Meaningful Work Doesn't Always Mean Compromising on Salary

Attention idealistic recent grads trying to decide on what to study in college or how to begin your fledgling career path: don't assume that you have to pick between a clean conscience and a living wage. just released a new report comparing job meaning and salary for 100 common jobs, and the data challenges the idea that if you want to earn a large paycheck, you have to give up on dreams of making the world a better place.

Thinking About Salary Isn't a Bad Thing

Many people operate under the assumption that you have one of two choices when forging a career path: either sell your soul to "The Man" and earn big bucks or martyr yourself financially in exchange for a job that has a positive impact on society. Just the other day, I spoke to a friend in her twenties wrestling with this very issue. She had planned to become a librarian, but after a few years of working temp jobs while struggling to find full-time work in her field, and realizing how little librarians earn, she is starting to consider other options. After she told me her situation, she quickly interjected, "I mean, I don't need to be rich. That isn't what matters. I just need to make a little more than 'just enough.' I feel like I am only getting by right now and I don't have anybody to support but myself yet." And then she paused, and despair crept into her voice. "I hate thinking about money," she said.

Now, I was raised by long-haired vegetarians and had as many visions of living an altruistic bohemian (read: poor) life as the next upper-middle-class creative type. But early in my career, I figured out that the best way I could help people was to use my talents and skills to reach the biggest audience possible. So I had to learn how to dig in and ask for the responsibilities and job titles that would allow me to do just that.

Along the way I learned that being a martyr and not demanding the salary I deserved didn't make me feel any better about my work. It just made me resentful and tired. I was amazed to discover that my manager and mentors actually respected me more for standing up for myself after I negotiated my salary for the first time.

High Paying Jobs Have High Job Meaning Too

When it comes to career, some people are sharks. They know what they want and aren't afraid to ask for it. Salary is usually high on their list. And some people are so single-minded that they can easily forsake salary in exchange for pursuing a passion. But just because somebody wants to "help people," like the young woman I was talking to, "salary" doesn't have to be a dirty word. As the data shows, some of the most meaningful jobs also pay really well.

Of the 22 jobs PayScale included in the report with median annual salaries over $100,000, the majority of workers reported feeling their jobs were extremely meaningful. You can find a job that pays well and allows you to contribute to society. The fact is there isn't a strong correlation between salary and job meaning - every job falls somewhere on the spectrum and it's up to the individual to choose where they land. Says Katie Bardaro, PayScale's lead data scientist, "This is largely driven by the fact that the jobs with the highest meaning fall into two distinct income buckets: much higher than average pay (e.g., physicians) and lower than average pay (e.g., public sector workers)." (Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between job satisfaction and salary.)

Know What You Want Out of Work

My advice to the young woman in question is this: instead of feeling ashamed for thinking about salary, she should focus on identifying what all of her goals are. Not thinking about money in the name of altruism won't guarantee her a high sense of meaning in her career, but it may prevent her from accomplishing other life goals, like traveling and starting a family. People pursue jobs that allow them to do something they are proud of and meet their financial goals, whatever those are. She says that library work is appealing because she loves "helping people, interacting with them, hearing their stories, learning to adapt to different styles of communication to best direct a person to what they need." That desire to connect with people, combined with her education, could lead her to work as an archivist, an information architect, or even a market researcher helping to create products and services that help people, while earning a nice paycheck at the same time. If becoming a librarian is her ultimate goal, she will need to adjust her financial goals to fit her passion.

Figure out what it is about a possible career path that you really find rewarding and don't assume that you get bonus points for smaller paychecks and you might stumble upon a career path that makes the world a better place and pays the bills.