Note to employers: If a mid-level employment candidate with a master’s degree applies for an entry-level job, it’s probably because the job market is crap. Doesn’t take much imagination to figure that out, right?
Last year, I applied for a PR assistant job with a PR agency, which we’ll call XXX. Before I go on, I just want to head this post with the amazing news that I just received an amazing offer to work at an amazing company. Getting paid way more than $30K. And it’s an offer I’m going to have to take at the price of sacrificing the current awesome arrangement I have now doing the freelance work I currently do. Also getting paid way more than $30K. So this story, we’ll just chalk it up to the shit I had to wade through before getting to where I am now.
Anyway, back to the PR assistant job. The job listing, which was forwarded to me by a fellow Medill alum, was fairly succinct and straightforward, particularly regarding compensation.
The Assistant is an entry level position at DKC. While the Assistant will be exposed to publicity over his/her 18-month minimum tenure in the position, the role is largely administrative and often involves supporting three (3) DKC staffers. Must dress and act professionally. This position pays a nonnegotiable salary of $30K.
Yes, $30,000 is a shitty salary, especially when you’re 27. But I was pretty desperate. Plus, they had Atari and Marvel as clients. How bad could a company with clients like Atari and Marvel be?
I decided to give the job a chance, even if it was entry-level. At best, I would be a shoo-in for the job. That worked for me.
I got a call back about two weeks after I sent in my application. The call came at 9 a.m. in the morning, and I’m unemployed and sleep in a lot.
“Hi, my name is Cindy. I’m calling about your resume and wanted to know if you’re still interested in the PR assistant position?”
I tried my best to sound not-groggy and not-half-unconscious. “Yes, of course,” I warbled. “Thanks so much for calling me back.”
“Great! So just wanted to let you know, this is an entry-level job with a non-negotiable salary of $30,000.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “I understand,” I replied perfunctorily.
“Good, good. Would you be able to come in for an interview at 2 on Thursday afternoon?”
“That should work for me.”
“Wonderful. Let me confirm and email you back.”
A few hours later, I found a new message in my inbox.
Dear Ms. Park,
It was pleasure speaking to you earlier. Per our discussion, this is an entry level opening with a salary of $30,000 non-negotiable, benefits included. I want to confirm you are available tomorrow, April 19th at 2pm for an interview.
Please let me know.
I ignored the repeated insistence about the compensation, which by the way I had made no attempt to try and debate. Regardless, was this the last time I would hear about that damn salary? No.
I went in to the DKC office for my interview at 2 on Thursday, only to be greeted by a gum-smacking, hair-twirling receptionist on the phone with her BFF or boyfriend or someone. She looked up as the elevator doors opened to reveal me.
“I’m here for my interview with Cindy?” I told her.
“Let me call her out.”
She briefly placed her boyfriend on hold to give Cindy a quick call. Then she switched back to her BFF or whoever and started talking super loudly in, like, you know, dumb girl speak. “So I want get my nails done… Oh my god, that is so not cool…”
“Hi, I’m Cindy,” a short, friendly-looking woman said when she finally emerged into the lobby. I smiled and introduced myself as she led the way into the offices through security doors. I immediately felt suffocated. Rows of taupe steel cubicles devoid of privacy dividers between desks lined the drab walls of the office. Employees slouched at their desks, each with headphones crammed into their ears, clicking away at tedious Word documents. What passed for a window was a tiny, 2 X 3 hole on the far side of the room with a view of construction.
I suppressed an intense desire to run back down to the lobby screaming and forced a smile on my face. Cindy seemed to take that as a good sign.
“So just to remind you,” she began, “this is an entry-level position that pays $30,000, which is non-negotiable.”
I GET IT, I almost cried. Instead, I said, “Gotcha.”
We reached a small conference room, where Cindy informed me that I would meet with four or five different executives of the company. She also briefly touched upon the fact that she hadn’t noticed I was a few years out of college, but noted my work experience and asked me about my background with a friendly smile and what seemed like and probably was genuine interest.
Just as I was finishing up my spiel about wanting to switch to PR for the employment and financial stability and the opportunity to still work with the media industry, a middle-aged woman wearing a ’70s style chiffon print shirt and beaded necklace walked in, thinning maroon hair floating wildly about her head.
“Hi, you must be Susie,” I said, beaming and holding out my hand.
She offered her own in return, which I noted was bedecked with antique silver rings studded with turquoise, along with an appraising smile.
I sat down at the table feeling pretty good about my air of confidence and my nonchalance.
Susie also sat down and began looking over my resume, presumably for the first time. After ten seconds, she lifted her eyes up at me.
“I’m sorry to say, I don’t know we called you in, because you’re overqualified for this job.”
I was taken aback, but I decided to be gracious. “I’m flattered.”
“No, really, you are. You’ve got” — she glanced back down at the resume — “a lot of working experience, in the media, I see, and you have a Master’s.”
“Well,” she said, looking up again. “Let me just start by saying most of the candidates for the PR assistant job are 22 or 23. Now” — suddenly her voice sped up — “I’mnotagediscriminating” — she slowed down again — “but you’re a few years too many out of college.”
“I graduated six years ago, sure.”
Susie ran her hair through her wild mane. “Well, andI’mnotagedisciminating, but you’d be working with three account executives and answering phone calls, making photocopies, things like that. I’m just worried that this job might not be that interesting to you. Most of our PR assistants are, you know, just graduated and just, very young.”
I swallowed my growing annoyance and gave my elevator spiel. “Well, I was reporting for a few years, mostly in magazines, and although I love working with the media, I’ve had such a difficult time with working as a writer, I decided I wanted to switch into a field that offered more stability but still allowed me to utilize my skills as a journalist. So I’m willing to start from scratch.” Blahblahblah.
“I see, I see,” she hummed. “I’m still very concerned about how happy you would be at this job. I think you would get bored very quickly. And, we usually like to hire, you know, recent graduates, so we can mold them and… you know what I mean, don’t you.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” I replied with a half-hearted smile. I tried another “I’d still love to be considered for this position. I know I’m a little older, but I think I have the skills and professional background to learn quickly and mold myself to the company.”
Susie ignored me. “I just think that, you know, the duties of the PR assistant, they’re really very, menial. A lot of copying. Taking phone calls. Juggling calendars and agendas for some of the executives here. You would, you, given your experience, you would get bored.”
“I would think that for you, you’d want to start as a junior AE, but see here at XXX, we only hire internally for those positions.”
“Have you tried looking at other PR firms?
I’ve never known quite how to answer this question when they came from interviewers. My philosophy has been that it’s mostly my own business who I apply to or not. “I’ve been applying, sure,” I replied, perfunctorily.
“See, I think it would be great if you looked at one of these smaller boutique PR firms, where you can really hit the ground running.” Susie continued to give me advice about how to find a job in the PR industry. “You could go in-house, or you could go into a bigger firm like Ogilvy or Edelman. But maybe for you, these small boutique firms like I was saying…”
I faltered, not really knowing what to say. What could I say in this line of conversation, really, but, “I see”?
After a few more “I see”s, Susie finally let up and returned to looking over my resume. “Well, you’ve got experience, and you’ve definitely got the personality—”
I slipped in a quick “Thank you” so I wouldn’t come off as a mute compared to her blabbering.
“—but you’re just a couple years too many out of college.”
Susie gave another appraising look over my resume; then, to my great exasperation, launched back into her spiel about my age (even though she wasn’t age discriminating, of course) and the average assistant’s age and finding work at small boutique firms and the PR agency at large all over again for the next 20 minutes. By the end, I didn’t even feel like giving the requisite “I still want to be interviewed” (lie) protest anymore.
We both stood, and I thanked Susie for her time before she led me out toward the hall. To my surprise, she stopped just inside the doors and waved for Cindy’s attention. Then, right there, amongst the cubicles, in front of all her employees, she announced loudly to Cindy that “Irene’s interview is being terminated early” and that “We’ve discussed this, and she understands why.” My face grew burning hot as I saw heads turn, obviously intrigued by just how grossly incompetent a candidate I was.
Even Cindy looked up at me awkwardly. “Um, oh. Okay,” she managed to say back to Susie. I shook hands with Cindy and Susie very quickly and hightailed it out of the office. As I reached the lobby and punched repeatedly at the down button, I resisted the urge to scream. I understand that employers are inundated with talented candidates, and I understand that it’s usually more imperative for interviewee, rather than interviewer, to complete background research. But is it so much to ask that the minimum standard for decorum be met by employers, as much as they are in the position of power and demand?
Social etiquette prevented from actually carrying out the following act as I exited the building in a huff. But in my mind, I stopped, turned, and, shaking my fist up at the XXX office, bellowed: