The Graduate School Conundrum

Last week there was an interesting and lengthy exchange on Museum-L, the museum discussion list, prompted when someone asked whether their hopes of getting a museum position with only a bachelor’s degree were unrealistic, and then followed up by asking how important a graduate degree is in breaking into the profession.

The responses were all over the map, from suggestions that museums aren’t higher education, and hands-on experience is more important than degrees, to the idea that most of what museum studies degree programs teach is a mystery taught by people with little or no experience. There were also voices saying that what matters is soft skills, which can’t be taught, as opposed to basic museum tasks which can be learned. Coincidentally, no one in this email string mentioned the word bias although these questions speak directly to the accretion of barriers in museum land over the last 50 years that have kept and continue to keep deserving people out of the field. Since last summer and George Floyd’s murder there’s been a lot of woe-is-me about the whiteness of the job sector, but this question of whether you need a master’s or doctorate speaks directly to the barriers in museumland.

But back to the question of whether graduate school is necessary or not: In full transparency, I have co-taught for the last several years, although not this semester, in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program. Co-teaching one course in museum leadership doesn’t give me the right to comment on the program as a whole–although FYI to the Museum-L commenter JHU’s course descriptions are all available online so no mystery there–but I will say that by and large the students are impressive, smart, creative, and verbal. Almost all of them work full time with a portion of them working in museums across the country and around the world.

Coincidentally, my own program issued a job announcement this week, and went through a parallel discussion regarding graduate school requirements. Granted libraries are not the same as museums, although it is an allied field with many larger museums housing a library or an archives, while in my case, archives and special collections sit under the library umbrella. So, as you might imagine, there was some discussion about the question of whether our new job description would require an MLS. In the end, the answer was no. The position is front facing, and the overwhelming hope is that the person who fills it will be long on people skills. Everything else can be learned. Being kind, intuitive, empathetic and efficient on a campus of driven and often stressed adolescents, can’t be learned, and the damage done while an employee sorts out how to treat their co-workers and the audience can do a boatload of damage.

So, what’s the answer? In a perfect world I wish museums could get over themselves a bit and hire for the skills they really need, not for some artificial content-driven degree. Graduate school is huge investment. Johns Hopkins charges $4,554 per course, and 10 courses are necessary for the degree. And as an online program since way before COVID, JHU is cheaper than the more traditional in-person graduate programs requiring students to press pause on work while going to class each day. If you’re going to make such a huge investment of money and time wouldn’t it be great if you could spend time in the field first to see if it really moves you? Not to mention whether you can afford to stay in a field where according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there is a median salary of roughly $48,500.

If your passion is curatorial, you’re going to need content–potentially a lot of content and research–to make your mark in an art, history or science museum. You may do that by combining an art history masters with real world experience or perhaps your PhD in entomology will land you a position in a natural history museum. But for many other positions, the field demands a knowledge of the museum ecosystem, an understanding of the positions within the job sector, and a passion for collaborating with your audience, combined with an understanding that it’s not what you look at that matters, but rather what you see.

COVID has left museumland in tough shape. There are fewer entry level jobs thanks to the decimation of the ranks that took place when organizations had to close. Yes, more organizations are unionizing, but salaries remain crappy and benefits not great. If your organization is hiring in the next six months….

  • If you haven’t read AAM’s most recent blog post on equitable hiring, read it now.
  • Diversity isn’t just about who’s in the staff photo. Is your organization ready to do the work necessary to challenge itself, changing its workplace DNA, to make hiring changes?
  • A degree requirement is another way to favor a white-dominant culture. Is the position you need to fill one where a degree is necessary or are there complementary skills that might work just as well?
  • All new hires need support and mentoring, particularly during their first year. Is your organization ready to press pause long enough to get its HR house in order?

One of the lines I like best in AAM’s blog post is “Stop seeking “perfection” and recognize that all candidates will have both strengths and areas for improvement.” You could write a whole blog post on perfection and museum HR. Accept that none of us is perfect, but everyone does their best. That mindset supports the idea that there isn’t one way a job can be filled, but many.

Be well, hire well, and be kind.

Joan Baldwin



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