Behind every manager or company director you'll find an organised, efficient personal assistant. Discover what this varied and dynamic career has to offer

As a personal assistant (PA) you will work closely with senior managerial or directorial staff to provide administrative support, usually on a one-to-one basis. You will help a manager to make the best use of their time by dealing with secretarial and administrative tasks.

PAs need extensive knowledge of the organisation in which they work. You will need to know who key personnel are (both external and internal) and understand the organisation's aims and objectives.

Managers often rely heavily on their PA, trusting that work will be handled efficiently in their absence. Discretion and confidentiality are therefore essential attributes for a successful PA.

A personal assistant is sometimes called an executive secretary, as well as a personal or private secretary.

Responsibilities

As a PA, you will often act as the manager's first point of contact with people from both inside and outside the organisation. Tasks are likely to include:

  • devising and maintaining office systems, including data management and filing;
  • arranging travel, visas and accommodation and, occasionally, travelling with the manager to take notes or dictation at meetings or to provide general assistance during presentations;
  • screening phone calls, enquiries and requests, and handling them when appropriate;
  • meeting and greeting visitors at all levels of seniority;
  • organising and maintaining diaries and making appointments;
  • dealing with incoming email, faxes and post, often corresponding on behalf of the manager;
  • carrying out background research and presenting findings;
  • producing documents, briefing papers, reports and presentations;
  • organising and attending meetings and ensuring the manager is well prepared for meetings;
  • liaising with clients, suppliers and other staff.

In addition to supporting managers, their team and departments, many PAs also have their own personal workload and responsibilities. The scope of the PA's role can be extensive and additional duties may include:

  • carrying out specific projects and research;
  • responsibility for accounts and budgets;
  • taking on some of the manager's responsibilities and working more closely with management;
  • deputising for the manager, making decisions and delegating work to others in the manager's absence;
  • being involved in decision-making processes.

Some PAs do all the secretarial work themselves, while others take responsibility for recruiting and training junior staff and delegate some of the less demanding and confidential work to them.

Salary

  • The range of typical starting salaries falls between £17,000 and £25,000. In central London, starting salaries can range from £22,000 to around £30,000.
  • Salaries at senior level or with experience are around £25,000 to £33,000. Salaries in central London can range from £30,000 to £50,000, depending on the level of experience and the type of business.

Salaries depend on the size and nature of the employing organisation, as well as on geographical location.

Additional benefits may include a company pension scheme, season ticket loan, private health insurance, sports or gym membership and subsidised lunches.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You will generally work from 9am to 5pm, depending on the type of organisation. It may be necessary to work overtime during peak times and when deadlines are close.

Part-time work, flexible hours and career breaks are all possible.

What to expect

  • There is frequent contact with people, either face-to-face or by phone or email.
  • Some personal assistants choose to register with agencies and move between organisations on short-term contracts. Hourly rates vary but average around £15 to £25 an hour, depending on the location and sector. This provides less job security but more flexibility and the scope to gain a variety of experience.
  • Despite the personal nature of the role, self-employment is possible for those with considerable experience. Virtual assistants work from home giving their time in blocks to a range of clients.
  • Men are currently underrepresented in this occupation.
  • Jobs are widely available in most large towns and cities, but less so in rural areas. The most prestigious posts tend to be based in London.
  • The job may be very stressful at times, as it can sometimes involve dealing with difficult or demanding people, often at very senior levels, and the work is always focused on the needs of the manager. Being a PA means working very closely with one person and any problems they are having with their work may impact on you.
  • The support nature of the role also means that the PA's contribution to projects may not always be recognised across the organisation. Some PAs find this aspect of their work frustrating.
  • Travel within a working day, absence from home overnight and overseas work or travel are uncommon but may be required to attend external meetings and conferences or to research facilities.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates and those with a HND, a degree in business or management may increase your chances. Some subjects are more relevant for certain industries, e.g. English literature for publishing and law for legal work.

For HND holders, the following subjects may increase your chances:

  • administration;
  • business;
  • management;
  • secretarial studies.

Entry without a degree, HND or foundation degree is possible as personal qualities, experience and general office skills are typically considered more important.

GCSE English and mathematics (or equivalent) are standard entry requirements for many positions. A qualification in IT may also be required.

It is unlikely, as a graduate to enter directly into a PA position due to the level of experience expected. However, it is not impossible and one way of increasing your chances would be to study for a relevant qualification. These courses are designed to equip students with the skills essential for this profession:

Skills

In addition to relevant experience and secretarial and administrative knowledge, you will need to show evidence of the following:

  • exceptional written and oral communication skills;
  • excellent word processing and IT skills, including knowledge of a range of software packages;
  • the ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines;
  • good organisational and time management skills;
  • the ability to research, digest, analyse and present material clearly and concisely;
  • excellent interpersonal skills;
  • the ability to work on your own initiative;
  • honesty and reliability;
  • attention to detail;
  • flexibility and adaptability to juggle a range of different tasks and to work extra hours to meet deadlines;
  • discretion and an understanding of confidentiality issues.

There are also a number of specific skills which may give you a competitive advantage. For example, shorthand and audio typing are still widely used. Teeline and Pitman courses teach industry-standard shorthand systems and typing speeds - for shorthand lessons see Teeline Online.

Relevant vocational qualifications in business and administration are provided by the OCR Examinations Board. Knowledge of a foreign language may be useful in some positions.

Work experience

Most positions will require a minimum of two years' relevant experience, which will generally have been gained in a more junior secretarial or administrative role.

Working as a temp, either during or after your studies, can provide the opportunity to acquire office experience and develop higher-level secretarial skills. Many PAs will have worked their way up from office junior and general secretarial roles.

Employers

Personal assistants work in a range of large, medium-sized and small organisations across all sectors. Positions can be found in:

  • accountancy;
  • agriculture, horticulture and related industries;
  • the arts, entertainment and leisure;
  • charities and the voluntary sector;
  • corporate business and business consultancies;
  • education;
  • finance;
  • health, social, medical and related services;
  • hospitality and catering;
  • law and related work;
  • local and central government departments, including working for members of parliament (MPs);
  • manufacturing and industrial organisations;
  • marketing and advertising;
  • media and communications;
  • property;
  • retail;
  • science-related organisations;
  • security and protective services.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies and online jobsites commonly handle vacancies; see:

Larger and more general agencies also handle PA vacancies and are a good way of finding temping opportunities.

Look out for special events aimed at personal assistants, for example Office* - an annual exhibition and conference aimed at PAs, executive assistants and office managers.

Professional development

Training takes place mainly on the job. Experienced secretaries may supervise new entrants until they are competent in the work. Larger companies may provide an induction course, lasting a few days, to introduce you to the various areas of the business. They may also provide short courses in areas such as:

  • word processing and database or spreadsheet software packages;
  • industry procedures and business protocol;
  • health and safety;
  • first aid;
  • shorthand and effective minute taking.

In smaller companies, you will usually have to do training in your own time and on your own initiative, although employers may be willing to pay for relevant courses.

It is possible to undertake part-time study while you are working. The following organisations offer relevant qualifications, which can normally be studied over one or two years:

It is possible to take a business administration degree course.

Membership of a professional body, such as the Institute of Administrative Management (IAM), is also useful.

The IAM is now the leading professional body for business leaders, administration managers and professional administrators. It reflects the career aims of its administrator members who increasingly want to move into management and now have more responsibility for managing people. See the IAM website for information on membership, events, online training courses and details of endorsed qualifications, such as the Level 4 Diploma in Business and Administrative Management, available from relevant awarding bodies.

Career prospects

After gaining qualifications, skills and experience, PAs can join a relevant professional body, such as the IAM, which can be useful for career development and can provide access to advice and continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities.

Full membership of the IAM (MInstAM) is open to anyone who meets one of the following requirements:

  • you have been employed for five years or more in any business where your duties involve administration or administration management;
  • you hold a Level 4 or 5 qualification in a relevant field;
  • you have completed 12 days of CPD in the last three years.

The IAM also offers student and affiliate membership for those in the early stages of their career. See their website for more details on the different levels of membership available.

You can apply for membership of the chartered or professional body of the sector within which you are working. For example:

With experience, progression can be rapid. PAs can work their way up to more senior posts with responsibility for junior staff. Promotion can be to PA for a more senior manager or in a larger or more prestigious company. Moves are also possible within the industry by developing the role, contacts and knowledge to move on from administration to other departments.

A PA can progress to an executive assistant (EA). This role combines the business-related role of the PA with the additional responsibility of organising a manager's personal life. The salary is often higher than that of a PA but the hours may be longer and the role involves working very closely with a manager.

PA work can provide a unique insight into how a business operates and how decisions are made at the highest levels. This kind of experience can prove valuable for PAs who want to become managers themselves. The skills gained in PA work can be used in other sectors, such as human resources, marketing and public relations.

It is possible to specialise in a specific sector, for example as a legal or medical PA. These jobs may attract higher salaries but may require additional qualifications.

Some experienced PAs decide to work as virtual assistants on a self-employed basis. Virtual assistants work from home giving their time in blocks to a range of clients. Some PAs work as virtual assistants as part of a portfolio career, combining the role with other kinds of work, sometimes even developing a hobby into a business. This career flexibility can be appealing. For more information, see The UK Association of Virtual Assistants.

Self-employment is usually only possible for PAs with substantial experience.