What It’s Really Like To Be An Assistant At A Major Magazine

Refinery29’s Assistant Living series asks assistants to talk about themselves for once — offering truthful, no-frills insight into the time before fame and fortune. What’s it like working next to the dream job? They talk, we listen. This week, M, 24, editorial assistant to the editor-in-chief of a major weekly magazine, is still navigating her role — deciphering what her human-shepherding skills, hallway demeanor, and salacious desk art says to the world outside her cubicle.
How long have you been an editorial assistant?
I’ve been working at the magazine for going on a year and a half.

What’s your salary and would you call it livable?
My salary is $30,000 (£21,500) a year, which is pretty typical for editorial assistants. Luckily, I make an extra $5,000 (£3,600) from writing fees — freelance for the magazine, essentially. Is it livable? Barely. Is it ideal? Certainly not. Do you work a typical 9 to 5?
Almost? I work a 10 to 6. How’d you get the job?
I met someone from the magazine at this media mixer drinks thing. I didn’t feel well and couldn’t hide my discomfort (and slight disdain for the event), which I think he thought was funny. We talked for a while and he offered to pass on my résumé. And then the job opened up and I was really, really, really excited. What did success mean to you growing up?
My parents didn’t have every opportunity growing up, so all they ever wanted for me was to be happy. And happy meant work, and working at something that I liked doing. Describe the first hour at work.
I get in at 10, I drink coffee. I copy my boss’ schedule from Outlook onto this lined notepad. I’ve used up a ton of these notepads and sometimes I find one from like, last November, shoved behind the printer on my desk or something. When he gets in, I tell him what meetings he has for the day, and then he’ll ask me to add things. He doesn’t ask me to change things much anymore because I’ve gotten good at scheduling things in the way that he wants them. I’ll make a reservation or try to get tickets for something, and usually go to the café to get a green apple for 82 cents, which I count out the change for beforehand. Does this make me sound high-strung? Favourite hour of the day?
I always think that I’m going to be really happy at lunch time. I start allowing myself the possibility to eat at 1 p.m., but I find it really pleasant when I eat around 1:45 p.m., because it makes the afternoon feel way shorter. But I never really have anything to do during lunchtime, so between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., I’m astoundingly bored. But, I guess you didn’t really ask about my saddest hour so...

What do you typically wear to work?

Today, I was wearing my roommate’s too-big-Adidas-sneakers (with my running socks so that I can quickly change into my workout clothes after work), black cigarette pants, that essentially bare half my calf, and a giant grey cashmere sweater with a white collared shirt underneath. It’s kind of a uniform. Least favourite day of the week?
Tuesdays, I call them Bluesdays. My roommate and I always talk about our weeks in the same way, because we’re in similar assistant positions. Here’s the breakdown: It’s Monday. You’re stunned from the weekend, so it’s fine — you’re numb. Then you wake up on Tuesday, and you’re like good lord, this is the worst day. Wednesday, well you know, not so good either. And then Thursday is great, because you’re looking at Friday and the weekend. Aside from the inevitable monotony, do you like your job?
It’s complicated. I like where I work. I feel like I’m doing the right thing. But that’s different than liking my job. I don’t think anyone who isn’t an executive assistant professionally, genuinely enjoys scheduling another person’s life. What’s your dream job?
"Editor of something food and female related. Oh, and travel." Are you (or have you ever been) afraid of your boss?
Not anymore. But I felt differently when I first started. I’m not a shy person, but I’m really easily embarrassed. Which is a hard quality for someone starting anything new. Even thinking about being embarrassed makes me embarrassed. It’s so visceral. I was embarrassed all the time when I first started working. Do you text your boss? If so, what’s the tone?
I only recently started texting him. I don’t like to do it because I weirdly feel the need to be perky. Really perky. Lots of exclamation points. Never emojis. Though I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to use less exclamation points. Because I have this compulsion to be friendly, but then I’m horrified when that isn’t reciprocated. How much does your boss know about you?
He knows the big things: boyfriend, sister’s school. They’re the sorts of things that just come up naturally. I hate saying “my boyfriend” at work, but have found myself saying it. I don’t know why. It’s not unusual to have a boyfriend. But lately, I’ve seen interest from my boss when I reveal something about myself. Which is actually really nice. Who do you admire at work?
I admire mostly all the female editors. There are women doing their jobs really, really well, and it’s very inspiring. There’s one editor who’s super young and she writes and edits a lot, and she’s very accomplished. What’s your hallway demeanor?
I’ve become somewhat draggier as time goes on. But that’s me, once I get comfortable. The way that I sit in my boss’ office now, as opposed to when I first started, has notably changed. I now go in and sort of flop into a chair and sit cross-legged. I’ve noticed myself kickin’ it back. Describe your desk.
I have a big cubicle. On my desk there’s a little plant that won’t die, and I’m terrible at taking care of plants. It gets no sunlight because my cubicle is lightless. It’s not a succulent per se, it’s like a little ugly thing, a little green hand. Sitting on top of my cubicle, I have a tiny dinosaur and a tiny lama, fighting. Tacked up on the cubicle walls, I have these postcards that people have submitted to the art department. There’s this one of these naked girls having dinner outside. I remember putting it up early on in my time at the magazine, and I thought: Now I’ve made this statement with these butts. I’ll never be able to take it down. Do you consider yourself an artist?
Well. No. Not yet. I’m not sure I have the confidence. Graduating from school — a safe place of almost ridiculous affirmation of your creativity — to this sort of job can be a jarring and difficult leap. Especially if you went to an arts school, where everyone’s an “artist” and your only job is to be productive artistically, to then start very low on the ladder when you join the real word is a bit of a shock. I feel like I’m doing things. I feel like I’m completing tasks well, and everyone around me thinks so too, but they’re so menial. I mean, it’s the same reward system I had in college, except now I’m praised for getting a cup of coffee or a reservation. Do you look forward to having your own assistant? Do you see that in your future?
I would be embarrassed, yet again, to boss someone around. Or, maybe not. At this juncture, I can’t imagine liking it because I really am such a control freak. I have interns that are under my jurisdiction, and sometimes my boss gives me things to do, and when I’m overwhelmed, I feel tempted to farm them out. But at the same time, I’m reluctant because I’m certain they won’t do as good a job. Do you want your boss’ job?
It seems very hard to be editor-in-chief at a magazine in this day and age because of the uncertain future of print. But, yes. Obviously. I’d take it in a second.