salary ($100,000+) and want to tell your story? Submit it here.