Careers for Ph.D.'s in Museums

October 13, 2000

At least once a week the topic of museum careers arises in my job-counseling sessions with graduate students.

It makes a lot of sense -- museums are major centers of public education, and graduate students are would-be educators. The topics covered by museums -- such as art, history, child development, anthropology, science, and technology -- overlap well with disciplines within the arts and sciences. And while graduate programs in museum studies are available, it is not usually necessary to have such training to enter the field.

Often when counselors work with Ph.D. students looking outside the academy for career ideas, we focus on learning to separate the students' skills (such as research, teaching, and writing) from the content of their studies. Not so with museum careers -- from a curator position to a job in the development office, familiarity with the subject of a museum's collection is as valuable as specific skills.

Breaking In

The biggest challenge to a museum career is breaking into the profession. Museums are famous, popular institutions for which many knowledgeable people are willing to volunteer their labor. As a result, even large museums will have relatively small paid staffs, and since this is the nonprofit sector, the salaries can be considerably lower than in comparable for-profit jobs.

The best way for a young academic to earn a spot on the payroll at a museum is to begin as a volunteer or intern. It can be quite a hardship for a graduate student on a limited budget to find time for unpaid work or a modestly paid internship. However, when staff positions open at museums, they often turn first to the people who have already demonstrated their commitment and talent.

Fortunately for graduate students, research universities are often well situated for finding an internship or volunteer opportunity at a museum. Some universities run their own museums, for instance, which opens up the possibility of museum-based course work, as well as internships. And many universities are situated in or near major cities with a variety of museums from which to choose.

As a general rule, museums value advanced academic training. Museum officials are also likely to be supportive of an intern's career aspirations, since their own careers likely started with a similar position.

It isn't necessary to find an existing internship program in order to find a worthwhile opportunity. Especially with smaller museums, sending a letter of introduction with a résumé, followed by a polite phone call, may be just the ticket. Explain in your letter why you are interested in the organization and the amount of time you have available to work, along with any specific skills or experiences you can offer. You can often find out the name of the museum's volunteer coordinator through its Web site or by phone. Larger institutions usually have a formal application process for interns and volunteers.

Deciding whether you want to work at a big museum or a small one turns out to be an important choice in this career path. Major museums with hundreds of employees have very specialized staffs. The benefit of such an environment is that you can work on prestigious projects and develop depth in a specific area of museum work. The drawback is that it may be harder to learn the range of functions within the museum, and you may play a limited role on any given project.

By comparison, small museums have versatile staffs and give their interns more wide-ranging and significant responsibilities. Unless your interests in a museum career are already very clearly defined, a smaller institution may afford you a better first exposure.

Career Tracks Within Museums

For the sake of this discussion, I am using the term "museum" to refer to any cultural institution that collects, conserves, and publicly displays artistic, cultural, or scientific objects and artifacts. Museums can include historical homes, archaeological sites, and science centers, in addition to the grand marble palaces with art and natural-history collections typically conjured up by the term.

It is helpful to think about two main categories of museum careers that are particularly suitable for graduate students: content and educational specialists and development and marketing professionals.

For scholars who are eager to conduct research, the best-known opportunity to do this at a museum is through a curatorship. Such positions are filled in much the same way as academic appointments. Curators' responsibilities involve the research demands typical of a professorship, but with little or no teaching unless the institution has arranged a joint appointment with an affiliated college or university.

Curators devote attention to the museum's collections in their particular field, and may play a significant role in cultivating donations from private collectors and arranging acquisitions. Curators also provide content expertise in the design of public exhibitions and publications.

For Ph.D.'s who prefer teaching to research, a position in museum education or exhibit development may be the right fit. These jobs combine teaching skills and creativity with a solid, but more general, knowledge of a particular discipline.

Museum educators organize performance and lecture series, develop and teach workshops, train and supervise volunteer docents, work with schoolteachers, and create online and print supplements for exhibits. Museum education has also moved into the high-tech realm and increasingly focuses on developing online-learning programs.

The public sphere of museum education demands a high level of energy. The challenge is to build and sustain an audience, no small feat since museums are competing with all sorts of leisure options, such as sports, films, and live performances.

One thing to keep in mind about these positions: museum educators work when the public is available -- in other words, these jobs almost always involve weekend and evening hours. And the salaries aren't terrific either: Entry-level positions for professionals with graduate degrees often fall between $20,000 and $35,000, while the most senior educators at a major museum usually earn less than tenured professors in the humanities.

Exhibit developers are fewer in number than museum educators, but they tend to work more traditional hours. There are opportunities both within museums and in independent exhibit-design firms for these professionals, who work with content specialists, architects, and graphic designers to develop three-dimensional displays. They usher an exhibit through all the steps of production, from developing a narrative structure to selecting and organizing the display objects, writing and editing label copy, producing multi-media presentations, and coordinating the final construction and installation. Salaries in exhibit development are similar to those in museum education, although they can be slightly higher in the independent firms.

If you are less interested in staying within your original field of research and more attracted to promoting the arts, museum marketing and development may be your niche.

Even the smallest museum has professionals charged with public relations and membership responsibilities. Besides the usual press releases, these folks produce special events that draw attention to the museum and may be involved in audience research to increase membership and attendance.

Development and fund raising is an area of museum work that is home to many former academics. Entry-level jobs in this field involve research, the backbone of any nonprofit's efforts to identify potential donors, and writing -- especially grant proposals and annual reports. A background in the area of the museum's research is highly desirable in these jobs, since development officers are often explaining and representing the museum's activities to donors and foundation officers.

Salaries in this job track vary, but generally speaking, good development professionals are in great demand and are better compensated than their counterparts in museum education, exhibit development, or public relations.

Where to Find More Information

Museum professionals are well-known for their commitment to professional development -- this includes a superb annual conference by the American Association of Museums, an extremely active e-mail list devoted to the museum profession, and a host of valuable online resources.

The A.A.M.'s Web site includes information on member institutions, its annual conference, a bookstore of its publications, and a section devoted to museum careers. The association's monthly newsletter, Aviso, is also available online, along with selected job postings.

The Museum-L e-mail list is an extraordinary ongoing conversation of several thousand museum professionals and includes many job announcements and advice for graduate students.

The Museum Employment Resource Center is an excellent source for job listings in the museum world.

If your interest is museum education, you can learn more about this field and sign up for an e-mail list at the Cultural Connections Web site.

For specific information about science museums, check out the Association of Science-Technology Centers.

And Global Museum 2000 is an e-zine with information on museums and museum career opportunities.

Robin Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career and placement services office of the University of Chicago.