More Than a Mentor: Thinking Strategically About a Museum Career

Before we begin, some good news: Anne and I are doing a workshop with our friends Jessica Ferey and Marieke Van Damme at AAM. It’s called What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women. Now the bad news: It’s at 8:45 a.m., Saturday, May 28. If you’re going to be at AAM, and up at 7:30 AM, (and we hope to see you) are there tunes that pump you up like a great cup of coffee because we’d like to play them before our session?  Email or tweet (#museumwomen) your suggestions for our playlist, then plan to join us on May 28th for a great conversation!

networking

This week we’d like to build on our last post by saying that while mentors–being one, having one–are an important part of museum career planning, they aren’t the whole rodeo. Or to mix metaphors completely, they’re the flour not the entire cake. Besides having a mentor or mentors, you need to be strategic about your career.

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that careers are part of a life, not the whole thing. The rest–partners, husbands, wives, children, parents, friends, lovers, pets–all take energy, devotion and compromise. But within your particular narrative, you still need to be strategic. In addition, let’s acknowledge that museum salaries, particularly for women, women of color, and transgender folk are often ridiculously low. We’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog which you can find here: Museums and the Salary Conundrum or The Salary Agenda. But having acknowledged the demands of family, friends, and the financial strain of salaries that stink, what else should you do?

First, check in, meaning ask yourself if you like going to work. Are you happy? And don’t do it once, make it a habit. Keep a journal, write down your successes and put them in a jar, walk, think, mull things over. Ask yourself how you are. And if you want a fabulous example of personal reflection, read Nina Simon’s current blog: Year Five as a Museum Director. Her things I’m proud of, mistakes I made, and questions on my mind is an excellent template.

Staying in a soul-sucking job just because you earned that master’s degree in museum studies might not be worth it if your commute is punctuated by tears. Do we need to point out that daily crying is not a good thing? But you’re the trailing spouse or partner. Your parents are elderly and you can’t move right now. It took you months to get your apartment, and you can’t, repeat can’t move again. So don’t. Here is where your posse comes in. A posse is a circle of colleagues, folks you like, folks you can go out and have a drink with, but who aren’t necessarily friends. Why? Because they have to be able to tell it to you straight. They will be the people who remind you that you’ve showed up at your favorite watering hole one too many times in a sad mess. They will tell you that you need to turn around and apologize NOW. They will also tell you that you’ve been treated abysmally and that you’re good at what you do.

And, your posse should be able to help you tease apart your skill set. Do you work in a museum department that also exists in other non-profits? Development or communications for example. Is it worth looking elsewhere and building your resume without leaving your parents, partner or really great apartment? Can you reduce your hours, do some consulting and make the same money but have more autonomy? The point is these people will give you advice. You may already have a group like this. If not, invite some colleagues you like and admire, and arrange to meet after work. Last, don’t forget about your boss, department head, team leader. Hopefully she is a person you can talk to. Don’t abuse the privilege, but don’t be shy either.

If you think about everything you’ve read here, it’s clear we are suggesting that you have one or more people who mentor you. They are likely outside your current work environment, and they deal with the big picture–the museum field and your career trajectory. Inside your organization, you should have another individual who knows you and the cast of characters you work with. That person will help with organizational issues and your blind spots. Last, comes your posse. Yes, some of them will become friends, but remember, they have to be able to tell you the truth. And they will offer a network of connections, projects, and ideas. And you’ll do the same back. So be strategic. And if you want to read how business does it, check out these articles: How Leaders Create and Use Networks or Misconceptions About Networking.

Let us know how you network.

Joan Baldwin

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2 Comments on “More Than a Mentor: Thinking Strategically About a Museum Career”

  1. evelyn says:

    Great advice! Also don’t neglect personal time outside of work. Have a balanced life and it will show in your attitude towards your job.

  2. […] More Than a Mentor: Thinking Strategically About a Museum Career → […]


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