It has been a long time since I have updated any posts to this blog, but one subject matter that still seems to attract a great deal of attention is the one related to salary. Several people had questions related to salary and income, so I thought I'd try to answer some here.
Who should be responsible for making sure salaries are decent?
This is a tricky question to answer. Being that we live in a capitalistic economy and are subject to the laws of supply and demand, it is only logical that the more people there are wanting museum jobs, the less museums have to pay for qualified staff. And that is the basis of my feeling that surplus of museum studies programs around the country are actually doing a disservice to the field. Sure, they can tell a student that they are going to make very little money; however, most young students in graduate school don't really have a strong concept of how much income they require to survive until they are out of school and living in the real world. To many people, $25-35K is the most money they have ever made in their lives to that date and they are happy to make that income. As they get older, however, they realize that those wages aren't enough to pay rent, car payments, insurance, and other necessities. If programs truly cared about their students they would limit the numbers they accept and also perhaps only accept students into a graduate program who already have some sort of museum experience. Paying $50K or more for an education for which you have no real idea what you are getting yourself into is a difficult path to follow.
But, obviously, schools are not the only ones to blame. If we as employees are willing to accept the job when we are offered it, then we should accept the consequences of taking that position--and that often comes with the knowledge that your salary will probably not increase much over time. When you are at the point of accepting a new position, it is important that you as the perspective employee as about opportunities for advancement and how survey how seriously that institution values its staff and staff development.
Museums, in my mind, have an obligation to at least provide a salary range for posted positions. That kind of honesty in reporting not only makes the institutions stand by the meager salaries they offer, but it also can help weed out applicants who really require more money.
How can I help improve salaries?
This is also a difficult question to answer. If you are a manager or ever in the position to hire someone, encourage your institution to list a salary range. Perhaps with time this will become a common practice. Also, as an employee, make yourself as flexible as possible. Someone commented on here to ask your development staff to raise more money for your position. If you want to keep in the good graces of the finance team, this is probably not the best approach. Insead, prove your ability to earn cash. Seek out and find grant opportunities. Find new ways of charging for programs and educational activities that help underwrite your salary. Find ways for your department to save money. Always think of yourself as part of the development team. Encourage docents, visitors, and program attendees to become more involved and contribute more to your program area. Use your professional development time to learn a new skill such as fundraising.
Where can I find out more about salary bases?
Most regional museum associations conduct a biannual salary survey. You might have to pay for it, but it could be a good investment for job hunting. Get a friend to chip in with you. Also, find out when the next survey is happening and encourage your museum to participate. The more data that is gathered, the better and more accurate the results will be. When the time is right, approach your manager about better aligning your salary with those similar in your region. Also, don't assume that bigger cities pay better. In fact, from those I have met, I would opine that metropolitan areas such as New York City actually pay less than many other parts of the country and instead use the prestige of the city and institution as a reason to pay you less because they indoctrinate the idea that it is a priveledge to work there. If all else fails, do some reconnaisance and ask. If you are considering applying for a job somewhere, try to get some inside information on that institution and how they pay their staff.