As graduation neared, Pat began searching for a good museum job. Despite having a degree and lots of museum experience, Pat discovered that positions were hard to find, that the competition for the few available jobs was fierce, and that the unemployment rate of 7.7% did not make things easier. Pat was in a situation familiar to museum studies graduates—married, school debts to pay off, no savings, driving a used car, and unsure about what the future would bring.
After much searching and agonizing, Pat was at last was offered a job in another state, more than 500 miles away. It was not in a museum, but at least it was in a related institution. Although the position paid a mere $31,000 and did not include moving expenses, a trailer was rented and filled with all Pat’s worldly possessions and the long move south to a new city began. A year later, Pat was offered an ideal entry-level museum job on the west coast. It paid a little more ($36,623), but even so the salary was below a living wage for the area. Nevertheless, Pat really wanted to work in a museum, so another unreimbursed cross-country move was undertaken (this time 1,700 miles). Pat worked at the job for four years and although the work was extremely rewarding, living on the west coast on that salary was not sustainable, so Pat and family (by this time there was a child as well as a spouse) moved yet again, 1,800 miles to a new job in the Midwest that paid better at $44,656. This was still not a great salary, but it was far better than Pat had been earning, and the cost of living in the Midwest was lower than on the west coast.
Does this story sound familiar? It is one I hear often from recent museum studies graduates, and it is usually accompanied by complaints that there are just too many graduates (see the February 1, 2017 blog on this topic) pursuing the jobs available and that is why positions are so hard to find and the pay is so low. The truth is, this is not a new story at all. Pat is really me, and the story started when I hit the job market in 1976. The only details I changed were to update the salary amounts to their 2017 equivalents. My first job was as a zoo keeper in Fort Worth, Texas, at a whopping $7,600 a year (which was not enough to support me and my spouse). Although I liked working in the zoo a lot, the pay was so abysmal that I kept applying for museum jobs and after a year, took a position at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco at $10,000/year. It was, in most ways, a dream job, but after my daughter was born, it became impossible to live on that salary in San Francisco. When I was offered $17,000 a year to relocate to the University of Kansas, I grabbed it.
The situation for museum studies graduates today is little different from what I faced in the 1970s and what museum studies graduates have faced every year since, with a couple of caveats. Although there are now more museum studies programs producing graduates, there are also a lot more museums to offer them jobs, and instead of facing an unemployment rate of 7.7% like I did, the current unemployment rate is just 4.7%.
Here are a few keys to landing that (first) museum job based on my 40+ years in the museum profession and nearly 20 years of teaching museum studies classes:
Start now. Don’t wait until graduation looms near to begin preparing. Study the job ads to see what your dream job might require, and build your resume accordingly, acquiring the skills and experience you will need. If you start building your resume now, it will be much easier to get that job when you are ready for it.
Be prepared to start small. Your first job will most likely pay a low salary, so do not expect to make much money your first few years after graduation. As you continue to grow in the profession things will get better. You will never get rich working in museums (unless you become a director at a big-name institution), but you will have an extremely rewarding career.
Plan to work long and hard. Working hours for museum professionals can be long. You will routinely have far more to do than one person can possibly get done, and you will often be expected to work evenings and weekends when all hands are called out to help out at special events.
Stay geographically flexible. Your chances of finding a job in the exact city you want to live in are probably low, so don’t let geography scare you. The experience of moving to new places and meeting new people is good, and helps broaden your resume.
Think broad, not narrow. Your first job is unlikely to be your dream job. If you want to get anywhere in the museum world, you will need experience, so don’t reject your only job offer if it is not exactly what you want—take it, learn from it, and keep applying for that dream job.
Tailor your resume. When you apply for a job, make sure you are applying for the specific job advertised. In your cover letter, briefly summarize how you meet the required and preferred criteria. Do not expect a search committee member to comb through your resume to see if you are qualified. Tell them up front. You should never include anything false or misleading on your resume, but you should tweak the way your experience and abilities are presented for each job you apply for to make it clear why you are the candidate they are looking for.
Keep up with the profession. Read the literature, join professional museum organizations, attend the meetings. The happiest professionals are those who continue to learn new things.
If this sounds a bit depressing, think about it this way. In most any job, you will devote at least eight hours a day for 250 days a year. Over the course of a typical career of 35 years, that adds up to 70,000 hours and could easily be much, much more. So make sure you are doing something you really want to do. A career as a museum professional isn’t for just anyone—the competition for jobs is fierce, and the rate of compensation is low relative to levels of education and responsibilities, but job satisfaction and the sense of intellectual fulfillment are very high.