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Field Report 5: The Salary Mission


I said yes. Yes, you can see a writing sample. Yes, I'm comfortable with computers. Yes, I would love to do some consulting work. Yes, I'd like to write up a laboratory manual. And even more things started to come down the pipe. I said yes, I'll write press releases for the university, yes, I'll cover a few science stories for your online magazine, and yes, I'll write a short piece on that new technology. I even said yes when I was offered a biweekly gig as a DJ at a local radio station.

I said yes with a vengeance. After 3 months of unemployment I was dying to get back to work. And I was almost there. It was so close I could almost taste it. Aaaah, the sweet flavor of gainful employment. The satisfaction of a job well done. Heaven can wait. Except for one small problem: my salary.

What kind of fee should I charge for my services? When I was a graduate student, a postdoc, and, I suppose, if I had ever become a faculty member, my salary was fixed. The university made the offer, and I could either take it or leave it. But in my new professional skin I was the one responsible for setting the fee for my work. And I didn't have the slightest idea what I was worth.

The first time one of my new employers asked me how much I charged for writing, I did the dumbest thing I could have done: I told him. Even worse, I gave him a number based on my salary at a previous job doing a different kind of work in a different state. And that turned out to be the salary that he offered me and the one I still work for. I have a nagging feeling that I could have gotten more if I had asked for it at the beginning, but it was too late. I didn't know it at the time, but I had just proved one of the fundamental laws of salary negotiation: Whoever mentions a number first, loses.

Two hours later, in the library, I read a book that told me this was a law. I also discovered the second law of salary negotiation: Do your research first, dummy. I don't know how the authors knew that I had already violated both of these laws, but they did and I had. I can only guess that I was not the first, nor will I be the last, person to end up working for the first number that falls out of their mouth.

But I also knew that that was only the first salary I would have to negotiate, and I was determined to do better next time. Because most of my work is writing, I turned to The Writer's Market. This is a huge book filled with all kinds of information about the profession of writing: magazine names, editor's addresses, and ... salary surveys.

Bingo! Just what I needed! Now I had access to the secret documents that revealed what employers were willing to pay for writers. And The Writer's Market had everything! The national average fee for creating a Web page, the national average hourly wage for a technical writer, and the national average rate per word for a magazine article.

The numbers were pretty encouraging. For example, the national average technical writer makes between $30 and $75 per hour. Using the universal hourly-wage-to-yearly-salary calculator (multiply by 2000), that translates to between $60,000 and $150,000 per year. Even after subtracting the cost of the fringe benefits--consultants pay their own--that is still a pretty reasonable wage. Unfortunately, this information was totally irrelevant to my situation. Not because I am not a technical writer--much of what I do falls into the category of technical writing--the problem is that those numbers are national averages. And the vast majority of technical writers work in the San Francisco Bay area and Redmond, Washington, where the salaries are, in a word, high. I live in a middle-sized western town with no appreciable high-tech industry. The salaries here are, in a word, low.

All my career books advised me to contact other people working in the same field and ask them how much they make. If you have never done this, you might be surprised how reluctant people are to reveal their salary. It is like asking a woman what she weighs. The most common answer to both questions is: "Well, you know, about average."

So I took a different tack. Whenever someone asked me how much I charged, I replied, "Well, what do you think this work is worth?" And if they gave me a number, I immediately added 50% and said, "Well, I usually get (fill in blank)." This method is very effective if you can do the math fast enough that your reply comes without a noticeable pause. I call it the Rapidly Applied Mathematics (RAM) approach. Try it, it works.

In the end, by accepting the lower average salaries in my city, and occasionally pushing the envelope with my RAM method, I managed to negotiate salaries for each of my jobs. I'm not getting rich, but I do make more than I did as a postdoc, and I really enjoy what I do. As a contract worker, I have to pay for my own health insurance, but I'll happily trade fringe benefits for a fun job. You can buy health insurance, but you can't buy co-workers with a sense of humor. At least, not on my salary.

But before I close this column, I'm going to answer the question that I'm sure is on your mind: "How much does the Spy make?" Knowing full well that this may be the only time you ever get a straight answer to this question, and that it may be the most useful information you will ever get--or the most irrelevant--here goes. I make $23.50 per hour. I make $25 per hour. I make $500 per article, I make $400 per article, I make $300 per article, I make $150 per article, and I make $125 per article. I make $0.50 per word, I make $1.00 per word, and some words I give out for nothing at all.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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