Should you get an MA or Ph.D to work in a history museum?
I talk to many students interested in museum work. They ask about what training they should get for this. My story is pretty straight now. For better or worse, an MA seems to be necessary to get ahead in the museum world. Whether it’s an MA in museum studies, a related field like public history or public humanities or curatorial studies, or a straight MA in history or art history; that depends on interests and goals. But a masters is now entry-level, or necessary to get beyond entry-level.
But some of the students ask about a Ph.D. Will getting a Ph.D. help them get a job in a museum? Would it help them get promoted? Will it help them to do better museum work?
My instinct is that the answer to all of these questions is no. Moreover, I think that in many cases, a Ph.D. is not only not useful, but actually teaches the wrong things for museum work. More on that later, and what should be done to fix that.
There are three parts to this essay. First, is a Ph.D. necessary to get a museum job? Next, is it useful – that is should you get one anyway, even if they’re not necessary? And finally, after I argue that it’s not – what could be done – either by an individual, or a department, to fix the degree to make it useful.
Part 1. Do curators and museum educators have Ph.Ds.? How about recent hires?
First, some research. I’ve asked around, and there seem to be no good data on this, and no good statistics. Here’s what I’ve found so far (and I’d appreciate any other information that might be available).
Most curators, and almost all educators, do not have Ph.Ds.
There are some interesting numbers in the new AAM 2012 National Comparative Museum Salary Survey. (There are lots of caveats to keep in mind when looking at this data. It’s combining art museums (20 percent of the sample) and history museums (50 percent). It’s comparing museums of many different sizes, and university museums and museums for the general public. It’s combining several generations of museum workers.)
Overall, 1.7 percent of the museum workforce has a doctorate, 9.3 percent a masters degree. 15 percent of directors had PhDs, 20 percent of chief curators, 24 percent of senior curators, and 16 percent of assistant curators. So did 6 percent of directors of education or senior educators, and 2.5 percent of less senior educators. My sense from talking to people in the field is that university museums, big art museums, and the very large history museums are where Ph.D.s are most concentrated. Very few curators or educators as smaller history museums have Ph.Ds.
Assuming that “assistant curator” or “educator” are the jobs mostly likely open to recent graduates, the Ph.D. is not a necessary degree.
So Ph.Ds. are rare in museums. But how about at the biggest and best museums, where they might be expected? Again, data is hard to find, but it seems that many of these curators do not have Ph.Ds.
The Smithsonian Office of Fellowships and Grants has a complete list of Smithsonian research staff, and it’s possible to pull some information from it. (Again, many caveats: It’s clear that different organizations include different staff in this list, and that the data is not up to date; take it with a grain of salt.) The percentage of staff with Ph.D.s range from 91 percent (Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage) to 83 percent at Air and Space to 30 percent at American History to 12 percent at the Cooper Hewitt Museum.
Even at the Smithsonian, many curators do not have PhDs. Folklorists do. Curators of aeronautics and space science do. But at the National Museum of American History, only 30 percent of research staff have Ph.Ds. Looking more closely at curators there, 18 have Ph.Ds., 33 do not. It’s certainly not a required degree for these jobs. (I’ve not included the Natural History museum. As Henry Cowles at the AmericanScience blog notes, museums of natural science are different.)
The official OPM “position classification standard” for curators is not of much use. It was written in 1962, and states that “Moreover, unlike library science, the techniques of acquisitioning, cataloging, storing, and displaying objects, and the methods of museum management have not been standardized into formal disciplines and incorporated into formal college courses of training and education.” Shocking, really; someone should update this.
Recent ads for curators in the federal government don’t include educational requirements beyond a BA. Job listings at the AAM show a range of requirements. Ph.Ds. are required or preferred for art curators at large museums and university museums, M.A. for art curators at other museums, only a B.A. for a curator at a large history museum. An M.A. required for most museum education jobs.
It’s hard for me to know what’s hiring managers really want, or look for, as opposed to what they put on paper, or what human resources departments and official rules require. My sources at the National Museum of American History suggest that the museum is backing away from hiring Ph.Ds: they “will be respected but not always expected.” Museum staff, some in management there argue, “should do public history as their primary mission and academic history as a secondary mission.” Seems reasonable to me. Even, one might say, a good definition of museum curatorial work.
This is a very cursory overview, enough to convince me that most curatorial jobs do not require a Ph.D. If anyone has more or better data, I’d be interested in it.
A colleague to whom I showed this paper in draft suggested that in tough times, it can’t hurt to have a Ph.D. – and that further, because of the odd way for which universities charge for degrees, it’s cheaper to get a Ph.D. than an M.A. That’s true – most universities provide free tuition and five or so years of stipend for a Ph.D. degree. But it’s a mistake to think that those five years are all fun and games, or even fun. See, for example, 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School, Tim Burke, Larry Cebula… There are many more such essays. And almost anyone in graduate school now can tell you more.