Is a postgraduate museum studies course right for you?

A postgraduate qualification in museum studies is a useful way to develop your career in the museum sector. But it’s no guarantee of a job and there is always tremendous competition for museum careers.

It is important that you think carefully about your decision and invest time and effort in ensuring that you make the right choice to benefit you in the long term.

Doing a postgraduate course can be very expensive. More information on the financial help available to postgraduate students is outlined here.

A museum studies course is most likely to be valuable...

  • If you are already working in museums and want to take a course part-time to broaden and deepen your knowledge (especially if your employer will support you financially or in kind, or agrees it is appropriate for you to do so).
  • If you are a career changer and have already tried to gain work in museums, but have been told that although your transferable skills are strong, you need to increase your knowledge of museums. (In this case, a period of structured and varied volunteering and casual work might be a cheaper option.)
  • If you have thought critically about museums, have ideas about changing and improving them and want to deepen your thinking to increase your influence on them.
  • If you are interested in museum theory and practice and keen to continue your studies, perhaps eventually heading towards a PhD.

If you decide to pursue a museum studies qualification, there are a few things to bear in mind...

  • The high level of competition for entry-level museum jobs means that some people may never get a reasonable museum job, however keen they are and whatever qualifications they have. This is no different to any other popular area of work.
  • A qualification doesn't guarantee a job. It varies between courses, and every student has a different experience.
  • However, a museum studies degree may help you get on the shortlist for some jobs - and could give you the edge if you're up against someone with similar skills and experience, but no qualification.
  • You'll probably need to get a fair amount of voluntary experience as well.
  • If you are fortunate, well suited to museum work or have specialist expertise in a relevant area, you may be able to get a job in the sector without a museum studies qualification, especially in areas such as curating in national museums, learning or community work. Instead, you may need paid or voluntary experience and perhaps a different qualification like a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), subject-specialist Masters or PhD.
  • It’s important to do some voluntary or casual work before you apply for any courses. This will help you decide whether museum work is for you (just because you like visiting museums doesn't mean you are suited to museum work). It will also help you figure out what type of work most interests you.
  • Think about other routes into the sector. Broader qualifications such as PGCEs or accounting, and transferable skills in areas like marketing, business and digital technology, are increasingly sought after in the museum sector and will also be recognised by other employers if you ever decide to change career.
  • You may also want to consider work-based training, apprenticeship and internship schemes as an alternative to a postgraduate academic qualification. Work-based training opportunities are listed at the bottom of this page.

Choosing a postgraduate course

If you decide that a postgraduate museum studies qualification is right for you, then you need to take care to select the right course.

In the past, the quality of programmes was assessed by a validating scheme but this is no longer operating. Therefore it is very important that you ensure the course you choose is well regarded by employers and able to meet your needs and offer you a challenging, enjoyable and well-supported experience.

There has been a marked increase in the number and type of courses available in recent years, so be sure to research your options carefully. Employers say that the best programmes enhance your skills and knowledge, extend your practical experience and develop your critical and creative thinking, equipping you to be a highly competent, effective and reflexive practitioner.

Advice and guidance to support you in your research:

  • Investigate several courses. Don't assume that courses with similar names offer students the same content – there are significant differences between them. Where one museum studies course may be focused on fine arts, another might put more emphasis on social history.
  • Consider whether or not you want to study full- or part-time, on campus or flexibly via distance learning. If you take the course part-time or by distance learning, you'll definitely want to get some extra work experience.
  • Get in touch with museum staff and ask them what qualifications they have - do these include the degree you are considering? What other courses would they suggest looking into?
  • Talk to current or recent students - they will know whether the course worked for them. Universities should be happy to put you in touch with their alumni.
  • Visit the university on open days or ask if you can make an appointment to come and talk to someone in the relevant department. Ask them what percentage of their recent graduates are now working in museums. Tell them the kind of jobs you are interested in and the kind of museums you want to work in: have previous students been successful in getting those types of jobs? Where else are former students working, and in what positions? If the university can't provide you with detailed information, this might suggest that they are not very well informed about the jobs their students are getting.
  • Ask about the range of people who will teach you, both university staff and outside lecturers. Are they publishing up-to-date research that is influencing thinking and practice in the field? Are they active in the museum sector? What do they think and say about museums and how does this mesh with your own views, interests and values? Can they give you the balance you want between theory and practice?
  • Try to get a sense of whether the course is really interested in having you as a student. Are they asking you about your motivations and checking that you know what you want from the course?
  • What connections does the university have with museums in the UK and internationally? The best universities have close links with a range of museums whose staff help to design and deliver courses, ensuring that their content meets employer expectations. You might, for example, ask about visiting lecturers, external examiners, placement host organisations, study visits and so on.
  • What kind of support is offered to students to ensure they get the most out of the programme? For example, what kinds of assignments are students expected to complete and what support is given for academic development? Are there opportunities to undertake different kinds of assignment that test practical and academic skills and knowledge?
  • What is included in the course fees and are there any extra charges?  For example, how often are students taken on study visits to museums and are these costs additional?

Don’t be anxious about asking these questions, even if some course providers dislike it. The best universities should be comfortable providing you with detailed and honest answers.

Remember it's your career at stake. Choosing the right course could be a more important decision than choosing what house to buy.

Tips for getting on the course of your choice

There are several steps you can take to maximise your chances of getting on the course of your choice. It can be quite easy to get onto some museum-studies courses, but others are highly competitive.

To increase your chances of getting on your first-choice course:

  • Use the application form wisely and make the most of the section that asks why you want to join that particular course or university. It's not enough just to be interested in museums - tutors and course leaders want to know what you hope to get out of the course and what you'll bring to the profession.
  • Keep yourself well-informed; read Museums Journal and other related media. As one course leader says: “I don't expect applicants to have read huge amounts of museum theory, but I do expect them to have some understanding of what's going on.”
  • Visit as many museums as you can.
  • Try to get some form of work experience at a museum before you apply. Not every course requires it, but many do expect students to have experience of museum work (usually volunteering) before they start. You may also find that you get more out of the course if you have prior work experience.
  • Your interview is another chance to shine - make sure you have researched the course and its lecturers. Try to speak to current or recent students before going to the interview.
 
According to the University of East Anglia’s 2007 report, the Tomorrow People...

  • 40% of museum-studies graduates have a reasonable job in the sector one to four years after graduating.
  • 35% have another job in the sector one to four years after graduating, but in a role that does not appear to justify or require a postgraduate qualification.
  • 20% of museum-studies graduates never get a job in the sector.

More information on entering the museum workforce can be found in The Tomorrow People: Entry to the Museum Workforce, appendix 3