Guest Blog: PhDs and Museums I: Josie Wall in Birmingham

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).


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?

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 even 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.


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:


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:


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


(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!)

While Tamsin Russell of the Museums Association has this opinion to add:


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.


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:


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.


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 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!