Ask An Expert: Experienced Notes from the Museum Field – Why Get a Ph.D.?

Andrew Westover is currently transitioning from his role as Associate Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum to a Ph.D. in Education at Harvard, focusing on ethics. He has held positions at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, and the Phoenix Art Museum. Prior to working in cultural institutions, Andrew taught as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of the Free State in South Africa and as a middle school teacher with Teach For America. He holds a B.A. in History, M.Ed., and M.A. in Religion.

Andrew Westover is currently transitioning from his role as Associate Education Specialist at the J. Paul Getty Museum to a Ph.D. in Education at Harvard, focusing on ethics. He has held positions at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, and the Phoenix Art Museum. Prior to working in cultural institutions, Andrew taught as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of the Free State in South Africa and as a middle school teacher with Teach For America. He holds a B.A. in History, M.Ed., and M.A. in Religion.

This month’s question, asked by Kelsey Picken, asks “Why, after working in museum education for the past several years, have you chosen to return to graduate school?” Andrew Westover, a Ph.D. student in Education at Harvard, tackles this question and offers some insight as to why he decided to go back to graduate school.

Recently, as groups like #MuseumWorkersSpeak have highlighted concerns across our profession, I’ve begun to wonder: What can museum educators do to ensure their work is not merely for tax breaks? How can museums be both “relevant” and “responsive” to our immediate realities (e.g.#MuseumsRespondToFerguson)?  I decided to return to graduate school to ask these questions and spend substantive time considering them.

Talia Gibas notes that museum educators need to address the inherent challenges of respecting teachers’ pedagogies while also seeking to change how they teach. As a teacher programs specialist, I worry that teacher-training programs neglect critical discourse and qualitative metrics, instead relying on participation as a primary signifier of success. What can museums do to ensure that our work with teachers is effective, facilitating both educator development and student success?

While museum educators have long articulated goals of excellence and equity, a lack of foundational understanding (as Elliot Kai-Kee describes) explains why many of the difficulties identified decades ago remain widely present. Ultimately, it’s the promise of museums that keeps me invested in this work: the possibility that cultural institutions can serve as a catalyst for critical discourse, inquiry, empathy, and meaning making.

If you have a question or dilemma that’s been troubling you, click on this link to be redirected to a short submission form to pose your question to the Communications Committee. Your question may be featured in the next e-newsletter and the National EMP Network Blog!

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2 thoughts on “Ask An Expert: Experienced Notes from the Museum Field – Why Get a Ph.D.?

  1. The important point made in this post is not that getting a PhD will make one more qualified for a museum position but rather to enhance a particular research interest. In fact a PhD is not a preferred degree by any stretch of the imagination for obtaining employment in Museums. According to the AAM 2012 Salary Survey only 5.1% of all museum employees have a Phd. When I raised this with colleagues in the past, they discounted the statement by arguing that 5.1% included custodial, gift shop, and other positions they referred to as “nonprofessional” careers. Although that statement smacks of elitism, even Directors of Education, the position Mr. Westover might aspire, only 6.1% of those positions were filled by individuals with a PhD. In fact, according to the AAM survey, only six job categories (Director, Assist Director, 3 senior curator type positions, and Director of Publications) saw double-digit percentages of staff holding a PhD.

    My point is not to dissuade individuals from seeking a PhD out of principle, but rather, I have simply had far too many students who felt their next logical step after obtaining an MA was to consider enrolling in a PhD program. Doing so, ultimately, may even limit one’s employment possibilities in the museum field through academic over-qualification but with a lack of applied experiences. In fact, most public employment positions will allow relevant work experience to compensate for a position’s academic requirements but rarely, if ever, is the reverse the case.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Robert!

      I agree with your statement that a PhD is not required for advancement within museums, particularly in museum education. While the education department at the Getty Museum includes several employees with PhDs, I am well aware that this is not representative of all museum education departments.

      For me, pursuing this degree is primarily a choice to investigate research interests, not to advance in museum education (though that is a possible outcome I would welcome).

      I also agree with your statement that students hoping to enter museum education, particularly those without work experience, should seriously consider whether a graduate degree will actually move them toward a full-time, well-paid position. (For people interested in reading more, especially folks considering museum studies/museum education degrees, I would point to this article and comments section from Nina Simon’s fantastic Museum 2.0 blog: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2007/04/warning-museum-graduate-programs-spawn.html).

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