Paycheck to Paycheck

This 26-year-old tripled her salary to $100,000 by making a few small tweaks to her resume—here's how

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This 26-year-old changed careers from higher education to project management and nearly tripled her salary in the process.
Illustration by Gene Kim

Welcome to Paycheck to Paycheck, where workers with the same job across the U.S. share how much they earn, how they got to their salary and their best negotiating tips. Ready to join the salary transparency conversation? Apply to be a part of the series here.

In this installment, a 26-year-old shares how she makes $100,000 working as a project manager in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lisa never thought she'd ever earn six figures, let alone before her 30th birthday.

The 26-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, resident spent several years working in higher education and earned $34,000 as an assistant director at an area college, a position she tells CNBC Make It "sounds like it would be very fancy" but didn't pay her enough to move out of her parents' home.

In 2020, like many working professionals, she took a hard look at her career and thought of what she really wanted: more money, clear structure and a path to promotion. Higher ed no longer felt like a fit. So after doing some research online and networking on LinkedIn, she decided to pursue project management.

A year later, Lisa landed a project manager job with a manufacturing company and earns $100,000 a year, with an up to 20% bonus based on company performance.

Here's how Lisa, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym in order to speak freely about her pay, nearly tripled her salary by tweaking her resume.

She changed her old job titles (with permission)

As Lisa began looking at job descriptions, she realized she had a lot of experience leading projects in higher education, but never held the title of "project manager."

"I knew that it was going to be really hard getting my foot in the door with a non-project management experience in a corporate setting," Lisa says. "And so I had to think about non-traditional ways to go about it."

She could tailor the "experience" section of her resume to match the bullet points in job descriptions, but what would really make the difference would be to change her job titles.

So, she reached out to her previous bosses, told them about her new career goals and asked for permission to change her former job titles to "project manager."

For example, in one old job, she held the role of "program manager for the office of diversity, equity and inclusion." She called up her old boss and explained: "I ran events and managed these five programs. Would you feel comfortable if I say that I was the Office of Diversity's project manager?"

Her former supervisor agreed, and so she updated her resume. Lisa says this likely helped her resume get through applicant tracking systems, and better reflected how many years of project management experience she had.

"I would never feel comfortable just putting that on my resume," Lisa says. "But after talking to my references and hearing they were on board with it, that's when I felt it was a good route."

She asked LinkedIn contacts how much they earn

To push past the discomfort of discussing pay with others, Lisa remembered a previous experience where she learned a male colleague with the same job and qualifications as her was getting paid $10,000 more. She didn't want to be in the same position again.

So, as she took classes to earn a project management certification via Coursera, Lisa networked with other project managers with 10 to 15 years of experience and tapped them for negotiating advice.

While online aggregates like LinkedIn and Glassdoor could give her a range, Lisa says, "hearing other people's salaries helped me a lot more."

First, Lisa shared the numbers she was expecting to negotiate for, based on her research. Then, she'd ask the other person for a range of what they made in their first project manager job.

"What seemed to help was asking about a previous role as opposed to what they're making now," Lisa adds.

She didn't name a number

Lisa had always heard that job candidates shouldn't name the first number in an interview. But when HR pushed her to state her salary expectations, she gave a range ($80,000 to $110,000) and aimed higher than some of the averages she found online ($76,000).

HR asked her again for a specific number, "and I said, 'I really need to hear a little bit more about the role first,'" Lisa says.

After three rounds of interviews, Lisa got the offer: $100,000 with a 20% bonus based on the company's performance.

"When they said that number, I don't even remember what I said, I was in total shock," Lisa says. She accepted the offer as-is: "I was happy with it because I know it was the upper part of the range."

The money itself has been "life-changing," Lisa says. She started the job in October 2020 and by January 2021 used her new earning power, plus a performance bonus and money she saved while living with parents, to move out and buy her own house.

Had she stayed in higher education, Lisa says, "you don't make what I make now until you're almost at retirement age. Now, I have to shift my financial goals, because I never thought I would make six figure, let alone like before the age of 30."

Check out:

This 26-year-old negotiated his $120,000 salary by finding out how much his coworkers make—here’s how

From $70,000 to $120,000: Here's how much 3 software engineers earn around the U.S.

How much do others make for the same job? Here’s where employers are required by law to share salary ranges when hiring

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