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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


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.

[UPDATE 16/10/14: Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby (who doesn’t have the masters) wrote a blog article giving his opinion on whether a Museum Studies degree helps you get a job in museums.]

18 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? […]

  • 9
  • 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.

  • 11
    Does a museum studies degree help you get a job in museums? | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 16 October 2014:

    […] Grant Museum Curator Mark Carnall (who has a Museum Studies degree) gave his opinion on this last year, and I thought I should offer my own personal perspective, as someone in a reasonably […]

  • 12
    Museum Careers Advice- How to apply for jobs | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 12 January 2016:

    […] Don’t rely on your degree experience Doing your Masters degree or PhD may have seemed like a big, life-eating deal to you but the fact of the matter is that the job you are applying for, especially a research oriented one, requires a far faster pace and you’ll look back on your degree days pining for the luxurious amount of time you had to fully throw yourself into something. Do use your degree to evidence subject specialist skills and knowledge. Unless you have really strong examples don’t rely on your getting a degree to evidence time management, team work and communication skills because if a degree is required for a role, every candidate will have the same basic experience. A lot of people will default back to their degree experience at interview, when it may not be the best experience to use. However, I would advise mentioning what you did at the same time as your degree or the opportunities you  took advantage of being a student and attached to a University e.g. conference organising, presentations, volunteering, public engagement, teaching, creative writing etc. I expand on this with reference to Museum Studies degrees in an old blog post I wrote at UCL. […]

  • 13
    Why Don’t More Men Work In Museums? | Fistful Of Cinctans wrote on 20 January 2016:

    […] to above, perhaps education is the key? The well worn, Museum Studies degree or not debate always comes up in discussions of diversity but in my experience, the frequency of a museum […]

  • 14
    Joe R wrote on 22 March 2017:

    Worthless Master’s degree; for me anyway. Sure the job requirements all say they want a BA/MA in Museum Studies, but they never respond. Not worth it. I left the museum field to pursue a career in retail sales at a mall instead, because at least they interviewed me.

  • 15
    Seven Recent Reads: #MuseumWorkersSpeak and Pride | Informed Humane wrote on 25 June 2017:

    […] #MuseumWorkersSpeak chat participant linked this blog post from 2013 on whether a museum studies degree will boost one’s chances of getting a museum job (in the […]

  • 16
    So you want to be a curator – Ellie Miles wrote on 17 September 2018:

    […] been written about whether a master’s degree will get you a job – you might have read this and this. Anecdotally there’s a move away from listing an MA in the ‘essentials’ […]

  • 17
    Chloe wrote on 17 September 2018:

    I have a Masters degree in Museum Studies and also have undetaken five different internships and have seven years of volunteering in museums (from visitor services activities through to research and collections projects) and I still have not been successful in landing a full-time job. I currently am working a part-time job as a contractor with the Smithsonian, but even with that on my resume it seems nothing helps. I have had my resume checked many times and everyone says it is good, so I really don’t know what else I can do to get noticed within this sector.

  • 18
    Anon wrote on 8 November 2018:

    To be brutally honest, I think it is helpful if you want to specialise in non-curatorial museum work (especially interpretation and audience research) but that if you want to be a curator in a specialised museum, such as a national art gallery or a natural history museum, it is best to study the academic subject in hand – e.g. art history, anthropology, archaeology, zoology, etc. My reason for saying this is that now many museums require PhDs and if you cannot afford to do one you will at least need a specialist MA in the subject area of whatever museum you intend to work for.

    It is also greatly beneficial career-wise if you can draw on a specialised MA to hit the ground running with a publication or exhibition, and be able to research potential object acquisitions with some authority. I know many museum studies graduates in public art galleries who unfortunately don’t have a specialist art historical knowledge, and this not only makes life hard for them – having to learn the ropes without prior academic guidance – but it doesn’t help the institution’s professional standards. Art history cannot be learned over night, for example, but requires years of layered knowledge with a bit of guidance at the outset. Mistakes can be made without this, and risks might be taken with interpretation (inaccurate information) and making new acquisitions for collections (expensive risks – acquiring irrelevant works, or overlooking important opportunities, or due diligence risks concerning provenance). In smaller institutions mistakes might go unchecked, and so this is why it is good to recruit a specialist if possible.

    On the other hand, a lot of what is learned on museum studies courses can be learned on the job – general museum procedures can be learnt more expediently than developing a subject specialism. As someone who has recruited staff over the years in an art museum, I would prefer a candidate with good art history MA that enables the student to specialise in a period or subject relevant to the job advertised. But if they had a second MA in museum studies, or their art history course had a museum studies component, I would of course be grateful for their insights into audiences, learning, and curatorial practices, especially if they lacked the practical experience of employment.

    Sadly, in an employer’s market there are few organisations that take people on without experience, but personally I would sooner employ someone for an entry level role on the basis of a strong specialist knowledge than work experience – museum practices can be learnt on the job with training. Now that tuition fees are so hard to cover I would not want students to use up their only chance of postgraduate study by needlessly taking an MA course in something they could learn on the job.

    Another tip I would give is to suggest students do an MPhil in a specialised subject (this is a research degree rather than a a taught course) – the fees are cheaper than taught courses and the level of specialism is deeper, so it is most beneficial for those circumstances requiring a specialist collection knowledge. Taught MAs are pricey these days and don’t always enable the student to specialise – modules might be cross period, depending on the departmental specialisms of different staff. If possible, try to specialise in a particular period or topic that can be applied to museum collections – that will help.

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