Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job
Fitting for Labor Day here in the United States is a post about employment in the cultural heritage sector, specifically, museums. Users of LinkedIn and various LISTSERVs often post discussions lamenting the lack of jobs in the Museum sector and the glut of students graduating from Museum Studies Programs. In response, I often comment that although the employment picture is not rosy, there are steps job applicants can take to enhance their possibility for employment in the museum or cultural heritage industry.
Please note, I am aware that there are many individuals who have taken all the steps I list below and remain unemployed. I accept that as true not just for museums but for many other industries. My intent in this post is simply to offer examples of what has worked for some folks, not to discount or dismiss the very real concerns of those seeking employment.
As a starting point, today the employment picture is not particularly good for most job sectors. The profession I left over 25 years ago as an industrial machinist now has a 26% unemployment rate. Unemployment rates for telemarketers is 23% and actors is 28%. On the low end of the spectrum astronomers, biomedical engineers, judges, and nurse practitioners all have less than 1% unemployment (see here for data). For technical occupations in museums, the unemployment rate is reported at 5% in one source and 1.8% in another, both below the current U.S. average of 7.4%. I am not interested in defending the methods for computing unemployment rates - a controversial issue to be certain. But the data show there is variation in rates of unemployment among job sectors and the museum industry appears better off than most.
Given these data, my experience as an employer of museum professionals, as an educator in a museum studies program, and observing internet employment boards leads me to conclude there are jobs out there – though not as many and of the types and geographic locations suitable to all. However, I believe there are steps to better prepare oneself for the limited number of employment opportunities in museums.
First and foremost, the time to start thinking about getting a Museum job is not upon graduation with degree in hand, but before walking into the classroom on the first day. An excellent framework to think of this process is laid out in The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career. Don’t despair of the Anthropology in the title – the approach is the essence of the volume. The book covers the critical importance of creating a skills portfolio, internships, volunteerism, and professionalism – all issues that must be considered long before applying for the first job. A Life In Museums: Managing Your Museum Career from the American Alliance of Museums is also very insightful with a similar coverage of topics, though a bit light on resources. Museum Careers: Fit, Readiness and Development is a free download from Virginia Association of Museums that has some basic Q & A info to help determine the type of museum work for which a person is best suited. These are three examples written by professionals on how to get a job in the Museum sector. If you are seeking employment or will someday seek employment in the cultural heritage sector, and you are reading this blog post but have not read the above resources, you should go over to amazon.com and order the first two titles immediately.
If you seek employment in a small to medium-sized organization that make up 75% of the museums in the U.S. today, you will be one of just a handful of employees. If there is single consistent response to the LISTSERV questions on education and experience needed for the first job in a museum, the mantra is experience trumps degrees. Therefore, a skills portfolio, published and conference papers, internship projects, and so forth can be the tipping point.
What have you done? This question is critical and a point of departure I have with some folks when discussing paid vs unpaid internships. Internships are the opportunity for hands-on training and experience. Internships and volunteer positions should be negotiated agreements among all parties. If one has a career interest in collections and has a choice between an unpaid internship assisting with condition reports and learning PastPerfect software vs a paid internship to arrange publicity for the opening of a blockbuster exhibit, which is the better deal? Upon graduation when applying for jobs in collections, the resume line will read either a three-month position assisting with collections inventory and condition reports or arranging publicity. . . paid or unpaid will not be relevant. A common response is that all internships should be paid. Ideally, yes. For small to medium museums with shrinking budgets, in the 2013 economy, that option is often not possible.
Flexibility is also key. If you intend to work in a museum, and unless you live in a large metropolitan area like Washington DC or London, you may need to relocate. This fact should not be surprising. If you live in a city with 50 or fewer museum jobs, you might snag one of them eventually, but you will likely need to be mobile for the first few years. Relocation is a commonly accepted fact for those with graduate degrees seeking jobs in academic institutions. I raise this point as I am often surprised by the number of folks who seem surprised by this reality.
Flexibility in career choice within a museum is also key. For example of the over 5000 respondents to the American Alliance of Museums 2012 Salary Survey, less than 1% were conservators yet nearly 12% were educators. Assuming no bias based on job title in survey response, there are far fewer museum jobs for conservators than educators. Knowing this fact the day before you take your first class is a valuable insight.
Careers, especially today, are processes and not events. I am 61 years old. I got my “dream job” at the age of 55. That dream job resulted from my previous experience working in heavy industry, archaeological excavations, teaching, managing nonprofits and a few other things – all of which I enjoyed. I have been perplexed on more than one occasion when unemployed graduates turned down a museum position offer because it was not their “dream job.”
In summary, yes, getting a job in a museum today is not easy. And yes, academic institutions are into recruitment in a big way to bolster their sagging finances. However, the student is responsible from separating the hype from the reality. Know what you are getting into. I advise students that cultural heritage institutions will continue to be viable and vital institutions in the future. However that future involves less thinking outside the box but expanding the boundaries of the box. The Center for the Future of Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services host many reports and studies to contextualize the future employment in the cultural heritage sector. Knowing this information is crucial the first day of class so that a student can tailor their academic career to suit the existing and future job market.
Finally, if you are looking for an unpaid 150-hour internship based in prehistoric collections research, educational programming, or community outreach that will provide all you need to then write a conference and/or published paper, we have a limited number of internships available at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S. Drop me a note at rcnnolly(a)memphis.edu to discuss.