City: Help desk - `I'm labelled as a secretary with limited ambition and few prospects'

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The Independent Culture
The first in a new series that offers advice on work-related problems from different experts each week.

I applied for hundreds of jobs after leaving university and finally got a job as a secretary in a multimedia company. I've been in the job for over a year, but my boss has not been responsive to any of my attempts to develop a more creative role. He and the rest of the staff have labelled me a secretary with limited ambition and few career prospects. I had hoped this job would be the first step on the career ladder, but regardless of my enthusiasm and education this is not turning out to be the case. What should I do next?

Camilla Adams, north London

Bernadette Kirwin, managing director of Hobstones Recruitment:

More graduates are starting their careers in secretarial positions because it is a good way of learning practical skills which make them more marketable. Naturally they tend to start at the bottom of the ladder with the intention of moving upwards, but with any career this can take time. It is not possible to become a top PA overnight. Junior roles inevitably mean some basic work, helping out where needed, although this should change as the person becomes more experienced.

Many secretaries are expected to provide solutions and to devise more efficient working practices. If Camilla is proactive about taking on responsibility and work, then the role should expand and become more interesting and demanding. But this will be a gradual process.

As a secretary it is important to demonstrate that you have something to offer by using your initiative and building a reputation for being accurate, efficient and reliable. This will inspire trust and you will be given more scope. To be successful Penny needs a positive and flexible attitude, in particular towards working hours, which can be erratic to meet the needs of the business.

Anna Raeburn is a journalist and agony aunt for Talk Radio:

I was a secretary for 10 years, so I know all about being pigeon-holed by people. I was a real workhorse and frequently taken for granted. But there is no point expecting anything else for the first few years. I'm surprised that Camilla is still being treated as unambitious. I really thought that was a thing of the past.

Because there are so many graduates out there with degrees and no practical work experience, it is inevitable that you have to start out at the bottom. But the key is not to let this go on for ever. If Camilla feels she is not being allowed to develop she should change companies.

You must show aptitude for responsibility. Only then will you be given more. Don't let anyone be under any illusion about your ambition. But there again, don't go over the top.

Being a secretary is not limiting: it never was. Secretaries hold an awful lot of power. But this depends on having an enlightened or realistic - depending upon your point of view - boss.

I think Camilla should move from her present company. They are obviously unaware of her potential. In order to grow into a job, with extra responsibilities, she needs a position with another company. That way she won't be pigeon- holed."

If you would like expert advice about a work problem, write to Helpdesk, City+, Features, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182 or e-mail C. Fielding