What’s in a Museum Studies Degree?

How I decided to pursue a museum studies degree and where it’s taken me so far

Post by blog team member Katie McComas

A few years ago, I had a crisis of confidence in my career path. Midway through applying and interviewing for Ph.D. programs in evolutionary biology, I realized that I had neither the enthusiasm for 4-7 more years as a student nor a particular interest in the job opportunities that are open to a Ph.D. Getting to work with the research collections at these institutions was my real motivation. After taking a step back, consulting the internet, and asking for a lot of advice from natural history collections managers and curators, I decided to get a museum studies degree.

Up to that point, I had a fair amount of experience in natural history collections. I took a summer internship in the invertebrate paleontology collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard between my freshman and sophomore year of college. After graduating from Brown University with a B.S. in Geology-Biology, I moved to Chicago and got a job as a receptionist at a veterinary hospital, volunteering at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum on my day off for about three years (I split my time between work in the collections and prep of mammal and bird specimens on display for museum visitors). I had just started volunteering in the vertebrate paleontology collection at the Field Museum, where I learned that managing a collection can mean opening up a display case for a visiting whale researcher one week and taking x-rays of unprepped fossil fish slabs the next (and a whole lot of label-making, ethafoam cutting, and database work in between). I was totally hooked on natural history collections, and I wanted to make it my job ASAP – knowing full well that I was jumping into an already overcrowded kiddie pool-sized job market.

I learned a lot through simple exposure to collections work in my volunteer and internship experiences. But my day job, while enjoyable, had long since stopped presenting challenges, and I was anxious to spend more of my time in museums. I wanted to fit those little bits of collections management knowledge together into a bigger picture.

There were a few things I needed from a museum studies program to become more competitive in this tiny niche job market with glacial turnover rates:
1. A Master’s degree (a basic hurdle for most collections job applications).
But more importantly…
2. Experience conducting collections-based research in paleontology or zoology.
3. Continued work experience in paleontology and zoology collections.
4. Foundational coursework and training in museum studies, as well as refreshers in the -ologys (paleontology, evolutionary biology, zoology).

I found very few programs in which “Natural History” was even listed as a possible concentration, so my search was narrowed very quickly. Only two programs appeared to emphasize and have on-site natural history collections, which was another requirement for me. And only one program offered me a 10 hour per week graduate assistantship working with the vertebrate paleontology collection: the Museum and Field Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Another perk: the scenery.

The view from the Bruce Curtis Building (Museum Collections) at CU Boulder (Photo by Katie McComas).

The MFS program at CU Boulder offers a collections track with cognates in paleontology, zoology, entomology, botany, anthropology, and art/art history, and has collections in all but the last at the CU Museum of Natural History on campus. I took a number of museum studies courses (Introduction to Museum Studies, Collections Management, Museum Administration, Museum Practicum in Geology, and Conservation of Collections), as well as cognate courses (Vertebrate Paleontology, Mammalogy, Primate Ecology and Evolution), and completed a Master’s thesis in which I described a new fossil mammal from our collection. I was also lucky to have TWO other paleontology collections students in our tiny cohort of five. It’s fun to make friends with people who have chosen the same really specific career you have!

While the work involved in completing the degree gave me a much fuller sense of the greater natural history museum world, the time I spent employed as an assistant in the paleontology and zoology collections was much more valuable to my professional development. It was a perfect blend of apprenticeship and independent learning. I had latitude to devise my own project plans and procedures, but could bring any questions to the collection managers. After expressing my interest in learning more about specimen photography and molding and casting procedures, I was allowed to spend my second year taking high-resolution images of the vertebrate paleontology holotypes and working with our emeritus curator on all molding and casting projects that came our way.

Just a few of the MFS graduate assistants working in the paleontology collection, with Talia Karim, Invertebrate Paleontology Collection Manager (Photo by Danielle Forte).

Just a few of the MFS graduate assistants working in the paleontology collections, with Talia Karim, Invertebrate Paleontology Collection Manager. L-R: Allison Vitkus, Talia Karim, Rick Levy, Katie McComas, & Lindsay Walker (Photo by Danielle Forte).

For me, a museum studies program was the way to go. I think the CU Boulder program was a particularly good fit, but I also went in determined to make it worth my time. I was careful to be sure that I wasn’t simply adding a line to the “Education” part of my CV during those two years, but was also gaining relevant work experience and technical skills, and participating in the professional community (SPNHC, CFR, GSA, webinars, and on-site training sessions). After graduating this past May, I am prepared and more excited than ever to work with a natural history collection, which is how a Master’s program should make its graduates feel.

Katie McComas received her M.S. in Museum and Field Studies from the University of Colorado – Boulder in May 2014, where she specialized in vertebrate paleontology collections management.

Next time on Cracking the Collections: 

December 10 – Lisa Sisco & Julia Blase discuss how to provide better access to archival records in natural history collections and a new collaboration that began at the 2014 meeting of the Society of American Archivists.