Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Grad School Question

One of the questions that I have been asked by several YMPs is whether or not it is worth it for them to go to graduate school to get their MA in museum studies or a related field. It's a question that each person has to figure out for them self. However, after looking back at my own experience, I thought of a few points to consider:

1. Feel confident in your decision. Going to graduate school should set you on a career path and not be a temporary time filler. I have met several people who went to grad school simply because they didn't know to do with themselves after college. That usually led to dropping out or receiving a degree that was never used. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind midstream, but avoid unnecessary heartache and debt by assessing your commitment to the program. And, if you are already working in the field, ask yourself if you can continue to advance without further education.

2. Graduate school is not like college. I loved my undergrad experience and made a lot of great friends. I went to grad school thinking that I was going to have a similar experience--boy, was I wrong. There are fewer people, they are in a different phase of their lives, they are fiercely competitive, and slacking off isn't an option. I know not everyone's experience is the same, but I think most would agree that the experience can be disappointing if you're expecting a sequel to your first four years.

3. Shop around. Not all graduate schools are created equal--especially museum studies programs. Learn the difference between a certificate and a degree. Also, plan ahead. If you think you are going to want a full degree (which, let's face it, if you are going to bother to take out a student loan and expend the time to go back to school, you'll want the full degree)then plan for it from the beginning. Also, some programs require that you get a degree within a larger field (art, anthropology, etc) and then take course work in museum studies, while others offer more general museum studies degrees.

4. Commit to finishing the program. I am very happy that I went to grad school and love my job, but every time I open that envelope from Citibank Loans I wince a little. I justify it in my mind as an investment in myself, but if I hadn't completed the program (which crossed my mind more than once) I would still be paying back my loans without the privilege of having the degree.

5. Know how you are going to support yourself. I know that there are a few people out there whose parents can pay for their graduate education (and they better be counting their blessings), but for the rest of us, we have to rely on jobs, spouses, and loans. I knew that I would have to work during graduate school, so one of the major selling points of my program was that classes were offered in the evening. If you can swing it, don't work while in school--or work as little as possible. Spend that time making the most of your graduate education by reading all of the materials, making sure your work is top notch, and seizing every opportunity.

6. Talk with people who have been or are currently in graduate school. Ask them about what they like and don't like about their program. Ask your mentor or employer where he or she went to school.

Grad school can be fun and rewarding, but it is also tough and wearisome. The greater sense you can have of what the grad school experience will be like, the better prepared, more successful, and happier you will be.

Other thoughts on grad school?


Anonymous said...

My advice is take a break between under and grad, at least in the museum field. Your right have a clear idea of why your in grad school is huge. I waited 8 years, I am not saying that is best for everyone, but for me it gave me focus and gave me real world experience that enhanced my grad school experience.

Also a plug for Museum Education, my degree also gives me certification to teach in public school. I was torn going in between teaching and museums and museum education gave me many choices!

Anonymous said...

Interesting mention of Museum Studies programs. When I was looking into grad school, I was warned away from these programs as too broad and general.

I was pleased with my arts in ed program (with a concentration in museum ed), but am curous as to what people think/thought of museum studies.

My concern/bias is that it seems like museum studies programs try to cover all departments or subspecialites. Which is great for knowing how the entire museum works, but not so great for thoroughly preparing you for the one department you'll be working in. (And, of course, I know many of us work in several departments and/or wear diff. hats, but you know what I mean.)

I found that my internships and fellowships were really useful for seeing how a museum functioned (or dysfunctioned), and my grad program was where I got all the theory and pedagogy to back up what I'd learned how to do in a practicall setting.

Anonymous said...

I also did my masters in museum ed with classroom teaching certification, and am glad I did, but the money aspect is a BIG consideration. I think my degree was worth it for the connections I made, for a new understanding of and some deep thinking about the education and museum worlds, and most of all simply for gaining a real sense of a whole spectrum of career options I had not previously known existed. Still, I'm now I'd-rather-not-say-how-ridiculously-much in debt to the federal government, despite working for almost all of the 4 years it took me to finish my degree (and for 3 of those years I was working full time!), and getting some scholarships. And despite 5+ years of post-college work experience AND my MSEd, I'm still making virtually the same salary I was making when I first got out of college (with a liberal arts degree, so you know that wasn't much) -- and this is as a full-time educator at a major NYC museum. If you're looking for the equivalent of an MBA -- that is, a degree that is automatically going to up both your hireability and your salary prospects -- I think that unfortunately doesn't exist in the museum education field. Perhaps it's different for the folks on the curatorial side of things though...

Anonymous said...

thanks for these tips guys- i'm just beginning the process of life post-undergrad, and have found myself in a great museum job gaining all sorts of invaluable experience, wondering exactly why i would want to go back to get a masters and dig my already-too-deep hole of sallie mae loans any deeper... it sounds as if i should stick to working for a few years and to figure out if it's really necessary for me.

Nathan said...

I think what Juline said further underscores the point of needing to really know why you want to attend graduate school. For her, she really wants to work in art education whether in an art museum or in a school. For me, I recieved my MA in museum studies precisely because I wanted a broader focus in museum work as a whole. While I love art museums, I didn't want to be exclusively an art educator. And for me, the idea of falling back on classroom teaching sounds like a little slice of hell. I would much rather move into another part of museum work or to another not-for-profit.

That begs one other point which is: have a contingency plan! I am not certain what the percentages are, but turnover and layoffs in the museum world are frighteningly commonplace. You should feel confident that your degree will help you land an alternate job in case your are "downsized" or worse.

Anonymous said...

courtney...My guess is we went to the same school that starts with a "B" so I feel your pain on the debt....

but were not in this for the money right? Why were we born with the idealists gene?

Nathan, I was merely saying that some degrees in the museum filed can offer varied career paths..teaching isnt for you fine, hopefully though for some of us classrooms aren't "a little slice of hell"

Nathan said...

My aplogies if I offended, I was actually responding to Juline. She inquired why an individual would elect to go into a program that was specifically for museum studies since she had been steered away by some of her advisors and instead chose a program with an teaching option. I was responding that I chose a straight museum studies course because I was interested specifically in museum work--not just education. Personally I would rather work in another department of a museum than take a job teaching. For her (and you presumably), you would rather be in the classroom than in the finance department which some might find to be a hellish job.

Anonymous said...

No offense, from a family of teachers, we can be a defensive lot.

Anonymous said...

Having started out working as a guide, docent, and 'interpreter' at museums, I sometimes feel skeptical of program and exhibit developers who have skipped into development without 'paying dues,' so to speak. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from constant and sometimes mind numbing interactions with the public.

When I decided to go back to school, I elected to pursue a Master's in Ed while continuing to work part time as a tourguide. The logic and transparency of lesson and unit planning were terrific preparation for my work in gallery and public programming today.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone. Thanks for contributing to this blog and to this daunting question. I am now approaching 7 years outside of undergraduate school (how did that happen?) and have an excellent museum education job in public programs. Like most people I know who are about to turn 30, I'm having a bit of a crisis about what is next and how to get there. I'm not even sure that I want to stay in the museum field---I sort of got here by accident. So, grad school is a big question, but I also wonder what other kinds of experiences are out there that could lead me to learn more about the museum field and its options, without being the major commitment of a graduate program. Does anyone know of any museum exchange programs where you can go work in another institution for a spell, sort of like an internship, but more advanced? Perhaps this is just a made up daydream of mine. Any thoughts are welcome!

Nathan said...

Hi Sarah-

That is a good question. I really don't know if there are any museum exchanges like that, but you might be able to orchestrate some kind of day long thing at your own museum or another institution that allows you to shadow people in different departments. At my last job we had several students who would job shadow us for an hour or two. If you can't do it in your own museum, find a colleague in a museum that you would like to know more about and try to have them help you arrange a shadow.

Anonymous said...

I recieved my Masters in Museum Studies and "specialized" in museum education. Because of the networking providing by this program and everything I was able to learn, I have had no problem landing my first two jobs.

Mariah said...

My undergrad degree was in creative writing and literature. Out of school, I worked in publicity/PR for a for-profit theatre and restaurant, in marketing/editorial for a publisher of legal education books, and then for several years in promotions/events/communications for a children's publishing house.

During my time with the publisher, I took advantage of their tuition reimbursement program and went to night and weekend classes to get a very solid MA in arts administration.

I would have loved to go full-time or to a more "big name" school, but real-world $ and time restrictions just didn't make that feasible. Since I went in knowing what I wanted, I really squeezed a lot of great stuff out of my program, and I had an adviser/chair of the program who was wonderful and let me tailor a few things to my interests.

I did the broader arts management degree because it covered aspects of non-profit and for-profit arts-businesses, gave me MBA type courses AND NPO courses, and didn't pigeonhole me into museums vs. performing arts etc. Then again -- there are some people that say you should just get an MBA instead of an Art Admin MA!

Anonymous said...

I got my MA in Arts Management with a certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Oregon. While the program is not perfect, the grads have a high placement rate in the field due to the emphasis on getting practical experience while you are in school. I would definitely recommend it and any other program with an emphasis on internships and practica, this really helped me to focus my interests while learning a lot about museums and nonprofit arts organizations more generally. Yes, I have a lot of loan debt, and it took me 6 months to find a job after graduating, but I was prepared to step into a mid-sized museum in a leadership role and succeed thus far. I think that students need to have realistic expectations, know that there are more job applicants that jobs, and be able to move anywhere before they even think about grad school.

Anonymous said...

I hope it is ok for me to post on here as I am definitely not the "young museum professional" anymore, but i do know,or have met, many of you on here.

I totally agree with the concept of taking a break between undergrad and grad school. I waited quite a while before I went back so I could figure out what I wanted to do. Undergrad majors in English Lit. and French don't tend to get you too far sometimes. After a few years, I went back to Community College and took all of the Science courses they had and ended up with an Associates Degree in Science and could have tested for an LPN license with a degree in nursing (hmmm, didn't want to do that). Finally, I fell into a Museum job that led me to get my MBA and I am now a Director at a fairly well known Museum on the east coast.

The point I am trying to make is that when I went to grad school, there were several students in my class who came directly from undergrad and simply didn't get it. They didn't get what the professor was talking about a lot of time because they didn't have any real life experience in the working world. Many of us "older students" had to explain to them what we had learned in the previous class based on what we had experienced in life, job related issues, legal issues in the workplace, etc.

When I hire staff, I definitely look at their experience and what they can bring to my department, not so much the education that they have. It is exciting to attend conferences with all of you and see the brilliant, young, talent that is out there. Makes for a very promising future!

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if anyone could suggest some contacts for young art museum educators without master's degrees who might be considered emerging leaders in the field. People can either brag about themselves, or suggest someone they know.

I am currently a graduate student in art and museum education at the University of North Texas. For my history of art education class, we are required to do a presentation on an educator or educators who we consider to be leaders in the field.

The reason I chose to focus on young professionals without advanced degrees is because two of my colleagues and mentors are doing fabulous things, and I was wondering if there were more people like them influencing art museum education. I think this is an important issue, since so many of us are investing time and money into advanced degrees, when it may be possible to do great things without one.

I think those without master's degrees have to fight for respect no matter how innovative and important their work is, and I would like to give them some credit, especially since some of them are people who I really admire.

If you know someone or are someone who is an innovative art museum educator working without a master's degree, please contact me at I would like to profile 4 or 5 educators with various ages and backgrounds...the only thing you don't need, for once, is a master's!