To All the Interns I’ve Loved Before

The following letter, written by a federal contractor working in a collections management department who chooses to remain anonymous, represents the typical advice they offer to enterprising interns seeking career advice. What follows represent the views and experiences of one person, the decision to include this on the CoC blog comes from a desire to represent a broad range of opinions, experiences, backgrounds, and information. We always invite responses, including those with differing or supplementary viewpoints. 

-CoC Team

Dear Past, Present, and Future Interns,

In response to the age-old questions: What does it take to work in the museum field? How do I get my start? How does contracting play into this?

First, most jobs at museums will require at least a master’s degree, though some smaller museums may not require as much education. Most of the staff that you’ve met (or will meet) during your internship, for example, probably have a master’s or PhD degree and contractors are working jobs that many in the museum collections field consider “entry-level”. You’ve gained a lot of great hands-on experience during internships (and will probably learn the most useful skills during this time), but museum work also requires a background understanding of theory and ethics of that you’ll lack without either getting a graduate certificate or Master of Arts in Museum Studies or a related field. While the certificates are often the easier route for both time (you can often get one in about a year) and money, I’ve found that some of my friends and previous colleagues who went for certificates didn’t find that it actually helped them score a job once they completed the certificate. As prohibitive master’s degrees can be in terms of time and cost, it’s often the baseline requirement for jobs in a museum. There are dozens of great programs around the country and abroad, and so many museum professionals are happy to try to help you find the right one. Personally, I would initially caution you against online programs, though, because the most useful part of going to grad school is to build your professional network via in-person interactions, and getting museum jobs is often based in who you know and where you’ve worked. 

However, I will warn you that the museum field is insanely competitive and it is very, very difficult to find a job, even with a master’s degree. Because so many great people are going to school to get degrees in Museum Studies or a related field, the job market is oversaturated with too many highly qualified candidates. Often, the stars have to align where you’re in the right place at the right time to actually find a job that you are specialized to do. For example, I just happened to intern at the right time and another contractor left because they were tired of waiting to hear if the project would be funded or not, so I was offered a contract position only because someone happened to leave. While contracting jobs are often right place/right time situations, there is absolutely no guarantee of another contract once you finish with one. We are often told by our institution to keep looking for jobs elsewhere because they cannot guarantee the funding to keep us around. I would also caution you to really consider how much time you are willing to spend taking unpaid internships and how much money you are willing to spend on more education. Many must work for at least 2-3 years unpaid or for very little pay in addition to spending upwards of $100k on master’s degrees to even be considered for entry-level jobs that only pay 35k-45k. Although job postings say that an undergrad degree is enough of a qualification, many of the eventual appointees have master’s degrees and numerous years of experience in the field. It can be a really tough road, and I’ve seen a number of colleagues leave the field because they could no longer handle the instability and low pay that comes along with museum work. However, if you find that you’re passionate about it, you might find yourself in one of those situations where the stars align just right. It could take upwards of five years to a decade, though, to finally be in a stable position. 

If you’re hoping to get more experience and want to hold off on committing to a master’s degree or certificate program for now, you have a couple of options. First are entry-level visitor services jobs. They will hire people with undergrad degrees and are a good way to see both how different museums work and to help grow your network. Museums are always looking for visitor services staff, and these jobs can sometimes be full-time with benefits. However, these jobs will often not lead to much beyond the visitor services department, which is in charge of tasks such as selling tickets, answering phones, and staffing exhibits. Another way to gain some experience is to find a paying job outside of the field and volunteer or intern a few hours a week on the side. I did a combination of a visitor services job and interning/volunteering in-between undergrad and grad school, and it did provide me with some really great experience before I started grad school. However, it was a very busy/stressful time where I had little time for myself, my friends, and my family. 

I in no way want to scare you away from the museum field, but I want you to know what you’re potentially getting into. It can be insanely rewarding work, and I’ve been very lucky to have so many opportunities to get to where I’m at, but I always want to caution people entering field about everything that you might have to realistically sacrifice to do this . While no one’s experience is universal, you might find yourself in at least one of these situations within a museum, especially contracting.  

Best,

Your Loving Internship Mentor

2 thoughts on “To All the Interns I’ve Loved Before

  1. Oh very much all of this. I work for a small institution and I’ve had 3 interns in my time here. Not a single one has gone into the museum field and I don’t blame them. I’ve been with the same institution for 20+ years – as a contractor. I’ve got 25+ years experience in the field, a master’s degree, and now that the state has raised the minimum wage, I’m making minimum wage. I love my institution and the collections that I have helped shape over the decades but the poverty wages are driving me to despair. A new position really isn’t an option either because what’s the point in emptying and selling a house to move out of state for $35K a year? This field really needs to do some serious work on compensation if it wants to retain good employees.

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