13

Note that I have graduated not long ago - so I do not have much work experience.

My situation:

  • I am 26.
  • I have a double-degree from a top French engineering school and a top 10 US university.
  • I have worked as an engineer in IT R&D for a couple years.
  • I am now doing a PhD (in my first year) in 3D Vision / AI in a famous French research institute.

My question came initially from the fact that, once I finish my PhD, my expected initial salary seems to be about 45k€ at best where I work now - while people in other domains (e.g. consulting / medical field) or countries (UK / US) seem to earn way, way more. The difference is even bigger with executives in public companies (400k€+).

So my conclusion is that, apparently, if I stay working as just an engineer (and even more so in France), I will hardly ever have a "high income" (e.g. 100k€+).

It seems that only by going for management jobs or having my own company would I have a higher income. And the sooner the better, as people who are in executive positions do not seem to have worked for a long time in technical positions.

Can an engineer earn as much as people in executive positions? Or am I missing something obvious here?

  • 13
    I understand why people are down-voting but please, don't just down-vote because the case seems too specific to OP's case to be valuable to others to learn from. OP is in a situation that many are in or will be in. He's spent a lot of time studying in school and doesn't quite understand how he can use what he's learned to get away from a low-paying job. At least give OP a comment on how he can improve his question so that it's more relevant, although I think it's relevant enough, when giving him the down-vote. – Jonast92 Nov 2 '18 at 17:28
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    I think it is important to consider that you are comparing "high income" overall with "average income" of a specific profession. The average tends to ignore experience and variation between specific positions and how demanding the job is. Instead, consider what the top 10-25% of the profession make, especially with 5 years of experience in that role, and don't fall into the trap of comparing between very different countries as no simple exchange rate tells you the real story. Most professions are also hierarchy's, so that moving up within often means changing title/role, though not always. – BrianH Nov 2 '18 at 18:14
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    Median income at Facebook is over $200,000. Many senior software engineers earn over $100,000 at several firms including Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. – Glen Pierce Nov 3 '18 at 3:23
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    @GlenPierce Are you talking about the French offices of those companies? And why are you using $ when France uses euro? – CodesInChaos Nov 3 '18 at 16:49
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    It's France. My sister (a US citizen) and her husband (a citizen of France) both have PhDs in engineering, and moved from the Paris area to the French alps to take jobs in Switzerland. The pay on the Swiss side of the border for the same position is some factor of 3 higher, which becomes something like 5 times higher after taxes, despite the fact that the area has a lower cost of living than Paris. – Ben Voigt Nov 4 '18 at 3:56
11

Disclaimer : I'm a french software engineer (with a diplôme d'ingénieur). I handle some recruitments for a large software company in France.

Long story short : you won't make 100k€ in France only with technical/engineering tasks. A top "technical-only" engineer with a lot of experience will max out at 60k€ in large software companies (ESN/SSII) in Paris and management will be expected at some level. In non-software companies you can reach a little more if you're aiming to be an architect, but there is not as much jobs.

If you don't want to live in Paris, it's even worse than that (15 to 30% less salary depending on the location).

If you want top salaries, you have to follow the standard IT engineer evolution : Project Manager, Project Director etc. and work in Paris, or create your own company (but you'll have to do more than engineering tasks).

For software companies, PhD doesn't count : in France, an IT PhD is useful for public jobs only (research or teaching).


UPDATE : Syntec Convention

In France, most of IT firms are based on the Syntec Convention (link in french). As you can see, the engineers classification (PDF, in french) is what is used to calculate salary. You can see what is needed to upgrade your coefficient hiérarchique : responsabilities. That's why you can't be a very well-payed developer or software engineer in France.

In most IT companies, you can't go to level 3 (i.e. 60-65k€ in Paris) without management roles. In some companies, level 3 is named "manager".

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    I didn't know about the Syntec Convention, and it indeed explains things. Merci ! About doing a PhD, I am not doing it directly for money, but more for opportunities in other countries where it is much more significant (as Germany / USA) as well as researching for a product / tech that could be the starting point of my own company. And in the worst case, having advanced skills in AI will be useful considering the current drive towards AI techs. Hopefully... – Adr Nov 5 '18 at 18:23
9

Yes, there's some differential in relation to averages and medians between the jobs that you mention but it's not significant enough for you to bother changing into a different field. You can reach a similar, sometimes better, salary with the right experience and the right employer.

The thing is, it's not about what your education is or what your job title is, it's only about how much value you're providing and how much value you're perceived to provide.

If your company think you're worth 45k to them then you need to convince them that you're worth more to them. Find another company that thinks you're worth more, acquire more valuable skills and get work-experience that you can reflect on when addressing your skills.

You can also find a way to impact millions, that way you will make millions. No one cares about your education, experience, interests or skills if you can provide value to the masses in a way that you're able to produce a service or a product. If you're a better engineer than a manager then it makes no sense to go into management if you're not able to provide at least equal amount of value to the table.

In the end it doesn't matter what you do or where you live, although baselines change depending on area and location, its not going to make a huge difference being in management vs. engineering vs. something else. The cost of living usually changes too so more salary in another city will usually just mean more expenses.

Starting a own company is not easy and is not safe, but neither is working for someone else. Figure out what makes sense for you. If you're not ready for the entrepreneur life then find an employee who values your skill-set. You may need some experience first though before one can really assess you.

If you don't have work experience then you need to start with a lower salary than you'd maybe like, in order to learn, but show that you're capable of delivering products and or value and you'll be in the clear soon. Our education doesn't really start until after we finish school. Simply having a degree is never a guarantee for a well paying job.

I recommend checking out MJ Demarco's books on personal finances and potential entrepreneurship if you're interested in figuring out how the world works and how you can adjust to it.

  • can easily have 100k+ with the right skill-set 100k in what? Euro? USD? Zimbabwe dollars? And in what location? Salaries vary quite a lot in different locations. – Martin Tournoij Nov 3 '18 at 1:25
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    How can "what you do and where you live" not matter? A software engineer in WA makes $200K and a janitor in Bangladesh has probably never seen a dollar. This is very broad and does not really answer the OPs very specific question. – nvoigt Nov 4 '18 at 8:33
  • @MartinTournoij OP said he's earning in Euros so my answer is taking that into account but good point. – Jonast92 Nov 5 '18 at 9:09
  • @nvoigt I'm sorry of my answer seems confusing to you, I understand that there are better answers out there but I made it first as a comment and was encouraged to construct it to an answer which I did. This is not an easy question so the answer is not easy either but I believe it's of some value to OP. What I mean is that the exact number is irrelevant. You can make a high income compared to your location irrelevant of your exact position. Sure there are averages and medians in each field but they're not different enough in each location to make it into a big deal that can't be overcome. – Jonast92 Nov 5 '18 at 9:38
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    It's reasonable for engineers to have €100k+ with the right skill-set at the right place in a few years of working. Not in France. In Paris an IT engineer can expect 60k€ after 10 years, and won't grow more. In other areas, it's way less. – LP154 Nov 5 '18 at 10:45
5

The short answer is no, you do not need to be in management or own your own company to have a high income. You can enjoy a high income in a non-management job with a company that you do not own. Also, having a management job or a company that you own in no way guarantees a high income for you.

The income you can expect is a function of how rare your skills are and how much value applying those skills can generate. This is true whether we are talking about a management position, an entrepreneurial venture, or a clock-punching type job.

You have:

  • An undergraduate engineering degree (as do thousands of others in France, I would imagine)

  • An undergraduate degree from a "top school" (quotation marks because it's hard to define how much that is worth in terms of your ability as an engineer).

  • Relatively little work experience (on the scale of entire careers--
    there are 3-4 decades to go)

  • That work experience is in a specific field (I don't know how much
    money 3D vision applications generate)

I'd also like to point out that your expected salary after completing your PhD already seems to be rather above average for France (from a quick, simple Google search the mean salary appears to be ~36,000 Euros per year).

So, a few points:

  1. What's your cutoff for a "high" income?

    The largest numbers are the ones that virtually nobody gets-- there is no method that you should expect to situate you in a job that pays as much as Warren Buffet. Even other high-level, professional investors generally make far less than he does. If that's your reference point, you've got a very difficult-to-reach goal.

  2. Is your area of focus in your current job (or current field) one that commands a lot of economic activity?

    In the U.S. (I'm not familiar enough with France to give you a good example local to that country) relatively little money flows to or through social workers, and as a result social workers tend to make very little money. Those jobs essentially never deliver six-figure salaries, whether in a management role or not. If 3D vision is largely in an R&D stage, with little commercial activity resulting from current work, then the amount of money available will be limited.

  3. The value of money is not equal everywhere.

    It probably costs a lot more to live and work in downtown Paris than it would to do the same tasks in some small, remote village. Rates of pay in different regions tend to reflect this. So focusing on nominal income alone may be misleading (it's not that you wouldn't be wealthy with a high salary in an area with a high cost of living, just that you would be allocating a good portion of your wealth to living in an expensive area).

  4. The more replaceable you are, the less ability you have to demand high compensation.

    If there are 10,000 3D vision engineers available to work in France you are much more likely to be undercut on compensation demands than if there were 100. A manager earning 400,000 Euros per year is (at least perceived to be) an elite manager, offering things that other managers don't. You can become elite in any field, not just management.

tl;dr: your ability to command a high salary depends on a lot of factors, of which your field of work is only one. A high salary will follow most easily from being difficult to replace in a field which sees a lot of money move around. If a high salary were simply a matter of a few plain choices, everyone would have one.

  • The mean will include unskilled work picking onions and so on - its the mean (median actually) of "professional " the op needs to compare. – Neuromancer Nov 3 '18 at 21:22
  • "The short answer is no." That's a bit unclear given the way the question is phrased. – Keith Thompson Nov 3 '18 at 23:09
  • @Neuromancer I don't know that median is that much better of a guide in this case. The mean is an issue in this kind of measure because of hard rightward skew-- I would expect the median to be less than the mean for undifferentiated national incomes. But as written the question asks for a "high income", not necessarily a "high income among engineers and similar professionals", so that's the frame of reference I was trying to use. – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Nov 4 '18 at 19:45
3

Engineers can make plenty of money, as much as or more than managers in many places.

Starting your own firm is a gamble - maybe you strike out, maybe you get a good exit and get a windfall of money, maybe it gets parlayed into a good small business salary not working for "the Man" or you can pay yourself well - for every small tech firm/consultancy owner you see that appears wealthy there's a bunch in a basement just getting by.

You just have to be aware of the likely pay (and expenses) in different locations. Here in the US engineer salaries for high tech can easily go over 100k once you're more senior, and more in e.g. the Bay Area - but of course cost of living there is double that of a small town in Texas.

I have a variety of international employees and even within the EU, "market value" varies considerably. My employees in Spain are paid a lot less than those in Ireland, who are in turn paid less than the Americans. Salary within those countries varies by locale. Of course cost of living goes up along that continuum as well.

What you have is a multivariable equation for your happiness you need to solve. How much do you just want to be an engineer (vs a manager or something?) How much do you want to stay in the same place/country? For options with higher pay, how much does cost of living offset that?

Similarly, different fields (some closely related) pay a lot for engineering talent of specific seniority and specialty. That waxes and wanes with the economy - if a bunch of chip manufacturers went out of business, then there's a lot of chip guys around and they aren't getting high offers. I had a friend caught up in that, he had the skills to do a related sysadmin job and probably get more pay, but he only wanted to work in semiconductors, so he was out of work for a while and finally had to move to get a job because of how tight he considered his specialty.

Everyone's answer is different. I have some friends that have gone to Silicon Valley to get those 200k Facebook salaries, and some that have fled it because of cost of living and other factors. Each one is solving for their own money vs expenditure vs job satisfaction vs quality of life.

You can almost always make more money if that's what you want. You have to weigh the cost.

2

I don't know the French job market, but in general:

Being a manager or owning your own company are no more of a guarantee of high income than being really good at a high paying job/industry. For the most part, only top level managers would be considered high income and many small/start-up companies fail or never achieve high income. There is much more risk in starting your own company and if the high income happens it likely will take years to get there.

If high income is your career driver, you need to understand that the numbers are against you and be prepared for not meeting that goal. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there are thousands and thousands of John Does. By all means go for it, but understand the battle ahead of you.

2

The problem with your analysis is that you are looking at consultants and managers who managed to get very far, be very successful. This selection bias makes you see your position worse than it really is.

For example, I can tell you as a former management consultant that really well-paid are:

  • positions in just a few (3? 4?) companies. I don't know numbers but would guess that more than 200 people apply for every opening there.
  • high positions (senior manager, partner) in most consulting companies. As a senior manager, you will get 100k+ but very rarely 150k+. As a partner, you will get much more of course but only a small, tiny minority gets to this stage. Most people spend just a few years in management consulting since the work times are crazy and in many companies you hardly have a private life while working like that.

And to get there you need to go through a process, which is much more difficult to influence than your chances to get a good engineering job. Interviews in business have much more to do with soft skills and whether someone likes you than with your objective skills.

The risk is you will stay for years as a management consultant earning 50-80k.

In engineering the distribution of salaries is different. You can check it in your own country, but at least in mine (another EU country), the mean (and median) salary for engineering jobs is much higher than for other jobs.

The probability you will have difficulties finding a job is much lower too.

The work-life balance is incomparably better.

Last but not least, by developing in engineering you can switch to consulting or management very easily. And plenty of engineers take on management tasks at some point. But turning into a management track from the very beginning you are losing something that could profit from.

Basically, as a good engineer, your way up the salary ladder is much more secure - although in some cases slower - than on the management track, where the competition is much larger and the probability of failing huge.

  • 1
    Thanks for your answer. This kind of insights is why I came here :) – Adr Nov 2 '18 at 16:59

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