There’s no longer any debate, it seems, as to why anyone would tolerate being treated this way. Even in an age when there are in some ways more job options than ever, thanks to the Internet, young women, especially, seem to view an assistantship as the only means to a life of glamour and distinction in this city. (Or they become Julia Allison.) And so to receive hundreds of applications for an opening at a magazine or book publisher for a job that pays perhaps $30,000 a year (at the high end) is not unusual.
Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions about assistantships is that they’re easy jobs to get, said Lauren Le Vine, 23, an online editorial assistant at TheNest.com. “In reality, you need lots of internships and relevant experience, and you have to be smart,” said Ms. Le Vine. “I think magazines and Web sites are unique in that not only do you have to be a good writer and have an attractive résumé—you also need to ‘look the part.’ If you want to work at Vogue, clearly you need to dress like you work at a top fashion magazine.”
(It also doesn’t hurt to be connected, and “people with connections who were very junior assistants would be way fancier than the senior people who’d gotten in on their own,” said the former fashion magazine editor.)
Magazines, advertising and PR agencies, publishing companies, and literary agencies all still operate on an apprenticeship system—the person answering her boss’s phone is, theoretically, learning how to do her boss’s job one day. And because the industries are so hierarchical, there’s almost no chance of breaking in if you haven’t followed the prescribed path. “I’d already been working in the magazine world for about a year and a half as a research editor at a fashion magazine and freelance writing, but I was looking to move from research into editorial,” said a 25-year-old assistant at a national magazine. “I decided to take an editorial assistant position because I thought that was more likely to put me on the path to becoming a senior-level editor. It was a very difficult decision because I took a substantial pay cut, as well as an intellectual one, but I’m hoping that it will eventually pay off.”
A 24-year-old assistant at a major publishing house pointed out that graduates who take assistant jobs hoping to parlay them into writing jobs are often sorely disappointed: “If your goal is to stick it out and work your way to becoming an editor, then I would say that it probably is one of the best ways to go about it. If you want to become a published writer, I’d say it could be helpful in that you can make connections, but it also could work against you, because all your time is sucked up reading and editing other people’s writing.”
This seems so patently obvious to those of us over the age of, say, 26 that it hardly bears repeating, but when I think back to, say, April of my senior year in college, it did not seem obvious at all, much less patently. Perhaps because those of us who attempted to follow these prescribed paths tried to find some comfort in the idea that there seemed to be a path, one that would offer not just entree into our chosen industry, but also a sense that someone would be watching out for us and making sure we traveled safely up the ladder. How young we were, once!
So talking to freelance writer Jonathan Liu, who is 23, is somewhat disconcerting, because he seems to have figured it all out, and so young! (Then again, he did go to Harvard. He also regularly contributes book reviews to The Observer.) “It seems like part of the tacit deal in the job is not actual apprenticeship so much as ‘networking’—in exchange for being underpaid and menially treated, you’ll get to marinate in the kind of culture that your liberal-arts education tells you is somehow more ethical than, you know, capitalism qua capitalism.”
Mr. Liu continued: “Many of the smart people I know who have disappeared into assistantships are people who should be, you know, writing. But they’re willing to subsume actual creative endeavor to the drudgery of ‘paying your dues’ in a way they never would for, say, Citigroup. And it does sound like something of a scam, right? You work for fabulously wealthy people in divisions of multinational corporations, but are told you’ve somehow opted out of the consulting/I-banking rat race, because your filing and faxing and phone-answering is somehow edifying.”