The museum sector has always been competitive. We’ve seen an explosion of postgraduate courses in recent years alongside vital work by museums to become more socially engaged, accessible and attractive to employees. But public funding cuts and the removal of the statutory retirement age have meant fewer vacancies and less turnover.
There are jobs in the sector, but the supply is outweighed by the demand to enter it. This reality check is critical to focus attention and to help manage expectations, whether you are joining the sector at the beginning of your working life or moving into it from a different sector. There is no silver bullet but there are things you can do to realise your ambition.
Identify the museums you want to work in. This can be a function of geography – how far you can realistically commute, taking into account time, cost and convenience? Listing all the museums within a specific area can help provide focus and support organisational research, as well as relationship building. If you are willing to relocate, then apply a similar approach to other areas.
You might also want to identify museums based on collection type, their values and programming. The sector is broad, so don’t discount jobs at related organisations – suppliers, funders, consultancies and development agencies – or working as a freelancer.
CV and applications
The first step to getting a job is to successfully present your experience. Invest time in creating a master CV from which you can cherry pick the evidence to best match a job description or person specification. Using evidence-based statements in applications will increase your attractiveness for the next stage.
A powerful positioning statement or covering letter outlining your motivations, interests and most-salient experience will also ensure you contextualise your ambition and give a sense of who you are, what you stand for and what you could bring to the role.
Networking not only supports your career ambitions but is an important part of partnership and other engagement activities. When you’re new to a sector, it can be intimidating, so a good starting point is to list the relationships you already have in the sector: people you went to school or college with, those you have met at courses or events, friends or relatives and those more removed (for example, those you interact with on social media).
These people can be your eyes and ears to vacancies. They can review your applications, run mock interviews and give you feedback. They can introduce you to others and to opportunities, and support your professional development.
Enjoy the success of being shortlisted for a role and use that confidence to fuel your preparation for the interview stage. Prepare evidence, examples and opinions relating to the requirements of the job. You should be able to talk about your achievements, but also the achievements of others in the field.
This demonstrates your knowledge and awareness of the sector – and highlights crucial critical-thinking skills. Practising the interview alone or with support will help you talk more readily and instil confidence. Consider asking for as much detail about the interview and selection process as possible.
Unless you are applying for an apprenticeship or traineeship, it is likely that the museum is selecting for competence, not potential. This means you will need to demonstrate awareness, understanding and experience in the sector or in the tasks related to the job. Gaining these takes time and money, so having a focused and targeted approach will help.
Read books and articles, visit museums and their websites, watch recordings from conferences, listen to podcasts, and join groups and events to support your development. Volunteering can provide opportunities to develop skills. The key is to ensure that you are learning and growing on your terms – and moving on when a job no longer meets your needs.
Tamsin Russell is the Museums Association’s workforce development officer. For more information, visit our careers page