my two cents

How Can I Get a Job That Pays More Than $40,000 a Year?

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My whole life, I’ve only ever wanted to take jobs where I can see the positive impact I have on people, and I think I’m paying for it now. I previously taught special education and now I’m working for a big nonprofit that pays me in the low $40,000s, even though I have a master’s degree.

My personal life is kind of a money suck, too. I live in a big city as a woman who never learned to be good with what little money I do have, so I’ll blow through my grocery budget at the thrift store and the bookstore. On top of that, I’m in the middle of a defamation lawsuit stemming from a really traumatic work situation from a few years ago. I found a sponsoring nonprofit to cover some of my legal bills, thank God, but the case looks like it’s going to drag on for somewhere between six months and umpteen years because of COVID. My therapy bills are adding up, too. 

As of now, I’m about $25,000 in debt (from personal loans and credit cards). On the upside, I have a wonderful fiancé, and I’m taking on side gigs wherever I can. I currently work three jobs — my full-time job at the nonprofit, tutoring gigs, and a freelance writing job. It’s exhausting, and I’m still not breaking even. I’m at my wit’s end here.

I’ve had a few interviews recently with nonprofits and a tech company, but I make it to the second or third round and then they pass. I can’t tell if I’m being paranoid, but I’m probably saying something wrong or they’re put off by my hair (it’s blue). If I can’t get a better job, we won’t be able to pay rent soon. I just got hit with a $2,300 bill (which, of course, I can’t pay) for an MRI I got before the pandemic that the hospital assured me was covered by insurance.

What I can do to land a job that’ll pay me what I’m worth? I know I’m decent at teaching, writing, researching, and people-facing types of things. But I feel like my skills don’t translate into money at all, at least not the way I’m selling them, and I don’t know how to reframe them in a particularly lucrative way. I also have serious trouble saving money. I want to get paid more so that I can get some work-life balance. I’m open-minded about my career path and I’m willing to switch industries if that’s what it takes. I’m 30; I feel like all of my friends are living like adults and I never got past the intern phase. What can I do? 

When I was in my late 20s, I got mired in a career-money sinkhole similar to yours. I knew I’d outgrown the job I was in, but I couldn’t see the next step. I didn’t want any of my bosses’ jobs (they seemed about as miserable as I was), and my prospects for pay growth weren’t promising. I was working all the time, saving no money, and not sure what to do about it.

There’s no single fix for this flavor of ennui, but what helped me push through it was to get clear on what kind of work I wanted to do (freelance, ultimately) and then reorganize my life around that transition. This involved finding a new job — one with its own set of flaws and disappointments, but also a lot more autonomy — and spending late nights on freelance assignments. I straddled my full-time and freelance roles for over a year until I had enough work and savings to go freelance full-time. It hasn’t been all roses, but I feel much more in control of my career now, and I make considerably more money than I used to.

I’m not saying you need to do multiple jobs, work independently, or copy any of the stuff I did; in fact, I hope you don’t, because it was an exhausting slog. What you should do, however, is come up with your own personal agenda. This is different from a goal, says Yesel Yoon, a psychologist who specializes in career transitions and job uncertainty. “Don’t just ask yourself, ‘What do I want to achieve?’” she explains. “Instead, look at the qualities or traits of the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live.” That’ll give you a blueprint to start planning.

It helps to have others to look to. Like most people, I never had formal mentors, but I did know people I respected professionally, and I studied them closely. One thing they all had in common was that they had no qualms about chasing their own interests. They had a lot of conviction in the importance of their work, and they never seemed to worry that they should be doing something else. By watching them, I learned a lot about the difference between self-examination and self-doubt.

In your case, I can understand why this is particularly difficult. Getting harassed at work (and now being at the mercy of a slow and convoluted legal system) is a truly mind-bending experience that can warp your sense of agency. It also takes a huge toll on your time, energy, and other resources that I’m sure you’d prefer to put toward other things. I’m sorry that it happened, and I’m glad you’re getting legal help, seeing a therapist, and in a supportive relationship. Keep those things up — and fight that hospital bill like hell. Even if your insurance won’t cover it, sometimes hospitals will waive fees if you explain that you can’t afford them. At the very least, you can go on a payment plan.

Your next step is to get more specific about your direction. “I see a lot of people who get stuck in thinking that if they do what they love, everything else will follow,” says Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite, a psychologist, career counselor, and executive coach. “Especially coupled with the current job market, that mindset often leads to people getting stuck in gig work without structures in place that make them solid financially.”

You seem to have a handle on your strengths — you’re good with people, a strong communicator, conscientious, empathetic. But these qualities are also vague. Without a concrete objective, you’re sort of like a bloodhound with no scent to follow, pacing in circles. “It’s important to discern between your skills and your interests,” says Horsham-Brathwaite. “I would suggest that you spend time getting really clear on what matters to you and directing your energy into one or two areas that match it instead of trying a bunch of things and seeing what lands.”

Focusing your skills and interests will also help you monetize them. So will evaluating what they’ve already produced. “The question of how you can get to the next level is tough to answer unless you understand where you’re at,” says Yoon. “You’ve listed a bunch of things that aren’t working, but it would be worth doing a postmortem of what you can learn from them, so that you can reap the benefits of these experiences even if they weren’t great.”

I once interviewed an entrepreneur who told me that at the end of every week, she would write down all the things she’d done. That way, she kept her eye on the progress she’d made rather than wallowing in her to-do list. It also had the added benefit of giving her a ready list of stuff to brag about when investors asked about her company (or, in your case, during job interviews).

I know that “making a positive impact on people” seems hard to quantify, but it is valuable (for what it’s worth, it sounds like you’d be a great manager). It may help to look at what your boss, or your boss’s boss, likes to highlight about your company’s performance — whatever it is, you helped that happen. Put it on your résumé and describe your role in it. Talk about it during your next interview. Ham it up.

Setting aside time for self-evaluation can also help you get paid more, either at your current job or a future, better one. “I recommend that people get in the habit of doing a six-month career review where they ask themselves: ‘What am I gaining from my work environment? What am I contributing? What do I want to learn or develop?’” says Horsham-Brathwaite. “Then the question is, ‘What is my plan?’ Maybe you can develop new skills by taking on a greater role, even if it’s just volunteering to do something new that will stretch your skill set. Alternatively, if you don’t see opportunity for growth, try to find some people you can talk to — even for a ten-minute phone call — and ask about how they got where they are.”

While you’re at it, write down what you’re spending your money on, too. It may not be much these days, but that’s all the more reason to start tracking your cash flow now, when it’s simpler. Keeping records forces you to be honest with yourself, and it also reveals patterns you may not have been aware of. I do it to be accountable to myself and also to learn what works (setting up website blockers so I don’t shop) and what doesn’t (keeping my credit card information saved online). Once you feel confident in your spending plan, you can set up a timeline for paying your debt back — it’s a matter of taking a daunting task and breaking it into very small pieces.

As for your salary: It does seem like you have the experience and the skills to earn more money than you’re making, and I’m glad you’re prioritizing that. It’s part of painting the picture of what you want. But again, be specific and strategic. Look up roles that you believe you’re qualified for and see how much they pay, on average. Even more importantly, look at the roles above them that you could be promoted to. What sort of track do you want to be on? How are you going to make sure you aren’t shortchanged when you’re eventually offered a new job?

I understand why you’re throwing spaghetti at the career wall — we’re in a recession, you’re ready for a change, and you’re getting desperate for a better paycheck. It’s smart to cast a wide net and keep an open mind. I’m glad you’re interviewing and keeping an open mind. It may take a while for the right opportunity to arise. But don’t spread yourself too thin, and remember to stay focused on what you can control — your spending, your professional network, your performance at your current job, your vision for your future. With so much uncertainty right now, there’s no extra room for self-doubt.

How Can I Get a Job That Pays More Than $40,000 a Year?