hen I was 22, I moved to New York to work at a magazine. I always imagined I’d follow that particular path, but I assumed it would include writing. Instead, it involved creating page layouts, and it took another five years before I learned that not writing made me feel agitated and bored. Until then, I job-hopped, moving from midtown to downtown, from publishing to marketing, from New York to Los Angeles. As I did this, I encountered a lot of words of caution: “Don’t leave until you’ve been there a year or you won’t have anyone to call for a reference.” “Don’t make a lateral move.” “Sure, that job pays barely more than minimum wage, but you have to pay your dues.”
Every time I tried to remedy my negative feelings about my career, my head swirled with these dos and don’ts. It’s hard to pinpoint where those voices came from. Partially, they were from the cohort of other recent grads I’d met in the city. Other messages about shoulds and shouldn’ts came from snippets of conversations I overheard about what others had done “wrong.”
But it wasn’t until I quit my full-time design job to be a writer that I started to see those career myths for what they were: myths. Jessica Bacal, author of Mistakes I Made at Work, said she thinks the “gospel” of career advice gets oversimplified as it travels through the telephone lines of our culture. Bacal also told me women might be more likely to absorb these cautionary tales than men. “Maleness is privileged,” she said. “When you’re part of a less privileged group, you have to be more aware of what’s going on around you in order to succeed.”
Ultimately, the jobs I left after less than a year weren’t the scorch marks on my resume I thought they’d be — no potential employer has ever asked me why I left this place or that place after nine months. Many of the doubts that filled my head when I was a graphic designer in New York aren’t at all relevant to my current career as a writer in Los Angeles.
Now, I’m proud of the way my narrative has evolved and wish I’d spent less time mentally berating myself early on. This perspective shift has made me wonder: What have other women experienced in this regard? What career advice or myths have they been told that proved wrong? Below, 13 women shared their answers.
Interviewing and Negotiating
“You Shouldn’t Leave Gaps on Your Resume”
“I rejected the myth that a resume gap is a negative thing. After leaving a corporate job that wasn’t a fit, I moved to a new city. For almost a year, I didn’t have a job I wanted to put on my resume. I gave myself the space to refocus and was leveraged into some really unique opportunities that ended up being job references when I later switched industries. For example, I assisted a large-scale photography project, began volunteering at a community darkroom, and the mother of the family I nannied for ended up connecting me to my current employer. When I began interviewing at the end of the year, I had a compelling story to tell that supported my commitment to taking a new career path. Nearly every person [that] interviewed [me] conveyed a sense of interest in and respect for the time I’d taken off.”
—Lauren, 27, Portland, public radio
“You Can’t Negotiate a Salary in a Government Position”
“I left a law firm to go to a government job and I was told you can’t negotiate a salary for a government job. And I was on the phone with a recruiter and I said, ‘By the way, is there any room for negotiation here?’ And she took a look at my resume and experience and was able to actually change my salary by a pretty significant amount. It was probably only a few thousand dollars, but it was certainly significant at the time. I learned later that you can bump someone up based on private sector experience in the federal government hiring process, but everyone always told me there was no such thing. For me that made a big difference because where you enter in the federal government affects your salary for the rest of your career. Over time it made a huge difference for me to start at that higher level.”
—Deborah, 51, Washington, D.C., pharmaceuticals
“Always Go in with an Aggressive Negotiation Strategy”
“I actually find that all the advice out there about how to advocate for a raise doesn’t really fit my circumstances. What exactly do I deserve and why? What accomplishments have I achieved to get there? It all feels like this script that could never actually come out of my mouth. My boss and our executive team have so much fatigue from people asking for raises that I actually find I am much better served to just do an amazing job and be very selective about how or when I say anything. Even though my boss is a representation of the company, she’s human, too.
The times I have talked to my boss [about my salary] don’t feel so high stakes. They have just been conversations about my growth at the company and the direction we both see me moving in. Yes, my salary is a part of that conversation, but not the whole thing. Plus, I find when I focus on the bigger picture rather than just salary, it’s a two-way street. I take more pride in my role in the company, am motivated to work harder and can see the impact I have more clearly.”
—Olivia, 27, Portland, digital marketing
“You Should Never Leave a Secure Job”
“About 18 years into my career in education, just before I turned 40, I had the opportunity to work for a nonprofit that was doing amazing work. But the nonprofit didn’t have the same retirement savings plan as the education system. I had a lot of people saying, ‘You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to leave the security. Go do work like that when you retire.’
I am so grateful that I didn’t follow that advice, because I did go to work at the nonprofit, and I did the kind of work that impacted educators across the entire state of Arizona rather than just the teachers at my school. I had the opportunity to make a bigger impact on education policy and shape what was going on in our state. I ended up having the energy, time and support to get my Ph.D., which might never have happened had I stayed in the district system.
I did that for 10 years, and now I’m back in the district system with an entirely different perspective. Being in the twilight of my time in the district, I have the chance to inspire younger teachers to see beyond their classroom. I think about how helpful it would have been to have someone help me see that. Plus, my 401(k) from the nonprofit is better for me in the long run than my pension, and I have both now. So, in the end, even the warnings I heard weren’t based on real information. They were based on fear.”
—Kimberly, 52, Phoenix, education
“Nonprofits Don’t Pay Well”
“Working at a nonprofit, I have been consistently told that I should expect to be underpaid and undervalued. This message hasn’t necessarily been given to me by anyone working in the nonprofit sector. Actually, I’ve almost always heard this from career counselors, professors, friends, friends’s parents and people I’ve sought advice from outside of it.
The fact is, the nonprofit sector is the third-largest employer in the country, and this is an outdated belief. Nonprofit jobs don’t often come with the perks other sectors provide, like meals out with clients, expense accounts, trips or even small things like snacks in the kitchen or Silicon Valley-esque ping-pong-table-equipped break rooms. But I’ve found that good, worthwhile nonprofits are willing to pay their employees competitive salaries, offer benefits, etc. It was only when I went in with the attitude of not expecting much during salary negotiations that I was willing to settle for less. ”
—Aviva, 26, Los Angeles, nonprofit
Paying Your Dues
“If You Want a Job, Do an Unpaid Internship”
“The summer before college, I was an unpaid intern for 40+ hours a week. Don’t get me wrong, the internship was exciting and I learned a lot, but I did it all for free. I did real work and made real contributions. I wasn’t just fetching coffee and answering the phones. While I think these opportunities are great ways to get your foot in the door, meet new people and learn more about an industry you may not have touched on in a college classroom, I strongly believe that interns of all kinds deserve to be paid. Additionally, I did not find that interning there opened doors within the company, as everyone said it would. While I made plenty of connections, none turned into a job offer, and many of the people I worked with ignored [my] emails … about openings I saw within the company. I wouldn’t change that summer for anything, and I don’t regret working as hard there as I did, but it does put into perspective how those internships aren’t a make-or-break like everyone says they are.”
—Briana, 28, New York City, marketing
“Start at the Bottom and Work Your Way Up”
“Over and over again when I was growing up, my parents reiterated to me that I would never make any real money until I was ‘older,’ meaning in my thirties. They always insinuated that my twenties would be filled with paying my dues, so to speak, and that I should be okay with that. I actually remember hearing this from a college professor at one point, too. I’m really proud of the amount of money I’m finally making now — and I never could have reached this point if I’d stayed at a full-time job where I had to ‘climb the ladder.’ Still today, my parents say they’re proud of me to other people, but one-on-one they honestly guilt trip me a lot for starting to make six figures when I was 25. They almost made me feel ashamed of it, as if it was undeserved. Deep down, I think they’re a little bitter because they took a different career path — one that was more accepted in their generation.”
—Taylor, 26, New York, advertising
“How Late You Work = How Much You Care”
“I started my career in investment banking, which is a culture that prides itself on working hard and putting in long hours. It shaped me in a lot of ways and one in particular was that I believed you had to put in long hours to be successful and achieve. When I started my own business, I brought this belief with me. I put in a lot of hours, as most entrepreneurs do. I had flexibility, which was great, but I worked early mornings, late nights and all weekend. I equated long hours with being successful and getting a lot done. I also did everything myself. My business was my baby, and I believed that if I wanted something done right, I should do it myself.
As my business grew, I wanted to hire someone to join the team. I knew I needed help and I knew I was holding back the business from growing, but I always found a reason or excuse not to do it. Then I got pregnant and I wanted to take maternity leave, so I had a new hard deadline to finally hire someone and delegate a lot of my work. Bringing a marketing analyst onto my team has been absolutely life-changing … I now get even more joy from my work because I’m doing the things that are energizing to me — my core gifts.
Having my son has taught me another important lesson: how to do the right work, not all the work. Wanting to spend time with him has taught me ruthless prioritization and strategy because I no longer view my time as an endless resource (which it never was!).”
—Ashley, 32, Hoboken, personal finance
Letting Your Passion Guide You
“Follow Your Dreams, and the Money Will Come”
“I got the advice that if you wanted to be a writer, you had to live life. The writers I admired were travelers … They had affairs and adventures and they just lived life fully, and in their work you could see the depth and expansiveness of their experiences. I spent the first decade or more of my adult life having jobs that didn’t mean a lot to me, but I collected a paycheck while I focused on writing. I met my husband and traveled through France, lived in New York, got divorced and traveled Europe.
In the meantime, I kept sending things to journals and finished novels to agents, but what I wasn’t doing, which I am still paying for, was building a career as a writer. What I’ve learned is that you need to be meeting people, and going to certain schools and conferences and residencies, and rubbing elbows with the literary community. The people who get their work published are part of that community.
I think one of the myths around work and career is, ‘Follow your dreams, and the money will follow.’ But the reality is you also have to be doing some practical things. I think in most industries, there’s an aspect that is not about the dream but about the work and the connections. And not neglecting those. Striking a balance between them.”
—Laura, 47, Los Angeles, fiction writing and education
“A Bad Test Score Will Hold You Back”
“I always knew I wanted to go into urology when I was in medical school, but urology is one of the top five most competitive fields in medicine. I got a lower-than-average score on a test called Step 1, which is one of the biggest factors residencies look at when deciding whether to accept you. I went to talk to one of the urologists at my school, and he pointed out that the average urology score was about 40 points higher than mine. I think that was the first time anyone actively tried to discourage me from that field.
But I ignored his advice, did my rotations and applied for the urology residency match. [When] I didn’t match the first year, I thought about changing directions or giving up, but I knew I wasn’t going to feel satisfied settling for a career that in my heart I didn’t really want. So I sought the advice of the program director at my current residency program, who said that he wanted to give me a chance at doing a research year. I decided to take the chance and move away from home for the first time to do it.
After my research year and my exposure to the urology program, I ended up matching as a urology resident the following year and now I am in my fourth year of residency. I’ll be graduating in 2020. I could have taken an easier route or just become another kind of doctor. But I was going to be a urologist or I wasn’t going to be anything.”
—Izzy, 30, Memphis, medicine
Playing the Game
“You Should Never Go Home Before Your Boss”
“One myth I’ve thought about is this idea that you should leave the office only after your boss has left. I think there may be some truth in the importance of that at the very beginning of a new job, but I’ve never found that sticking around and looking busy has really contributed to any promotion or benefit; it’s just aggravating. When I’m done with my work for the day, I leave. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve never been paid such a great salary, so come 5 p.m., see ya. Anyway, I know that young, green employees feel they have to really play that game, but I’m 30 and over it.”
—Roxy, 30, Toronto, journalism
“If You Work Hard, You’ll Have Leverage When Balancing Work and Motherhood”
“I was brought up to think that if you work hard, put in the time and be professional, that will be reflected and you’ll be rewarded. At my old company, that was not something that I saw happening. One of the managers was the head of one of the projects we were working on. She had been working there for years. Hers was one of the most successful projects in the entire company. She went on maternity leave, had a baby, and then she was like, ‘Well, I have a baby now, so can I keep my job and work from home doing the same thing?’ And upper management said no, even though they let other people work from home all the time.
That blew me away because I was thinking to myself, ‘This is a woman who has made you so much money and has the most successful project in your portfolio, and you’re so quick to give that up because she wants to work from home?’ So she had to choose between her family and her career. She chose her family and left the company. It didn’t matter what her resume said or which awards she had won. I had always thought that if I went above and beyond, I’d be empowered in some way in the workplace and gain some leverage. But when I saw that, it made me rethink that.”
—Danine, 30, Chicago, software
“Don’t Get Involved in Office Politics — Just Worry About Yourself”
“When I finished my doctoral program and got my first job offer at a university as a tenure track faculty member, my advisor told me to stay out of departmental politics. He told me that if I kept my nose to the grindstone and focused on my own work, I would advance my career … I followed his advice for the first three years.
But now I look back and I see it as the advice that might be given by a man to another young man. Women can’t advance necessarily [so] easily … [For example], at the time, I had a baby and I was pumping at work, and my female grad student said she just had a baby, too, and she said she’d been pumping in her car. I said she could use my office, but I also asked her why she didn’t use her office. She said she shared an office with all these other grad students and didn’t want to ask for her own.
So I started to survey the culture for women in the department. Now I’m really involved and I’ve been working at the level of university administration with the deans and such to figure out ways to improve the climate for women. If I’d followed the advice of my advisor, I would have ignored all of that and continued on my path and been a good researcher and worker. And I realized … if I just did that, I wasn’t going to change anything for anyone coming up the pipeline.”
—Simi, 44, Philadelphia, academia
Sarah Davidson is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter here.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.