Thursday, April 09, 2015

For this you went to Harvard?

Personal assistants of the world, unite!

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven  ;-)
Dissent Magazine: ... When I was an undergrad at Harvard, the English department produced fancy brochures about the opportunities available to its majors: teacher, editor, Rhodes scholar. Personal assistant was not listed. I hadn’t even heard of such positions until senior year, when older friends, artistically inclined friends, started snagging them. It’s the position I think I’ve heard most about now.

Nearly every exclusive field runs on assistants. The actor James Franco, like Buddha before him, had an assistant keep track of his meals and school assignments. The critic and writer Daphne Merkin has employed a steady stream of Ivy-educated elves. They’re tasked with everything from editing to returning dead houseplants. Bestselling novelist John Irving (The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany) has an assistant who types up his roughly twenty-five pages of handwritten manuscript a day. He recruits exclusively from liberal arts schools in cold climates like Middlebury and Vassar, to ensure his hires can survive the winter at his home in Dorset, Vermont. During the 2008 presidential season, recent Harvard grad Eric Lesser impressed senior advisor to the president, David Axelrod, with his color-coded system for tracking Obama’s campaign luggage. Lesser was taken on as Axelrod’s “special assistant,” assuming responsibility for everything from supervising his boss’s diet to organizing the first-ever presidential Seder.

Welcome to the main artery into creative or elite work—highly pressurized, poorly recompensed, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes menial secretarial assistance. From the confluence of two grand movements in American history—the continued flight of women out of the home and into the workplace, and the growing population of arts and politically oriented college graduates struggling to survive in urban epicenters that are increasingly ceded to bankers and consultants—the personal assistant is born. ...

... One of the most exceptional—and mysterious—personal assistantship programs is run by a hedge fund billionaire in New York. For years, his human resources staff used to tuck the same discreet, neatly boxed advertisement in alongside the dense criticism of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books, as well as in Ivy League alumni magazines:
RESEARCH ASSOCIATE/PERSONAL ASSISTANT New York City—Highly intelligent, resourceful individuals with exceptional communication skills sought to undertake research projects and administrative tasks for one of Wall Street’s most successful entrepreneurs. We welcome applications from writers, musicians, artists, or others who may be pursuing other professional goals in the balance of their time. $90-110k/yr to start (depending on qualifications). Resume to:
The firm recruits and interviews year-round, whether there are openings or not. In addition to ads, the billionaire’s people email Phi Beta Kappa and summa students from top colleges about openings at the firm, though they are also likely scouting for assistants. “Although much of our work involves the use of advanced mathematical and computational techniques,” the email reads, “we are equally interested in speaking with brilliant liberal arts graduates, regardless of major, who are open to the possibility of a career they may never have previously considered.” It might be the only time in their lives that art students or English majors are courted by a potential employer. “The firm,” the email continues, “ . . . can give serious consideration only to individuals having extraordinary intellectual capabilities, communication skills, and general ‘real world’ competence.” Of the many who apply, a handful are called to New York, where their “real world competence” is quantified in no fewer than five management consulting-style interviews. Interviewees sign non-disclosure forms, and if hired as personal assistants, are essentially barred from saying where they work. When pressed, they might say they are writing books or “making music.” ...


Cornelius said...

These are pretty good jobs. They sound menial but the connections you get are great. Do a good job and you can pretty much write your own ticket for your next job.

Being the CEO's chief of staff or assistant to the chairman are essentially just glorified personal assistant positions, but people who work those jobs end up accelerating their careers immensely.

Richard Seiter said...

I think you are largely right, but wonder how often the "CEO's chief of staff or assistant to the chairman" type positions are as much about exposing talented people (potential future CEOs or chairmen?) to the environment as about the personal assistant aspect (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones provides a perfect fictional example). In that sense those positions appear quite different from the positions described in the article.

The assistant jobs seem like they could have some pretty great perks (e.g. travel) even if you don't have control over the details. The salaries seem good provided you aren't forced into an insanely high cost of living situation. I suppose it all comes down to personal compatibility and how reasonable the principal is though.

Do you know of any studies of career progression for these types of positions? I suspect to a certain extent the recruiters are selling the dream of "entree to a field," but I wonder how well that matches reality. Part of my curiosity stems from the possibility that the qualities being sought in the assistant might not align with the qualities required for success in the field.

disqus_ZsHlaWpOsF said...

We are talking about menial, secretarial/femenine positions, with many humiliating tasks like feeding the fish in the aquarium. For those able to manage, it allows to be near the center of the power which provides the fastest way to move ahead. The middle managerial people around gets used to the presence of the assistant and to accept orders from him, and generally he inherits the boss's position. It is much better than working up oneself from the ranks.

Dain Fitzgerald said...

I remain fascinated by the way the creative industries, dominated by progressive sensibilities, are so harshly inegalitarian and kiss-ass in nature (have you seen that new horror flick Starry Eyes? Yikes!). Meanwhile petroleum engineering and dentistry is relatively straightforward, as far as solid pay and "making it" goes.

Dan Gonzalez said...

Personal assistant = euphemism for secretary.
Plenty of high prestige college graduates in the liberal arts assume that they will magically become editors of some major magazine, o movie producers... but a more likely path is they become menial laborers in ultra expensive cities.
Dain Fitzgerald's comment on the ass-kissing nature of the "creative" industries is very accurate, and also reasonable, none of the people working there as writers/editors/associates have particular abilities or skills and there isn't much measured by tangible results, so any career advancements is dictated by how much schmoozing is done.

Cornelius said...

I only have anecdotes of people I know who have had similar positions and people in those positions whom I've dealt with. My sample size is only five, but all of them have successful careers.

Paul C said...

I would suspect it has less to do with any ideology is rather more about the difficulty of quantifying merit in the more "soft" fields. Without an objective methodology for determining worth, people will naturally fall back to their personal preferences when determining a person's level of accomplishment.

mrwild said...

"Personal assistant" is like "interning". It gives gives a dignified veneer to flunky work for college kids who are downscaling.

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