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  • Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum?

    By Mark Carnall, on 16 April 2013

    This post is a bit inside baseball, but then so is the metaphor inside baseball.

    We get asked the above question at the Grant Museum frequently by aspiring museum professionals and volunteers and it’s a question that isn’t simply answered. I can’t say that my view on whether it helps or not is the definitive view but as an employer (sadly not as often as we’d like to be) here’s my personal thoughts on whether or not it helps.

    First, I’d advise looking at the job specification and application form. If ‘Must have a Museum Studies degree’ is an essential criterion then, yes absolutely, you will need a museum studies degree to get shortlisted for the job. At the Grant Museum we try to steer away from this absolute requirement so as to encourage individuals with many years of working in museums and in other sectors to apply but you do still see it on job adverts.

    If the possession of a museum studies degree (or equivalent) is desirable or not specifically asked for here’s what I look for on a job application.

    Students explore specimins in The Grant Museum

    INSERT STOCK IMAGE OF PEOPLE IN A MUSEUM TOUCHING OBJECTS

    There are a number of Museum Studies courses out there. UCL has a good one (full disclosure- which I teach on) and they are definitely an interesting thing to study (full disclosure- I studied Museum Studies at UCL). There are a couple of instances in which I’d strongly recommend doing one; if you’re in two minds about whether museums are for you or not and if you ended up in a particular museum via a circuitous route and would like to develop your career in museums. The first instance may sound like an expensive way to test the waters for a life in museums but working in a museum isn’t just swanning around appearing erudite to the masses and occasionally dusting specimens. A good museum studies course will expose you to all the aspects of museums that you need to be familiar with/put up with/have to learn if you want to get employed. The latter instance is something I see a lot less of these days. Before the professionalization of a career in museums there were many ways to get into working in a museum without a background in working in museums. Each museum works differently and it’s very easy to become ‘institutionalised’ without being exposed to the bigger picture. A museum studies course is a great way to really understand what museums are, how they came about and importantly, how museums work together locally, nationally and internationally in the museum sector. I really value this sense of perspective and aspiration to change practice beyond the walls of one institution and it’s key to understanding the fundamentals of why museums do the things they do rather than why the museum I work at does the things it does. This distinction is subtle but very important (I think).

    Another thing that is perhaps more important than undertaking a degree in museum studies is what else you did at the same time. I’m not saying it’s easy to get a museum studies degree but studying a museum studies degree to develop your specific area of interest is a wonderful opportunity and is what will set you apart from your classmates. Volunteer or get a work placement in a number of museums whilst you study. If you’re interested in natural history museums then undertake all your assignments in natural history museums. Perhaps most importantly, go and see as many museums and exhibitions as possible (the free ones at least). Studying in London was particularly exciting to me as there are so many great museums on your doorstep and the volunteer and work placement opportunities provided by my course shaped my future career and work ethos. If you have studied a museum studies degree then it’s this activity that I like to see on an application above and beyond getting a degree awarded.

    This sounds hugely unfair. And it is unfair. Museum jobs are hotly contested and you have to be so many things; an excellent manager, a public engager, a subject specialist, an advocate, a networker, a conservator, a public speaker, a writer, a porter, a photographer, a researcher, a historian, a technician, a designer, an interpreter.. the list goes on and you probably have to be in the right place at the right time to secure that sought after job. Most of these you need just to get a foot in the door on a short contract or a volunteer position. You might also wish to consider finding yourself a wealthy partner too because the pay pales when compared to equally qualified professionals in many other fields and the career ladder doesn’t have many rungs at all. Sadly this is the reality of the sector but the pay off is that the job is incredibly rewarding.

    gmz ape skeletons

    Museum professionals considering early retirement

    Is a museum studies degree more important than years worth of experience in the sector? Absolutely not. If you have worked in a range of museums either as paid staff or as a volunteer and understand the bigger picture and can answer all the whats/whys/wheres/hows of museums then that’s more than enough experience. There’s quite a gap between museum history and theory and practice and in my experience the best candidates understand what the theoretical gold standard is (in conservation, management structures, engagement practice) and why most museums ignore a lot of these standards because they are incompatible with day to day practice. In addition, there are many careers outside of museums that work in a similar way and provide people with identical skill sets plus there’s the advantage of being willing to think outside of the box or bring knowledge and skills that are in crucial shortage within museums (e.g. advocacy, political lobbying, fund raising, marketing, IT/digital, commercial activity and development).

    Once again this is just my perspective on whether a museum studies degree is needed or not to get a job in museums, other employers may well have different perspectives (feel free to drop a comment if you have any other advice) but hopefully this article will give some guidance for people toying with undertaking one.

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    10 Responses to “Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum?”

    • 1
      Nick Booth wrote on 16 April 2013:

      A really interesting blog and hopefully useful for people considering taking a Museum Studies MA (or not). It’s probably worth reiterating what Mark says above, about continuing to volunteer and gain experience even during (and after) the course. I volunteered during my course, which led to me getting some temporary work, which led to a fixed term contract, which led to a full time job. Unfortunately having a Masters doesn’t make you stand out from all the rest. (Very) Unfair but that’s the sector we work in… 100% worth it though.

    • 2
      Dianabuja wrote on 17 April 2013:

      Hum. I worked some decades ago in a well-known university research museum, as principal museum anthropologist and curatory of the egyptian collection. I was finishing Ph.D. req’mts and had already MAs in egyptology, arabic studies, and anthropology. There were no courses available to prepare onself for museum work – you just got in there and ‘did it’. Part of the dev. of discplines seems to be development of university courses to ‘manage’ content of the discipline.

    • 3
      Lucie wrote on 17 April 2013:

      I think the question is also “Should you have to have a museum studies degree to get a job?” because this isn’t consistently agreed upon across the sector. Which is lucky for me because I don’t have one!

      I have supplemented my non-museum degree with numerous courses and years of work experience.

      Strangely enough someone told me I shouldn’t be allowed to work on museum collections without a degree quite recently. Given I have had success in finding paid oppotunities I hope the sector is proving that it is about the type of experience and most importantly skill you have as an individual that makes you employable, and not a generic degree. But I know there is still some institutions who would throw aside my application without this precious line in my CV. I know I have the same thing to offer as all my museum studies colleagues – why? because we have all had to have lots of experience through volunteering/interning anyway regardless of our education.

    • 4
      Mark Carnall wrote on 17 April 2013:

      Hi Lucie

      Sorry to hear about your negative experience but I really hope that this situation will change. Given the broad range of skills needed and required to work in a museum (many of which you just can’t get from a degree) this limiting approach will result in a narrowing of the kind of people who end up working in a museum. I think many of my colleagues working across the sector have all been in the situation of facing their last shot at a career in museums before the money literally means seeking employment elsewhere, arbitrarily adding more hoops to jump through would mean driving away exactly the kind of people we need to employ and retain.

    • 5
      Gina wrote on 18 September 2013:

      I have had the same experience. Unfortunately it’s as you say- once the money runs out we have to do what we can to survive. I have six months to finish my AMA then I am out in the wilderness. I can’t afford to do an MA.

    • 6
      Peter wrote on 20 September 2013:

      I will soon have a BA major in museum studies and hope that I will be able to find work that pays the bills without too much difficulty. Certainly it is a rewarding job.

    • 7
      Karis wrote on 20 October 2013:

      Great article. I am currently studying Anthropology in New Zealand and hope to save enough money to complete an MA at UCL by the time I’m 26. Unfortunately, NZ lacks museums and volunteer opportunities are just as rare as paid jobs. Your advice to find a wealthy partner may have to become my primary pursuit! It is sad that there are so many prerequisites for roles in the heritage sector as so many people must become disheartened by the innumerable limitations.

    • 8
      The Top Ten Grant Museum Blogs of 2013 | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 9 January 2014:

      [...] Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum? [...]

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    • 10
      baguio museum wrote on 12 July 2014:

      the competition is low. The probability of landing to a job is high although the salary is not that much. It is a passion.

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