The Job Search: Hunter or Hunted?

Fishing for a Job

Full disclosure: Anne and I are both teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program this fall. It is a great experience and we’re honored to participate, but here’s what’s worrying. Since this is online education, some of our students already have museum jobs. Maybe not their dream job, but they are employed. It’s the others I worry for. When I read a post like the one on Emerging Museum Professionals this week where the rightfully depressed writer was one of hundreds chosen for a final in-person interview, and then didn’t get the job, or when I hear about huge organizations who conduct multiple interviews via Skype for the lowliest form of employment, it makes me frantic. And if I had more faith in board governance, I wouldn’t question how we got here.

All things being relative, my generation of museum workers got the same crap pay as today, but, on the history/American culture side of things, it felt like there were plenty of job opportunities. Applications were sent via the U.S. Post Office so there was a leisurely pace to the whole business. The field was young, and there were only a handful of actual museum graduate schools, and another handful dipping their toes in the field via public history or American studies. Many of us had parents who believed this was something we’d actually grow out of. They spent years waiting for us to settle down to take the law boards.

So that was then. Who knows if it really was better or if it just appears that way in retrospect. Now it’s 2017. AAM and the New England Museum Association, for example, have online Career Centers that are full of resume samples and advice. Are they helpful? And I know AAM, in cooperation with the regional museum service agencies, conducts annual salary surveys, but who collects data about the number of job openings versus the number of applicants? What does the application process look like for the average museum job seeker? How long does it take? What factors seem to make it easier or harder? And what other kinds of support exists for folks with newly-minted graduate degrees vis a vis the job process?

I Googled the phrase “Finding a Museum Job” and got an assortment of blog posts–some of them hilarious in a dark way–and job-seeking sites about getting museum employment. Counterintuitively, the two biggest pieces of advice were 1) be flexible–which translates to don’t have any personal relationships that require a specific geographic location and 2) Network–which seems to mean emailing 75 resumes might not be the answer.

If there is an answer, we’d like to hear your thoughts. And if one of you has enough coherent thoughts about the museum job search, and might like to guest post, please let us know by emailing us at

In the meantime, good luck to ALL job searchers.

Joan Baldwin


3 Comments on “The Job Search: Hunter or Hunted?”

  1. Rebecca Slaughter says:

    I am not sure this is what you are looking for but here is my advice:

    One reason mass emailing of resumes may not work is the type of museum you are applying for doesn’t use a traditional resume system. Government jobs use big all encompassing application systems.

    Over the past two years I have read hundreds and hundreds of applications for a variety of municipal museum positions. One thing I would recommend for this type of job, tailor your aplicatoon to include the specifics of the job posting. Pay special attention to any supplemental questions (many say must be in application to count). This does not mean in an attached resume. It means in the text of the application. Is you add a cover letter and resume (which is often optional) make sure it is easy to see the similarities.

    I have read over 150 applications each for multiple 25 hour a week Museum Assistant positions. 75-90 applications for full time curatorial or director jobs. The ones that stand out are those that show they understand that details matter.

  2. Evelyn Fidler says:

    No real advice as I am one of your generation that got into the museum field fairly early and it was difficult but not discouraging. The biggest problem I see with the field and why it is so hard, and I will tell this to anyone who asks, is there are too many graduate programs in museology and they are too specialized. Back “in my day” they were few and far between and museum positions were more numerous. Now we have more museum programs and fewer positions as well as those of us employed by museums are not giving our positions up. The programs that do exist should make it harder to get into. Just my two cents

    • J says:

      I agree, Evelyn. I just started in the museum field a few years back and a huge problem is that we have so many graduate programs pumping out people with very similar qualifications. It seems like every year there are more and more universities adding programs. When you’re first trying to enter the field it’s nearly impossible to stand out.

      I feel like many museum studies professors are unaware of how challenging it is to find a job and don’t prepare their students for it. In many programs, the professors have either been teaching for their whole career or started teaching 20+ years previously, and haven’t been in the field itself since then.

      I think some try to soften it to avoid discouraging their students. I recently spoke to a group of museum studies students and when I told them about the experiences I had when I was starting out, the head of the program downplayed my comments. I wasn’t trying to discourage them but I also don’t think they should be blindsided by the reality of it.

      It is easier to at least get interviews at this point in my career. Right out of school I applied to three or four dozen jobs in return for one interview, which led to a job offer. I started applying to jobs again last year and so far have an 80% success rate and even a few job offers. So it’s easier getting the interviews, but now it’s hard finding something that is a fit and that actually pays a wage I can afford. Even once you’re past that initial EMP stage, it can still be difficult to find something.

      I could write about this for days, but I’ll stop it here. It’s definitely a topic that we as a field need to discuss and find a solution to. People shouldn’t have to obtain an advanced degree to even be considered for jobs, only to find that they can’t get one once they’re done with school.

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