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Getting Set Up for Your Museum Job Search
by Caroline Klibanoff
Gearing up for a job search in the museum field can be a daunting process. Last summer, as I finished my M.A. in Public History, I spent several months “on the market”: networking, doing informational interviews, submitting applications and interviewing. To my surprise, I found myself sort of…enjoying the process! I had been through a couple career changes, and I knew I would be graduating, so I had some time to get prepared. These are some do-ahead steps I picked up that made the entire process easier, and I’m eager to share them with the emerging museum professional community in the hopes of lightening the job search burden — both to help you land a great role, and more importantly, take care of yourself.
Step 1: Write a pitch for yourself.
I borrowed the following tactic from Karamo Brown from Netflix’s “Queer Eye,” and it serves several purposes.
Write down (really — write it down!) two sentences, and stick this somewhere that you can see it every day. The first sentence should say what it is you want to do. This can be somewhat detailed depending on your career goals, any constraints you have, and where you see yourself working every day. The second sentence will explain why you deserve it – and you should feel free to brag!
During my job search, I wrote, “I want to be employed full-time by a large institution to create projects and systems that better facilitate public engagement with the humanities. I deserve it because I have developed a thorough understanding of digital tools, communications strategies and how to coordinate teams, and have a unique talent for helping people connect with history.”
While it may seem silly, this statement serves two purposes. First, you can look at it every day and remind yourself why you ARE good enough for the roles you’re pursuing, even when the search gets discouraging.
Second, it helps distill what you are actually after so that you can share that news with people whenever they ask. This gives you a quick way to identify what is most important to you (i.e., a small museum; something where I can handle objects; a place that embraces the digital) without resorting to a laundry list of roles that might appeal (“I’m hoping to work in a history museum…or a historic site…or an archive…or for the government…”).
Which brings me to step #2.
STEP 2: Make some lists.
Before or during your job search, people are going to ask you what you want to do, which presents a great opportunity to help them help you by making connections, passing on openings or suggesting places to work that you might not have heard of. You can speed up the process by making a few lists:
- List 5 people who have jobs you that you think are cool. Reach out to these people, cold, and ask them if they have 15 minutes to speak with you via phone about their career path and what they know about the landscape for doing cool work like theirs around your city, or your subfield, or their museum. At the end of the call, ask them who else they’d recommend that you speak to.
- List 10 institutions you’d want to work at. Make a list of places where you’d really like to focus on landing a job. Note whether you know anyone working there. If you do, make sure you talk to them early in the process to get a sense of the organization’s priorities and whether they’re hiring any positions soon. If you don’t know anyone there, start tackling that — search on LinkedIn, or email someone to see if they’ll talk to you.
- List the people close to you who support you. This one is crucial. Being on the job market can be disheartening, and even when things are going well it can still be confusing and stressful. Speaking from personal experience (ahem), it’s good to make a decent-sized list if you can, so you can call in the second string and give your significant other an occasional break.
STEP 3: Get your system organized.
- Schedule. I put a note on my calendar to repeat every Thursday at 12:00pm that said “Check job sites.” This is a low-pressure enough task that you can block off some time dedicated to it while on your lunch break and then have the satisfaction of crossing this one off your list.
- Subscribe. Sign up for job digest emails so that you can read through the latest postings on your phone during your commute. Set up Google alerts or other keyword searches on job sites for “museum” and any job titles you think you’d like to have. Download the Indeed app and upload your resume so that you can get customized recommended jobs delivered to you via email (and you can scroll the app while you’re waiting in line for a coffee). Put all of the websites that list postings — everything from the AAM job board to the Careers page of the individual museum you want to work at — in a Bookmarks folder and go down the list once a week to check for new openings. Even if you’re not ready to apply, getting on the right listservs now will help you stay “in the know” about who’s hiring for what roles.
- Standardize. It’s hard to find time to write cover letters, let alone fill out the long web forms where you have to repeat all of the information in your resume (thank you, USAJOBS!) One game-changer for me was to create a Master Resume and Master Cover Letter where I dumped in everything I’ve ever done, worded in different ways depending on what skills I wanted to highlight. For each job you’re ready to apply to, just copy and paste lines from your Master File — and you’re done.
- Sticky. I had to type my references’ and past supervisors names, titles, addresses and phone numbers so many times that eventually I caught on and put a sticky note on my desktop with this information so I didn’t have to look it up every time. You can also create a “References” page in your Master File and select the most appropriate references for each job application. Just make sure you keep their contact information up to date, and give them a little courtesy heads up when you apply and include them as a reference.
- Steal time. If you, like, me, are finishing graduate school while working several jobs, I know you have very little free time. But this might mean that you have some flexible hours in which you can do interviews and phone calls with people who work standard hours in offices. It becomes much harder to do any kind of phone or video calls once you’re at a full-time job, so take advantage of your student schedule and the quiet meeting rooms in your university’s library. Many have rooms specifically for phone/video interviews.
STEP 4: JUST DO IT!
I know what it’s like to have great job listings sitting open in a tab on your laptop for literal weeks. And juuust when you finally carve out time to polish your application, you discover that the posting has been removed.
My method now is to get the application out the door, as best I can, without making it my life’s work. The goal is to get a first interview, not to land the entire position in one cover letter. Imagine if you spent several days perfecting your application, only to learn there was an internal candidate all along! And don’t get in your own way by doubting whether you really want the job or whether you have every last qualification. It’s their job to sift through candidates and decide who’s qualified and pick a candidate who’s a fit — don’t do their job for them by taking yourself out of the running.
The museum field is competitive and looking for the right position can be overwhelming, even when things are going well. Having been through this myself, I am eager to share anything I’ve learned that might make it easier going forward for others. It is my hope that with enough advance planning and the use of “infrastructure” like lists, templates and schedules — can you tell I ultimately accepted a role as a project manager?— that the job search becomes a smooth and even enjoyable process.
Caroline Klibanoff is a public historian working at the intersection of digital outreach and storytelling. As exhibitions project manager at the MIT Museum, she coordinates exhibit development, video and interactive production, and logistics for a brand-new museum opening in 2021.
She graduated with her M.A. in Public History and Certificate in Digital Humanities from Northeastern University, and with a B.A. in American Studies and Film & Media Studies from Georgetown University. Klibanoff has conducted research for Northern Light Productions; planned a symposium on immigration for the Cambridge Historical Society; completed the National Register of Historic Places documentation for the Longfellow House; and coordinated the activities of the Northeastern University’s Digital Scholarship Group. Prior to joining the public history field, Klibanoff worked in communications and video production for several years at the Pew Research Center and the FrameWorks Institute. She also sits on the leadership team of the Bridge Alliance, a civic engagement organization. Contact Caroline on Twitter @cklibanoff.