How to Master Your First Entry-Level Job

Photos: 12 Secure Jobs for the Next Decade

Every summer, thousands of 20-somethings graduate from college and migrate to cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles to kick off their careers. But rather than land plum jobs as Hollywood agents, art dealers, magazine editors, or fashion stylists, many of them instead end up as assistants.

That’s where writer Lilit Marcus found herself post-college: setting up her bosses’ schedules, answering phones, and sending faxes. She then realized that there was no how-to manual on how to make it in your first job. So Marcus decided to write the book herself. She recently spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Nancy Cook about her new book, called Save the Assistants, in which she outlines the ways assistants can succeed in their day jobs, appease their bosses, and move up the corporate ladder. Excerpts:

Cook: So how did you end up in New York City working as an assistant at a media company?

Marcus: I grew up in North Carolina and went to state school there. I grew up believing that if you finished college, you’d get a good job. I wasn’t expecting to be the CEO of a company, but where I grew up the people who have administrative jobs didn’t go to college. I wasn’t sure what to expect at my first job in New York City, but it wasn’t answering some dude’s phone all day.

I was at that first job for eight months, then worked at Beliefnet [an online magazine] for two and a half years. I was an assistant for a year, and then I was promoted to an assistant-editor job. It’s so hard to adjust to being an assistant because it’s your first job. The schedule is different. I was paying my own bills and dealing with roommates. That’s a tough transition anyway. You feel like, everyone has a job. Why is this so hard?

In the book, you write at length about building good relationships in the office and how that helped you survive being an assistant. Can you talk about this?

The only reason I survived in this job (and did not move home and get married immediately) was because of the other assistants. They were all really unhappy, but it didn’t stop them from helping me. I didn’t even know where to hang up my coat. No one told me when lunch was and when I was supposed to go. It was just the little things like making me feel welcome. You have to be nice to the other assistants because they go on and work in the same industries as you. It’s not a bad idea to have more people on your side.

In your book you also have funny classifications for different types of bosses—from ones who scream at people to others who micromanage. How do you deal with such widely different personality types?

The best thing you can do is figure out what your boss is lacking and do it. That will nip a lot of stuff in the bud.

You eventually got promoted out of your assistant job into a position as an editor at an online magazine. What advice do you have to other assistants who want to move up?

I would hang back and ask senior people at your company what’s normal. At the company where I first worked, you stayed as an assistant and then you left. There weren’t a ton of opportunities for promotion, and the assistants were really kept in their class. Once you realize that, you have to start looking at the rest of the industry. I got a mentor who helped me figure out how normal it is to get promoted after X amount of time. There isn’t a linear or specific path in people’s careers. I find that really freeing now, but for a lot of people I think that terrifies them. They end up waiting forever for people to tell them what to do. Unfortunately you have to go out there and seek opportunities.

What would you say now to people who have graduated into a terrible job market?

I don’t think getting your foot in the door is ever a bad idea. I always tell people, “Hit the ground running. Pay your dues. Do what you need to do, and then ideally you have some other skills you do on the side.” Rather than focus on what you’re doing during the day, you need to focus on what else you are doing. In my case, I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t writing at my job. How was I going to fix that? Since I wasn’t working at a magazine or a place to get promoted, I wrote for free. I freelanced wherever I could. I started a blog. I went to literary-magazine parties. I spent the rest of the time working on myself, especially if you hate your job and you don’t want it to define you. You need to find things that do make you happy.

Apart from pursuing hobbies or side projects, what else can assistants do to make sure they don’t get stuck in their particular position?

You have to not be too good at your job. There was this other assistant at my first job who was so good at her job. Her boss hated everybody, but he loved her. She was like the Joan Holloway of our office. But she was miserable. She kept thinking, ‘I’m doing everything right. Why aren’t they promoting me?’ I’m not telling people that you should screw up at your job, but I don’t think people should wait and hope that one day they’ll get promoted. If you have been there for a certain amount of time, ask for the promotion. You can say, ‘I really have loved working for you and have learned so many skills. I don’t want to leave the company, but I don’t want to be an assistant anymore.’

Anything else you want to add?

The one question that people have asked me is what kind of boss am I. It’s hard to know, but I want to be the kind of boss who is willing to share the spotlight and teach people. I want to let the people I work with grow without it diminishing my self-worth in any way.