Adaptive Career Strategies for EMPs

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Adaptive Career Strategies for EMPs
by Aja Bain

Our field can be a tough one to flourish in: jobs can be scarce and demanding, and as costs of living rise and work/life balance suffers in many regions of the country, EMPs may find themselves scrambling to find full-time employment that fulfills both their career goals and their material needs. In this environment, it often pays to be flexible and creative with your career planning. Sometimes, by adjusting our expectations for where our careers will take us, we find where we are really meant to be.  Here are some thoughts about reconciling passions with goals, approaching the job search with an open and resourceful attitude, and reevaluating traditional museum roles and expectations that I hope can help other EMPs find obtainable and sustainable success in our field.

1. Be realistic and prepared for truths that may initially disappoint you.

There is a saying (riffing on an apocryphal Confucius quote) that goes: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life, because that field isn’t hiring.” We as public historians know this feeling well. Encouraged by well-meaning advisers and jobs that can require almost unbelievably specific expertise, many of us pursue our beloved niche interest only to be discouraged when the single available position for Early American black walnut spinning wheel conservators is filled by someone else. Even broader areas like education or collections work are often underpaid yet very competitive. Accept that your specialty or preferred type of museum work could be one that is either too rare or too popular, low paying, or confined to a certain geographic area, and use that knowledge. Be honest with yourself about your needs and understand what balance between job satisfaction and overall quality of life you can accept.
For me, I always thought I’d work in collections and got my Master’s degree with this goal, but those positions are very competitive and often poorly paid in my region. I realized that even if I were lucky enough to land one, the compensation would not allow me the life I wanted. So I had to think more broadly about who I was, what fulfilled me, and where I could find that satisfaction in a tough market. Which led me to:

2. Explore alternative skills (and let others help).

When I was interning in museums, people would often ask me to write and edit for them: exhibit panels, blog posts, newsletters, all kinds of things. And I happily did, because I have always loved writing and helping others convey their meanings with skill and grace. I also came to realize that many people dislike or are afraid of writing, even if their job requires it. So when I was rethinking my career as a collections person, I realized my alternative was staring me in the face. I could help share history through writing, and through helping those who do write to edit their work so it was clear, accessible, and effective.
Is there some task at your job that others are always asking for your assistance with? Is there something your colleagues say you are skilled at, even if it’s not in your job description? Co-workers and peers might have insight into strengths that you take for granted. Think about how you could incorporate this edge into your career, and how pursuing this skill could set you apart from other job candidates or help you craft a different kind of museum career than you initially envisioned.

3. Be open to career satisfaction from multiple sources.

If you choose a job that is stable and pays the bills but doesn’t further your career goals or fulfill you, think about ways to supplement your job satisfaction beyond your 9-5. What about volunteering at your historical society on weekends? Learning a historic trade or craft? Serving on the board of your local museum? Even working or interning part-time at a museum if that’s a possibility for you? Be creative about maintaining your connection to museums, even if you can’t make it your full-time job yet.
AASLH is a membership organization comprised of museums and sites, but we don’t usually get to do history work ourselves. I missed sharing my love of history with the public, so three years ago, I got a weekend job as a guide for historic downtown walking tours. For a few hours a week, I get to enjoy doing history in public without trying to subsist entirely on a tour guide’s income. It’s a balance that works well for me and my goals.

4. Accept that there are no straight paths.

In our field and others, finding your career is no longer just a matter of perusing classified ads or going straight from school into your dream job. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t be afraid to explore. Don’t worry about “wasting” time and effort, because every experience you have can be fertile ground for personal and professional growth and can teach you important skills for your future museum career.
When I started exploring public history as a career option, I made a point of asking everyone I met how they got to be where they were, what their major(s) had been, and what made them choose their current job. And I was almost always surprised by their responses! Hardly anyone had known at 18 or 20 or even 30 where they wanted to end up, and most admitted that what they were doing now (and enjoying) was not what they originally set out to do. But they convinced me to find value and comfort in the winding path, and to be open to re-evaluating what I wanted to do based on the things I learned during my career “detours.”
We all know our field, like many others, has serious issues when it comes to employment. These tips do not address the larger forces that contribute to underemployment, low wages, and inequity, but are offered with the intent of helping fellow EMPs cope with difficult situations by utilizing one of our most valuable tools: adaptability. By thinking creatively, acting resourcefully, and adjusting optimistically, I think we can help move our field forward to a future that values the diverse experiences and versatile perspectives that EMPs bring to the table.

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Aja Bain is the Program and Publications Manager for the American Association for State and Local History, where she serves as Associate Editor of History News and blog editor. She holds a Master’s in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and a B.A. in American history and anthropology from Vanderbilt University. Currently president of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville, her research interests include Southern migration and the commodification of regional culture in globalized societies. Contact Aja by email at or on Twitter @PointA__PointB.

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