Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The New Guy/Starting Out

Hello everyone. I wanted to introduce myself since I'm a new blogger on YMP. My name is Hassan and I work as the Manager of School and Family Programs at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN. I have been keeping up with YMP for a while and then I met Nathan and now here I am.

For my first post I wanted to share how I came to work in the museum field. At AAM this year I encountered a number of students and new members to the museum field in general. Many of them go to AAM to learn more about the museum field, to network, scout out jobs, and gain insight into how they can break in to the field. The question I fielded the most was "how did you get your job"?

This topic is covered greatly on the Museum-L listserv (mostly every year around graduation time) through posts and back and forth banter from museum professionals and students. What worked for me is the year-long internship/volunteer work/free labor I did for a local history museum. I worked in collections and education and recieved a very well rounded experience as a result. I recieved this valuable work experience for free. The museum recieved an extra hand for free. The point is: don't expect to get paid.

There is also a mixture of luck involved meeting the right people; that is where conferences come in to play. I imagine that a lot of "Young Museum Professional" hopefuls also read this blog.
For those of already in jobs I want you to sound off in the comments if you gained your first paying museum job by what you know (as far as experience in an internship or other position) or if you where hired because of who you know...or was it a mixture of both (or something completely different).


Anonymous said...

I know the greatest stepping stone offered to me was a work-study job while in school. For three years, I worked as the assistant to a curator of education. I was paid (a small sum) but for three years worth of experience, it was priceless.

Anonymous said...

It's often possible, although difficult, to get a job based only on what you know, but you can never get a job based only on who you know. You have to be able to do the job, which is where internships and volunteer work come in. Get out there, get experience, and don’t expect to get paid. You'll not only gain great experience, but you'll also meet a lot of people who can help you get that first paying job.

Anonymous said...

It was definitely both. No matter who you know, if you can't do what they need you to, they're not going to hire you. I had four internships while in graduate school, and I did not get paid for any of them. It paid off in my ability to get a paying job. It's also important to realize that you're just starting out--you'll spend some time doing things like xeroxing. That shouldn't be all you're doing, but don't storm out indignantly because someone asked you to make some photocopies or mail something.

Hassan said...

Good point on the last comment. I have had two wonderful interns this past year. Of course they spend their fair share doing menial jobs such as copying but I make it a point to put them in situations where they can be part of a larger project, eventually giving them some responsibilities. This makes it a valuable experience for both of us.

Of course a little training is involved but it's worth it to be able to hand off some my smaller jobs to a competent intern.

Anonymous said...

Just as I moved to my current town, I was offered my current museum job (which was replacing an offer for a non-museum job that had disappeared). I got my job based entirely on what I knew - but not necessarily what I knew about museums. For jobs in small museums, you often have to wear many hats. I was hired because I had appropriate degrees, some experience in my "main" job (that which my title would lead you to believe I do), and a lot of non-museum experience related to the 1,000 other things I also do. It just so happens that I have now also become the IT department at my museum, because I am the staff member with the most knowledge there. Not on my CV, but maybe it should be.

The point here is that sometimes paid work in other fields can go a long way in providing experience that will help you get a museum job.

Alex said...

I was definitely hired for what I know. Internships in various registrar's offices and some solid computer skills were what mattered. The ability to pick things up quickly is really good too.

Btw, good idea for a blog! This is my first time here.

Anonymous said...

what about those of us with internships, graduate degrees, and students loans to pay off. it's a hard market to get into.

and for people like me with student loans it's even harder to offer to continue to work for free, past graduate school.

Anonymous said...

For those who need to earn money while breaking into the field: you do jobs where you gain related skills (and make enough to pay the rent), volunteer in your spare time (which does, actually, exist if you are working a 40 hour week and aren't also in school!), and network.

FYI - if you aren't working (or have an internship, or are making peanuts), student loans can temporarily go away (or at least have payments reduced) through the magic of forbearance/deferment. You likely will still have to pay interest, but not principle. Talk to your loan holder!

Amber said...

I just found this website today. Great idea - some of us young professionals don't always get a chance to travel to network, and this is a great (free) alternative!

I've been working in museums for 5 years, and in the arts for 10. I started as a work study my freshman year of college. I've worked at a community arts center, a regional arts festival, a commercial art gallery, and two major museums. And I can tell you that it was all about WHAT I knew, combined with my experience.

I've also been in the position of hiring interns and reviewing resumes for paid positions. It's very competitive. If you didn't get such great grades in college, you'll have to try even harder to improve your resume through experiences, training, conferences, etc. If you send in a resume or cover letter that is poorly presented and has a lot of errors in it, it goes straight into the trash - museums get so many resumes, you can't even imagine. Make sure you proofread yours!

I've heard all of the complaints from students just starting out (the listservs get kind of crazy) and I see a lot of good advice, and then the same usual reply, "but what about my student loans? I can't work for free?"

Harsh reality time: then you can't work. If you don't have the experience you need to get a job, you are probably going to have to volunteer to get it. If you didn't have the chance to do that during your undergrad years, it's time to play catch-up and that means competing against younger, eager kids that will do anything for no money.

Something to bear in mind - you've chosen to enter the non-profit world, and there's no money here (unless you're the director...) If your heart is in the right place, then just working in the museum world is part of your payment (at least that's what I keep telling myself!). If you take on volunteer work, you are gaining experience but you are also showing your colleagues that the mission is more important than the money - and if you want to work in the arts, that's a concept you'll need to warm up to.

Most of our entry-level jobs at both museums I've worked in have gone to people that had interned or volunteered for the museum - if someone impresses you, you try to find a way to keep them.

Alison said...

I had four internships while in graduate school while working full time. It turned into being somewhere 7 days a week--5 days at the job that paid the bills, 1-2 days a week at the internship, and each semester working both of those around a class schedule. It sucked, trying to juggle all of that and work it out, but every institution I was at as an intern understood that I had a job and was in school. They were willing to work with me on it. I was working retail, so I had a fair amount of flexibility with my schedule. But even if you don't have a flexible job schedule, there's always a way to make it work if you think creatively about it. I also really think it's a mistake to view this as "working for free." You're actually learning. As many classes as you take, there's no substitute for hands-on experience.

Hassan said...

Student Loans: I know for a fact that Direct and PLUS loans from the US Gov't will defer your loans if you request it. It may be based on economic hardship, but that shouldn't be too hard to prove for most of us :-)

Interns: Amber makes a good point. My intern this summer is exceptional. We are going to hire her on part time this fall.

Thanks for your comments on this post everyone!

Courtney said...

The other thing to keep in mind is that there ARE some happy mediums between totally unpaid and full-time staff work: I know that for educators at least, many if not most museums have per diem or funded internship positions that can be easier to get than the full-time ones.

Perhaps like many of you reading this, I just couldn't reconcile myself to volunteer/intern work as someone with a decent amount of job (but limited museum) experience, a masters degree, and plenty of loans and expenses. Luckily I've managed to only do paid (albeit meagerly paid!) museum work, and kind of feel like that's my duty given the serious moral issues I have with the "pay your dues" philosophy.

It's definitely a conundrum: unpaid labor is, as many have pointed out here, a prime way for people to get a leg-up in the field (and, as Amber noted, often actually free education for the person doing it, too). But at the same time we shouldn't have to work for free -- particularly since as nonprofit folks we're already looking at a lifetime of low pay to follow! -- and the system wouldn't work if we all just refused to play into it.

Then again, maybe I should just suck it up and be a little more zen about the whole thing.

Amber said...

Courtney, I agree with you there - we shouldn't HAVE to work for free, but that's a change that has to come from the top down, not something you can change about the system until you're actually in the system. I think it's an embarrassment to our field that we can't afford to pay anyone a decent salary, but at the same time there's all these stories in the news about corruption and extortion at the top. Newspapers are always publishing the salaries of directors, presidents, CEO's, etc., and they're often 6 figures and rather extravagant. Meanwhile, those of us at the other end of the food chain can barely survive!

So, Courtney, I agree that no one should have to work for free, but it's a much bigger, industry-wide problem that will probably take a few generations to change, IF it ever changes. In the meantime, it means unpaid internships and volunteer work for many people who work harder than some of the paid museum employees I know!

I wish I knew what the solution was - how can museums pay their staff, particularly at the support staff level and entry level, reasonable wages? And how can that change be brought about; what's the catalyst?

lauren said...

I actually went to undergrad in DC just so I could be near great museums! When it came to trying out the field, I first started by being involved in any museum I could. I interned at a few Smithsonian museums and worked as a museum assistant (aka gallery guard) at the Phillips Collection. Then, I joined my alma mater's listserv for the graduate museum studies program, even though I wasn't in the program itself. Someone posted an education and program assistant position that was exactly what I wanted. Then, someone else posted that they had worked for the museum and would be happy to field questions. I emailed her, she answered my questions, and even let me use her name in my cover letter. Fortunately, it all came together, and I'm still happy at the same museum 4 years later, where I've grown my job and am now the education and program coordinator. Just like everyone else says: experience and luck! I wish it wasn't like that, but that's been my background.

As to those looking for how to afford all of this, I have pessimistic news. There are people willing to do this for next to nothing. Even my fulltime salary is barely enough for me to live on. I have full benefits and a flexible schedule, but it's not always easy. I can't afford to go to grad school. The salary increase would not equal the amount of loans I would need to take out. I'm even considering following a different route, learning more design, and maybe becoming an exhibition designer.

Recommendations? If you're going to work an underpaid or not-paid internship, do it part time and get a second job to cover the bills. Live at home and cut costs that way. Marry someone rich. (Just kidding! My bf is studying to become a librarian, so neither of us have dollar signs in our eyes) It's a horrible reality, as the others have mentioned, and unless you go into development or find ways to fund yourself through grants or other programs, you are not looking a well-paid job.

Plus, there are A LOT of WELL QUALIFIED people out there wanting these jobs. It makes me ill to say that, but not everyone is going to have had an easy ride as I have. I should also mention that even with my experience and capabilities, I can't seem to move forward into the bigger museums I want to work for. Keep getting interviews but nothing else. Without that master's, I'm kinda stuck where I am. (Fortunately, I like it here :) )

Wow, this is an incredibly long rant. I hope I didn't scare you all too much. This is the not field for everyone, but if you can make your way through, there are some absolutely wonderful experiences available. Good luck!

Ellen said...


I actually just got my first fulltime museum position about a month ago. I know from experience that the looking and competing for the full-time position is incredibly frustrating.

Some points that I have would be:
1. Get AS MUCH RELATED EXPERIENCE AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN!!!! There was one time where I was volunteering and working parttime at 5 arts organisations and museums simultaneously. I wanted to a position in Museum Education and so for the last 2 years I have been a paid parttime (and I mean really parttime) education guide for school groups at 3 museums, I interned in the education department as a volunteer for another 3 museums and I volunteered to help solicit more volunteers for a local non-profit arts organisation that isn't a museum at all.
2. LOOK AT SMALLER INSTITUTIONS FROM TIME TO TIME. I got my best experiences from the smallest museums and non-profits I worked for. They didn't have the budget to pay me, true, but that means they didn't have the budget to pay anyone else either and so they had a lot of jobs that they needed done. I wrote school programs for the smaller ones, including a very successful outreach program for an arts organization. That program was something that got me interviews. Also, in smaller organisations, you have to wear many hats and its a good idea to get experience in as many different museum departments as you can.
3. TAKE A GRANT WRITING COURSE, or get grantwriting experience. I did, and even though I don't want to be in Development its good to know how grants work and how to apply for them. Museums like the fact that you know how they get money, and they like the fact that you could conceivably help them out with that. Absolutely every interview I went on loved my grantwriting experience.
4. NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK, I know a lot of museum professionals will tell you that you should expand your job-hunt nationwide, (and you should if you can) but I found that 90% of the jobs I interviewed for were basically regional to where I was, and only 10% where outside the region. Within that 10% none of them seemed to consider me all that seriously. Networking is really important.

Shahrazad said...

Unfortunately, I cannot speak from the perspective from an individual who gets paid. However, I recently began an internship with a nationally reknown museum and I HAVE STUDENT LOANS. So i work at the museum part-time and I have another part-time paying job. I say all this to say that it is possible to do an unpaid internship with loans. You just can't do the internship full time. I want to be a curator and I am going to do whatever it takes to get there. And honestly, I think you have to have that type of attitude in this industry because it's a tough one. Luckily, I have a degree and I can command a good wage from my paying position. I also agree with whoever said networking is important. There are tons of over-qualified people in this industry. SO you better get to know some people.

Nathan said...

I think Ellen had four really good recommendations. I have been working my way up the food chain from peon to now director of exhibits and programs and I think all of her points are sage advice. I have known for a long time that I wanted to work in museums and have always tried to find some kind of work that would support that eventual move: working in a for-profit gallery , time as a park ranger, tour guide in a cave, etc. They all gave me a little competative edge over other applicants who were at my level.

Flexibility is also extremely important. My first great museum job was working as a curator in an art museum in a small town in Indiana. The town was not great, but it afforded me some excellent experience that I would never have acquired had I stayed in the Bay Area. But, I didn't even get that job right away. I first worked as a part time educator in Indianapolis while answering phones at a rural eletricity co-op in Bloomington. Talk about mind numbing! But, it paid my bills and the part time educator job kept me sane.

Lastly, diversify your skill set. I have a masters in museum studies and public programming and education and frankly, I wouldn't do that again if I had it to do over. Don't get me wrong--it's good knowledge. But, educators are a dime a dozen. If you have grantwriting, management, marketing, membership, collections experience, or can do other museum tasks--all the better. It will make you a stronger candidate all around.

lauren said...

Have to completely agree on the advice to take a grant writing course! You are going to be far more marketable if the organization knows that you can pay for yourself and your programs. We write proposals for grants ALL THE TIME in education and programming, and I've found that they are also incredibly helpful in shaping the action plan for each new program.

Apple prodam iphone said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.