Who’s Leaving the Field and Why Data Matters


This week there were a few articles and comments about the young and talented leaving the museum field. Principle among them was a post by Claire Milldrum on Paul Orselli’s blog. Pictured with her Corgi, she is apparently much happier in her post-museum life and for that Leadership Matters is glad.

We have written probably more than anyone else about work in the museum world. We have ranted about salaries, about living wages, and about the ridiculous cost of graduate school which, as Ms. Milldrum points out, seems to be the entry ticket for even the lowliest, most pathetic position at the biggest, fanciest museums. So don’t get us wrong when you read what comes next.

First and foremost one blog post is not data so everyone who commented as if this were a daily occurrence, where’s the data? Do we actually know how many young professionals leave the museum field before they actually start, scared off by the thought of low salaries (where there’s plenty of data) and high graduate school debt (where at least we have raw costs if not the number of students taking loans)?

Second, Milldrum conflates several things: galleries, libraries and museums, and work and internships, in all three sectors. While at the entry/internship level they may appear alike, in reality there are differences among the three fields. She also reports that she’s sad she’s not starting graduate school this month, but says she got into one of “the top grad schools in Library Science, and at one of them, a guaranteed student work job in my subfield.” Again, confusing because a masters in library science is not a degree in Museum Studies, art history or public history, it’s an MLS which provides entry to a field where the median salary is $57, 680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and where the American Library Association lobbies hard for entry level salaries. Last, in my experience–and admittedly it’s only my experience–libraries do hire humans possessing only a bachelor’s degree for jobs not internships. They are not librarian jobs, but they are not internships, and allow a young professional a necessary window into the sector before they make a commitment to graduate school.

So while Milldrum’s career path was confusing, her charges about the museum world weren’t. It has a long and sorrowful history of maid-of-all-work internships that prepare participants for nothing except debt. And those type of internships are a not-so-subtle race and class barrier. (See The Diversity vs. Salary Question). Clearly, once she decided to forego graduate school and the museum world, Milldrum had the skill set to walk into a well-paying job in non-profit finance. And why couldn’t she have gotten a similar job in the museum world that would have allowed her a normal work week and a chance to go to the dentist? She’s clearly smart. She’s a good writer, and based her description of working both one job for pay, and another as a volunteer to build her resume, she’s a hard worker. Is the museum world really so rarified that it couldn’t stand an infusion of some folks with newly-minted bachelor’s degrees? I mean we love what we do, but this isn’t oncology after all.

Milldrum’s post isn’t data, but perhaps it’s a bellwether, and we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that and compile the data. In the meantime, if you’re in museum HR or director of a small museum, would it hurt if you lobbied for an entry level position or two without a graduate degree? Is a master’s degree necessary for every job in your institution? If not, be the person who breaks the mold. Hire someone with smarts and passion and see what happens. The field will likely be better for it.

Joan Baldwin


7 Comments on “Who’s Leaving the Field and Why Data Matters”

  1. PS says:

    I’m no longer in the emerging professional category but I’m young and also considering leaving the field. I recently interviewed for a job in which no pay scale was listed on the posting, only to go through the entire interview process to find out that I would have to take an $8,000 pay cut to take the job. You want me to have a master’s degree and five years of experience, but you want to start me at less than I made when I started at my current job? I was discussing my options with someone and trying to see if my finances could take the blow, when I thought, “In no other field would anyone even think about taking a 20% pay cut for a job with more responsibility and worse benefits than they have now.”

    It’s something that is making it harder and harder to stay. The fact that I feel unreasonable for wanting a living wage. The fact that I feel stuck in a place where I don’t want to live because I can’t find a job in the place where I want to be. The fact that I will likely have no financial net worth for the rest of my life because I have the debt from earning an advanced degree so I can work in a field where people want to pay peanuts.

    Working in this field has required so many sacrifices for me. I find myself wondering if it’s worth sacrificing for any longer.

    • We agree and (sadly) understand. Clearly the field must make changes, including posting salary ranges with job announcements. What happened when you explained that you couldn’t take a 20-percent salary cut?
      Joan Baldwin

  2. Anon for Now says:

    I always wonder how you know that it’s time to leave the field. Judging from my experiences trying to get tide-me-over office jobs while starting my museum career, I can’t manage it until I fully expunge the hope of working in a museum (because the office job hiring managers can tell that I don’t really want to be in their office), which I haven’t, in part because I don’t want to. At the same time, my attempts to get museum jobs which are even a step or two down in title are constantly stymied, and it’s frustrating. But judging whether I just need to hang in there or cut my losses while I’m still relatively young and interesting to potential out-of-field employers is very difficult.

  3. 3 years ago, I was attempting to propose an AAM conference session on accessing existing data about museum workers leaving the field. See my Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog post “HR Best Practice Exit Interview Results?” at https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/hr-best-practice-exit-interview-results%e2%80%8f/ as well as the ‘Related’ posts. Sadly, I got no responses to my proposal.

    Although it may not be ‘BIG DATA,’ some ‘small-to-medium-sized’ data on departures from museum work is currently being collected by those museums & museum HR departments who have adopted the American Alliance of Museums provides an extensive set of Human Resources Resources on Standards & Best Practices. Among them is an “Employee Termination Checklist and Exit Interview Questionnaire.”

    Museums have data on hand, & we should be mining it on this and related questions.

    For recent data on related questions, see Sullivan, Nicola. 2015. “Museum Professionals Have to Meet Higher Demands Due to Cuts.” Museums Journal Museums Association, UK http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/06052015-staff-stress (accessed 20 September 2016).

  4. […] 2017. “Who’s Leaving the Field and Why Data Matters.” Leadership Matters Blog 18 September.  https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/whos-leaving-the-field-and-why-data-matters/ (accessed 20 September […]

  5. […] Who’s Leaving the Field and Why Data Matters […]

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