Letters

Name and address supplied, Issue 113/02, p22, 01.02.2013
Stop pretending there are jobs when there aren't
I am a 2011-12 postgraduate from museum studies at the University of Leicester.

After being interviewed for many roles I am hitting the same issue: without paid experience in the heritage sector of at least 18 months, I am not given the chance to take my first steps into the museum world.

I have volunteered at seven museums and heritage institutions for eight years and have just completed a three-month unpaid placement, which put me in debt just to get there. I would like to say this to the museum sector:

  • Give the young the chance. Nearly 90% of my class intake are unemployed after finishing the course last July. Our CVs read well, we have the relevant qualifications and voluntary experience, but no one will take a chance on us. We took out huge loans to fund our master’s degrees; repayments on these do not stop if we are unemployed.
  • Do more to stop unpaid internships and placements or at least support the costs of travel. I have so far been offered one unpaid voluntary role of three months in a museum an hour away costing me £70 a week in travel costs and one (unpaid) 25-hour live-on-site role as a caretaker where you have to pay the bills on the “free” flat they give you. I was told that I would need a partner to support me, savings or a part-time evening job to support my expenses.
  • Do not invite us to interviews when you know we do not have the relevant experience to get the job. I have been to five interviews where they said I performed really well in the interview, but didn’t have enough paid experience.

I am now giving up on my plans for a career in heritage as I do not think it will ever support me enough to have a comfortable life, a home and a family.

The museum sector needs to be more honest with its new recruits and tell us from the onset that the chance of a paid position in the field is highly unlikely.

You should know that every time you turn a young person away from a job interview, a little part of us dies inside.

And next time you interview one of us, please be gentle, we are not exactly having the best time of our lives.

Comments

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Anonymous
MA Member
06.03.2013, 14:55
It took me 3 years from finishing my PG to getting my first paid museum job (in itself temporary). I sent out application after application, I went for various interviews. I was (and am) aware its a competitive field - I don't think many people would necessarily get a job within 6 months of qualifying, even then. It's an awfully short time to have tried, Like the previous commenter, it took me years for my first role.

I kept my nerve, and persevered with volunteering (nearly 6 years in all), carried on with the same part-time work in the call centre that funded the post-grad). Felt demoralising sometimes, but I can still use the skills from that in my current curatorial employment (such as good phone and email skills...). You've just got to be savvy with relating skills in non-museum jobs into what will be useful in the heritage context.

And I'd disagree with 'not shortlisting' if you're borderline on experience. My current job (my 2nd museum one) I'd technically have had least experience in terms of quantity but the relevance of what I had, and how I could apply it was what made me the successful candidate. The temporary job turned permanent, for which I will always be thankful!

And if you are interviewed - ask for feedback - what was the plus points, where can you gain more experience via your current volunteering etc.

Be under no illusions, it's not a easy sector to get jobs in, so 6 months is not really enough time to really give it a chance (its the same in many other sectors as well). A course won't guarantee you a job, just gives you the skills to do it.

Anonymous
MA Member
11.02.2013, 10:54
I graduated in 2009 and have been volunteering and looking for jobs in the sector since then. I was told my by course director that competition would be extremely tough. But, I still decided to give it a go. Recently, it was suggested to me that I go with my strengths, which includes ten years worth of retail experience and I managed to get a job as a visitor services assistant.

I have given myself five years after graduating to see if I could find anything.

Don't give up just yet, give yourself at least a year or two as a graduate and see how that goes.
Anooshka Rawden
MA Member
Museum Officer, The Novium
09.02.2013, 08:52
I began my museum steer in 2001 - before the recession hit - and even then I completed 5 years of unpaid voluntary work and internships before I got my first chance to work in a paid gallery attendant / museum assistant role - this was with a degree, postgraduate qualification, nvq and phd. The volunteering I did ranged from working at the British Museum with collections, a regional museum undergoing a massive redevelopment, a small local museum seeking to pursue accreditation and a regional museum. I also carrie out freelance teaching work while studying. I sat 5 interviews with the same museum before I got my first break. I worked all the hours I feasibly could juggling paid retail work (unfortunately I had to eat and pay rent) and usually 2-3 volunteer roles at the same time.

I am now the curator of a collection and in three years have seen my role develop from one as curator of archaeology to curator of collections (three to be precise, previously manage by three people) and am also covering work from a currently vacant post. I have volunteers coming to me who remind me of myself between 2001-2006 - eager to learn, keen and enthusiastic, but also increasingly disillusioned. I try to give them a good experience and as much hands on practical experience as possible. I also encourage them to approach museums with a realistic eye - an MA in museums studies teaches all the theory in the world but doesn't always address the practical realities of working in museums in this climate. I want volunteers, new in the sector, to get a good experience of working with me so they can advocate our museum service a their careers develop, and because I want to give them the grounding and the experience of core skills i desperately wanted when I started out. However Ido think that in some cases (and I can't stress this enough - some recent graduates do show a solid awareness of the current situation museums are facing) but in some cases graduates are not given the realities - that even before the recession jobs were not plentiful and a need to volunteer was a ore-requisite when it came to getting your first brake. Universities also need to shoulder some responsibility for ensuring they are not churning out graduates for whom there is no work. In addition, I think out necessity due to harsh cuts and reductions in experienced staff, volunteers are ultimately being abused to fulfil roles that on e constituted a salaried role. A scroll through Leicester university's jobs page shows you that more and more museums are advertising for 'volunteer' documentation assistants, exhibitions assistants and even - ironically - volunteer volunteer coordinators! Until the sector revives the realities in museums are th same as those facing the whole private and public sectors - no investment means fewer jobs.

I also do believe luck has ways played a role in getting into museums. Often bein in the right place at the right time counts for a lot. I would say also that 6 months of trying does illustrate that graduates are not coached in the realities of museum work - the MA has never been enough in a highly competitive sector. It's more than just about adjusting attitudes though, it's about I vestment and its a out ensuring we don't use volunteers simply to fill roles and that we give adequate investment in their training and development.

Having been in your shoes I would say do not give up. If you want it badly enough your perseverance will pay off, and you are facing a struggle that other industries are equally experiencing. I know that doesn't help when you need to earn and have already invested significantly in your development, but take some comfort in the fact that every dip will grow back Into a peak and as long as people in the sector can keep hold of the passion in what they do, there will always be a place for museums in the community.
08.02.2013, 22:26
This is such a tricky area to navigate: on the one hand I think we all realize that undertaking internships or volunteering in museums/galleries/heritage sites is essential in gaining a certain amount of knowledge and practical skills before embarking upon careers in the sector.

On the other hand, there’s only so much experience that placements of these ilk can provide. Longer-term internships, usually subject to normal application and interview processes, in my experience, also demand an incredible wealth of experience to already be amassed before even giving us the opportunity to make the next step-up. And don’t forget, this is still a voluntary step before we’re apparently deemed ready to enter the workplace. In an ideal world, these kinds of long-term internships offered by major institutions (and I’m talking those of around 6 months here) should be accompanied, if not by a wage as an entry-level position, then at least some kind of stipend. The gap that currently exists between the experiences gained as a volunteer/intern and the jobs available to those of us beginning our careers is far too large.

As it stands now though, more needs to be done to redress the current balance: it is completely impractical, no matter how passionate we are about pursuing careers in the sector, to expect people to undertake quite so many volunteer positions before deeming us experienced enough to trust with a ‘real’ job. Museums and galleries need to be more willing to take chances on graduates who are already demonstrating the skills, passion and dedication required to work in the sector. As the original author has pointed out, this doesn’t just come via our voluntary experiences, but also includes the incredible financial outlay required to gain “essential” postgraduate qualifications.

Those of us undertaking MAs and volunteering in museums know only too well the current economic climate we’re all faced with and we’re far from naïve about expecting to graduate and immediately enter employment. We also understand that it takes time to work our way up the career ladder, as in any sector. I have friends who completed their MAs in 2010 and are yet to find their ‘dream’ job – but many have also been fortunate to work on rolling short-term contracts, or in longer-term temporary roles that are providing that next level of responsibility and challenge that marks a step up from being an intern.

I would say to the original author that 6 months on from graduating is not a point at which I would give up but I appreciate it’s a demoralising and thankless experience when nothing seems to be coming up. One piece of advice I have always kept at the forefront of my mind is that, in this sector, it’s realistic to expect to have to go to where the jobs are and not expect them to land exactly where you’d ideally like them to be. And of course luck comes into it – but perseverance and positivity can hopefully play a part in creating that luck. I’ve now been volunteering for nigh on 5 years and am expecting to graduate with my MA from Leicester this year. It won’t be easy but I’m hopeful that there will, eventually, be something out there that’s right for me and will help me contribute to the museum and gallery sector.
Chris Bennion
MA Member
Museum Learning Officer, Ragged School Museum
08.02.2013, 11:03
My heart goes out to this postgraduate - we recently advertised a part-time entry level role and had 300+ extremely good applicants. Picking a shortlist for interview was very very hard. It's unbelievably tough out there.

But, my gut instinct? You graduated 6 months ago - KEEP GOING!
08.02.2013, 09:14
I would like to make a few points:

1. Getting a first job in the museum sector is largely dependent on luck.
2. There are very few senior vacancies for those with lots of experience because people get trapped in permanent jobs they cling on to because they have nowhere else to go.
3. There are plenty of jobs on the commercial side for which a museum studies qualification is no use at all. Universities are businesses and like any other business use very clever marketing.
4. There is currently a mushrooming of jobs for 'volunteer management' and an unhealthy habit of relying on free labour is developing. The government drive to volunteering may lead to smaller museums being largely volunteer run and the sector should resist this if it does not want funding to be cut even further.
Anonymous
06.02.2013, 20:30
Give the old a chance, too.

I'm 46 with three MA degrees and over 20 years experience in the Heritage "industry" in the US, UK and EU. I can tell you that after being unemployed for the last 4 years, I feel that I will never have full-time employment again not just in the heritage sector. It is extremely demoralising not to mention financially disastrous.

I've interviewed for countless jobs that I was either well-qualified or over-qualified for and have spent hundreds, nay, thousands of pounds on travel and sundry costs to attend rigorous interviews. In several cases, I was interviewed by someone who later told me off the record that I was too old, too experienced and simply over-qualified for the position that I had interviewed for. The only work I have been offered is as an unpaid volunteer.

What is the future for all of us if none of us can find gainful employment?

Signed,
Too young to be put out to pasture
Anonymous
MA Member
14.02.2013, 13:35
I fear this situation is just symptomatic of what is happening in the public and charities sectors overall. My partner is in the position of the above commentator, made redundant at 50 and wondering if he'll ever work again, but my sympathies are with younger and older candidates in this field as I think neither position is easier than the other.

I'm lucky enough to have a job, although my institution, in common with most, is having to cut back drastically and so pares away jobs and hours wherever it sees an opportunity. The remaining staff are stressed and demoralised. The job I do now was three full-time jobs ten years ago. I'm acutely aware that, while I rush around trying to keep up with everything, two other people have been deprived of the chance to do those jobs. The situation is ironic, ridiculous but ultimately heart-breaking.