Finding Your First Museum Job

Finding Your First Museum Job
I was lucky. I graduated with my Master’s degree in History Museum Studies in a pre-9/11 world, when museums were readily hiring and grant money was still flowing.

Today’s job market is a bit different, but the tried-and-true tips toward landing that first museum job are still the same. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you would like to find employment in a museum.

1. Be willing to move! Unless you live in a large city with lots of museums close by, chances are your dream job is not going to pop up in your hometown. You have to be willing to go to the job, because the job is most likely not going to come to you. You don’t have to conduct a national job search, but expanding your geographic area to a few more cities or states will open up many more options for you. Moving may be difficult, but if your career goals are important to you, then you may have no other choice. (I say this as someone who moved three states away for a wonderful job opportunity! You can do it too!)

2. VOLUNTEER. If you are having trouble finding a museum job, it never hurts to work for free. Most museums have weekend and evening opportunities to volunteer, so you can still have a full-time job outside of the field to pay the bills. It is important to keep yourself visible in the museum world, not only for opportunities at the museum you volunteer for, but also to keep your museum-related activities current on your resume.

3. Don’t aim for the top position right away. Your dream may be to become a Chief Curator or Director some day, but most of the time you can’t start at the top. You may have to start at a more realistic level for a new graduate – apply for a curatorial assistant position, or maybe something in the office or admissions desk. Each job is a stepping stone toward your future goals.

4. As a new professional, you are more likely to land your first job at a smaller museum. It may not be your ideal job, but it will help get your foot in the door. Smaller museums traditionally pay less and have fewer people doing more work, but it is a real opportunity to gain new skills and get some hands-on experience. At my first job there were only 4 full-time and 2 part-time paid staff. I wasn’t very happy there and only stayed two years, but the experience I gained there has been invaluable.

5. Join as many professional organizations as you can afford. Go to their regional meetings and national conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn what is current in the field.

6. You need to do everything you can to make yourself stand out in the crowd. Make your resume the one that gets placed on the top of the pile! Be sure you have all of the qualifications for the job you are applying for. List all of the internships and volunteer experience you have.

7. Keep a portfolio of your work. If you helped work on an exhibition at a summer internship, include a narrative of your role and photos of the project. If you had a small article published in a museum’s newsletter, clip it and put it in your portfolio. If you wrote a great paper in graduate school that is relevant to your career goals, include that too. Anything that demonstrates your talents will give you an edge.

8. Seize every opportunity! Take risks! Put together a proposal for a panel at a professional conference. Contact a museum near you and offer to write an article for their newsletter or journal. Find out how you can put your skills to good use, even if you don’t have a museum job yet. Ask the education department if you can help develop a new tour. Find out if you can guest curate a small exhibition. Pitch your fundraiser idea to the Director. Use the skills you already have to open doors for you.

Unfortunately, it is true that there are more freshly minted museum studies graduates than there are jobs. Slowly but surely, the economy is turning around, and I have noticed more and more job listings.

If you “keep your eye on the prize,” and do everything you can to work toward your goals, one day you will meet them!

You Should Also Read:
Museum Employment Resources
So You Want to Be a Curator
What is a Curator?

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Content copyright © 2023 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.