Monday, June 11, 2007

The Voluntary Apprentice

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?

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

As a newly graduated MLS with an archives emphasis and an interest in public history, I think that this is a fabulous idea. I recently completed a practicum/internship (120 hours) as a part of my MLS program, and while it was a fantastic experience for me (I got a lot of great experience in arranging and describing collections, and a relatively decent idea about the rest of the workings of the institution), I believe I would have benefitted substantially from a longer, more in-depth experience...and I believe the institution that took me in would have been able to see more long-term benefits from my apprenticeship.

This is becoming especially clear to me as I search for local committee work and practicum experiences are valuable, but many jobs ask for 1-2 years of experience, which I don't have at the moment.

So, what I'm laboring to say is, thanks for giving me an idea for other avenues to pursue!

Allyson Lazar said...

The topic of mentoring/apprenticeship has been coming up a bit lately in nonprofit circles (see this post, for example) and one that I'm really glad to see being brought to the forefront--thanks for blogging about this.

I agree 100% that apprenticeships are a wonderful way to both get your foot in the door and gain experience, and I hope that museums (will) see that this process benefits them as well. Often I hear museum staff complain that they don't have the time to babysit an intern. This points directly to the problem that you describe regarding internships: the purpose is to expose the intern to the workings of the museum and then they go away--there is little reason for the museum to actually invest time or effort into these people.

But with an apprentice, the value is obvious: you are carefully crafting someone to be a useful member of your team.

When I was fresh out of college, I wrote to a then-new curator at the local art museum, introducing myself and explaining why I wanted to work with him--for free--and why he should want to take me on and train me. He agreed, on the condition that someday in the future, I would similarly take people on.

I'd like to think that I've treated the interns I have had over the years more as apprentices than as interns. I've gone out of my way to include them in daily activities, working with them side-by-side and often giving them "juicy" stuff to do while I did drudgery, and giving them increasing responsibility and in some cases autonomy. In one case, the result was that when I left my position, there was someone ready and already completely trained to fill the void.

Still, I wonder how many museums are willing to embrace the idea of apprenticeships? With so many people in the museum field and so few jobs, I have found that a lot of museum staff members just aren't willing to give up their secrets enough to really share with an apprentice.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, you make some interesting points. I learn more about The Voluntary Apprentice.

museum dir