Advice from the Trenches: Navigating the Struggles of Finding a Job in the Museum Industry

Post by blog team member Katie Kirkham

As Katie M. pointed out in her recent blog post about deciding if a Museum Studies program is right for you, the museum profession has “an already overcrowded kiddie pool-sized job market”. Many emerging professionals don’t find a permanent position for years, after hundreds of applications. As such, we thought it might be useful to write a blog post addressing this tricky topic.

I recently graduated with a Master of Science in Geology and a Master’s Certificate in Museum Practices from Brigham Young University, but I started my search for a post-graduation job about a year before that. Since I haven’t as yet found a full-time permanent museum job, you may want to take my advice with a grain of salt, but these are some things I’ve learned in the trenches. Many of them are applicable to more than just the museum profession.

RESUME AND COVER LETTER

Your resume and cover letter are usually your first opportunity to make an impression on potential employers.

Resume Tips:

  • Use active words and quantitative details. I noticed a huge difference from making these minor changes to my resume.

Example:

Starting – “Participated in inventory of collections.”

Better – “Inventoried and managed over 1,000 oversize objects in the biology, geology, and paleontology collections.”

  • Tailor to the job posting! Use the keywords from the job posting in your resume to make it clear how your education and experience make you qualified. Although it may be obvious to you, it may not be to someone quickly scanning your resume without a little extra explanation.

Museum Studies programs can be highly variable, so it may be useful to include projects where you learned relevant skills that may not be easily visible through your work history alone. You may be coming to the museum field from an alternative educational background, so it may be useful to list relevant volunteer experience.

Cover Letter Tips:

Don’t underestimate the importance of a cover letter, even if the application says it’s optional. It’s your chance to explain how you feel your experience and skillsets meet their desired qualifications or address any possible perceived gaps, and also express your personality and excitement about the job in a way that is hard to convey in a resume.

  • Tailor to the job posting! Use keywords from the job posting to explain how you meet the desired qualifications. Again, it may be obvious to you how your education and experience applies to the position, but it may not be to someone else.
  • Address possible perceived gaps. If there are any qualifications where it’s not easily obvious from your resume that you have skills or experience in that area, explain that in the cover letter. If there is an area where you’re weaker, the cover letter is the best place to address that upfront.
  • Express your personality. Resumes are a lot more technical and don’t really offer you the chance to explain why you’re interested in the job, so the cover letter is the place to express that. Aim for a balance between being overly passive and being overly casual.

IF THEY ASK YOU TO LIST SALARY EXPECTATIONS IN THE APPLICATION:

  • List a comfortable range, but also state that you’re open to negotiation. It can be scary to worry about pricing yourself too low or too high, so do your research on what is fair and reasonable based on the job expectations outlined in the job posting, your experience level, and the geographic region where the organization is located. While it’s true that some employers use this to eliminate candidates, accept that you wouldn’t want a position that isn’t a good fit anyway.

INTERVIEW

General Interview Tips:

  • Prepare answers to questions ahead of time. Think about and practice responses to common job interview questions as well as possible questions specific to the position. Be prepared to answer questions about every qualification mentioned in the job description. Practice taking the time to pause and take a breath before you answer; this will help with the questions that you don’t anticipate. Sometimes writing out your potential responses can help solidify them in your mind.
  • Utilize the STAR or SHARE technique in your answers
    • STAR
      • Situation or Task: Describe a specific event or situation that you were in or task that you needed to accomplish. Provide enough detail for the interviewer to understand, but keep your description concise.
      • Action: Describe the action you took. Keep the focus on your role even if you’re describing a group project or effort.
      • Results: Discuss specific results or outcomes from your action. Describe what happened, what you accomplished, and what you learned from the experience.
    • SHARE
      • Situation: Describe a specific event or situation that you were in or task that you needed to accomplish. Provide enough detail for the interviewer to understand, but keep your description concise.
      • Hindrances: Identify hindrances or challenges that you faced.
      • Action: Describe the action you took. Keep the focus on your role even if you’re describing a group project or effort.
      • Results: Discuss specific results or outcomes from your action. Describe what happened and what you accomplished.
      • Evaluate: Explain and evaluate what you learned from the experience.
  • Do your research! Familiarize yourself with the organization’s mission, current goals, recent projects, staff, and ins and outs as much as possible. Prepare some questions for the interviewers that are specific to the position you’re interviewing for and/or their organization. You want to emphasize your investment and interest and show you already have ideas.
  • Take notes afterward. Write down the questions that you were asked and the answers that you gave. This will help you prepare your follow-up and for any additional interviews for that position. This information can also be very helpful when preparing for future interviews for other positions.
  • Follow up! Send your interviewers tailored thank you messages as quickly as possible. Mention specifics from the interview (this is where the notes are handy). Focus on the strong points, but also address any areas where you felt you might not have made as strong of an impression.

Phone Interview Tips:

  • Dress as you would if going to an in-person interview.
  • Smile! Your voice will reflect it.
  • Do the same level of preparation that you would do for an in-person interview. Phone interviews can often be much more difficult because you aren’t there in person to interpret body language and gauge face-to-face reactions.

SALARY NEGOTIATION

The prospect of negotiating salary instead of just accepting the first offer can be daunting. However, most businesses understand that negotiating is standard practice. That said, there are times when negotiating may be a good idea and times when negotiating is probably not a good idea.

Negotiating may be a good idea if:

  • The job posting lists a salary range, and the initial offer is not the maximum end of the range.
  • The job posting lists that salary will depend on experience.

Negotiating is probably not a good idea if:

  • The job posting lists a single value.

IF YOU DECIDE TO NEGOTIATE:

  • Do your research. Be able to back up your counter offer by knowing what is fair market and standard for the job expectations/duties, your experience level/qualifications, and the geographic region where the organization is located. You have to be able to demonstrate the value that you can offer to the organization.
  • Look at the whole offer. Pay attention to other benefits (insurance, relocation package, etc.) that are being offered and not just the base pay.
  • Practice your approach ahead of time. There are a lot of great resources out there on how to negotiate salary.
  • Be aware of your bottom line. Decide the lowest value of salary and benefits that you feel is reasonable, and don’t apply to jobs that you already know from the listed salary range will not be a good fit for you.

Negotiating does come with some risk, but the outcome is often worth it. I have successfully negotiated for a higher salary offer, although I was unable to take the job in the end due to other factors. If you say, “I don’t know how much wiggle room is in your budget, but would you consider… ?”, even if they’re unable to increase their offer, many employers will appreciate your initiative. Don’t be afraid to negotiate! If an employer does respond negatively to thoughtful negotiation, it may be an indication that the organizational culture wasn’t the best fit for you.

NETWORKING

Oftentimes your contacts are your best source for possible jobs or make your best references, so networking is essential. This cannot be emphasized enough.

  • Be active in professional organizations like SPNHC.
  • Make use of social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter can be used professionally as well as personally, and professional social networking sites such as LinkedIn are a great way to connect with other professionals in your field. However, the most efficient use of social networking sites is in conjunction with face-to-face interactions; don’t rely on online networking solely.
  • Maintain network connections. Keep in touch with people you connect with through conferences, internships, etc. Don’t just connect with them on social networking sites and never talk to them unless you need something. Actively follow what they’re working on and talk to them regularly. Networking is not a passive activity.

OTHER NOTES FROM THE TRENCHES

  • Don’t underestimate the value of volunteering, internships, or part-time jobs. They can help you get your foot in the door at a particular organization and make valuable network connections that can later help you get a great job. They also allow you to continue gaining experience and skills. I’m currently in a seasonal part-time position in my institution’s development and membership department, but I have learned so much from my supervisor that will be applicable in any job I have in the future.
  • Keep learning. In addition to learning from volunteering, internships, or part-time jobs, keeping a journal, log, or list of relevant projects and skills learned can help you track your professional development.
  • Apply anyway. If there’s a job for which you feel your qualifications are a good match but maybe not perfect, apply anyway. Always apply, even when you’re not sure if they would consider someone in your position (i.e. no full-time permanent experience before). You’ll never get the job if you don’t apply, and the worst that can happen is they don’t choose you for an interview.
  • Follow up! It’s more useful to follow through with jobs that will be a better fit than flood the market and not make a real impression.
  • Stay confident and don’t give up. The right job is out there, and it takes some professionals longer to find one than others. In the museum industry, this is often not reflective of your skills and experience – you’re just up against stiff competition. So don’t get discouraged! In the end, you may discover that a different part of the museum field is a better fit, or that your skill set is better applied in a different field altogether. That’s okay!

Do you have any questions or tips / advice beyond what’s outlined here? We’d love to hear them and discuss in the comments.

Kathleen Kirkham (better known as Katie) graduated in December 2014 with a Master of Science in Geology and a Master’s Certificate in Museum Practices from Brigham Young University. Her thesis, Compositional Analysis of Three Clay Artifact Collections from the Southwestern United States, explored the applications of portable X-ray fluorescence and other compositional analysis techniques in the museum industry.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

May 10 – preparation for the Annual Meeting!

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