You've taken the classes. You've done the internships. But all those AVISO ads hang heavy with the same paradox: they all want years of experience for entry-level positions. How are you supposed to get experience when the jobs that should give it to you require it?
Whatever your degree (or your opinion about museum graduate programs), the thing that continues to be highly valued (and sought after by employers) is experience. Which is why I speak today on behalf of the apprenticeship—hands-on professional education—which has, sadly, fallen by the wayside.
I’m not talking about internships, which are as plentiful in museums as label copy. As anyone who has ever managed an intern knows, internships are not exactly mutually beneficial arrangements. They are often short-term, unpaid, and explicitly branded as “learning experiences.” The museum person can’t hold the intern to the same level of responsibility as an employee, and the intern often finds him or herself either doing crap work or an isolated project, neither of which necessarily connect the intern to the institution or to better understanding of the field itself. Sure, some things get done, but there’s an expectation that the intern is there for a fixed amount of time, and therefore, little effort put into developing that person as a member of the team.
Apprenticeships offer more powerful learning and professional development experience than internships. Why? Because an apprentice is a person who is invested in as a future employee. Apprentices are not people who are “checking out the field.” They are people (as I assume many graduate students are) who express a serious intent to contribute to the museum field professionally. And when that intent is realized and supported by the institution, the museum provides mentoring and education. Apprentices are perceived as people with current and future value to the institution and are treated as such.
Of course, with these benefits comes responsibility. Whereas interns may do a focused project, apprentices are expected to shadow, assist, and jump into a variety of efforts, whether of interest to them or not. Apprentices have to be humble, to offer themselves up and say, “I see what you are doing here is good. I want to be part of that good.” As an intern, you are tapping into the institution’s services; as an apprentice, you are a contributor—which means both dirty work and deeper learning.
Maybe you’re nodding and thinking, “Sure, sounds great. But I’ve never seen a museum advertising for apprentices. How the heck can I make this happen?”
And that’s the trick. YOU have to make it happen. Apprenticeships are no longer in our professional lexicon. But if you approach a museum with a proposal for an apprenticeship—one in which you will commit yourself to the institution and work reliably and responsibly in exchange for mentoring and development—I imagine you’ll raise some eyebrows and get some people taking a second look at your resume.
And it can be that simple. Here's my "getting started in museums" story:
When I decided I wanted to work in a science museum, I went to two in my area--one giant, one tiny. I didn't look to see if either was hiring. I didn't even consider what my dream job would be. I found departments/people that were interesting, and made the same speech to each: I want to volunteer for you, part-time, for three months. I have X, Y, Z qualifications, but no direct museum experience. At the end of three months, I want us to sit down and assess whether you will hire me for pay or not.
That's it. In both cases, my offer was accepted. And within three months, I was getting paid (though not much) for real work. Both experiences were educational, experience-building, and got me "in the door" for future opportunities.
When I tell this story, the most common reaction I get is, "Wow. That was bold." But it doesn't have to be. One of the things that distresses me about graduate school--and about school in general--is the way it sets up the expectation that you, the young person/student, are a consumer of experiences offered to you by teachers and employers. You are allowed to express yourself, but only in trying to excel by the terms given by the institution. And then, when you do excel, there’s a secondary problem—that you leave school impatient to get THE great job, rather than ready to connect yourself to an institution in which you can learn and grow. The story is that teachers know what’s best—and they’ll help you get there.
But in my case, I felt that the internships, graduate programs, and entry-level positions being offered to me were not best. I thought I could create an educational strategy that would be more useful both to me and to my employers. So I asked for it. I asked for mentoring. I asked for review. I asked to be taken seriously as a potential contributor. I asked for responsibility.
Over the last few years, I’ve continued to seek out opportunities to apprentice myself to others, to find mentors from whom I can learn and under whom I can go in new directions. It doesn’t matter if it’s welding or game design; I learn best and go farthest when I get to partner with my mentor and can become an asset to them. I’d love to see museums and museum professionals adopt a culture of lifelong apprenticeships, encouraging mutually beneficial relationships between learners of all kinds.
But don’t wait for museums to do the work. What do you want to learn? How can you become an apprentice, or how can you support one?