Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Buyers' Guide for Museum Studies? And Two More Big Questions

Last week at the NEMA meeting, Amanda Gustin of the Vermont Historical Society facilitated a lively conversation between Cynthia Robinson, the director of the Tufts Museum Studies Program; me;  and a jam-packed room of participants,  on the Graduate School Conundrum.  Go or don't go? What kind of program?  How do I choose?  We covered lots of ground in the conversation and Amanda will be sharing the results of her informal online survey on her own blog, but I wanted to share, as many people are beginning the work on graduate school applications, the talk about a buyers' guide for museum studies programs.  It's very exciting that the public history world is embarked on such a project, but there's definitely a need for a specifically museum-focused one as well.  What would it include?

Here's the list, in no particular order, of the topics the session participants would love to see in a consumer guide to choosing a graduate program:
  • Placement rate:  in museums, in full-time jobs, in other positions.  One year out, five years out and overall.  Kinds of placements: in what type of museums, in what type of positions.
  • Course requirements and content
  • What's the work load?
  • What skills are really taught?  When was the last time the program analyzed the skills needed?
  • Cost and its unfriendly associate, average amount of debt upon graduating.
  • Financial aid available
  • Certificate or degree; online or in person or a combination
  • Evidence of faculty involvement in current museum work; ability to take courses from a range of faculty members
  • What kind of networking is available?  How do current and former students make use of it?
  • Diversity and gender equity among faculty and students
  • Internships:  where, how often, paid or unpaid?
  • What are the application criteria (i.e. should you have worked in a museum before applying?)  What kinds of career counseling is offered for incoming students, including those transitioning from other careers?
We ended up this part of the discussion talking about whose job it is to undertake such a buyers' guide.  Is it the graduate programs themselves--is there one willing to take the lead, set standards and metrics?  Is it the American Alliance of Museums?  Their newly released salary survey talks about conditions in the field--wouldn't it be useful to know more before you entered graduate school?  Who will step forward--and even more importantly, the field changes when we ask it to.  When will we start really pushing for this?

But don't forget my two big questions.  The first came before the session, over lunch with Sarah Sutton, who asked, 

Why is it, for a field that is all about free-choice and independent learning, that we have made graduate degrees a prerequisite for entry into the field?

and the second came from the session conversation,

If graduate schools are highly valued for the networks, and graduate schools, like the museum field, continue to lack diversity; doesn't using those only those networks to connect with and hire, ensure that our field continues to lack diversity?  In other words, same old, same old.

Readers, what say you?  Would a buyers guide be useful?  What should be in it?  And what other big questions do you have?

Special thanks to Amanda for putting together such a great session; and to NEMA, for such a thought-provoking overall conference.


Gretchen Sorin said...

The Smithsonian Office of Museum Studies tried to develop standards for museum studies programs back in the late 1970s but the field would not hear of it then. I think the time is right for the field to undertake this task again. I will add that there is diversity in the field, at least in Cooperstown. 30% of our first year class of the Cooperstown Graduate Program is composed of people of color. It can be done and we are doing it! It takes time, work and real commitment.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Gretchen--So glad you think the time is right--and hope that perhaps CGP will take up the cause! And such good work on recruiting a diverse class of students--it really is the future relevance of our field that we're talking about.

Amanda said...

I will not name names, but I had a conversation on Friday with a current student at a New England graduate program who said that parts of our conversation cheered her up because everything people were saying they wanted - practical skills, networking, and small class interaction were three things she mentioned particularly - were part of her program, so she was thrilled!

I did not have the heart to tell her that the point was a country mile away...

T.H. Gray said...

We believe, as outlined at the link below, that the Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program is not only the most honest training one can receive, it's also the most useful. Everybody should go there!


T.H. Gray,Director-Curator
American Hysterical Society

Erika Robertson said...

Museum professionals and students are really, REALLY good at asking questions. I hope this time we can form some answers as well. I've been looking for a buyer's guide for five years! How can I know when we get to that point? Should I subscribe to this blog?

Linda Norris said...

Erika--Great comment about our weakness. I'd love to think that subscribing would let you know when it happened, but more useful might be students, prospective students, alumni and others pressuring both graduate programs and our professional associations (AAM, are you listening?) that this is something vital. So push away, everyone!

Erika Robertson said...

Thanks for your honesty, Linda. I'll try to be the change ;) Tweeting as we speak.

Cassidy said...

Amanda's anecdote strikes me as very illustrative of the way probably a lot of us students/un(der)employed grads feel - we want to be pro-opening up the field to people who haven't gotten a BA or MA, but at the same time it feels like that's highly contrary to our interests. If everyone suddenly agreed that actual experience > a master's, I'd have even less hope of ever getting a job than when I'm just up against people who have similar education but better internships! So we try to see what positives we can in the situation, even if it's, er, a little misguided.

Katie Stofer said...

In response to "why does the free choice field require graduate degrees for entry," I'll share a few thoughts from my perspective (former science center mid-level manager, now FCL PhD holder and burgeoning academic researcher on FCL):

1) in terms of diversity, isn't the fact that the museum field is non-profit (with all the associated privilege one must have to work for these in general) still a bigger stumbling block to diversity than the (at least perceived) need for entry (at least to upper-level positions)? I also think there are still plenty of paths for working your way up, at least in the science center field. Maybe it's just that with few positions, it takes a long time with or without a degree, as so few people leave? Or, you have to be able/willing to move about the country/world to progress.

2) Free-choice/informal learning doesn't mean that there's no structure to the learning, or that it's not guided at all. In fact, I think a degree program (masters or PhD) that allows students to pursue projects of interest are actually more representative of FCL than a typical undergrad degree. Plus, a degree allows credibility in other areas of the field, not just educating, but evaluating and researching, so sometimes it's more about what folks outside the museum field want to see.