By Margaret Luebs
Oh my friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts. It's what you do with what you have left.
"I'm calling to tell you that you've been selected for the position of Technical Editor," the human resources specialist said. "The salary is $26,000, or would be if this were a full-time position. Of course, since this job is part-time, the salary will be half that."
I couldn't believe my ears. The salary range for the job was $26,000 to $60,000. With my PhD, I had assumed that my salary would be at the high end.
"Why is the salary so low?" I asked. Not the most effective bargaining move, but I was stunned.
"Management is not willing to negotiate on salary," she said, in a formal tone, which told me she was serious.
"But I'm earning more than that as a temp!" I protested. I had moved to Boulder, Colorado after earning my PhD in Linguistics, because I had decided to quit academia. I didn't want to be a professor — I wanted to live in a beautiful, exciting town and work as an editor. Editing jobs don't come along every day, so I had been doing temporary secretarial work for the past year, waiting for my break. "I won't be able to pay my bills."
"The job does include benefits," the HR woman reminded me.
And my temp job didn't. This job was with a research institute, exactly what I wanted. If they'd offered me a salary at the high end, I could have made it work. But this! The rent on my tiny apartment was $500 a month. I had student loans to pay, utilities, car insurance. I had to eat! "I'll have to think about it," I told the HR woman. She gave me three days.
There ensued a series of frantic phone calls to friends and family, asking for advice. "Could you do temp work the other half of the time?" my sister asked.
I didn't want to. I was so tired of secretarial work. But it seemed I had no choice. I went to my temp job supervisor and explained the situation. "Could you possibly keep me on part-time?"
"Of course! We don't want to lose you," Diana said. She was being kind. They had recently hired a permanent secretary and really didn't need me anymore. I often ended up doing impossibly low-level work, such as shredding documents. But, as mentioned before, I had to eat.
I called the HR woman back and told her I'd take the job, but I showed up for my first day of work in a bad mood. My new manager, Val, was friendly, but I kept thinking: this man thinks I am only worth $26,000 — no, $13,000! — a year.
The first thing we had to do was set my schedule. Val wanted me there during the middle of the day, maybe ten to three.
"That's not going to work," I said, humiliated. "I've still got my temp job, so I'll have to be here either mornings or afternoons, not both."
"Oh! I didn't realize you were going to continue working elsewhere," Val said.
"I have to," I said. "I can't afford to pay my bills otherwise."
"Ah yes, well..." his voice trailed off.
I liked my new office, with its view of the mountains, but I noticed that the sign on my door had just my name, no title. I also noticed that some of the engineers in the lab did have "Dr." on their nameplates. I asked the secretary about it.
"Some of the technical staff that don't have doctorates are offended when others refer to themselves as Doctor," she told me. "We thought it would be better if you didn't use your title."
I was thunderstruck. My advanced degree had gotten me the job, but now I had to pretend I didn't have one? In the academic world, I was always called Doctor, but of course I'd wanted to get out of academia. In the "real world," apparently the rules were different.
Even without the offending title, I found that many of the engineers were hostile to me. One of my first jobs was to assemble the (very overdue) annual report. I couldn't believe how rudely the project leaders responded to my requests for information.
So, my salary was low, my degree was a dirty little secret, everyone hated me, and I still had to do temp work in the afternoons. Why exactly had I taken this job? Vacation time, I reminded myself. Health insurance. And maybe if I stuck it out, things would get better. I knew the job had potential, if I could just fix everything that was wrong with it.
A month after I started working, the director of the institute retired. Afterwards, one of my co-workers called me into her office to talk. Julie explained that it had been the director, not Val, who set my salary. "There were other well-qualified applicants, so he low-balled you. Don't blame Val. His hands were tied." I took her words to heart and started being nicer to my boss.
Through the grapevine I learned that the previous technical editor had not had a good relationship with the engineers. So I set out to repair the damage by demonstrating that I valued and respected their work. Gradually they began to warm up to me.
I remember once asking an engineer named Roger if I could read a paper he'd written. "Sure, I'll make you a copy," he said, getting up.
"I'll do it," I said quickly. "I don't want to waste your time."
Roger gave me a look, and walked down the hall to the copier. "They pay me the same, whatever I do," he said, feeding the pages into the machine.
I thought about his words later that day, as I stood in front of the shredder at my temp job. Roger and I both had doctorates, and undoubtedly our talents could be put to better use than photocopying and shredding. But someone had to do those jobs, and there's never enough support staff. It's like the dishes. Someone has to do them, and it won't kill you.
Within the year, Julie announced her retirement, and Val distributed her responsibilities among the remaining front office staff. My new extra duties were pretty strange: I would now be managing the institute's property, vehicles, and field site. But I didn't think twice about accepting them. I was willing to do almost anything to go full-time.
Over the years, this willingness paid off. Gradually I was given more interesting and appropriate assignments, as well as a promotion, and I even got my title back. When I left the job to move to California, many of the engineers told me how much they'd enjoyed working with me.
I'm job-hunting now, after staying home with my kids for a few years. I know I may have to do something menial in the beginning, and my starting salary may be low. But I also know that, given the chance, I can prove myself worthy of more.