how to convince an interviewer I’m okay with admin work, even with a master’s degree

A reader writes:

I’m wondering about how to reassure interviewers that I am able and willing to perform administrative tasks despite the fact that I have a master’s degree and have some higher-level work experience.

Some background: I’m in my mid-twenties and have done a lot of internships, part-time jobs, and AmeriCorps, and am looking for my first full-time salaried position in the nonprofit world. I graduated with my master’s last June and moved to a very progressive metro area with an extremely tight nonprofit job market. Given my background and the tough market, I am finding myself applying to positions that either a) expect a master’s degree but also seem to want more paid work experience than I have, or b) ask for only a bachelor’s and are heavily administrative, but are with organizations that I really admire. While admin work isn’t exactly my dream, I think I can do it capably and know that that may be my best option to get some more full-time experience under my belt.

In my last two interviews in jobs from category B, interviewers have asked me point-blank how I feel about the heavy admin duties required for the job, given my education and some of my past experience. It doesn’t seem reassuring enough to just say “I’m fine with it,” and it seems like it would be obviously disingenuous to claim that I truly want to be doing admin work forever when my education says otherwise. Any ideas for good responses to this question?

If I’m asking that in an interview, I want to hear something like, “I know it’s a big part of the job, and that admin work is really crucial in keeping things running smoothly.” Or — if it’s true, and only if it’s true — “I’m obsessive about organizing and making things run well, so that part of the job actually really appeals to me.” Or “I’m excited about learning more about how an organization like X runs, and I know that at this stage in my career, a job with a heavy admin component is the best way to do it — and as someone who’s obsessively organized, I’d look forward to taking that on.”

I also, frankly, would probably want to hear why you’re okay with doing work outside of the field you got your master’s degree in, if indeed that’s the case. Which is one of the annoying things about having a master’s in some situations.

Overall, though, the key is to figure what’s really true for you and then to communicate that in a credible way.

What I wouldn’t want to hear: answers that sound like you’re begrudgingly accepting the admin work, or that you haven’t thought through what that will really be like or that you’re underestimating how much admin work the job entails, or that you think that if you quickly prove yourself at more glamorous aspects of the work, you won’t really have to do the admin work anymore.

If you realize that any of those do describe your thinking, that’s a flag to either reconsider applying for those jobs or reposition your thinking so that one of the answers in my first paragraph actually becomes true.

Also, it might be helpful to realize that you don’t necessarily need to want to do admin work forever in order to be a good candidate for these jobs now. In nonprofit work in particular, hiring managers are often looking for candidates who are driven to eventually move on to something other than admin work, but who recognize that it’ll give them necessary experience at an early stage on their career and who are smart, highly organized, great with details, good at problem-solving, pleasant, and flexible, and who thrive on making things run well and a excited to support their mission. If you can show that you have those traits, and that you are indeed okay with a bunch of admin work for a couple of years, you can end up as a pretty desirable candidate.

{ 110 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. BB8

    I just landed a job in the non-profit word in the lowest possible position. I have a degree in an unrelated field and I’m 34 years old. I’ve been bouncing around different fields so far– the one I started in turned out to not be a good fit, then I worked at one place for five years when my husband and I moved 500 miles away, then my next one laid me off due to the industry starting to die– anyway, I was asked during the interview why I was okay with entry-level work. The other people here doing my job for different teams are easily 10 years younger than me. I told them I really wanted to start a career where I would be contributing to providing help to people in need and that I knew I had to start at the bottom and learn from the ground-up. That, coupled with AAM’s “magic question”, landed me the job!

    Reply
      1. LSCO

        Something along the lines of “Thinking back to people who have been in this position previously, what differentiated the ones who were good from the ones who were really great?”

        Whilst it’s not a magic “that’ll get you the job regardless” bullet, it’s a really good question to ask as it shows you’re thinking about doing a great job, rather than just a good one. It also gives the interviewer chance to really think about the qualities she wants for the newly hired position (beyond being able to complete tasks x and y) and allows the candidate to followup the question with some examples that show how she can measure up to the “great” previous employees.

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        1. Doriana Gray

          I used that question in both of my recent job interviews, and got offers from both companies – it really does work.

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    1. pope suburban

      On a related note, there is a lot to be said for coming up through the ranks. The most difficult bosses I have personally had were the ones who, through luck or connections, never had to do much/any scut work. They didn’t really have a good grasp on what the day-to-day running of the company took. They seemed to regard admin staff as elves or something: poof, things are magically done, and there was no reason why that couldn’t happen on demand if they so desired. The bosses who had put in their time, on the other hand, had a much better sense of workflow, and were better at listening to/advocating for their support staff. Being willing to learn how an organization works from the bottom up is both laudable and very useful.

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        1. YOLO

          I cannot emphasize this enough, particularly if you are a woman. This is a heavily gendered role, and it’s very easy to get stuck in. It can also be self-esteem destroying work (which it shouldn’t be, but it amazes me how even nonprofits that are supposedly empowering and aware of gender issues can turn around and type-cast people in admin roles are lesser intelligenced/educated/valuable/etc).

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          1. anonanonanon

            Agreed. I find it amazing how many people act as though admins, secretaries, or receptionists are less intelligent, educated, or hard-working than people in other positions. I honestly think that a lot of it is a power play, since there are people who love to exert any power or dominance they have over someone sitting behind a desk whose job it is to help or assist. It’s awful.

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            1. Oryx

              Which really makes zero sense because next to managers, admins and the like always do far more juggling than anyone else I’ve known at any job I’ve ever worked at. They always have so many balls in the air, I could never do what they do.

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              1. INFJ

                Agreed. The person in my department who handles the admin work is always so on top of EVERYTHING; I am constantly in awe.

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            2. catsAreCool

              “I find it amazing how many people act as though admins, secretaries, or receptionists are less intelligent, educated, or hard-working” This! Also admins, secretaries, and receptionists are in positions where they can sometimes make life at work much easier or tougher for you.

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          2. Green

            Yes. If you’re in a position like legal secretary or paralegal, you almost always should NOT return to the same firm if you do go to law school.

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          3. The Strand

            Yes!!! I cannot cosign this line of discussion loudly enough!

            I always rec the book “The Slam and Scream” from the mid ’90s in its discussion of how the women and men in admin roles are frequently trapped in a pink collar world. It got a close friend and I through some awful temp and admin roles at the beginning of our careers.

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          4. "I'll jump -- how high?"

            Not due to a lack of male applicants, though. :-) I know a bunch of men who would cheerfully become secretaries if it meant getting out of retail hell — if you’ve worked retail long enough, you’re used to being treated like an idiot.

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        2. BRR

          This was my first thought too. Some organizations love to promote but others cannot see people beyond admin responsibilities.

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          1. Anonymous Educator

            I think there’s often a gendered component to this as well. I’ve seen male admins rise more quickly through the ranks than female admins, whom some leadership folks see as perma-receptionists.

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        3. Devils Avocado

          YES. I got stuck for 3.5 years, with a Master’s, doing admin work in a non-profit. Based on my own experience I would recommend not doing this.

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        4. Dan

          I work for a non profit, and our main work is tech. That means if you come in as an admin, you’re pretty much stuck there. You can probably float around various support units, and even climb those ranks, but you cannot switch over to the technical track by “proving yourself.” The only way to do that is get a technical degree after you start. If you have a technical degree when you apply, you probably won’t be considered for admin work if we have qualified people with an admin background applying. Our admin positions are few and far between. We treat them well, and have no problems staffing them with people from traditional admin backgrounds.

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  2. fposte

    I’d add that if there was an admin component to any of those internships or part-time jobs, talk it up, even if it wasn’t the totality of the job. Don’t oversell it, but it can help to demonstrate that you’re saying you’d like it because you’ve done it, not because you’re guessing.

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    1. Mallory Janis Ian

      Good advice.* Interviewing is a lot like storytelling, and if you can tease out a thread that highlights the admin work in your employment history, it may be helpful to focus on the story from that angle. I’m not using the word ‘story’ to mean that OP should tell any untruths; just that she could examine her work narrative in a way that highlights aspects that are more in line with her current employment goals and that will resonate well with a hiring manager.

      *Of course it’s good advice; it’s fposte!

      Reply
    1. Not a Real Giraffe

      This was my first thought too, but maybe the Master’s explains the OP’s interest in the field, or explains an employment gap. Leaving off the Master’s degree doesn’t necessarily tackle the issue though, which is that the OP needs to more clearly express and explain his/her enthusiasm for the role at its core.

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      1. Erin

        In clearly expressing enthusiasm – maybe this is too much, but if it feels organic to bring up, just throwing this out there…

        I read about a food writer named Molly Birnbaum who is best known for temporarily losing her sense of smell after a car accident, and how that affected her cooking. But, she went to Brown (not sure if master’s or just bachelor’s) and after college she got a job washing dishes for terrible pay at a well known Cambridge restaurant. At her interview they were like, “Um. You went to Brown. And you want to wash dishes here?” And she explained that she just wanted to work with this particular chef, no matter what.

        Again, only if it feels natural, but maybe OP could bring this up when asked that question. “You know, it’s funny you ask that because I recently read about (blah blah blah) and I really identify with that woman, that’s how I feel here. I actually really feel strongly about working at this particular organization and don’t mind starting at the bottom to work my way up.”

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      1. CMT

        Possibly, if they do that sort of background check. But a resume doesn’t need to include every single thing about your past, and leaving it off may help her get to the interview stage.

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      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        There’s no central database of all the education you’ve had, so it would probably only come out if a reference mentioned it (like “she left us to go to grad school”). But either way, it shouldn’t really matter; there’s no requirement that your resume list all you’ve ever done, and people do sometimes leave graduate degrees off their resume if they don’t think it’ll be helpful.

        Whether it would make sense for the OP’s situation would depend on things like whether it would leave her with a difficult-to-explain gap, etc.

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        1. Lia

          Actually…there sort of is. The National Student Clearinghouse maintains degree and enrollment information on roughly 98% of US students and 90% of graduates. Participating institutions upload enrollment and degree files several times a year. It started as a way for colleges and universities to make student record verifications easier for student loans. Since enrollment reporting was part of that, the clearinghouse grew and later added degree verification to its products.

          That said, it only goes back to the early 90’s, and I will be honest that I haven’t heard of anyone other than large employers using its services to verify student degree information on candidates. I work in higher ed and we use it in admissions analysis, seeing which of our undergrads go on to earn grad degrees elsewhere, etc. It is super, super useful for that.

          OP, also, if you got both degrees from the same place and only put one on your resume, it is entirely possible that they’ll find out if they call the institution to verify your education, or if you have to provide a transcript.

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          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Ah, interesting! All I’ve ever seen done with degree verification is calling the school itself, so that’s good to know about. And very good point, too, about if the OP got both degrees from the same school.

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  3. AMG

    My concern would be that the OP is using the position to get an ‘in’ with the company, and that OP would need to reassure the interviewer that s/he won’t want to move on in 6-12 months or expect a promotion. I wonder if there’s a way to articulate that without coming across strange or awkward. Would it be okay to say that OP plans on staying in the role at least a couple of years, or is this best left alone altogether?

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    1. Velociraptor Attack

      Personally I think it’s dangerous to say you plan on being there for a couple of years because you paint yourself into this little box and one of two things could happen. A) you could wind up feeling guilty about any new opportunities that fall into your lap or B) you could leave and have a somewhat disgruntled supervisor. Obviously I would be more concerned about A happening.

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      1. TCO

        My job history has a few short-term jobs (layoff, AmeriCorps, etc.). I really do prefer long-term positions, so I make sure to mention in my cover letter and/or resume that I’m “seeking a place where I can make a long-term contribution.” That shows my commitment to staying at a job, while not committing me to staying quite as much as, “I plan to work here for at least two years,” does.

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    2. addiez

      Ditto – that was exactly my concern. I just hired someone into a non-profit administrator type role, and if she’d said in the interview that she saw this as a way to get in the door and do her time before moving up (or something like that) I wouldn’t have hired her. If I’m going to put in the time to train someone, I want to see them in the role for at least 1.5-2 years. May not work out that way, but I wouldn’t want to plan for it not working out.

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  4. Episkey

    Honestly, I ‘d consider leaving the masters off your resume. I have one also and whenever I apply to admin based positions I provide my resume version that only lists my bachelors. I think it has helped. I also did AmeriCorps, but for me it made me decide that perhaps nonprofit work was not my calling lol.

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  5. techfool

    The problem with admin is that it’s very hard to get out of once you’re in it. I guess you could say that about any field though.

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    1. Erin

      …this is true. This is very, very true.

      As I said in my initial comment, admin roles often grow to take on other non-admin duties, but your job title doesn’t actually reflect that.

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      1. YOLO

        That so depends on the individual nonprofit – even amongst the largest ones. They may *say* that it’s normal to move up the ranks, but really watch to see who gets to. Is it the admin – and more pointedly, is it the female admin? Or the female admin of color?

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      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        Like anything else, there’s lots of variation from organization to organization, but there are lots of nonprofits where people who started in admin roles end up in policy, advocacy, or other positions.

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        1. addiez

          +1 – I don’t think you get stuck in admin at all. We have an intentional track that we articulated to someone we just hired into a non-profit admin role.

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      3. Devils Avocado

        I have a (related) master’s degree, and have been an Executive Assistant at a non-profit for 3.5 years now. For me, the organization is small enough that there is literally no where for me to go. I joined the organization with the thought that I just wanted to get my foot in the door, and that would make it easier to move into something else within the organization later. For me that turned out to be very, very, untrue. And that’s why I just accepted a new job at a university yesterday. (That my Master’s degree, not my admin experience, helped me to get.)

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        1. TCO

          I’ve run into that, too–small nonprofits are great places to grow within your role because there’s always more work to be done without enough resources to do it. For instance, you might get to take on writing/editing because there’s no communications staff, etc. My roles at small nonprofits were always diverse and interesting.

          But there are just limited higher-level roles in small workplaces, and many nonprofits don’t have the resources to add new roles just because someone deserves a promotion. They’re less likely to create a manager job for someone to move up into, because adding that position is expensive. I found myself stuck at more than one nonprofit because there just weren’t other positions available to me.

          OP, if you’re really looking for a place to grow, you might want to ask about whether/how often agency staff move into higher-level roles. You might also consider whether the organization as a whole is growing its programs–if so, they might be adding new staff positions. If not, your only opportunities to move up might require one of the few people above you (or in roles you’d want) to leave.

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        2. Lily Rowan

          In my 20 years of nonprofit experience, moving up is almost never possible, but moving out to a higher position totally is. You just have to put in that time in the first job and then look for the next.

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    2. AnonAcademic

      In academic research, entry-level jobs are heavily administrative (scheduling research participants, photocopying, etc.). It’s expected however that people move on from those positions within 2-3 years usually, either to attend grad school or move up to lab management. However there’s always an administrative component even if you run a lab. I started out in an admin-heavy research assistant job, then went to grad school, and now I have a Ph.D. and yet still have to do data storage “housekeeping” which is like the tech version of admin work…just a digital version of filing paper really.

      In some fields admin work is how you cut your teeth and learn how the field works.

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      1. fposte

        Yeah, admin is a huge part of research anyway. I was going to say it just gets more specialized, but I think also the admin/non-admin line blurs.

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      2. the_scientist

        Seconding this. If the OP has a research-based masters and is applying to nonprofits with a research focus, moving up within the organization could be very do-able. Typically people start off as research assistants, which is like 50-90% administrative depending on the specific group; things like scheduling study participants, organizing research meetings and taking minutes, filing/updating/writing REB applications, amendments, approvals and documentation, and data housekeeping stuff. All of these things need to get done and most soft-funding research groups don’t have the budget to hire a dedicated admin assistant so the junior research assistant does it, while also doing some more complex stuff related to their background and education (analyses, running participants through tests, writing papers, wet lab work) that gives them the hard research skills they need to move up. Of course, there’s a point at which you top out if you don’t have a PhD but IME skilled and experienced lab techs/lab managers are *incredibly* valuable.

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  6. Smithy

    I have to say, that as someone working in the nonprofit field….I think that AAM’s final paragraph heavily depends on who you’re interviewing for and could easily backfire.

    At my nonprofit, our current receptionist has a masters in the general field of our organization and clearly is very interested overall in moving onward/upward. And the department he works in (HR and Admin) has recognized this and it’s definitely going to have an impact on the next person they’ll hire for that role. They’re very territorial over him, get concerned if he assists too much on other projects, and there’s a lot of general “he committed to this position for 2 years so no one’s allowed to hire him away from us”.

    Where I worked before, Administrative Staff who had minimal interest in project work were always preferred, and Project Staff was forbidden to give any tasks to the Administrative staff. Our current receptionist will be fine and may easily be hired within our organization in another department – but in terms of how his replacement will be hired, I see that going far differently.

    The fact that you’re interviewing with nonprofits indicates that you’re at least open to the organization’s mission to the extent that you’d take less pay than doing similar admin activities for a company. I would really stress the parts about learning how an organization runs and being flexible to changing needs to help the organization – and I would be hesitant in indicating an interest to move upward in the organization.

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    1. Delyssia

      I think it depends to an extent on what the OP means by “heavily administrative.” If they’re straight-up receptionist or administrative assistant positions, I think what Smithy is saying is probably true in a number of workplaces (both non-profit and for-profit). But I think it’s a little different if it’s a position that is, say, a mix of marketing and administrative work (hypothetical here, but it’s a combination I’ve seen a lot). In that case, I think it’s okay to have a professional enthusiasm for the marketing side of the job, as long as you can make it clear that you understand the importance of the admin work, you understand that it’s a major part of the job, etc.

      Reply
      1. Smithy

        This is true. In lots of nonprofits, databases and fundraising have many roles that do involve lots of admin but also have that different side of the role. Fundraising in particular (my field), in larger organizations has lots of entry level positions that are heavy in admin – and having enthusiasm for the work in general is very helpful. Also, fundraising is a great entry point into program work because fundraisers need to learn a little bit about “everything” the organization does.

        My advice comes heavily in regards to the more straight up admin roles. The response the OP is getting heavily reminded me of what’s going on with our current receptionist. Where I used to work, every Admin staff member reported directly to the Executive Director because she hated having to replace Admin staff and found it to be very difficult. As a result she was heavily invested in keeping that staff both happy and away from other work.

        I specifically got into fundraising by being a research assistant which was really heavy on grants administration – so I’m not dismissing this as a professional trajectory within nonprofits at all. But I’ve also experienced a few organizations where admins in the receptionist/office assistant role – having an interest in project work can have a negative impact while interviewing.

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    2. Christian Troy

      I’ve seen this happen in research a lot. People take admin kind of roles in hopes that they’ll (a) somehow get research related tasks and (b) get their foot in the door for when an actual research position opens up. I found myself in that position too and it’s hard to get out of that hole when you’re in it. The reality is the scope of an admin job is usually admin work — managing calendars, taking meeting notes, ordering supplies, answering the phone. You may get a random research task, but you have to be prepared that the bulk (and probably all in some cases) of your work is not going to be doing something that requires a master’s degree.

      I don’t want to say you should not apply and interview for admin jobs, but I definitely would suggest to think more carefully about the day to day responsibilities of the position and if it’s possible for you to look more closely at positions that are a better fit.

      Reply
  7. Erin

    Admin roles often grow to take on other duties, even if the job title doesn’t reflect it.

    For me, I have two admin jobs and I’m a freelance writer on the side. When my (at least one of them) job realized this they were like, great! Let’s get you on social media and marketing efforts, and you can proofread this for me and edit that, and etc. etc. I LOVE that they acknowledge my strengths and interests and allow me to take that in as part of my job.

    However, I’m under no delusion as to why I was hired, I understand my admin jobs will never really go away, and I do genuinely take pride in the admin work I do and contributing the organizational side of things.

    I’m at a loss as to how to phrase it, but if you could maybe convey something like this to them that might help you out – that you hope the role grows and that you want to take on extra duties, but you’re aware of the admin side and are happy and willing to take on those tasks as well.

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  8. Zscore

    It helps of you can get yourself really excited about the job before the interview. Admin work is a fabulous way to learn about all aspects of an organization… it really touches on everything. You are early career, and some day you may want a leadership position. Admin work is an opportunity to see how all the pieces fit together, and to help you focus your interests for future growth.

    As an interviewer I want to hear genuine interest, and I also want to hear what you think you can bring to the organization in this role. In an admin role, I would look for organization, discretion, customer service, writing skills, even temperament, desire to learn, proactive problem solving, and keen observation. This is a person who fills whatever gaps arise unexpectedly, requiring versatility, flexibility, and a willingness to do whatever it takes.

    Good luck!

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    1. MKT

      Thank you for this!
      As an admin, I have a hard time explaining WHAT I do, outside of the usual email/spreadsheet/invoicing stuff. I don’t know how to explain that my strengths are in seeing what needs to get done and filling in the tasks that need to get done but don’t fall under anyone else responsibilities, but the way you just said what you look for is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey for years, so thank you very much!

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  9. experienced attorney

    Ive had folks say that they are okay with it, but that is actually pretty different and distinct than learning, executing and continuing to maintain a high level of attention to detail to admin tasks. I’ve seen employees go from being “okay with it” to sloppy, because they want a change (6 mo in or sooner). I’d really focus on the reassurance being why you enjoy that type of work, how you maintain a high level of attention to detail despite repetition (or whatever the issue might be), and/or how you enjoy/feel accomplished when you further streamline a process or make it more efficient, etc.

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  10. AnotherAlison

    This post just reminded me of how little I know about nonprofits. I know someone already called out a request for a salary survey update/refresh. I’d love to see more about-my-job or how-I-got-my-job posts in 2016.

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  11. Wonder Woman

    If possible try to get a read on how admin work is perceived at that workplace. There’s a difference between “this is a necessary and valuable part of our work” and “we are going to dump all of our crap on you and get pissed that it’s not done already.” You might be able to tell from how the interviewer asks, if they are doubtful or a little incredulous. I just got out of a situation where my willingness to do admin work backfired on me. I was willing because the department was recently reorged and I was hired to develop new processes, and they needed the help. I ended up snowed under in “file this article for me” and “write a meeting agenda for me” and they also ignored the process work I did. I think somehow my willingness to do the work made me look bad in the eyes of the managers.

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  12. Velociraptor Attack

    First of all, make sure that you are okay with it and consider how long you really want to be in Admin work. If it’s something that after 6 months you’re not going to happy with, then it might not be the best route in for you.

    There are remedies for this though. You’re in a large city but I’m sure there are small nonprofits out there. In my experience, working in a small nonprofit can be great for someone looking to gain more experience. I worked at a small nonprofit and our administrative coordinator is heavily involved in a lot of other aspects of the organization because of the fact that it is a staff of five. The pay isn’t as good as a larger nonprofit of course but I think they’re solid choices for people looking to get experience or grow their current skill set.

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      1. Velociraptor Attack

        Absolutely. Are you necessarily going to be able to move up in the organization? No but you can get the experience and do the networking to eventually transition into a different role at a larger organization.

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  13. Snarkus Aurielius

    Here’s a radical thought: apply for those jobs that require an MA and more work experience than you have. A rejection letter is the only terrible thing that could happen, and that’s not even terrible.

    I read a study somewhere that women apply to a job when they met 100% of the requirements whereas men apply when they meet 60%.

    If you can avoid doing any admin work please do so unless you want to have an admin job for the rest of your life. Not only is it hard to get out of once you’re in it, as others have noted, but doing admin work takes away time you could be spending on other opportunities to advance yourself. If you’re looking to move up, that’s great, but I’ve seen it a zillion times: once you start out in admin, regardless of whether you move up, many people have a hard time remembering your as anything else.

    Plus those jobs that require an MA will pay a bit better, but not by much, than straight up admin jobs.

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    1. YOLO

      “If you’re looking to move up, that’s great, but I’ve seen it a zillion times: once you start out in admin, regardless of whether you move up, many people have a hard time remembering you as anything else.”

      The hardest part is when you begin to forget as well.

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    2. AnotherAlison

      I read a study somewhere that women apply to a job when they met 100% of the requirements whereas men apply when they meet 60%.

      Thanks for throwing that out there. I do think this is true. . .IME, I’ve met quite a few men where I’ve scratched my head as to how they got their job, with 50% of the required experience (work years, degree, whatever). Rarely do I do that with a woman. She’s usually very well qualified.

      But, since Fposte noted she thinks the OP IS applying to those jobs, here’s my question: What types of jobs do men look for when they can’t find a position in their field? Why is admin the default for women?

      We have a few administrative men (most are in a group different from our admins-who-would-be-called-secretaries-20-years-ago group). But, there are more women with degrees, whereas the guys don’t have them. (Admittedly, the guys’ sample size is small.)

      Reply
      1. Student

        It’s like asking why there are no male teachers.

        Men can get better low-wage jobs than being admins. They’re doing more manual labor, union jobs, they have better grey-market and black-market prospects to consider than women do, or they are getting opportunities via networking that wouldn’t necessarily be offered to them based on paper qualifications. And many of these jobs are also lower stress and more well-defined hours than admin work (though many of them cause more physical wear and tear).

        When men do opt to become admins, they tend to get promoted out of it much faster than equally qualified women. This is a very widely-observed effect in many women-dominated “pink collar” fields.

        Reply
        1. AnotherAlison

          It’s actually not at all like asking why there are no male teachers. You go to college to get a degree in teaching. You get a license to teach. You don’t accidentally end up there. We know my most men aren’t signing up for degrees leading to $40k a year teaching 3rd grade.

          The question I’m interested in is what men who can’t find a job in their field do instead. We have a new temp who is a dude with a shiny new poly sci degree. He is a marketing coordinator. So, I guess that’s a data point of 1. His entry-level work is admin-ish, but I wonder if he would have applied to the job if it was marketing admin assistant.

          I don’t see a whole lot of guys finishing a 4-year degree in poly sci, econ, religious studies, etc. who get union jobs or trades jobs. It does happen, but not a lot that I’ve seen. My husband works in the trades, so I do know quite a few people in the field. A lot of them do have degrees, but they have technical degrees or construction management degrees.

          Eh, as I look around I’m answering my own question. I know another guy who was a pastor –> now manages an Applebees. Then there’s the mailroom guy who just came by (another male-friendly admin position).

          Reply
          1. Anonymous Educator

            It’s usually one of two things:

            1. These men applying for positions they’re underqualified for and then getting those positions through unconscious bias or cronyism.

            2. These men getting admin support positions and then being quickly being promoted out of them.

            I was at an organization in which two support people were hired at the same time (and the woman’s role was technically “higher” up and really shouldn’t have included any receptionist duties but did anyway). After a few years, the man was promoted up to a different department and the woman was still in her old job. When the man left, he actually recommended the woman to be considered for his replacement, but the higher ups wouldn’t even consider her a candidate, and they kept her in her previous role for a couple more years before she was able to transfer to a different department.

            At another organization, there were two receptionists—one woman and one man—also hired around the same time, and they both applied for a promotion that would have taken them out of the receptionist area. The man got it. They offered to give the woman a better title (and I’m assuming higher pay) but keep her in the receptionist area. She ended up just leaving for another job.

            Reply
            1. "I'll jump -- how high?"

              We’ve forgotten option #3: They work in retail or the food service industry, and do their best to pretend that going to college was an expensive mistake, much like many women also do. :-)

              Reply
    3. Otter box

      I have to disagree with much of this. I’m an administrative assistant who basically did what the OP is describing after my MA, and I’m very happy that I did. I was hired in an admin position at a mid-size non-profit organization, and because of my role I’m able to see a lot of both the details and the bigger picture across the organization. I’ve learned so much about how the non-profit world operates, and I think in the future it will be nothing but a benefit. I really disagree with the characterization that people who do admin work can’t advance in their careers, as though admins are incapable of growing professionally or learning new things. My organization has a tendency to promote their admin assistants when a position they’re interested in opens up. In fact, when I was job searching, several of the non-profits I interviewed at were hiring *because* their current admins were moving into programmatic or research positions. Incidentally, I’ve discovered that I really like the admin/finance side of things, so I don’t actually have any ambitions to leave anytime soon.

      I know my situation isn’t always the case, and probably isn’t usually the case, but there are non-profits out there that do value admin work and appreciate their admin staff’s talents. I sincerely hope the comments on this letter don’t discourage people from going this route if they want to try it. You do need to be picky and try to get a good feel for the organization’s culture during the interview, but it’s not like you’re locking yourself into admin work for life if you apply to some admin jobs at non-profits that interest you.

      Reply
      1. Devil's Avocado

        It isn’t that admins are incapable of growing. It’s that other people have a hard time envisioning you doing other work. I am glad it worked out for you – you’re one data point, and I am too, except I had the exact opposite experience. So I think the lesson is to accurately assess how likely a particular organization is to move you into a different role, which can be hard to do from the outside. (I made a guess and was wrong.)

        Reply
        1. Snarkus Aurielius

          Thank you.

          I think once you’re in that helper role, staff relying on you without thinking. If you’re promoted, it’s hard for everyone else to get out of that mode because that means they need to either assign admin work to someone else or do it themselves. Going back to the original person is just easier.

          Reply
    4. Thomas W

      Disagree, strongly. You are devaluing the work done by admins and overlooking the incredible experience one can gain from this perspective. People in my company have started as admins because they have no other work experience. Some of them have really liked it and stayed in this area. Others have been promoted within the company to other roles. Others have moved on for promotions elsewhere. Saying “people only remember you as admins” validates BAD behavior of pigeon-holing people.

      Reply
      1. Snarkus Aurielius

        I would agree with you if the genders weren’t skewed, but they are. Historically men do not use admin work as a way to get a foot in the door. They jump into the work immediately. If a woman has the same aspirations, I always encourage her to skip the admin role and jump in too.

        It’s not about devaluing admin work. It is valuable but it depends on the job. If you’re a receptionist, then yes it’s valuable. If you’re trying to break out of it or go higher? Not so much because those tasks aren’t part of the job.

        Reply
        1. Thomas W

          That, to me, is like telling a woman that she shouldn’t be a stay-at-home mom, just because some other women have been forced to due to sexist societal expectations and socially enforced gender roles — as if the being a stay-at-home mom is the bad thing rather than the sexist expectations and enforcing of gender roles.

          Reply
  14. Mimmy

    Ohhh mannnn do I need to jump in on this conversation, but I don’t have the time today! This has been my quandary, particularly when it comes to whether or not to leave my Masters on my resume as well as the graduate certificate I expect to finish this coming spring.

    One other issue I’ve had – and this is probably showing my naivety – but “administrative” work seems so broadly defined. I’ve seen tasks in this realm go from basic clerical tasks (reception, filing, light accounting) to office management (ordering supplies, HR functions) assisting with actual projects. Unless I’m confusing it with “administration”, which sounds more like management, i.e. department director or program coordinator?

    Reply
    1. Student

      Admin work is a catch-all phrase for taking care of work that nobody else wants to do. You’re somebody else’s helper. The type of tasks expected of an admin vary dramatically from one office to another, and frequently even from one admin to another depending on competency. At base, you’re generally a paperwork-filler.

      Reply
      1. fposte

        I think that’s a rather jaundiced take, though. Support staff is always there to support the mission, whether you’re a lab assistant or a clerk I. It’s not that nobody else wants to do it any more than in any other job, it’s that it’s more economical to have the higher paid people doing more specialized stuff. (And of course there are situations where admin is the higher-paid position, because experience has made the person in it that valuable.)

        Reply
      2. Anonymous Educator

        At base, you’re generally a paperwork-filler.

        If you’re good at your job, you’re not. If you’re good at your job, you look at current processes and figure out ways to make them more efficient or introduce new methods for handling workflows.

        Reply
      3. pieces of flair

        I mean, some admin positions are structured this way, but that’s a very limited view of what admin work is at its base. Working in research (and other fields too, I’m sure, but I happen to work in research), it is absolutely vital to have skilled people doing admin work. The consequences of sloppy admin work might include lost or unusable data, breaches of confidentiality or human subjects ethics, and/or losing funding and other support. I would say that a good admin needs a few crucial skills:

        1) attention to detail. This is not just a buzzword. You have to be able to follow routines and processes consistently, maintain deep focus at every step even if it’s “boring,” and check your work carefully. People who see admin work as “lesser” tend not to cultivate this level of care in their work, sometimes with disastrous results.

        2) resourcefulness and ability to problem solve. You will be asked to make things happen that may not seem reasonable because your boss doesn’t understand the bureaucratic or other practical barriers in the way. You have to figure out a way to do it. If you’re good enough, you will investigate your options and jump through the necessary hoops to do what your boss needs without him/her even noticing the difficulty involved. You take care of the procedural details so your boss can focus on the big picture.

        3) multitasking. Again, more than a buzzword. It’s not about doing more than one thing at a time, but rather keeping track of multiple projects, priorities, and deadlines. You have to plan and coordinate various reports, reviews, and applications to stay in compliance. You have to get pieces of reports from multiple sources or people and put them together coherently and on time. You can’t let anything slide. You also have to be conatantly available for questions that come up, able to interrupt what you’re doing to help with urgent issues and get back to it later.

        A good admin is smart, adaptable, and versatile. There is high level admin work and it’s really not something anyone can do well. A good organization has respect for its admins as professionals and doesn’t think of them as people to dump the undesirable tasks on. Also, “stuff that nobody else wants to do” can often be reframed as “stuff that nobody else is prepared to handle.”

        Reply
        1. Anonymous Educator

          +1 to 1), 2), and 3)

          There was one time at my receptionist position that two of my (well-intentioned) superiors asked to help me with opening mail, filing, data entry and I let them. It was a disaster! We had a point where we had to send reminders about missing documents, and I (embarrassingly) had to answer the phone calls of “But we sent that in” with “Oh, you’re right. Sorry! You did send that in.” After that, I was adamant with my boss that I be the only one opening the mail, filing, and doing data entry—not that I was hoarding knowledge (it wasn’t a niche skill)… it was mainly that I was more detail-oriented, the work would be done more consistently (by one person instead of several), and ultimately I would be the one answering the phone calls and emails of “But we sent that in!” so it made more sense that if I had to own up to a mistake it would be my own.

          Reply
        2. Mimmy

          Wow, thank you for that description! I’m pretty good with #1. The other two….. let’s just say those are a challenge for me. Admin work is probably not for everybody.

          Reply
  15. Anonymous Educator

    I think you really need to look at why you want admin work now. I guess you wouldn’t tell your interviewer this, but from your letter it appears you’re just settling for it because you can’t get a job your master’s degree would make sense for… and that’s exactly what the interviewer is afraid of (that the admin position is just a fallback for you).

    Sure, there are plenty of people who don’t dream of being admins/assistants/receptionists, but even for those people it can be in the moment a desired position as opposed to a position you’re just okay with or fine with (settling for).

    When I took a receptionist position (which I did for several years), I also had a master’s and significant experience doing “higher” level work. My future boss said I was overqualified and asked why I was interested in the position, and I said at that point in my career, I was less interested in what I was doing and more interested in where I was doing it, and I really believed in the organization. She didn’t feel I was settling (and I wasn’t just feeding her a line—that’s actually how I felt at the time), and I did well in the position. Eventually, I moved on, but I put in a good chunk of time (and ended up staying longer than she did there).

    You have to look at why you want (not are fine with) the position and be convincing about it. If you believe the position is right for you, your interviewer is more likely to believe the same. If you have to think of a line to say, it’s more likely to sound like a line.

    Reply
    1. CMT

      I agree — I got the same impression from LW. I know the letter and Alison’s advice were based on the assumption that OP really *does* want to do admin work, but I wasn’t quite convinced by the letter. How can you convince somebody that this is what you really want if it’s actually not what you really want? I do think interviewers will be able to pick up on that.

      Reply
  16. A Jane

    Definitely agree with Alison’s last point about nonprofits and admin work. I would give examples of the type of admin work I had to completed, and connect to how I understood it was a necessary part of the mission.

    For example, as a part of my administrative internships, I would often serve as the front-desk receptionist for my organization. The majority of the phone calls were extremely time-sensitive, so it was important to be able to patch calls through quickly and efficiently. After a few months of serving in role, I realized that the process could be improved if X, Y, Z happened. As a result, it my manager recognized I was a good problem solver to help improve processes and reached out to me for my thoughts.

    Reply
  17. The Strand

    I only spent about the first year and a half of my post-bachelor’s career as an admin, but during that time, I worked with a smart woman with a master’s degree, who spoke three languages, who was then treated dismissively by some of the people around her.

    I would strongly consider the advice from folks not to do this kind of work as your first stop, post-master’s. Because you went to the trouble of getting a master’s degree, and specializing, I’m assuming that your career is important to you. For that reason, I would add to reconsider other cities where you can start working in your field right away, even if they do not have a reputation for being “progressive”. Hey, after two years, it might make you more competitive in the “Cool City”.

    If you are in a town like Portland, OR, San Francisco, or L.A., you will have so much competition that it may not work to your advantage to take admin work at all. Honestly, leaving the West Coast was one of the best things I ever did for my career. It’s been really hard watching one of my close friends effectively trapped in an admin job at a Portland nonprofit for the last several years, when she is capable of so much more.

    Many college-educated people in their twenties and early thirties are attracted to “progressive metros” on the coasts, or like Austin, only to find that the trade off is being underemployed, and that many of the creative or nonprofit employers are full aware that it’s a “employers market” for them. (Yes, Austin is a great place for a lot of people, but a young person doing creative or nonprofit work would arguably have a better start in the Metroplex or Houston because there’s less competition, better pay – and these places still have “progressive”, cool neighborhoods.)

    TL;DR — If you can get what you need in a city that is big enough to have a thriving creative culture AND better job opportunities in the long run, I’d go for that instead.

    Reply
  18. Original writer

    Hi, I’m the question asker. I really appreciate all these thoughtful responses. As luck would have it, I received and accepted a job offer pretty soon after I sent in this question. It’s something I’m more genuinely interested in doing than the positions I described in my original question, which of course made it easier to be natural and enthusiastic in the interview. I’m going to bookmark these responses for my peers in a similar situation, though.

    Reply
    1. Mark in Cali

      I don’t intend to start a fire here, but it kind of sounds like you were just down on your job search, like oh so many of us have been, and were trying to find an excuse to apply for and get any job as long as it was a job. I feel like a lot of stories on this blog end with, “Actually, a few months later I found the job I really wanted.” I wonder how many admin jobs you actually applied for and were interviewed for before you wrote in with this question.

      Reply
  19. Lily Rowan

    For what it’s worth, just saying you’re willing to do the admin work puts you ahead of the applicants who do not say that! I had an entry-level candidate — right out of undergrad, but with some full-time work experience — say she wasn’t intersted in a support role. Um, did you read the job description? Also, what do you think you’re going to be doing at this point in your career?

    Reply
    1. Doriana Gray

      And see, when I was fresh out of undergrad, I only interviewed for admin roles, even though my degree was in journalism, because I’d done part-time admin work all throughout college. I couldn’t get people to give me these jobs and I was genuinely eager to have them. I was damn good at being an admin! Eventually, I was able to become an Office Assistant at a for-profit school, and I loved that job. My boss, the director, loved me (and even tried to steal me away when she left for another school). Then the school promoted me to an Admissions position – I was terrible at that, and my position was (thankfully) eliminated.

      I got another admin-esque role at a law firm a month later and never looked back. I knew where my strengths were (supporting others), but once again, I’ve found myself promoted up into a non-admin role. I love the industry I’m in and the work that I do, truly (and it’s highly lucrative); however, one day (after I’m done making all my money and paying off school loans), I dream of going back to the front desk. I really do. I was much happier and less stressed then.

      Reply
  20. Steve

    Being an admin when you don’t want to be is the kiss of death. It’s not typically a stepping stone to a higher position, and I doubt that any organization would hire someone with a master’s degree to take on that role. I think you should really analyze why you want to work at this non profit or any non profit, and I bet the answer has nothing to do with answering phones or arranging calendars.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous Educator

      I doubt that any organization would hire someone with a master’s degree to take on that role.

      I was hired for that role and had a master’s. It happens… maybe not often, but it does.

      Reply
    2. LadyofGray

      Haha. I was and it was the most depressing few month of my life. I DO NNOT have the skills to be an effective admin.

      Reply
  21. PolarBear

    I never dreamed of being an executive assistant but I ended up working in admin! I’m a graduate (nursing, long story) but ended up in office work. There are a lot of graduates around and pekoe with a Masters working minimum wage retail jobs so I’m happy I’ve got where I am. Working in the City (in London) PA/EA jobs pay really well. I get a bonus, flexitime, working from home, private healthcare, good pension etc. It’s not my dream job but I’m perfectly content. I work for a large financial firm. There is the opportunity for the firm to sponsor accountancy qualifications etc and for working abroad. Nursing in the UK is poorly paid (relatively speaking for what they do) so being a PA is a much better fit for me in terms of money, work-life balance and not having to deal with patients!

    Reply

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