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Musings on Museum Studies #3: A Surfeit of Graduates?

February 1, 2017


A Surfeit of Graduates?

Are there too many museum studies graduates? Based on the number of doom-and-gloom opinions that regularly pop up on museum listservs, it would be easy to believe that there is a glut of new museum studies graduates who can’t find museum jobs. Is this true? Well, yes, and no—new graduates do enter the job market every year, and not all of them find jobs in their field, just as is the case for any other professions. The truth is that anyone who tells you that there are too many graduates for the available jobs—or that there are plenty of jobs for the graduates to fill—is lying. I can say this with confidence because of the simple fact that there is no hard data that supports either opinion. In fact, there are no reliable counts of the number of museum studies graduates, the number of museum jobs awaiting them, or even the number of museum studies programs (e.g., museum studies is not a category used by the National Center for Education Statistics). Nevertheless, there are a lot of ill-informed opinions on the matter.


What we do know, according to information compiled by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is that as of 2014 there were 35,144 active museums in the US (the previous estimate was only about 17,000 museums). The American Alliance of Museums estimates that more than 400,000 people are employed in these museums in the US (and that museums contribute $21 billion to the economy each year). Clearly there are museum jobs out there, but beyond those numbers, beware of what people try to pass off as facts.


What if there are more museum studies graduates than there are jobs? Is that really a bad thing? The answer depends on your understanding of what higher education is supposed to do. Critics decry the universities for not training their graduates to match awaiting jobs and accuse them of ignoring a “skills gap,” but is that really what a university education is all about? In a word, no. College is designed to teach people how to think critically, how to write clearly, and how to gain knowledge. Technical schools and community colleges are in the business of training plug-and-play graduates, but not liberal arts institutions. Few of us who step out beyond the ivy-covered walls of academe clutching our shiny new bachelor’s degrees in art history or geology would have the audacity to call ourselves art historians or geologists. To be entitled to an appellation of that caliber requires years of work, and most often graduate study as well. There are very few professions in which high-paying jobs are awaiting graduates with a mere four-year degree. In an article in the Globe and Mail, Max Blouw (2013) phrased it this way: “Universities are primarily in the business of positive human development. They focus on enhancing the abilities of our graduates to communicate clearly and effectively, to analyze, to confront ambiguity with clear methods and confidence, to break down problems into manageable parts, to think critically and to question deeply.”


Think about it this way—aspiring students are not admitted to graduate school until they can demonstrate that they have learned how to think, write, and gain knowledge, because the purpose of graduate school is to train people to master a specific discipline through rigorous, focused academic work. Is this required for museum work? Certainly not for all museum jobs, but certainly yes for most of them. Museum studies is still a relatively young field, and unfortunately there remains a reservoir of resistance among some diehards in the profession to formal museum studies training. It is significant to note that the staggering increase in critical studies of all aspects of museums came about after museum studies programs began to flourish in the 1970s, and it should come as no surprise that when people trained in critical thinking and as discipline experts began working in museums, they began to think about what it is museums are all about.


A few more facts to consider: In the United States, only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major. Does that mean that 73% of college graduates are failures? Not at all—it means that they used the skills they learned in college (such as critical thinking, writing, learning how to access information sources and evaluate their quality) to find employment in other fields. How do we know this? Because 89% of college graduates do have jobs, and overall they earn more money that those without a college education (the employment rate for high school graduates is 67%, and for high school dropouts, just 51%).


The bottom line is that just because people get a degree in museum studies (or anthropology, or sociology, or theoretical physics) does not mean that they will get a job in that field, but it does mean that they will be better qualified to find work in almost any other field than they were before they got their degree.


As mentioned at the start of this blog, there are no reliable counts of the number of museum studies graduates and the number of jobs, but as someone who has watched the field closely for more than 40 years, it is my belief that there are far more jobs available now than any time in the last 20 years. Years ago, when I was the director of a museum studies program, I decided to do a survey of the program’s graduates. I was able to track down most of the 146 people who had graduated from the program between its founding in 1981 and 2006 (remember that this includes the Reagan and Bush presidencies, which, to put it mildly, were not good years for public sector employment). To my pleasant surprise, more than 80% of graduates had found a museum or museum-related job after graduation. Not all stayed in the field, of course, but it still spoke volumes about the value of the training they received while getting their degrees.




AAM. (n.d.). American Alliance of Museums: Museum Facts. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from http://www.aam-us.org/about-museums/museum-facts


Blouw, M. (2013). Special to The Globe and Mail. Universities Should Educate – Employers Should Train. Retrieved September 3, 2013, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/universities-should-educate-employers-should-train/article14078938/


Bullard, G. (2015, October 13). Government Doubles Official Estimate: There Are 35,000 Active Museums in the U.S. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from https://www.imls.gov/news-events/news-releases/government-doubles-official-estimate-there-are-35000-active-museums-us


Plumer, B. (2013, March 20). Only 27 percent of college grads have a job related to their major. Retrieved January 23, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/05/20/only-27-percent-of-college-grads-have-a-job-related-to-their-major/?utm_term=.2a8042afec60