Guest Blogger: Kimberly Boice
Passion. noun \ˈpa-shən\: a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.*
If you’re lucky, you possess some amount of passion for your work. The brain surgeon enjoys the challenge of human physiology, the teacher seeks to nurture curiosity, the museum curator aims to preserve that precious artifact. Passion is the catalyst that makes many people push themselves a bit farther to ensure that the patient is well, that the person understands, or that the object is accessible. It’s a privilege to feel strongly about one’s work and we should count ourselves lucky.
Many of us pursued a career in the museum field because we want to make a difference in how the general public learns and perceives history, science, art or some amazing combination of all those subjects. Our passion drives us to work late into the night, early in the morning, while off-duty, and for relatively little money or benefits. We somehow continue to do more things with fewer and fewer resources because we’re creative, caring people who possess a deep passion for our work and how it impacts the people who benefit from it.
Most days I love my work as a museum educator and I believe it’s apparent in what I produce. Yet supervisors, family, and friends remind me I’m fortunate to have my job as if I were unaware of the fact. They believe that we chose a career in this field knowing salaries often remain low for the majority of workers while many positions require experience beyond a four-year college degree and therefore larger debt. Although they are not wholly wrong, we have worked hard to achieve what we have. Passion does not pay the bills, nor does it make us immune to the hardships and complexities of day-to-day tasks. If anything, the emotional ties to the job make many of us endure on fumes for longer than we should, threatening to jeopardize our mental and physical health. Add to this strain, the fear of retribution in the workplace and the larger museum community for being too vocal about legitimate hardships and it’s no surprise that some choose to pursue alternative careers.
So where does all this leave us? Honestly, I don’t know. Of course, finding yourself entirely burnt-out and/or in a toxic work environment is not good for anyone. You must decide if leaving the situation is a viable option for you and what that means in the short and long-term: can you relocate to a similar job elsewhere? Do you attempt to reinvent yourself for another type of work? Will returning to school make you the best hire? Should you take that promotion? Will you be the change you seek or simply suffer until retirement? How do you retain passion for the work while maintaining a good work/life balance? Is the passion enough to sustain you?
*Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary online, 12 March 2018
Kimberly Boice has worked professionally as a museum educator at an historic site since July 2003, although she began volunteering in the museum field as a teenager. Her passion for interpreting history often finds her working nights and weekends at her site and elsewhere, serving on committees and boards, and coordinating learning weekends for her fellow history enthusiasts as Mrs. Boice’s Historie Academie.
This is the second in a series of guest posts about the museum job market. Our guest blogger this week is Cassidy Percoco, now a curator/collections manager, who graduated from the Fashion & Textiles History, Theory, and Museum Practice program at the Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC).
If you are interested in guest posting for Leadership Matters, particularly if you are looking for a first job or if your experience finding a museum job was impacted by race or gender, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like many other people in the museum field, I had to spend years in a state of financial uncertainty after graduation. To me, that was all “paying your dues” – I knew that more was required beyond the degree and never expected to get a job right out of graduate school. However, it took me several years of living at home, working part-time in retail and food service, and interning and volunteering at local museums – not to mention writing a book and maintaining a blog on historical fashion – before an application and interview turned into a permanent, full-time job. And it’s a job I love, but for a variety of reasons, now I need to move up the ladder. At first, the second job seemed like it wouldn’t be too hard because it’s common knowledge that the lack of true entry-level jobs is the main barrier to a museum career, right?
Wrong. My current situation is actually not that much different than my post-grad-school one: There are few positions open for someone with my skills and experience, and competition is still extremely fierce. The standard advice of “volunteer as much as you can” is no longer practical, though. As a consequence, I’m not sure what to do next.
And I’m concerned there are a lot of people in the same position who aren’t speaking up or being talked about. Because we have jobs, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t complain, but opportunities for advancement are slim, and many of us have no idea what to do next, particularly since many of us well into a first job find ourselves tied through relationships to a particular region. Do we tread water? Explore ways to leave the field or move sideways into something else?
The entire system has problems, and while tackling degree creep is a good step toward breaking down barriers, the issues resonate through all levels of the museum world. We have an overload of applicants from multiplying graduate programs, while the number of positions in museum collections still has not rebounded from the belt-tightening of the Recession. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer: we need more jobs and better funding. Until we have them, we need to support each other in our choices – both those of us who leave and those of us who stay.
Cassidy Percoco, now a curator/collections manager, graduated from the Fashion & Textiles History, Theory, and Museum Practice program at FIT. She is the author of Regency Women’s Dress: Techniques & Patterns 1800-1830, and her blog and podcast can be found at www.mimicofmodes.com.
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 email@example.com.
In the meantime, good luck to ALL job searchers.
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.
Dear museum baby boomers, this post is for you.
If you were born after 1964, this may confirm or support some of your worst fears, so you may want to give it a pass. Here at Leadership Matters we’re now in the chapter where some of our museum mentors are retired–taking cooking classes, exercising like fiends, traveling, reading novels–while others are beginning to announce their retirement dates. Or they are starting to do the work to make that happen: achieving the last, penultimate position, beefing up their consulting business, downsizing, buying the forever home. You know the drill.
Then there are the folks who should be planning their exit, but aren’t. The only decision they’ve made is to stay on as long as possible. They’re treading water, sucking up big(ger) salaries, and contributing in the most lacklustre fashion. They give the rest of us a bad name. Don’t get us wrong. We more than understand that the overall crappiness of museum salaries may mean working ’til age 70 isn’t a choice but a necessity. But, we firmly believe that employees should be judged by their contributions, never by their age, gender or race. And age and length of tenure don’t give you the right to coast–at least not until you’ve announced your exit date. In fact, no matter what your age, we hope you’re not coasting, but instead contributing your best self at work.
Study the colleagues you admire most, whether in the museum field or elsewhere. They are probably individuals who are constantly on a path of reinvention. They are probably not people hiding behind we’ve-always-done-it-that-way–or people who believe social media is the instrument of the devil. They’re the people who somehow link their institutional knowledge, which may be vast, to what’s going on the museum field, and always manage to say something new (and wise) in meetings. They are the people we all want to be when we get over our case of impostor syndrome.
So if you’re a boomer, we urge you to be a contributor ’til the day you pack up your office. Perhaps your museum or heritage organization has a succession plan in place. Whether it does–and they are excellent planning tools–you can have a personal succession plan as well. Just as you strategized your career when you were in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, a personal succession plan can help design your exit.
Don’t wait ’til you’re on your way to your retirement party to whine that no one picked your brain, and asked about that great store of knowledge you’ve amassed. Write it down. This actually applies to everyone. Commit work flow and basic tasks to a document. That way even if you have a skiing accident, your colleagues can step up and complete some basic tasks.
And if you are retiring, what information would someone need to do your job well on day one? How have your organization’s quirks informed the way you do things? Were you a path-breaker in your position? Would you be willing to train your successor, and if the answer is yes, what might that look like? Perhaps the most important thing you need to strategize is what you’ll do when your days aren’t consumed with meetings, openings, and planning. Write that down too, but don’t share it. That’s for you and the rest of your life.
It’s summer. The days are long, and a lot of us are on vacation. If you will retire this year, commit to making the next 12 months the most fruitful ever. Go out with a bang.
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
“I want everybody to close their eyes and think of a dirty word, like a really dirty word. Now open your eyes. Was any of your words ambition? I didn’t think so. See, I just kind of started wondering why female ambition is a trait that people are so afraid of. Why do people have prejudiced opinions about people who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?”
Reese Witherspoon @ the Glamour Women of the Year Awards, November 9, 2015
This month put me in contact with a number of young museum and non-profit folk looking to advance in their careers. All of them are women–not a surprise given that Anne Ackerson and I are focused on our manuscript for Women|Museums to be published by Left Coast Press next year. At the same time, we constantly read pieces primarily written for the for-profit world about job getting and job leaving. In short, about ambition.
Here’s what we know about ambition in the for-profit world. Everybody has it to begin with, men and women. Everybody wants to be the best, get the office with the windows and the big salary. Then something weird happens. According to a 2015 survey by Bain and Company women’s ambitions drop by a whopping 60 percent. Before you jump to the conclusion that’s the result of the mommy track, it’s not. The results were the same for women who were married, not married, parents, not parents. Worse, while women’s confidence plummets, men’s does not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens next. Women’s confidence and aspirations, which begin higher than men’s, drops so that by the time they are senior leaders their confidence that they can reach the top spot is 29 percent versus men’s which is 60 percent. If you want to read more about this go here: Bain Study.
So we know what happens in business, but because of the museum world’s abysmal data keeping and seeming inability to turn a lens on itself as a workplace, we have no way of knowing if it’s true in museums. Then, if you add the fact that museums aren’t one world, but many, the narrative becomes more complex. Art museums that draw staff from the academy have a different culture than history, science or children’s museums although we know from AAMD’s 2014 study that women’s ambitions are thwarted in the art world as they move up the leadership ladder. Anecdotally, that also appears to be true in the history museum world even though its population is almost evenly split between men and women.
Here is what we’ve noticed: Preparation for strategic thinking about one’s career is often absent or downplayed at the graduate and early career level; getting the first job seems to be an end in itself; too many spend too little time strategizing about what taking and staying in a given position means for the long haul; choices often seem born out of enthusiasm–a sense of I’m so glad to be here–rather than a step toward something bigger and what bigger means; and there is an unspoken agenda, that leaving a position may hurt the organization and its needs come before an individual’s do. Most jarring of all–sometimes it feels as if we, as a field, are kind of proud of the idea that we’re non-profits so being openly ambitious, especially openly ambitious young women, isn’t what we do.
Of course that might be true. Unlike the business world, museums offer median salaries somewhere around $45,000. There are few perquisites and leadership positions can be demanding. Moving up the ladder may mean literally moving which may be easier for some than others
So…as leaders what’s our role? Are you a mentor at work and outside work? Do you push staff to chart a course for themselves? Are they comfortable talking with you about career next steps? Are you comfortable listening? Conversely, as a leader do YOU have a mentor or mentors? Do you talk career strategies with them?
This week as we gather with family and friends, let’s make a pact to be more intentional about museums as workplaces. Let’s do our best to encourage upward mobility, salary negotiation and career strategizing. The field will be better for it. And as always, let us know your thoughts on ambition and charting career choices.
In our last post we talked about what to do when you work for a less than savvy leader. This time we thought we would follow up by discussing how and when you should leave. What, leaving, you say? Yes, quitting. Because sometimes it’s the right choice. In the last post we reminded all of you to take care of yourselves. Giving yourself permission to quit is part of that. Yes, there are exceptional leaders out there, but the ratio of mediocre to excellent is probably 10 to one. Know who you work for and what it’s doing to you.
We do not under any circumstances mean to suggest that there aren’t a million mitigating circumstances that might keep you in a job — from graduate school loans to partners’ careers to children — but remember, leaving, if your decision isn’t about failure, it’s about choice. At the very least it demonstrates self-awareness and courage.
Leaving isn’t easy. Ending something never is. But sometimes people are trapped by inertia. Why? Because they will tell you they owe something to their employer, because they have a contract, because they have to stay two, three, five years before moving on. If you are burdened by one of these arbitrary constructs, ask yourself why. You know yourself. Is your job making you sad or angry or frustrated? If you have experimented with the suggestions we offered in the last post: developing networks; using employer perks to build your resume; tweaking your job description, and you are still sad, mad, frustrated, maybe it’s time you thought about going. Don’t write the script about why you can’t, start looking, just apply. Remember, a museum has to say yes before you even get to interview, and if you are lucky enough to get an offer, you can always say no. So be bold. You got into this field because you liked it; liking the field isn’t a reason to condemn yourself to a horrible work situation.
And here’s a P.S. about leaving, for those of us who are baby boomers. We came of age when graduate student loans were small(er); many of us presided over organizations during the golden age of history museums; and now many of us are lucky to be leaders. And while there are a million mitigating circumstances to keep us in place–paying for children’s college loans; waiting for retirement funds to recover from 2008; any number of family situations—we need to be self-aware. Know when work life is more about repetition than innovation. If it’s the former, be gracious. Step aside. Leave at the high point.
Thinking of quitting? Tell us your thoughts.