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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?