Museums and Work: The Dream Job Conundrum

Fortune CookieRecently there have been a number of questions from Gen Xers on Museum-L and AAM’s Museum Junction about getting a job. You can find some of them here: Museum Career Ideas. As people moving toward the end of their careers, we’ve found these discussions distressing. First, there’s the whole issue of not being able to get a job with an undergraduate degree, and then there’s the discussion of whether getting a master’s degree is in fact worth it. And last, there’s the whole demographic thing about whether the Boomer generation is ever really going to retire, and whether millennials and Gen Xers will move into their spots. It is, to put it bluntly, a hot mess.

Here are some thoughts for those out there contemplating a dream job because honestly when you walk around the Phillips Collection or the Kansas City Art Institute, Hancock Shaker Village on a crystal summer day or a gazillion other organizations, how can you not imagine what it would be like to work there, and how perfect it would be?

So…if you’re recently in possession of a bachelor’s degree in art history, American history, science or education, and think you want to work in a museum, some thoughts: Yes, you can try to get an internship or possibly a job interacting with visitors, as a guide, docent or museum teacher. Try. If that’s what you want: try. But be strategic. Recognize that a lot of the same skills needed to work in non-profit communications, development, even education, also apply to museums. So if you’re a writer longing to work in a museum, but failing to get a job, expand your search to all non-profits. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, then apply to a museum or to your favorite museum. That goes for development and education too. Searching for money in a development office takes the same skills, just a different mission. And if you’re an educator or a wanna-be educator think about how you can leverage and grow that same skill set in a museum or a similar organization.

Graduate school is tough call. There are more than a few museum jobs where you need a graduate degree. And you’d have to have lived in a Kimmy Schmidt bunker not to realize it’s going to cost you a bundle. So, again, be strategic. You’re about to make an investment. A big one. Measure what you’re going to get at each university you look at. Can you move or are you restricted to programs in a particular region? Does the school you’re contemplating offer job counseling, internship placements, mentoring? What percentage of graduates get jobs post graduation? Can you work while participating in an online program? Know what you want, and more particularly what you need. Would you be better off at the Bank Street College of Education or in a public history program? Are you an art history major? Go online and look at the educational backgrounds of staff in museums you wish would hire you. Best of all, if you know you want to work in education at the Smithsonian,  for example, contact someone on staff and ask for a chance to talk. This is not an interview. This is a chance to ask a staff member what she would do differently if she were to begin her career again.

Should you volunteer while you are applying for jobs? Again, tough question. Are you able to volunteer? What will you give up to volunteer? Will you gain more than just work experience with no pay? Will you have the opportunity to meet and interact with museum staff? Are there mentoring opportunities built into your volunteering?

Our advice? Be strategic and be a bit selfish. Give, but get something back. If you’re not sure what museum department’s calling you, consider volunteering in the director’s or CFO’s office if that’s a possibility. You will see more and it may help you make a decision.

Some final thoughts:

  • Learn everything you can about the field.
  • Don’t be too starry eyed.
  • Understand your own skill set and how it applies to the museum field.
  • Understand how your skill set applies to other non-profit work.
  • Be strategic in your choices.
  • Find a mentor or mentors.
  • Meet people who do what you want to do, and ask them questions.
  • Understand the job market. Have a plan B.

Joan Baldwin

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6 Comments on “Museums and Work: The Dream Job Conundrum”

  1. Evelyn Fidler says:

    Again, great advice Joan!

  2. Michelle Zupan says:

    I would also add…be willing to start at the bottom and don’t gripe about it. Too often the Millenials I encounter are mortified that they might be expected to do what they consider “grunt” work. Many have been so indoctrinated into the “everyone is a perfect snowflake” mentality that they think they’ll start as senior staff with zero job experience. My response, sorry, love, we ALL do grunt work when we start out, it’s part of life training. I started my museum career as the manager of the IMAX theatre in a museum. Sucked, but it got me in the door. I kept my mouth shut, paid attention, learned everything I could and worked my way up. And, I’m better for having done it that way. As a Director, I will not ask my direct reports to do anything I have not or am unwilling to do myself.

  3. Carrie B says:

    In the first sentence do you really mean Gen X? This sounds like advice for people in college or just beyond, which would be Millenials (or “Gen Y”).

    • Hi, Carrie.
      In truth some of what I’d read was from disgruntled Gen Xers tired of waiting for Boomers to leave and give them space to move up, but you are right. That sentence really does apply as much to Millennials.
      Joan Baldwin

      • Evelyn Fidler says:

        As a gen X (or Jones generation as referred to elsewhere) I find that is an issue, boomers working way past retirement just because they can. My generation has never experienced a lot of job security or saved much for retirement as we can’t. We are sometimes in panic mode that we will never arrive at that security.


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