Guest Blog: PhDs and Museums

Josie Wall gives a personal reflection on her experience of balancing Museum work with studying for a PhD.

My name is Josie and I have the very great privilege of working at Newman Brothers at the Coffin Works, a small independent museum in Birmingham, where we are just celebrating our 3rd birthday. My job title is Operations and Volunteer Assistant, but with a team of 4 staff (3 of us are part-time) I end up doing little a bit of everything. I love my job because I work with amazing people (especially my volunteers) and no two days are ever the same, and because I get to utilise my knowledge of 19th century cemeteries and funeral practice, the subject of my PhD thesis.

about me

I was one of those kids who always wanted to work in museums but having been repeatedly told that jobs were scarce, I decided to stay in academia instead. Following my undergraduate degree, I began an MPhil in Archaeological Practice and then upgraded to the PhD programme, allowing me to expand my dissertation into a full thesis. This is when everything stopped going according to plan… My department closed, severely limiting my teaching experience, and the scholarship I got for my Masters fees was not renewed. My hopes of being a lecturer were all but dashed, but I decided to stick with the PhD, for the noble (if naive) reason that I loved studying cemeteries. I changed to part-time registration and got a minimum-wage job as a ‘web monkey’ (website admin mostly) to pay my fees. It didn’t take long for the mind-numbing tedium of my day job to crush my motivation, so I began volunteering with a local history group to stay passionate and engaged. This eventually led to paid work on a WWI project, and several other paid projects since.

Volunteering at The Coffin Works was a happy accident, thanks to chance meeting at a conference. Whilst in Edinburgh listening to papers about ‘Death in Scotland’ I met an Australian researcher who was helping with a project in my home town! She put me in touch with Sarah at The Coffin Works and we met to discuss research I could assist with. Sarah happened to mention some jobs coming up with Birmingham Museums Trust and I gleefully packed in my dull (permanent) job for a seasonal contract as a Visitor Services Assistant at Sarehole Mill and Aston Hall.

During the next 3 years I applied for as many jobs locally as I could, and continued volunteering sporadically (most notably as a tour guide at The Coffin Works). In October 2014 I was fortunate enough to land a full-time paid internship at the Museum Collection Centre via the University’s Cultural Internship scheme. I worked mostly with the collections care and documentation teams, but was generally able to use the time to bug everyone about what their job entailed and learn new things every day. Those 6 months were an incredible catalyst for my career, and really opened my eyes to the range of roles available in museums. Although after my internship I took another seasonal role at Sarehole Mill this eventually became a permanent position as Museum Enabler, which came with duty management responsibilities. I used these skills when I began as Weekend Operations Assistant at the Coffin Works. In November 2016 I was offered my current position and finally said my tearful goodbyes to Sarehole. I’ve now been doing this job for almost a year and couldn’t be happier! I’m also in the process of wrapping up my current local history projects and won’t be taking on any more (at least until my PhD is over).

jobsj

I have been incredibly lucky to have so many roles in such a short time and really kickstart my career-while making enough money to support myself and pay my tuition fees! However, there has been a downside too; since I started in museums I have never had fewer than 2 jobs. At one point I was working across 3 sites plus my WWI project – those few months are rather a blur! I am also in the enviable position of being childless, having a loving partner that only occasionally questions my sanity and amazing family who are willing to give us both cheap rent!

My PhD has definitely suffered as I’ve tried to balance work and study. I have taken 3 leaves of absence so far and may not finish my thesis at all- only time will tell. Check back with me in July 2019… I am now firmly of the opinion that anyone considering a self-funded PHD needs to think very long and hard about why they are doing it and how they are going to support themselves during the process. It’s hard, virtually thankless most days and will probably mean putting some of your other dreams on hold for the next 6-8 years (minimum- for me it will probably be nearer to 9 years).

I think that having a PhD is less important in my chosen career path than it would have been in academia, but it will hopefully give me some clout when applying for promotion in the future, especially in roles which are more curatorial. It also makes up (to a certain extent) for not having a Museum Studies MA, simply because it’s a higher qualification. My field of research and the museum I now work for are closely related (and I didn’t even have to move cities to manage that), in a different museum my PhD might be less of an asset.

My 3 tips for someone considering a PhD as a route into museums or as a route to a more senior position would be:

  1. Think long and hard about how you will pay for it- if possible go for a funded course even if it’s slightly different from your ideal topic of research (because there will be times you’ll hate your research regardless). I know that funding is rare in the Arts at best- but it does exist- so do your research and apply for it! Graduate student loans are now available too, an option which didn’t exist when I started.
  2. Think about which institution and supervisor will support you best- especially if you are part-time or will be working alongside your studies. You will need your supervisor and your department in your corner on the tough days. On the worst days, when you storm in and tell them you are quitting, you’ll need them to care enough to convince you to stay.
  3. Make connections and friends, both inside academia and in the museum world outside- this will keep you sane and hopefully remind you why you are bothering at all! Also make some friends that have nothing to do with either- so you can occasionally remember you are a human being with a life outside of work and research!

I’d be really interested to get the opinions of others doing a PHD though- maybe my path is unusual?

Advertisements

Guest Blog: Applying and interviewing where you already work or volunteer

In this blog post, Clare Plascow from the University of Reading’s Art Collections discusses the all-too-familiar scenario of facing the job application process as an internal candidate.

Clare

Applications and interviews are a mental and emotional minefield; so finding a job advertised where you work or volunteer can be a stroke of luck.  A huge advantage over external candidates is the fact that you know the place, people and the collections. With pre-career training and ever increasing numbers of short-term contracts, this is a scenario that you’re likely to come across at some point in your career.

Unfortunately, as I’m sure many people have and will experience (and I’m including myself amongst them), translating application to job offer is not necessarily any easier as an internal candidate.

Clare1

What’s more, there’s often additional pressure involved in the process, especially if there’s an expectation from colleagues and supervisors that you’ll be applying for the job.  Particularly, when you’re on a short-term contract or volunteering and the role is very similar.

It can be awkward when you’re asked whether you are applying; just remember you have absolutely no duty to tell anyone that you’re applying for an internal position. Although saying that, I’d recommend mentioning it to your line manager or supervisor and definitely if you’re planning on using them as a reference.

Clare2

Application

It can sometimes feel very odd, particularly when you know who is doing the shortlisting, but treat an internal application like you would any other job. Then it’s the nerve-wracking wait to find out if you have an interview.

A ‘yes’ is just as wonderful as a ‘no’ can be devastating. It can be especially difficult as an internal candidate when you’re rejected for interview and can even feel like a personal slight or even a waste of your time applying at all. I can assure you that this really isn’t true.

Tom’s written a fantastic post about dealing with rejection after interview and a lot of his tips for next steps can apply as an internal candidate. I’d add that often you are able get more detailed feedback from members of the shortlisting panel and can ask to find ways of gaining any experience you are missing in your work or volunteering.

Interview

If you get an interview the worrying doesn’t stop there. Next it’s the dreaded interview prep. Here too being an internal candidate comes with pros and cons. The fact that you’ll know at least some of the interview panel can fall into both lists:

Pro: There’ll be less of the ‘oh-god-this-is-someone-I’ve-never-met’ nerves (with a caveat that they’ll have probably brought in an external interviewer to keep the process fair).

Con: There’s the ‘how-much-detail-do-I-go-into’ and ‘how-do-I-refer-to-work-done-here’ questions that are inevitably thrown up.

Unfortunately today’s reality is that the interview (and application) process is essentially a tick-box exercise. If you don’t say something, even if the interview panel know that you have the answer they want, they can’t mark it down.  Although you won’t have to go into the amount of detail explaining a situation or exactly how everyone in your examples are related to the scenario, you still need to be clear and concise. My opinion is that saying a little too much is always preferable to not saying enough.

As I mentioned earlier treating the entire process like any other job interview can be helpful when preparing (difficult but useful). Should you fail to get the job after interview, I’d suggest trying to sit down with someone from the interview panel. They now know that you’re interested in changing how you’re working, whether a step up or a different type of museum work, and will be a great resource to help you get there.

Clare 4

Finally – good luck!

Guest Blog: Skill Building in the Front of House of Museums

In the first of a series of blog posts by guest contributors, William Tregaskes looks at the importance of Front of House, not only as a department of a museum, but also as a great environment in which to up-skill.

Will

The Value of Front of House in Museums

Getting into the museum sector is hard, there is no other way to describe it, and we have to remain positive throughout. Take opportunities which fit with your personal development, think about the skills you need and focus on building those up! If a museum job comes up and it is not what you want to do in the long run, it may well still be a bridge into the museum career you want so keep your mind open!

One of those positions I feel people are sometimes hesitant of moving into is working Front of House (FoH) in a museum. I admit I once had that view, but my outlook has completely changed. I now see it as an essential part of any emerging museum professional development, providing a unique perspective of museum life and the actual purpose of the museum in society. I increasingly see accessibility to all people as vital to the success of any museum. The work of FoH in communicating the past is a valuable tool for the preservation of the human connection to cultural heritage. FoH opens the museum to the public, explains information in the galleries, and allows people to interact (sometimes even handle) the material on display. This is preserving the human connection, allowing agency to form between the museum visitor and the object.

FoH are a valuable part of the museum. They are the people the majority of visitors will interact with, they are for many the human face of the museum. This experience of front facing for me has become too essential to understand what museums do and offers the chance to make an impact on how every museum visitor sees and experiences our heritage.

 

Skill Building in Front of House

It is not just my views on what a museum is, its purpose in society and ability to preserve the human connection which has change my views of the importance of FoH. It is the skills I have learnt and training opportunities I have had. Working FoH has given me the confidence to speak in public, through my training to perform guided tours, witnessing other tours guides, spending time researching my route and information, and ultimately performing guided tours. This is new found confidence in public speaking allowed me the confidence to apply to speak at conferences.

I have been trained to lead teaching sessions! This has included running handling sessions and using powerpoints. This is alongside workshops which include making things, and dressing up, really the full range of teaching tools you can see in any museum today. These skills and bits of knowledge are vital to working in museums. I have built up experience in addressing a wide range of audiences, from people of different ages to people of different interest levels. Again, this is all essential to the sector because of the museums need to engage and reach out to young audiences and others they have traditionally failed to attract.

I have had the chance to apply different methods of engagement. For example, through my guided tours I have been able to engage the public with imagery, handling material, replicas, projections and re-enactors. Using these different methods builds your skills of communication and display. All of these are skills required for the development of exhibitions and in the communication of our heritage. I try out methods of communication just as applying access analysis to my tours, taking routes which people in the past would have used, allowing museums to make a closer connection to the heritage on display.

Beyond the engagement work, working FoH has trained me to use tills, inspect the museum, and provide a high standard of visitor service. All of this is vital to museums and in many smaller organisations you may well find yourself doing these tasks as part of your otherwise Back of House job.

Your experience of FoH will be vital in making your museum distinct from others. You will be able define your museum by drawing on your prior experience. FoH is a great place for any emerging museum professional to develop. No matter where you plan to go, the experiences here are a step in the right direction, providing valuable insights into how museums work and the reality of the sector.

Check out the excellent Museum Front of House blog which William co-edits here:
https://fohmuseums.wordpress.com/

 

 

My CV – A hopefully non-awful template

In the previous post, I made the bold claim that I was going to share my three-page CV with you all. Well, I thought I had better have a look over it before I made such a move – and frankly I didn’t like what I saw. I thought I would have a go at trying to cut it down to two pages. It was painful, but I think the finished product looks a lot neater and tidier than its predecessor.

I did a general overall trim, to get down to the real meat of what I do and have done across my various roles on a day to day basis. The two-line reference to GCSEs (high school qualifications) were cut out, and I also decided to do away with mention of my eight-and-a-half wretched years at Morrisons (a supermarket chain). Although Morrisons was important in terms of gaining transferable skills, I feel that I now perhaps have enough directly relevant experience gained from within the Museum sector.

IMG_1116
I cut-down the length of my CV with the ruthlessness of an alligator, like this one in the American Museum of Natural History, New York

Of course, each CV must be tailored for each specific job application. This one would suit most collections-based roles. My main caveat here is that this two-pager hasn’t been tried and tested. My three-pager, on the other hand, has been very good to me in the past. It will need to go through a live fire exercise, and I will need to work out how to fit on my new 2nd other job (complicated contracts are a sad fact of the heritage industry) at some point! But for now, here it is. I hope it is useful, and I would also welcome any feedback anyone might have. NB – I have anonymised much of it, because I am paranoid.

cv1

 

 

cv2

 

To round-up this discussion about CVs and resumes, I would like to point you in the direction of a blog by Ruth Millington, who has written much more succinctly and elegantly on the topic than I have!

However, I should point out that I don’t agree with absolutely everything Ruth has said! Considering a summary statement at the front of your CV? Forget it – only so much hot hair (in my host humble of opinions).

PS – Are you a heritage professional with a job-winning CV you would like to share? Perhaps we could build up a bank of templates. Contact me at @TMPHopkins1 if you would like to get involved!

Maximising the Impact of your CV (or résumé)

So you’ve seen a job you really like, and you’re dead keen to apply. Instead of the usual pesky form that un-formats itself halfway through your attempt to complete it, however, applications are being received in the form of CV and covering letter. Now is the time to get that CV to work for you.

Definition of a Curriculum Vitae

The first thing I want to do is establish what we actually mean when we use the term ‘CV’, as there is a subtle but significant difference between how the term is understood in British English than in American English.

In British English, a CV is a short overview over a few pages of a person’s work history, qualifications, training courses attended, membership of professional bodies, publications and key achievements. It is more a summary than a comprehensive review, and is typically no more than a few pages in length. In American English, it would be understood as a résumé.

The term CV in American English refers to an all-encompassing capture of a person’s work history, qualifications, etc. It may sometimes run to multiple pages if referring to a particularly experienced candidate. In British English, there is no equivalent term – but perhaps there should be…for reasons I will explain below.

Compile a master copy of your CV

…And make sure it contains everything you have done which is worthy of note. In general, writing things down is good practice. The very act of writing can compound learning experiences, as well as creating a record more lasting than our very fallible memories. You may want to keep a learning journal for more detailed scenarios, but for now you should focus on compiling every duty and responsibility you have had in a professional capacity, every major task completed, every project worked, every training course attended and every qualification received. Crucially, you should try to keep a record of the boring most details – dates, places, and names of trainers – as these are the most easily forgotten. Update all this information at regular intervals.

Obviously, there is little point in recording the minutiae of what you had for lunch on Wednesday 10th April 2013 (Macaroni Cheese) or how your hay fever was on that particular day. But in other respects, try to be as detailed as possible.

Let your master copy run to as many pages as possible. It doesn’t matter how long it gets, for the resulting document is strictly for your eyes only. Because before evening considering sending it off to a prospective employer, you have serious work to do.

Tailor your CV for each individual job application

You know the score. At least you do if you have read my earlier posts here and here. The criteria which you must fulfil to be shortlisted for a position will have been outlined under the personal specification on the job advert. The sort of daily duties and responsibilities that will form the ‘bread and butter’ of the role will have been outlined under the job description. You will need to make sure that your CV is as relevant as it possibly can be to the position for which you are applying.

That is going to take some tweaking, and your master CV is going to have to be severely trimmed. Applying for a collections-heavy role? Emphasise that collections care internship you did, and go light on the details of that summer job you had working in a dog-grooming parlour.

CVIMG_2309

How long should my non-master CV be?

Now we are on to a seriously contentious topic. From university careers services’ CV workshops, to vaguely remembered titbits of advice from secondary (high) school, there is no doubt in terms of what received wisdom has to say. Received wisdom says it’s two sides of A4, maximum.

Then, in the course of my museums career (either as a volunteer or as a professional), I have come across supervisors and managers who have dared to challenge that received wisdom. You want the job, these elders said, so make sure your CV covers all the bases. It doesn’t matter how long it is, as long as you show yourself to be the ideal candidate.

I was fairly quick in taking on the message of the long CV-supporting elders. Not least because I was finding my CV getting rather long rather quickly with the amount of voluntary work and short-term contracts I’ve been taking on over the past five years. My CV has been three sides of A4 for a while now. I have really struggled to get it down to two sides without omitting important things. What the long-CV elders said fitted my circumstances and my agenda, and so I must declare my initial bias.

Stuck between the received wisdom and the long-CV elders, I decided to take to twitter to try and get a straight and definitive answer from my network of museum tweeps. My request for opinions attracted some quite passionate answers:

CVSimon111

When I mentioned how difficult I found it to keep my own CV down to two sides, Rupert Shepherd of the National Gallery made these suggestions:

CVRupert111

While Anita Pickerden, a lecturer in Leadership and Management, had this to say:

CVAnita111

(Anita taught me on a Heritage Management programme at the University of Worcester – do DM her for interview practice if you are based in the West Midlands!)

The vox pop had spoken. The balance of opinion probably results more from my own selection-bias than anything else. So next I wanted to get something a bit more grounded in raw data, and something which I could not corrupt – so I set up a twitter poll, and got the following results.

CVpoll

On the one hand, these results seem pretty unequivocal. One thing this twitter poll can’t do, though, is tell me how many respondents were seasoned recruiters themselves, and how many were less experienced museum workers simply passing on the received wisdom of ages past. Clearly, some more experienced museum professionals did take part in the poll – and one respondent was particularly frank in outlining the sorts of pressures that short-listers can be under:

CVRegistrarTrek1111

Yet, going back to what Rupert Shepherd said about focus –relevance and clarity can be more important than sheer length (or lack of).

My conclusion? I still have no idea. I will continue to stick to three sides myself, and it certainly hasn’t seemed to have done me much harm in the past. Each of my managers or supervisors who I have asked in the past about this issue has said three sides is fine – but they are the very people who hired me! My faith in three sides being the optimum length for a CV (mine or anyone else’s) is not sufficiently strong enough for me to consider recommending it. What I can say is that five pages is definitely too long, unless you are going for a role with a very heavy academic leaning.

But if you did need to trim…

Remember to keep everything focused and relevant to each individual vacancy. Key areas to consider trimming would be:

  • Non-transferable skills gained from outside the sector. But definitely include the transferable skills if you have room – see more here.
  • Early school and 6th Form college qualifications. A caveat though: sometimes jobs ask specifically for GCSE Maths or English at Grade C or above. Also, if like me, you are an arts graduate but have some science A levels, you might want to include them if there’s a chance that they’ll be relevant.
  • Interests and hobbies. Yes, they can make you seem like a well-rounded character – but most screeners of applications will only consider the skills and experiences specified in the job advert.

Keep your formatting clear and concise

There is no doubt that the selection panel will be having to wade through an awful lot of CVs. Brevity might be your friend, but clarity will be a key and indispensable ally. The panel should be able to glance at your CV and straight away get an accurate (and hopefully favourable) overview of your work history and qualifications. Some things which might help you:

  • Use bullet points!
  • Use nice wide margins and generous spacing to break-up blocky text
  • Highlight key information in bold
  • Keep it structured and chronological, but front-load with your most important and exciting information at the top of the first page. You might need to make a judgement call on whether your work experience or whether your qualifications are the most impressive thing about you as a candidate.

Proofread!

Because spelling mistakes can really piss off some people.

 

 

In the next post, I will upload a copy of my CV for you to have a look at. Any feedback or suggestions will be grateful received!

 

Interviews: Part Five. Coping with failure

So you come out of your interview, and you breathe a sigh of relief. But you can’t feel properly relaxed just yet. The panel told you that they will let you know the outcome within a few days. Now it’s a waiting game – and although there is nothing you can do to alter the result, you are going to feel anxious for the next few days. The best thing to do is to try and occupy yourself and take your mind off things.

Then, finally, the news comes through. You’ve failed. You feel hurt and disappointed, which is completely natural, but here’s what to do next so that you can learn from your defeat.

Firstly, don’t take it personally. The fact is that museum job vacancies are very oversubscribed, and attract many high-quality candidates. You have not lost out because the panel didn’t like you, or thought someone was ‘better’ than you in terms of their innate qualities and attributes. In all likelihood, the post was offered to someone who simply had more skills and more experience than yourself. Sure it sucks, and I know how much you wanted that job – but the thing you absolutely must not do is let your defeat dent your confidence, and slip into an intractable malaise. Here are some positive things you can do instead:

Descriptive image, a ship in distress
A ship in distress

Ask for Feedback

Really do. It’s the done thing – so don’t worry about seeming to be somehow presumptuous or cheeky. The feedback will also tend to be on the constructive side, so do not be scared of the criticism. In any case, it can be really useful to have an external viewer point out your weaknesses to you, which you can then work on as areas for improvement.

The feedback might also let you know what the successful candidate had which you didn’t – be it experience in particular areas of collections management, qualifications or subject specialist knowledge and expertise. Again, it’s all about identifying areas for improvement and trying to overcome your most important skills gaps.

Do not be bitter and bear grudges

I used to joke that any museum that had ever rejected me in anyway was on my ‘blacklist’. I haven’t been keeping up with that blacklist – and if I had, it would be very, very long by now. As I said above, failing at interview (or not being invited at all) can feel like a personal attack – but it really isn’t, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Don’t ever burn your bridges with organisations or with people – you never know what they might have on offer in the future.

I failed to be invited to interview when I applied to be a volunteer at the National Army Museum, which felt particularly disappointing. But I applied for another voluntary role there a few months later and got it – and what a role it was!

Similarly, my first paid role in the sector was as a Trainee Curatorial Assistant at Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive. Part of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme, the scheme took in three tranches of trainees, each tranche for 15 months, over a four-year period. I had been interviewed for tranche two and didn’t get it – and felt truly gutted – but I re-applied for tranche three and have never looked back.

Assess your interview notes

Remember how I told you to take your notes with you into interview, as well as a pen? This wasn’t just so you could recall your pre-prepared answers to expected interview questions. It was also so that you had somewhere to write down any particularly interesting or difficult questions that the panel asked you – especially those ones for which you hadn’t prepared.

A top tip here – collate all of those tricky questions into one place. Work out answers to them, using the STAR technique etc. Regularly review this centralised document, so that it’s always fresh in your mind – and add to it after each interview you attend.

Engage with the panel over social media and Linked-In

This might seem a bit of a brazen move, but I think it is absolutely fine to treat each interview as an opportunity to build your professional network. Remember that you should have prepared lots of questions for the interview panel. That will let the whole process become something more discursive and less like an examination. You will have learnt sector-related things from the panel and they from you. The next step is to re-enforce those acquaintanceships with a little follow on Twitter or a little invite on Linked-In.

Decorative image, First World War soldiers fighting in a trench
Fall back, re-group and fight another day

Find out who got the job

While I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to ask for feedback from the panel, the sad truth is that they might not always give you quite as much detail as you might like about why they chose somebody else over you. Sometimes they might even just be lying to you. Here’s what to do:

Wait for a couple of months. Jobs with ‘immediate starts’ are very rare in the museum sector. And you’ll also have to wait for the victor to update their linked-in account. When they do (and you find it via some savvy googling), you can have a good riffle through their profile, and see what they have which you don’t. Sometimes too you can spot an inside job, where signs of personal connections between the victor and the hiring organisation or its staff might put the whiff of suspicion about nepotism in the air.

Be kind to yourself

I didn’t give you permission to sink into a prolonged period of self-pity, but it’s absolutely fine to be sad. Do something to cheer yourself up. Arrange to see a friend, head to the pub or the cinema, or treat yourself to some chocolate. You’ve been through a tough time.

Another suggestion I’ve heard from an old colleague is to maintain a ‘happy box’. Keep anything in there that might cheer you up. It could be pictures of family, friends or pets, prizes and certificates, print-outs of particularly glorious tweets, old love letters, mementoes from previous conquests, or a bag of emergency Percy Pigs. Whenever you feel those ol’ blues coming on down, just pull out the box for a bit of affirmation that you’re a good person, and reminder of every time you’ve had fun, achieved something brilliant, felt loved or got lucky.

Claim back your travel expenses

Not every place will oblige, but in my experience, something between a third and a half will oblige – but often the onus is on you to ask. Please do so – because who doesn’t like money?

Interviews: Part Four. The Big Day

In the previous posts, I discussed interview questions, how to prepare your answers to those questions, and what to expect from interview tests. In this post, I want to deal with everything else – what to take with you to interview, what to wear, how to get to the interview venue, and what to do when you arrive there.

What to take with you

Remember that it is completely fine to take notes in with you to an interview. Get these out at the start and have them in front of you for ease of reference. It might also be worthwhile to have a copy of your CV or resume to hand. Have a pen out too – it can help to give your nervous hands something to do! It is likely that you will have been asked to bring your passport and/ or birth certificate to interview too – so try not to forget either of those.

It would also be sensible to take a print-out of your invite and a map of the venue and surrounding area. Do not just rely on your phone – it can both run out of juice and not be able to find any connectivity. Obviously, do bring your phone as well.

Cash is always useful – especially if you are travelling to a rural area, where taxis, buses and some pubs and cafes will be unable to accept card payments.

Remember your medication if you are on any, and there can also be a few useful medicines to have on you. Nervous diarrhoea is a real thing and can happen to any of us – with fairly dire consequences in some cases – but fortunately anti-diarrhoea capsules can work rather quickly. Less catastrophic but still very annoying could be a sneezing fit. If you are at all susceptible to hay fever, then a precautionary anti-histamine might not be a bad thing. Also tissues, and lots of them. And plasters for any new-shoes woes.

Remember an umbrella too.

What to wear

You will not be formally assessed on your attire, of course – but it can help to influence the panel in case of a dead heat. So here goes (and sorry for focusing on gentlemen’s fashion, but I’ve never dressed as a lady at interview before):

Descriptive image. Japanese armour.
No need to overdress. Japanese armour in the Royal Danish Arsenal Museum, Copenhagen.

Aim for the smarter side, but a full suit may not be necessary. I tend to go for a jacket and tie. A light grey tweed jacket is my choice.  My only suit is a dinner suit (or tuxedo in American), which would be far too formal. Better to scrimp on the formality than to go for a horrible suit – which will only make you look like a footballer at a wedding or a defendant at court.

Shoes should be clean and polished. If any of the panel even have a smidgeon of a military background, you will be completely and utterly screwed if your shoes are not at their best.

Save your best, comfiest and roomiest underwear for the big day. That can pay dividends. Sure, your lucky pants may have helped you to score during your younger years, but can you really maintain focus with that seam cutting into your intimate regions?

Finally, headwear. Are you a stupid hipster who wears stupid hipster hats? Don’t.

Getting there

Do not be late. It reflects very badly. You should aim to report for interview at least ten minutes before the time stated on your invite. If you at all can, have a dry run to the venue from your home. Reconnaissance of possible obstacles and likely delays can be invaluable. To be forewarned is to be forearmed – it’s all just a microcosm of the route planning techniques we use in collections management. If you are travelling by train, make sure there are no rail strikes planned for the day in question. If you are travelling by car, make sure your vehicle is in good condition and that you have enough fuel. In both cases, have a plan B.

Arrive at the general vicinity of your interview as early as you can. Factor in a margin of error in case of delay – at least an hour for all but the shortest of journeys. Scout around for the exact place you need to report to, and then kill some time.

The last thing you want is to be rushing around right before your interview. This will make you feel stressed and nervous. If, like me, you are on the slightly larger size, it can also produce some fairly prodigious amounts of sweat in the summer months. Not ideal. You want to stroll – slowly and elegantly with a cool grace – up to the venue, not run.

Before you go in

What you do next is entirely up to you. You could wander round the museum or heritage site (which could be useful), or you could go for a walk or head to a café. Whatever works for you. Listening to empowering music may be your thing, or it could be sitting down with deep breathing and a herbal tea. Maybe even some power poses in front of a mirror.

There are, however, some things which you should definitely not do before going into an interview. We may all of us be at our absolute best after one-and-a-bit pints, but even the smallest amount of alcohol can be smelt on your breath, and that would make for a very bad impression indeed. Very bad.

If you are a smoker, you may feel a particular urge for a fag just before the interview. Please try to hold off though. The smell will linger for far longer than your smoker’s nose can possibly detect, and chewing a load of mints right before you go in will simply make you smell like someone who’s chewed a load of mints in order to cover up the smell of cigarettes.

When you go in

Greet the panel. Handshakes should be firm, but not crushing. Repeat the person’s name back to them as they introduce themselves – it will help you to remember it. Get your notes out and ready on the table. Ask if you can take your jacket off, and sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Do not use weird body language, and decline a hot drink if offered – what do you think this is? Maintain eye contact with the panel, smile, and answer their questions.

Good luck! In the next section, I will talk about what to do when you inevitably fail (which you will, sorry).

Interviews: Part Three. Tests

It is common for museum job interviews to incorporate a formal test element. On the first occasion that I was told that I would be sitting a test as part of an interview, I panicked. I was scared. I really had no idea what to expect.

As I have grown more experienced over the years, I have learnt that, on the whole, interview tests are usually nothing to worry about. Often, there are no right or wrong answers. What the panel are looking for will depend on the role in question, but as with so many other things, you can usually deduce this by carefully reading the job advert.

Thus, in this post I make no attempt to provide answers to possible test scenarios. Instead, I have asked around on Twitter for examples of tests encountered by other museum professionals – and I have chucked in a few examples from my own experience. I only hope that this flavour of the sorts of things that might come up will go some way to lessening your abject terror of the unknown. Enjoy!

Tweet by Tom Hopkins. So I might do a blog post on #museumjobs interview tests. Anyone got any examples they'd care to share?Tweet by Attendants View. Sit in this room and use this information to write a letter in response to a potential visitor query. The role was FOH/ reception desk.Tweet by Attendants View. Do 2 to 5 minutes presentation about some aspect of the site's history. Then answer questions about your choices, how you researched etcTweet by Briony Hudson. I've set a test previously asking candidates to prioritise a fictional in-tray. No correct answer, but good insight into how they workTweet by Briony Hudson. Also supplied a range of source material relating to one object, given prep time and then asked for a brief talk about said objectTweet by Clare Palscow. I've been given an accession file and asked to discuss what's missingTweet by Clare Plascow. Also the standard "How would you move this [insert random object here] from this table to our store"Tweet by Flora Fyles. Was given an object and a catalogue sheet, and asked what I'd check to make sure the two matched up. Forgot to say accession number.Tweet by Karen Johnston. Had a few, identify objects and talk about them how to engage people, ask questions around tour of museum (had loads but which weren't appropriate for a tour)Tweet by Karen Johnston. Also had to draft a finance proposal how to obtain money etc and had to do an excel times test pre interview to work out missing recordsTweet by Laura Jayne Gardner. I had to pick suitable photographs from a collection for a hypothetical obituary.Tweet by Lily Garnett. Object handling - from pathology specimens to ceramics and all in between. Oh and once was asked to do origami, wasn't expecting that!Tweet by Lucie Mascord. Conservation treatment plan for dehydrated lamprey. They were really looking for our method of observation, safe handling and tidy desk work.Tweet by Matthew Johnston. Couple of museum documentation ones. Been given an example record and asked to annotate which bits I'd include as a bare minimum.Tweet by Matthew Johnston. In another I was given a spreadsheet of catalogue data to clean. Very therapeutic before the interview - love a bit of data cleaning! #geekTweet my Marie Louse Kerr. Write object label (trepanned skull), handle and assess object, give PowerPoint presentations...Tweet by Marie-Louise Kerr. Worst was interview panel of 3 folk and one spent whole time gazing out window and ignoring me. Still not sure if that was part of the test...Tweet by Murphy Peoples. We usually ask outreach presenters to prepare a 5 min presentation for 4 year olds that matches one of our natural science exhibits. Panel acts as four year olds!Tweet by Robyn Haggard. Use the information given to say why/how/what options are available to recall a loan object and draft the recall letterTweet by Tom Hopkins, Object on table - what do you know about it already, how would you find out more - hint - use the accession number!Tom3

Tweet by Tom Hopkins. Transcribe this 19th century letter with terrible handwriting and full of complicatd horticultural terms into MS Word.Tweet by Tom Hopkins. Facsimile of medieval manuscript - tells us about it, how would you interpret it for a child, how would you market an exhibition about it.

Tweet by Vicky Donnellan. Given example database record and asked to point out errors and how I would improve it, for museum documentation roleTweet by Vicky Donnellan. For another role I was set various tasks to do on the database - how many objects from x place or y donor. That was stressful!

 

I hope you find these useful – and thank you to everyone who contributed above!

 

Interviews: Part Two. How to answer questions, the STAR technique, and questions for the panel

In the previous post, I talked about how to second guess what sort of questions to expect to come up in a museum interview, based on the personal specification and job description for the role. In this post I will talk about how to prepare answers for those questions, using the STAR technique, practicing, and what questions you should prepare for the panel.

When you have short-listed a selection of likely questions, you can start preparing your answers in earnest. In many ways, the interview process is similar to the application process. The panel will have prepared a set of questions about skills and experience which, like the criteria on a personal specification, you will have to demonstrate that you can meet. As you give your answer, the panel will take notes to help them assess how fully or not you meet their criteria. In parallel to the grading of application forms, your response to each question may also be scored from 0 (not at all met) to 3 or 4 (fully met or exceeded). To ensure success, you need to make sure that you score as highly as possible for each of the questions that you will be asked.

The STAR technique

To score highly, your answers must be full, direct, comprehensive and fully evidenced with concrete examples. Your answers must not be vague, wishy-washy or circumambulatory. One of the best ways to make sure that your answers are as full as they can possibly be is to use the much lauded ‘STAR’ technique. The Guardian has a short yet brilliant piece here on how to use STAR to shine at interviews.

Prepare a response to each of your likely-to-come-up questions using the STAR technique. Write it down. Several hundred words should be just about right. The interview, compared to the application form, will allow you to go into a lot more detail about your value as a candidate. Make sure you make the most of the opportunity to tell the panel just how great you are. In your answers, you should show yourself in the best possible light. Spin and polish, but never ever tell lies.

Now there’s a whole lot of hokum floating around the internet about using positive language, buzzwords, action words, and power words. There is some truth that avoiding an overly negative register can make an audience feel more positive about the speaker. Describing yourself, however, as a ‘dynamic and highly motivated, results-driven initiator with a confident and ambitious outlook’ is only so much hot air. It might get you ahead if you want to work in sales, recruitment or advertising – but in the heritage sector the only shit that really sticks is of wattle and daub variety.

The other important and related thing to bear in mind is the fact that the panel has to like you. You will be working closely with these people. They need to know that your personality and temperament will be a good match for their team. You need to be affable. When you give your answers, you need to be confident, but not cocky.

Practice

Take a break, have a rest. Review your answers after a few days. Start to learn them. Get your friends, family or partners to quiz you based on your prepared questions. Get them to mix up the wording of the questions so that you can prepare for all eventualities on the day. If you can, arrange a mock interview with someone you don’t know well. I did this with a friend of my family before my first heritage job interview, and it was very, very useful.

Do learn your answers, but remember that there is no need to rote learn them. Focus on the substance, and not on the precise phrasing. Your answers should, ideally, flow freely, and rote learning may make that difficult.  Distil the substance into a number of key points, preferably no more than ten per answer, which you can recall with ease.

Take notes

Continue to practice, but also condense the substance of your answers into notes – no more than two sides of A4 – which you can take with you into your interview. You must not read off these notes like a script, as your peepers will need to keep eye-contact with the panel. Instead, treat them as an aide-memoire, a glance at which will suffice to recall the substance of your answer in its totality. Make sure they are easy to read – use bullet points or a mind map format rather than dense prose. Even the best prepared candidates can forget to mention things when transfixed by the penetrating gaze of an interview panel – your notes are to make sure that does not happen. Yes, you are taking your notes with you into your interview. It’s completely fine to do so.

Mindmap
I favour making notes in mind-map format for faster recall

Questions for the panel

So much for preparing for the questions which the panel will ask of you – it is also crucial that you prepare a series of questions to ask the panel. While the questions you ask are unlikely to form any part of the formal interview assessment process, they can give the opportunity to show off any other skills, experience or knowledge that you might think would be relevant to the role. They can also, in a dead heat, tip things decisively your way. In fact, for at least one job I was offered, a panel member told me that it was my questions to the panel that had been the deciding factor.

There are good questions to ask, and there are not so good ones. Not so good ones are the boring stuff about holiday entitlement, salary or other benefits. Sure, they’re relevant questions – but they won’t give you much opportunity to shine. Similarly, try to avoid any questions that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

So what questions should you ask? Well, that all depends on the role and the organisation. But anything that demonstrates that you have thought critically about the position, and about the institution, and about the opportunities and challenges that might come with it, will probably impress the potential employer. Don’t ask anything that is easily answered by looking at the job advert. Do look at the organisation’s website and see if there is anything about the place and the collection which draws your curiosity. Examples of questions I’ve asked in the past at various interviews include:

  1. How accessible is the store from the main museum site?
  2. What challenges does the collection pose in terms of hazard management and the care of human remains?
  3. Are archival collections treated as part of the main object collection in terms of cataloguing, or are records held on a completely different system?
  4. What proportion of objects held by the museum are on loan to it from external bodies?
  5. How intensive is the loans-out schedule?
  6. What can I expect from the role in terms of support from qualified conservation staff?
  7. What progress has been made towards achieving the Museum’s stated aim of gaining Accreditation status?

The actual questions you ask will, of course, have to be your own choice.

Finally, a note on how many questions to prepare for the panel. Three or four may seem ample, but it is worth remembering that at least some of your questions will be answered in the main body of the interview or any preceding tour. I would therefore suggest preparing at least ten insightful and engaging questions for the panel.

Interviews: Part One. Questions to expect

Interviews

So after months (if not years) of waiting – and countless job applications – you’ve finally been called to your first museum job interview. Feels good right, kind of exhilarating? Are those butterflies flapping around inside your stomach? Enjoy it. But buckle up – we’ve got work to do.

You are going to be asked a series of questions by a panel of between two and four people, and there may be a test element involved too. Typically, you will be up against five to eight other candidates. The whole process is designed to determine that the best of those candidates – or at any rate the candidate who is the best match for the role and the institution – is offered the job. Nervous? That’s completely normal.

pirates
Interviews can be nerve-wracking, but not as scary as this early 18th century interrogation of a suspected pirate

They key to success is, of course, plenty of preparation. Between your receipt of your invitation and the interview date, there is a lot that you can do to you maximise your chances of victory. In this post, I will look at some of the more common questions to come up at interview. I have divided this post into three sections – questions about skills and experience, questions about you, the role and the institution, and curve ball questions.

What questions will I be asked?

  1. Questions about skills, competencies and experience

Ahh, this one is easy. Turn to the job advert. Remember that personal specification? If you have got an interview, then you will already have demonstrated how you met most of the criteria found on the specification via your application. The interview panel will likely ask you about those same criteria, but in more detail.

Looking at the role description can also be helpful. If there are duties outlined there which do not seem to have an equivalent criterion in the personal specification, then do plan for questions about those sorts of activities, functions or responsibilities.

Some institutions may make this even easier for you, by setting out explicitly how each criterion will be assessed. This is especially true for job vacancies in local government museums, and in some of the nationals. A typical job specification may look something like this:

Qualifications Essential (E)/ Desirable (D) How this will be assessed: Application form (A), Interview (I)
An undergraduate degree in a relevant subject E A
A postgraduate qualification in Museum Studies or similar subject, or commensurate experience working or volunteering in a museum D A
Experience
A good working knowledge of a museum database or collections management system E A/I
Experience with museum documentation procedures and knowledge of the SPECTRUM standard E A/I
Practical experience of working with museum collections E A/I
Experience of loans administration D A/I
Experience using the Mimsy XG collections management system D A
Experience in digitisation and digital photography D A
Skills and competencies
Strong written and verbal communication skills E A/I
Strong IT skills E A/I
Good team player E A/I
Research skills D A/I

 

If something is marked as being assessed at interview (I), do prepare for questions about those sorts of things. It is never a bad idea, however, to plan for all the criteria to come up – just in case.

Again taking this hypothetical job specification as an example, here are the sorts of questions that might come up – (based on the criteria marked as being assessed at (I) – Interview).

What experience do you have with museum databases or collections management systems?

What professional standards, codes of ethics, and legislation should you consider before implementing documentation procedures?

Given that museum objects are at their most vulnerable when being handled, what practical steps would you take to ensure the safe transportation of an object from an exhibition space and into a storage area?

When deciding whether or not to loan an object to external borrower, what factors should you consider?

You need the help of a curator in order to complete a task. However, despite being at work, they have not been responding to emails and your deadline is approaching. How would you proceed?

When have you used a software application in order to overcome a challenge?

Tell us about a time that you have contributed positively within a team in order to achieve results?

A member of the public has emailed you with an enquiry about the function of an object that they have seen on display in the museum. Set out the steps you would undertake in order to provide them with an answer.

Of course, the precise phrasing of the questions will vary from interview to interview – but the important point is that by carefully perusing the job description and role profile, you can get a very good sense of the sort of things about which you might be asked.

  1. Questions about the role, the institution and you

Okay, so this is a biggy. There is one questions that I have absolutely always been asked at every interview ever, without exception. And that is:

Why do you want the job?

(Or variations thereof). It’s a good question. And one that you simply must expect to come up, and for which you must prepare. In asking it, the interviewer is seeking a number of things. They want to know that you understand the organisation, and are sympathetic with its aims, objectives and mission. They want to know that you have thought critically about how and why the role would fit in with your own career progression and personal life. They want to know that you will be challenged, but not overwhelmed. They want to know that you will not get bored and bugger off after a few months. They want to know that you would be serious about relocating (if necessary). They want to know that you are the right person for the job.

In some respects, it is a question for which it is easy to prepare. Do your homework. Find out about the institution, its collection, and the challenges that it faces. If the collection is specialised, then come up with a coherent argument for why you want to work with material of that type. If the museum/ heritage organisation sits within a larger institution with wider aims, do show that you understand that and the implicit challenges.

How to answer such a question? This is what I said in my interview for my current post as Collections Management Assistant at the Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. I guess I said the right thing as I was offered the post:

I have long held an interest in the history of science; in a previous role at Worcester Cathedral Library I curated an exhibition on the encyclopedic Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. I included a large section on medieval science. In my current role as Project Research Assistant at Guildford Museum, I have enjoyed learning about aspects of medieval medicine – such as uroscopy and surgery – through their physical archaeological remains. I would welcome any opportunity to develop my learning within this fascinating field.

I welcome the opportunity to gain experience within a university museum, and am particularly keen to understand how the activities and mission of the museum sit within the wider aims of the University of Oxford, including higher education and research.

I am keen on the role for the breadth of experience on offer, encompassing collections management in its widest sense. I am particular eager to further my experience of loans administration and documentation work, which I have been enjoying in my current and previous roles at Guildford and Worcester, and in my current roles as Loans Support Volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Ship Portrait Cataloguing Volunteer at the National Maritime Museum. I feel that more experience of these areas in a professional capacity would be the key to my further career progression.

Finally, I have a genuine passion for Collections Management Systems, and their capacity to facilitate core museum functions. I have developed a great competency with collections management systems and databases including Mimsy XG, Cabal and Microsoft Access. While I have not used the KE EMu system before, I feel I have enough experience with similar platforms to quickly build a familiarity with it, and I very much welcome the opportunity to do so.

You will be asked ‘why do you want the job?’, so make sure you have an answer ready!

Similarly, you could well be asked something like:

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

The key here is to show that you really understand how the role would fit into your career development aims. If you want to be a registrar, but are applying for an education role, this could be difficult. But if you are applying for an assistant registrar role and want to be a registration manager, then do show that you have thought about how the role would fit within your aspirations.

Another question which might be asked of you and your fit for the role could be something like:

What are your key strengths?

Or

What particular strengths do you think you will need to fulfil this role?

Again, this question is an easy one in many respects. The answers can be found in the personal specification for the role. The recruiters have literally outlined the strengths (in terms of skills, experiences, competencies and attributes) that they want the successful candidate to have. Parroting the personal specification back to the interview panel will, however, only get you so far. Use the role profile to judge why they are looking for those particular strengths, and talk about how you have applied those strengths in previous roles.

Closely related is the oft’ dreaded question:

What are your greatest weaknesses?

Yet again, an easy one. We are all human – so there is no need to be brutally honest (e.g women and wine). Equally, the oft’ flaunted response to dress up a strength as a weakness ala ‘I’m a perfectionist’ will just make you seem something of a cocky shit.

Instead, pick a genuine but not catastrophic failing, and be honest about it. Crucially, mention the steps that you have taken to address that weakness, and make clear that you are well and truly on the road to recovery.

Finally, do expect questions about the institution itself. Do your homework. Study their website, follow their social media feeds. Make sure you read their mission statements and (if going in for a collections role) their Collections Development Policy. Visit the place before your interview if you can, and take copious notes on what you liked and what you didn’t like.

In the past, I’ve had questions like:

Which of the [large heritage organisation’s] sites have you enjoyed visiting?

Or

What specifically about the Museum and its collections would you be most excited to work with?

If you struggle to answer either of those, there could be some serious amounts of egg on your face.

  1. Curve ball questions

We’ve all heard about them. Apocryphal tales about Oxbridge veterinary science course interviews, where you’re asked to throw a model of a cow out of a window. Or the old classic ‘if you were an animal, what animal would you be?’ Such questions can be useful for seeing how a candidate responds, on their feet, to unforeseen and unexpected scenarios. However, I have never been asked a genuine curve ball in a museum interview. I’ve asked around of my peers on Twitter, and none of them have either. Preparing for a curve ball is, then, probably not the best use of your time.

The closest I have ever got to a curve ball question is ‘how would you describe yourself?’ I responded with a gallic shrug and ‘I don’t know’, and still got the job. Seriously, don’t worry about curve balls.

If you are asked the animal question though, do give a sensible answer. Basically, steer away from the truth. We all might want to say something like:

I would be a big bear, so I could glut on [smoked] salmon, sleep for ages in a nice warm cave, and spend the rest of my time enjoying the affections of mama bear.

But it would be better to say something like:

I would be a beaver. I have nice sharp teeth and wide tail, so have all the strengths and tools required for my key roles of swimming and constructing dams. I am able to understand complex structures and procedures, such as those needed for watercourse management. Finally, I am industrious, and appreciate that overcoming big tasks up-front (like tree-felling) may make my role as beaver more productive and efficient in the long-run.

In the next section, I will talk about particular techniques for answer interview questions, and let you in on some of my top tips for interview preparation.