Today I’ve got another exciting and amazing entry in my award-nominated Breadwinning, Six Figure Women series. You won’t want to miss this one! Megan has a successful career at a pharmaceutical company helping manage new cancer drugs, and has worked hard at making money since she was a kid. She has a fascinating career story that won’t be what you expected. Let’s learn more about her!
Tell us about yourself!
My name is Megan Dunn. My husband and I live in a suburb of Chicago and have been together for 17 years, having met our freshmen year in college. We have two boys: Theo who is 8, and Winston who is 16 months. In my spare time I love to do anything creative! I have a background in art and since my current job has absolutely nothing to do with art, I enjoy having it as hobby. Lately, my creativity has come in handy fixing up and decorating a house we bought last summer that needs some serous TLC.
I work as a Clinical Study Manager for a pharmaceutical company. I manage global drug trials for new oncology (cancer) compounds. Basically, once a potential new drug has passed through pre-clinical testing (such as animal studies), we are responsible for bringing it to a limited number of humans to test the safety of the product and ensure it is effective.
Let’s get some details – how much money do you make, and how long did it take you to get there? And are you a millionaire or are you on the way?
I love that you ask point-blank how much money I make. This seems to be such a taboo topic that people tip-toe around, almost as if your worth as a human is somehow connected to your take home pay. I make around $150,000 per year depending on how much of bonus I earn. My base salary comes in just over $130,000.
I could say that I starting my career straight out of college at 21, but in reality I started working when I was 11 as a babysitter. Learning how to earn money and the value of what you are earning is something I had a good handle on early in life. I didn’t have parents that bought me things. There was no money, or if there was, there didn’t seem to be enough to buy me clothes that fit (I remember gets bags of hand-me downs from my aunt and struggling to put outfits together).
I was constantly ridiculed in junior high for wearing pants that risen above my ankles as I had grown, or wearing shirts that obviously had been washed a thousand times. I was even stuck with hand-me-down bras from my aunt that fit so poorly and were so lumpy that kids would I think I stuffed them (that was a particularly fun year of bullying!). As soon as I thought I was old enough, I started handing out flyers in the neighborhood offering my babysitting services. I taught myself at a young age how to be self-sufficient when it came to finances.
How did you get started in the workforce?
My first professional job was working as a Mental Health Professional. I was 21 and it was my first “real” job out of college. The job required a degree in Psychology and paid just over $11/hr. Yes, I could have made more money if I had just continued bartending, but I wanted to start a career and I knew that starting at the bottom was ok.
Plus, I had enough of a savings at that point (having worked at least 40 hours a week among multiple jobs during college) to feel comfortable not making a viable living right off the bat. My job was to manage the cases of adults with mental illness who required group living. They were severely ill individuals who battled all forms of schizophrenia. I was spat on, had feces thrown at me, clawed at, and has all kinds of rude and demeaning comments projected my way on a daily basis. I lasted about 3 months.
How did you get from where you started to where you are now?
I had earned a full academic scholarship to the college I attended for my undergrad. I was allowed to take as many hours of course work per semester as I wanted within 4 years. Always appreciating an opportunity to get a good bang for my buck, I decided to do a double major in Art and Psychology and squeeze in a semester abroad (the scholarship also covered tuition for this). My goal was to become an Art Therapist. However, my senior year Art Therapy class changed my mind on that plan. It was led by two instructors who also owned a local yarn shop. We started each class by drawing our feelings. I just couldn’t…
So, a career in psychology it was then! I tried to get into grad school for psychology, but an excited phone call to mom about getting into a program ended with her bluntly stating “and who’s going to pay for it?”. Disheartened that this was the only thing that seemed to matter to her, into the workforce I went. It turned out to be the best way to go about things.
I quickly realized that being a Mental Health professional was not the job for me, and thankfully found this out before earning a master’s degree in this field. I had enjoying learning about the experimental process in school and decided to try to go that route. Not really knowing what I was doing, I typed “research” into the Careerbuilder.com search engine. Jobs for Research Coordinator popped up and I quickly spammed every posting I could find with my resume.
I got a position working at an orthopedic practice assisting with spine deformity studies. I moonlighted as a waitress to help support our income, and was fortunate enough to have my master’s degree in Clinical Research Administration paid for by my employer. Once I had my master’s, I was able to get better jobs in the field working as a manager for research practice, a study monitor for a company that worked directly with the pharmaceutical sponsor, or working in tougher indications such as oncology. I challenged myself to continue with my education and earned a PhD in Health Science. I did a brief stint as the Executive Director for a non-profit radiation oncology research cooperative, and then made my way into working directly for the pharmaceutical companies, which is where I am at now.
Where do you want to go in your career – and your financial life?
I really have no set goals here. I just want to always be able to provide for my family, 100%.
CMO Note – I love this response. Sometimes we as a society focus so much on goals that people always feel like they shouldn’t be happy with what they have. The pressure around always striving for “more”, or that what we have is never enough, is a great way to never be happy with what you have. So this is a great response!
What’s the biggest challenge in being a breadwinning mom? What’s the best part?
The biggest challenge in being the breadwinner is having to be ok with the assumptions that you are not. There are a bunch of little things that remind me almost daily that society still operates under the assumption that the man in the head of the household. Almost every time we go out to eat, the bill gets set next to my husband. Teachers and coaches assume I have his last name and that my title is “Mrs.”, never “Dr.”.
It’s also very challenging to have worked so hard for what I have accomplished and that I don’t necessarily get to feel the rewards of the my efforts. We live in a nice suburbs, my son goes to private school and is part of a private soccer club. I’m proud to be able to afford my family such great things, but I guarantee the majority of people would assume that it’s due to my husband’s achievements, and not mine.
There are many moms at my son’s school that seem to wear their husband’s career accomplishments as their own, but I think the reverse is rarely true. Do you ever hear a stay at home dad bragging about not “having” to work? Or how they were able to remodel their bathroom and kitchen because of how big his wife’s last bonus was? CMO Note – Nope!
What do you see as the key to earning such a high salary?
The key to earning such a high salary is never assuming that “it’s not my job”. Never think you are too good to do the grunt work, or to work outside of your job description. It’s also important to seize better opportunities as they arise. Often people feel the need to just stick it out if they are in a less-than-desirable job situation. I have worked a dozen different jobs for various companies since I started my career because I never shy away from a better paying opportunity.
Many times, if you want a pay increase, you are better off finding a job with a new company than you are negotiating a raise with your current one. Also, do not be afraid to negotiate! I think many people are willing to accept the first offer HR gives them. Don’t! You can ALWAYS get something better than the first offer.
Chief Mom Officer is primarily a personal finance blog – tell us about your saving and investment strategy
It is important to make the most of your company’s investment benefits. For example, my company will match, up to 6%, of any investments I make into my 401k. They also give a bonus 5% contribution annually. By fully taking advantage of the matching and bonus contribution, I’ve just boosted my income by 11%. That works about to be roughly $14,000 a year of free money.
I also think being prepared for unexpected expenses in key. I never feel comfortable being much below having 3 months salary in savings. This way if a tree falls on your house, or your husband backs the car out of garage before the door is fully open (speaking from experience here), you can handle it without having to take on credit card debt and interest.
Being solely responsible for my family’s money is a big responsibility. However, I have always had a healthy respect for money and appreciate the effort it takes to earn it. Therefore, I have never had a problem with developing and managing a budget. For me, it’s become somewhat of a fun hobby. I actually look forward to balancing our spending every two weeks and it’s a good reminder to me of all that I’ve been able to accomplish in my career.
What’s the top three pieces of advice you’d have for someone just starting out in the workforce, struggling with their career, or just looking to improve how they handle their money?
1) Stop using credit cards for everyday expenses. Until you have a good handle on your spending and your budget, use cash. You will pay closer attention to the amount of money you spend. If there isn’t any money left in your wallet, then you aren’t going out to eat. Once you have a good grasp on your spending, then using credit cards is ok, especially if you are able to rewards such as cash back. BUT, always pay off the balance in full every month. Otherwise the interest you accrue can far outweigh any rewards perks.
2) Don’t think you can’t apply for a job just because you don’t meet ALL the criteria in the job description. Reach beyond your comfort zone and really learn to sell yourself in your cover letter and during the interview.
3) Don’t ever get too comfortable in your job. Be willing to move on to bigger and better if the opportunity arises.
Where can people connect with you?
CMO Here Again!
Thanks so much to Megan for stopping by to share her story! I found her career journey to be fascinating, and I loved her financial advice. It’s well known that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they feel they can meet all of the criteria. Heck, I’m guilty of that one myself! We need to remember that we have this tendency, and do whatever we can to overcome it.
Be sure to leave Megan a comment to let her know what you enjoyed reading about her story!
If you haven’t already, be sure to swing by my one-stop shop page for Breadwinning moms, featuring all my prior articles and interviews (plus some updates on prior interviewees!). Know someone that would be perfect for this series, or is that you? Hop over to my “Be Featured!” page to access the request form.
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