Deb's Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job in the Museum World

Updated for the New Millenium

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The following article was submitted by Deb R. Fuller, museum professional.

So you want to work in museums? Why? You think they're cool; you want to justify getting a degree in obscure pre-Celtic French impressionist painters; or you really loved going to your local museum as a kid and want to work there. Whatever the reason, the museum job hunt is challenging, demanding and ultimately rewarding. Expect your job hunt to take 6 months to a couple of years. Yes people get jobs first shot but those are the exceptions. The job hunt is like a job in itself. It will take time and effort to get where you want to be in the museum world.

1. Research museum jobs. There are many different types of positions and fields out there to go into. Museum educators, curators, registrars, development/grant writers, administration, special events, exhibits, computer specialists and volunteer coordinators just to name a few. The smaller the museum, the more areas each person will have to cover.

2. Network, Network, Network. Find museum professionals and talk to them. Find out what experiences they have and what education they got. Most museum professionals are friendly and will take time out to talk to you. Ask for informational interviews. DON'T bring your resume to them. It's bad form. After you talk to someone, thank them profusely and ask them to refer you to someone else. Send them a nice note after you leave and only send them your resume if they ask for it. You never know when they might call you back or pass a job lead on to you. Make a schedule of networking like one a week, every two weeks or every month. Keep it up and keep meeting people.

3. Think Small. This comes in two parts. First off, don't apply for that director position straight off. Go for the executive assistant instead. Don't go for full curator, go for a curatorial assistant. You need experience even if you are coming from another career field and have job experience.

Secondly, look at smaller, local museums. Smaller museums usually will allow you to get a lot of work experience in different areas. In a large museum, you might be stuck in one area like registrar of a certain collection. But in a smaller museum, you might be a registrar, lead educational programs and help coordinate volunteers.

4. Volunteer, Intern or Work Part-time. If there are no positions open or you aren't sure if you really want to work in the museum field, look at volunteering or interning or getting a part-time position. Most museums won't turn down someone who is eager to work and is willing to learn. Don't expect to come in and take over either. Again, start small. If you want to be a registrar, start out by volunteering to clean artifacts from a local archaeology dig. If you want to do museum education, volunteer to help out with summer camps. If you stick around long enough and show people that you are responsible, you will get more and more responsibilities. Larger museums usually have formal intern or volunteer programs. Interning and volunteering are good ways to meet people and NETWORK.

5. NETWORK! Did I mention networking? Trade business cards with EVERYONE. You never know when you will have an opportunity to call them about a job or vice-versa.

6. Professional Organizations. Find out what the professionals in your area belong to and pay your dues. A good one to start out with is the American Association of Museums. Not only will you keep current on what is happening, you also can put it on your resume. All professionals should be a member of at least one professional organization in their profession.

Tips 7 through 11

7. Go to Professional Conferences. Have VISA will travel. Pay it off later. Take advantage of student discounts. This is probably the best way to meet people and NETWORK. A lot of conferences also have job boards and resume drops. There are usually jobs posted at these conferences that aren't listed anywhere else. Come with plenty of resumes and business cards. Thanks to ink jet printers and free business card sites on the 'net, you too can have decent looking business cards.

Also attend smaller workshops, seminars or conferences held by museums, professional organizations and universities to further your education. Cheaper than the large conferences, especially if they are held in your area, these are a great opportunity to enhance your education, NETWORK and learn what is going on in your field of interest as well as the museum world in general. But unlike the big professional conferences, do NOT take your resume. Treat the smaller workshops and conferences like an informational interview. Take plenty of business cards to NETWORK and send your resume along after the fact. This will also make sure that your resume doesn't get lost in a pile of workshop papers and forgotten.

8. You're competing with people with Master's degrees and 5 years of experience. Get used to it. You may be just as competent to do the job as the next guy but his MA with 5 years of experience will get his foot in the door while it slams on yours. Keep applying for jobs but volunteer, intern or work part-time to get you that experience. If you want to be a curator of pre-Celtic French Impressionist painters, you'll have to get an advanced degree in pre-Celtic French Impressionist painters. Museum educators usually have advanced degrees in either a subject area and/or education of some sort. Exhibit designers usually have degrees in architecture or design. Other fields like development or computers can have backgrounds from a variety of fields but will have experience in their area. If you only have a bachelor's, don't expect much. Bite the bullet, get those student loans and get an advanced degree. Regardless of what degree you end up with, you'll still need experience.

9. Look at companies that work with museums or similar fields. If you can't get a job in a museum, get a job with a company that works with museums. There are plenty of companies that do exhibit design, artifact restoration and shipping, educational materials and bunches of other stuff. Clients with those companies are a good way to find people and NETWORK. There are also similar fields that you can go into that will give you job experience for museum work. If you want to curate, look at art insurance companies; if you want to do education, try libraries or local schools. Computer or design people can get a job practically anywhere. Combine similar job experience with some museum volunteering and you'll have a resume that can compete with the Masters + 5 years of experience.

10. Don't expect to get rich. Most museum salaries are in the low-20s regardless of the job or location. Some are higher but you'll never compete with the corporate sector. A lot of times, your first museum job will pay less than your student loan debt. Be prepared to budget carefully or work another job to make ends meet. See #9 for other job options until you get those student loans paid off.

11. Be willing to travel. There are plenty of museum jobs out there if you are willing to go for them. You might end up in the middle of nowhere starting out but that will get you experience and a lower cost of living as well. Who knows, you might like the bucolic countryside.

All these won't guarantee that you'll get a museum job but it will increase your chances. Sometimes, all that is required is being in the right place at the right time. Good luck!

From your Guide: Deb Fuller has graciously given permission to publish her Unofficial Guide at the About Art History site. She herself is gainfully employed by a museum, and knows whereof she speaks. Aside from the generous and excellent advice given here, however, she cannot help you personally.