Getting Your Foot in the Door

This morning I had the privilege of meeting with a young woman who wants to work in the museum field. She was energetic, passionate, studied history and wanted to discuss my professional background.

As I listened to her I thought to myself, “that was me five years ago.”

I was a student graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a BA in History. My parents thought I had shot myself in the foot professionally with a liberal arts degree. Don’t worry – they were never that direct. My parents were concerned with the job market (did museums have a job market?) and questioned the “skills” studying history truly offered (you write papers, right?).  Seriously, what kind of job was I going to get with a history degree?

As I’ve said before in previous posts – I have loved museums since I was a kid. When I found out people actually worked in museums I was ready to sign on the dotted line.

I wanted in.

I didn’t realize was how competitive the field was.

I’m lucky; I had a great internship advisor at the University of Cincinnati who put me in front of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center‘s interpretation department my junior year of college. It was an unpaid internship but I was excited. I was on my way to becoming a real museum professional. How glamorous!

Three months later, when my internship ended, it was back to reality: a full-time class load, senior thesis and part-time job. Graduation was on the horizon. I began to look at jobs.

Imagine my chagrin when nearly every job I stumbled upon required a Masters degree. I barely had my BA – what was I going to do?

I began applying for Guest Services positions. Yes, ticket taking, phone answering, front desk staff guest services positions. It felt as if the “museum field” thought that’s all I was qualified for. It was like a punch in the gut. Maybe that’s because I’m from Gen Y: I’m awesome, really I am. You’ll think I’m awesome, too. I do great work. Give me a chance.

Thankfully, my spring internship, the year before, helped me land a part-time Guest Services position at the NURFC after graduation.

At the time, it was a large piece of humble pie but it “officially” got my foot in the door. I was a staff member, a part-time staff member – at a museum. I was halfway there.

I worked for the Guest Services department for 10 months. I knew the NURFC in and out. I knew the exhibitions and tours, where to park, local eateries and the organizational history. It was a long 10 months and I applied for several positions internally before my big break came in July of 2008. My internship, guest services experience and persistence helped me get my foot in the door and land the coveted full-time museum job.

Share your museum entry experience! How did you get your foot in the door?

What advice do you have for those wanting to get into the museum field?

6 thoughts on “Getting Your Foot in the Door

  1. I actually have a ridiculously circuitous route, that coincidentally started with an M.A. in Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati that led me to a PhD at UIUC in Anthro, then all over the Southeast to now where I teach in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis and am Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. Coincidentally, this afternoon I had an identical conversation as yours with a UG student who loves museums and is trying to figure out their way in. We were discussing her MA options. This particular student is not a rocket scientist grade wise, carrying a 3.2 or so. I hired her as a temporary hourly at the museum where she does an excellent job. I supervised one of her internships where her performance excelled. She is currently enrolled in my Applied Archaeology and Museums seminar where she consistently provides insightful comments. She volunteers as regularly as her busy schedule allows. I was actually quite surprised at a recent state conference, where in a session, looked in the row behind me and she was there, looking professional, because she wanted to network and know more about museum activities in the state.

    Now, I also have students that can pull a 4.0 without trouble, can get any faculty to write letters to attest to their brilliance, they perform the requisite internships for their degree, but exhibit little passion or extra effort for their careers.

    Which person would you hire for your museum?

    I think your advice is right on target. I thoroughly enjoy watching students come through our program, and those who are most successful in getting the jobs in museums are those who can think outside the box, and have a passion and commitment to their careers.

    By the way, I am trained as an anthropologist/archaeologist. When I applied for the position here in Memphis, I had never worked in a museum before, had never taken a course in museum studies, much less taught one. But at the risk of sounding arrogant, when I was interviewed for the job, I had never given a job talk before where I was so convinced that what I brought to the table with my multiple career paths was exactly what the University of Memphis needed. They apparently agreed.

    Thanks for your comments.

  2. When I left the Air Force in 2003, I had a BS in History and was an expert in nuclear missile launch procedures. I found myself wondering where to go with that experience? So, I stumbled into the Wisconsin Historical Society (where else does a guy go with a history degree who’s biding his time until he can enter grad school, right?). I found the HR office at WHS and asked if they were hiring. Fortunately, they were–in fact they hired me for three different jobs. I worked 4 hours in the morning for the Director of Historic Sites; then, in the afternoon I worked 2 hours in the HR department and 2 hours in support services (accounting). That gave me 40 hours a week and ensured I could still pay some bills. The advantage of those low-paying, temporary jobs was that I saw a number of different aspects of State Historical Society operations in a very short time. And, it opened my eyes to a new career option. I quickly ditched my original plan of pursuing a career as a university professor and latched onto the idea of someday supervising an historic site. That decision eventually landed me in Milwaukee pursuing a Public History/Museum Studies degree at the UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Museum. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

  3. I worked at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum stores during summer break while I was an undergrad. That turned into me working in the American Indian Museum gift shop shortly after graduation (and shortly after it opened). It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was a job. While it was retail it at least had good hours and I worked in a museum and was surrounded by amazing stuff everyday. And now here I am over at the American Association of Museums.

    My grand advice is to never think that you’re too good for a job. Retail might not have been what I initially wanted, but I was ultimately the Operations Manager for a store that carried millions of dollars worth of merchandise. The skills I learned there are consistently used in other portions of my life.

    I always love hearing how people got started in museums. It’s fascinating! So many of us have quite the circuitous path.

  4. You actually achieved your goal pretty quickly! I really like the internship process that is available now to college students! One school we visited actually requires 3 MANDATORY internships of all students, culminated with a capstone report…I think this prepares them better for the work world than students who never opt to use the connections their college can provide.

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