Interview: How To Get a Museum Job
As a follow-up to last week’s post on getting a museum job, below is a real-time example of how the process can work. Dr. Katie Stringer is the recently hired Executive Director of the Blount Mansion in Knoxville, TN. She graduated in May 2013 with a PhD in Public History (with a concentration in museum Management) from Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to a PhD and MA with concentrations in museum studies, Katie has 7 years of on-the-job training from working in museums throughout Tennessee. What makes Katie’s story particularly important is that her recent hire at Blount Mansion results in large part from her activities beyond the classroom during her years as a student.
Where do you get your information about job openings?
One of my favorite spots to check for museum jobs is the University of Leicester Museum Jobs Desk website. You can search by location, job title, or part-time/full-time/internship/volunteer. Many jobs are in the UK, but there are generally several posts from the United States as well. The Museum-L list-serv often has job postings. Before I was gainfully employed, my contacts and professors emailed me postings that were relevant to my studies.
You have published a blog (Something Old, Something New) for quite a while. How has this process helped to develop your career?
Blogging has helped keep me up-to-date with current events in the museum world and forced me to continue writing (even through those dark days of my dissertation work when the blog was lagging). I like to think that when potential employers or colleagues Google me they will find my blog which houses my thoughts on current museum events, my curriculum vitae, and my professional products and portfolio.
Besides coursework, how did you prepare to go on the job market while still in school?
Many people think that during coursework it is impossible to get “real world” museum training – this is absolutely not true! I was very fortunate that my professors were open to practical and useful projects throughout my coursework, residency, and even during my dissertation hours. My very first job at a historic site/museum was during my senior year as a history major at MTSU. I called around and emailed every historic site I could find in the area, and one actually contacted me and took a chance on a no-experienced college senior! I was able to create 2 senior projects (3 credits each) from my work there and add to my résumé. During my time in the MA program at the University of Memphis, I worked at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa as a Graduate Student Assistant, took advantage of required course-work internships that offered experience rather than coffee-fetching, and pursued both a part-time job as an educator at a large regional museum and a contract job creating education programs for a small museum. As I began the PhD program at MTSU I was approached to serve as the Interim Education Coordinator for the first historic site I worked at, and during my time working there I was able to create 2 “special projects” courses towards my degree that were both practical and counted towards school and my job hours! As long as you are creative and willing to work hard, it is possible.
What was the most important thing that helped you land that first job?
Networking, networking, networking. I like to think that my CV, degrees, and experience are impressive, but without the connections I made by attending conferences, online interactions, and just generally sporting an outgoing attitude, I may not have made the cut. Because of networking, I knew people (who were respected by the hiring committee) that I could ask to write outstanding recommendations of my work.
What is one thing you wish you had taken advantage of while in school to better prepare you for the job market?
I tried to take advantage of as many things as possible. Many schools have a career center that offers CV/Resume workshops or editing services, mock interviews, and more. I wish I had taken advantage of the opportunity to interview with someone before making my way into the field, but luckily my interview for the current job was very laid back, and more of a conversation than a hard-nosed interview.
Many job ads require 2-3 years of experience as a base qualification. How does someone with no experience acquire the minimum level to even apply for a job?
As I said above, if you are in school, take advantage of projects that are real-world based in your coursework that serve a dual purpose. Internships are also a great way to gain experience – I know there is a lot of kerfuffle about paid versus non-paid internships, but I believe that as long as you are gaining meaningful experience and not being used, an internship is one of the best ways to learn. Volunteering is also a great (though sometimes disheartening) way to learn about the field while helping out a museum. Even if you don’t spend those 2-3 years at one place, the time can build up. Internships and volunteering also open the doors to get diverse training in many fields, rather than just one such as education, development, or administration.
Any other advice to those who are looking for that first job in the cultural heritage sector?
I can’t emphasize networking enough. Go to conferences. Present your thoughts and work at conferences. Don’t just go sit in on sessions – go to the night-time events (which are SO MUCH fun), the hospitality suite, and the dinner meet-ups. Go to workshops and training opportunities that local museums and regional organizations put together – these offer great experience and more chances to meet other professionals. Write a blog, interact on list-servs and message boards, just get your name out there and find a niche that you can latch on to and make your own. I met some of my very best friends in the museum world through conferences, list-servs, and workshops, and I wouldn’t be able to make it through the daily life and strife of running a historic site without them.