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Does a museum studies degree help you get a job in museums?

By Jack Ashby, on 16 October 2014

Despite the levels of pay and instability of the jobs at the lower rungs (at least) of this particular career ladder, working in the museum sector is incredibly competitive.

As a result, aspiring museum workers often face the question of how to position themselves as the strongest candidate in the pool. Should they take the plunge and stump up thousands of pounds to do a Museum Studies masters degree? It’s worth taking a second to consider that even being able to ask that question is a non-starter for the majority of people, who can’t afford it. Those people shouldn’t be excluded for the museum sector.

A real live collections management job requiring a Museum Studies Masters

A real live collections management job requiring a Museum Studies Masters

The 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 senior museum role who doesn’t have this degree.

For me, there are very few circumstances when I would recommend someone did a Museum Studies degree. Obviously I am biased by own own experience, and so this is my own personal take on things.

Employers often ask for one

As Mark pointed out, whether we like it or not (I absolutely do not) many museum employers list it as an essential requirement on person specifications. So the simplest question is: is it worth getting a Museum Studies degree simply to fulfill that requirement? I think that would be pretty terrible motivation.

By definition, employers can reject a candidate simply for not having one of the essential requirements. But some essential requirements are more essential than others. Personally, I doubt that many employers would reject an otherwise attractive candidate simply because they didn’t have a Museum Studies degree.

Why do employers ask for a Museum Studies degree?

The argument goes that a Museum Studies degree gives candidates an understanding of the bigger picture of the sector – What IS a museum? What are museums FOR? How should museums be governed? As well as the nitty gritty of things like how objects should in an ideal world be labelled, documented and stored, for example.

Certainly, you could get a better handle on this kind of thing in a year on a Museum Studies degree than a year in most entry level museum jobs. But with the right questioning, interested mindset (in an environment where senior colleagues explain rather than instruct), it shouldn’t take too much longer.

Do you need a Museum Studies degree?

For me, there should never be a point in someone’s career when they “need” a Museum Studies degree. I work with a lot of highly capable people who are influencing and shaping the museum world, in ways that require critical reflections and understanding of practice and theory. Some of these people have Museum Studies masters, some don’t. I see no correlation between who has the degree and who understands and influences the sector.

The real game is getting the experience in museums, and the sector regularly acknowledges the Catch 22 that it often demands experience for even unpaid volunteer positions. The reason is obvious: as there is competition for even unpaid roles, museums can take their pick from a pool which includes desperate people who’ve already been volunteering or working for years, but still can’t get enough paid work (there really isn’t enough to go around). This is absurdly unfair and something that has to change.

For what it’s worth, at the Grant Museum we work pretty hard to give volunteering roles to the people with the passion and potential for the task, not depending on how much experience they’ve got.

What to do instead

When I look at candidates for jobs, what I’m excited by is someone’s understanding of what museums are about, and why any given strategy is in place. I strongly believe this is best achieved by working/volunteering in museums rather than in the seminar room.

For someone to progress from Assistant Curator to Curator, for example, the key thing that they have to demonstrate is that they know exactly why we have chosen to document this part of the collection before that part; or why we have declined a donation of world-class taxidermy, for example. They need to know how to make those kinds of decisions themselves. That kind of learning can be done easily on the job, but it’s the sort of thing employers think they are getting when they ask for a Museum Studies masters.

Question everything. Go everywhere

Good prospective senior museum folk are integrated into the museum sector – trying to change things for the better. Museum work is hard and never ending – it’s easy to keep your head down and just get on with your job, but I look for a bit more when I’m recruiting.

I’ve been at UCL Museums for 10 of my 32 years, with a few different roles that have happily been progressing up the ladder. For all of that time I’ve been engaging with colleagues across different areas outside UCL to gain an insight to stop me being blinkered by the environment particular to my one museum service. I go to conferences to share and learn (and more importantly debate the issues in the pubs and corridors after), I publish and read, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association. I suspect it’s this kind of wider interest in how museums work that has allowed me to get to managing a museum despite only having a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. It’s a wider interest like this that I look for when I’m recruiting at any level, which starts out by simply questioning why a museum is doing what it does, and talking it over with others.

To end with a plea to any recruiter out there (and I don’t say this because I’m looking for a new job; I’m not). Please please please scrap that Essential Requirement for Museum Studies – I can’t see how it helps you find the best candidate, and it will exclude many candidates with excellent potential who have gained the same knowledge and understanding in a different way.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

7 Responses to “Does a museum studies degree help you get a job in museums?”

  • 1
    Aimee-Jane Hacker wrote on 16 October 2014:

    Thank you so much for this. As someone that is trying to further their museum career beyond ‘visitor assistant’ without a museum studies qualification it can be quite disheartening to not even get to the interview process because your employer is looking at their qualifications and not taking into consideration years of experience. Nice to know that some museum managers do have their heads screwed on straight and that maybe one day I might get that interview.

  • 2
    GD wrote on 16 October 2014:

    I thought this articole was brilliant. I am a Curatorial&Research Volunteer and i do not have a Museum Studies degree but being in the collections, handeling the specimens i have learned alot. I have worked with dry and wet material. I have digitised records. I have taken part in the fieldwork and doing public demonstrations. Being under the direct guidence of Curators i have the opportunity to see how they work and learn from them. I try ‘snatching’ any piece of information about the collection they can offer me. All of these i hope will count more when i will apply for a museum vacancy than not checking the Musem Studies degree box.

  • 3
    Chris Norris wrote on 16 October 2014:

    You might find this blog post interesting: http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2013/02/where-should-museums-look-for-workforce.html
    Essentially, Beth is arguing that our paradigm for museum hires is one of the reasons we have a diversity problem, and that trying to recruit a more diverse student body for museum masters programs may not be the answer.

  • 4
    Ray Barnett wrote on 17 October 2014:

    I would just add a word of caution. In my organisation if a candidate does not meet the ‘Essential Criteria’ we have no option but to exclude them from a short list as the system tries to be fair and equitable to all and to reduce the opportunity for personal bias on behalf of the selection panel. Consequently we take the line that a post-graduate degree in museum studies or the like is a ‘Desirable’ criterion as opposed to ‘Essential’, as is prior experience of working in museums. This gives us the lattitude to favour candidates who have practical experience, which I would always value over the training (partly on the basis that the training can come later, through distance learning for example).

    My impression is that the Museum Studies training today helps prepare new members of the profession for the political and funding environment that we all work in but is less helpful than perhaps it used to be (back in the day) in terms of providing the training on everyday practical issues and especially the specialist knowledge in the discipline (both academic and museological) necessary to care for collections.

  • 5
    Beulah Garner wrote on 17 October 2014:

    I concur with Ray; but in my experience, the decision to take a masters in Museology at the SCVA was the best I ever made. It allowed me to move laterally from my exisitng specialised research position in a research organisation into museums. I don’t believe I would be where I am today without it. Gaining experience on the job is of course very valuable (I also volunteered for three years in Museums before attaining a full-time position); but often times, curators, such as myself don’t have hours of time to devote to junior staff / volunteers to teach them the legal framework, the history, etc. etc. that a Museum Studies course would; and I’ve seen the difference this makes between prospective candidates. Museums are complex insitiutions that demand from their staff not only a speciailst academic knowledge, but also a good grounding in the legal, political and procedural framework that Museums must adhere to. That said, for us, a masters is ‘desirable’; what is most important is specialist knowledge.

  • 6
    Peter Griffith wrote on 17 June 2018:

    I have been in the field for 40 years without a degree. Knowledge has made me who and what I am today. A curator of military collections at a small museum. But that 40 years (and a partial degree in fire science) has landed me a job as chief curator of a town with 5 museums to cover. Do not give up press on and full fill that dream. I did

  • 7
    Joe Phillips wrote on 11 November 2020:

    Thank you for sharing this article.

    I am a person who has volunteered in various museums and gained valuable experience from this.

    I don’t believe that Museums should need candidates to require a degree in Museum Studies but I do believe candidates can show they are an ideal candidate for a job in the Museum if they show that they want to learn and carry out short courses if it applies to the role or job they are going for.

    I am hoping that by doing a Masters in Museum Studies will give me a greater understanding of the practice in a Museum and gives me the opportunity to work in a museum someday.

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