Emerging Op-Eds is a community series that shares opinions and tips from our NEMPN members. Have an idea or a topic you’d like to share? Submit your idea here.
Networking as Community Building
By Isabel Singer
As soon as I graduated from my master’s program, I started avidly networking in order to find a job in the museum sector. However, as the months wore on and a year passed by, I felt extremely frustrated that my efforts had not resulted in employment. I decided to take a break, regroup, and reflect on my process.
After careful consideration, I realized that I needed to change my perspective on networking. Good networking is more than developing instrumental ties; it is an opportunity to build a community. While I had not yet landed a job, my efforts had yielded valuable knowledge and relationships that I cherished.
Below is an abridged account of some of the lessons I have gleaned and a few of the amazing people I have met while building myself a community of museum professionals.
If you’re genuinely interested in someone’s work, it never hurts to ask them to get coffee.
Some of my most important professional relationships began because I boldly (and politely) asked a person who I admired to grab a coffee with me, even if we had no direct connection. I’ve had the privilege to take a stroll with an executive director who made an intriguing comment on an acquaintance’s LinkedIn post. I’ve talked on the phone with the head of evaluation of a major US art museum. I even interviewed an exhibit developer who worked on the amazing new SUE exhibit at the Field Museum for my blog. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. The worst thing has happened to me when I reached out is that someone did not respond or told me they were too busy to meet.
However, don’t reach out to people because you think they can help get you a job. When I first started networking, I reached out to a few people solely because they worked at an organization that had a job opening or they were connected to people who could hire me. My desire for a favor colored my conversations with them and none of us benefited from the interactions.
Be open to changing your career goals
Talking to Kiah Shapiro, the Manager of Strategy at Luci Creative, showed me that I needed to think more broadly about my career. When we met for coffee in January 2018, Kiah told me that she believed her team at Luci is so strong because they have multidisciplinary experiences from outside the museum world. Her colleagues use their diverse research, project management, design, and team building skills to create experiences for museums, non-profit institutions, and even corporations. I was intrigued by the functions of her job and the people with whom she worked. Museums were not the end goal of her job, but one path towards achieving her goals.
After my conversation with Kiah, I expanded my primary career goal from “finding work in or with museums” to “finding opportunities that combine my desire to collaborate with people, my devotion to improving the world, and my love of research.” I want to spend my time building bridges between people and knowledge and I believe museums are one path towards that goal.
If you’re willing to put in time and effort, you can access incredible growth opportunities.
While looking for ways to hone my visitor studies skills, I met Fran Mast, a Research and Evaluation (R&E) Associate at the Shedd Aquarium, at a Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) meet-up. She needed assistance collecting and analyzing data, and I enthusiastically volunteered to spend two Sundays each month at the Shedd. I embarked on the best volunteer experience that I have ever had.
As an R&E volunteer at the Shedd, not only did I have the opportunity to contribute to a great organization, but my social science research skills improved immensely. I underwent extensive volunteer training from which I gained a greater appreciation of the IRB process. While collecting surveys from hundreds of visitors, I observed the ways different survey designs and my own preconceptions can impact sampling. I interviewed dozens of visitors and improved my ability to ask good probes. Overall, I became more observant and a better listener.
Invest in personal friendships.
After a CMEG meeting, I stood outside waiting for an Uber with a fellow job seeker, Filippa Christofalou. I had just received several rejections from jobs and was feeling pretty hopeless. “I’ll never get a job in the museum sector,” I lamented to Filippa. “Why do I keep trying?”
Filippa turned to me and smiled sympathetically, “I get that you’re frustrated. I am too. But, you have a unique perspective to offer. Someone will see that,” she said. “Don’t give up. I’m certainly not giving up on either of us.”
Even when the road is rough, It is comforting to know I am not alone in my frustrations and I have peers who believed in me.
Seek out mentors and embrace their feedback.
Colleen Dilenschneider consistently reminds me why I love the cultural sector. I came across her blog, Know Your Own Bone, when researching visitor studies and exhibit development strategies. I read the blog voraciously and found it incredibly insightful. Curious to learn more about the person behind the content, I looked Colleen up on LinkedIn. When I realized she also lived in Chicago, I got up the courage to shoot her an email and asked her to grab coffee with me. A day later her project coordinator emailed me and we set up a meeting.
When we finally met, Colleen and I talked for hours. We dorked out about data trends in the cultural sector and discussed the manifold reasons cultural organizations need to become more inclusive. Her positivity was infectious and she asked me thoughtful, penetrating questions about my dreams and goals. Her career route was circuitous and fascinating. I left our first meeting feeling more optimistic about the museum sector and my role in it than I had in months.
After meeting Colleen, I asked her to formally mentor me. Now, we meet quarterly to catch up, discuss my career trajectory, brainstorm solutions to challenges I’m facing, and just chat about the cultural sector. I appreciate that she gives gives me honest critical feedback and pushes me to be my best. I always leave my meetings with Colleen feeling refreshed and ready to face new challenges.
Keep networking even after you have the job.
In December 2018, Luci Creative called to offer me a job. It was a dream come true, a moment I had been hoping for since I sat down for coffee with Kiah Shapiro nearly a year prior. While networking is certainly not the reason I got the job, I believe that the fact that I already knew Kiah and a few of the other Luci team members helped my prospects.
However, just because I have a job in the museum sector doesn’t mean I have stopped networking. The knowledge that I acquired and the relationships I developed in the past year and a half have been too significant for me to pass up the opportunity to meet new people. So, please reach out if you’d like to chat! I’m always looking to befriend more of my peers.
Isabel Singer is an Exhibit Developer at Luci Creative, where she supports the strategy team in developing content for exhibits and spaces in museums, cultural institutions, and corporations. An active museum blogger, Isabel provides insight into industry trends and interviews experts in their fields. Isabel developed her strong research, analysis, and writing skills while earning her B.A at Yale and MPhil at the University of Cambridge, both in history. She honed these skills by performing audience research at the Shedd Aquarium, creating professional development programming for public historians at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center, and helping the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum improve its interpretation of women. Isabel is also a classically trained vocalist and spends her free time performing with a small world folk music group. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.