Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 1

Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 1

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.

Part 2 discusses how a Ph.D. is useful, or not for the job; Part 3, how it might be made more useful.

6 thoughts on “Should you get a Ph.D to work in a history museum? – Part 1

  1. A super interesting blog post and conversation I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I have a master’s degree in material anthropology and museum ethnography, which has been extremely useful in my job. I considered continuing my studies, but after much deliberation and even finishing PhD applications for multiple schools, decided not to go back for a PhD as I had no desire to teach and really just wanted to work in a museum–it didn’t seem like the degree would help with my end goal. Not only that, I was actually told by multiple PhDs to absolutely NOT mention to PhD programs that I wanted to work in a museum as programs would look down on this and not take me on as a student (I was also told to take off my wedding band and not let anyone know I was married to an academic as this would somehow signal that I wouldn’t be a dedicated student, but that’s another story…). It was a very difficult decision to make, but looking back, I’m so glad that I didn’t go the PhD route, though I’d been told by multiple high level curators that I absolutely should.

    The most valuable part of my training by far has been all of the unpaid internships I had to complete in order to really break into the museum field. I found that 1-2 full years of unpaid/hardly paid work across various museum depts. really was necessary to break into the field. You simply must have quite a bit of experience in order to get even an entry-level job. I’ve also found a willingness to work across many different depts. really helps (I currently have curatorial, web, social media, and other duties). Understanding image permissions, loan forms, being able to work directly with educators, create online exhibits, having people skills, blogging, web metrics…any number of things are much more important than my publication record in my day-to-day job, and as you note in your 2nd blog post, PhD programs really don’t train museum employees for these duties.

    The only thing I will say about your statistics on museum (esp. history) professionals is that the Smithsonian numbers might be somewhat misleading simply because the older workforce there was the last of a group that was able to really “work their way up” from the bottom rung. And people tend to stay in govt. jobs (especially at the Smithsonian) once they get them. I think most new curatorial hires at the Smithsonian now do strongly privilege applicants with a PhD. However, this might be changing for the very reasons that you outline, and because of what I’ve found in my own career thus far: museums don’t just want academics that can write papers–they want multi-faceted employees that can do many jobs (often because of money woes), and that are web/tech savvy in addition to having excellent research and writing skills.

    Thank you for the food for thought, and looking forward to follow up comments on this!

  2. Interesting stance. I’m not sure I completely agree with all that has been said.

    It seems museums are continually trying to gain validity in the mind of the public. One way to earn legitimacy is through higher education, at least that is a start. The fact that PhDs revel in detail hardly appears to be a fault, but Not being able to see the big picture is a fault. How many people actually look at the Big Picture regardless of degree type? The probelmatic lies in the fact that the big picture is not practical; it is usually the ineffable.

    The problem with the article is that it takes the point of pragmatism too far. It seems we have become obsessed with the term as it closely related to practical, and who wouldn’t want to be seen as practical. But practical is also closely related to efficiency, and efficiency can invoke some rather negative associations. Many times efficiency is deduced to an economic value, and when this happens (as almost always) it loses the ability to be concerned with the social. Pratical becomes a double-edged sword. Obsessed with efficiency a group becomes slavish to tangible, demonstratable, mesurable benefits. The cultural negation of qualitative benefits has been a real thorn in the side of museums. This has created a hindrance and an inability to plan and strategize for long-term sustainability. The call to be efficient is a call to calculate, but it is difficult to analyze the process of becoming.

    Perhaps the best solution would be for museums to become more interested in professional development for their staff. In total, I agree with the articles position. A PhD does not make a person a better fit for a career in the humanities. We need people capable of balancing both theory and practice.

  3. Some very interesting statistics–far fewer PhDs than I would have expected. I would, however, be interested in how these numbers break generationally. How many curators, for example, hired in the last 10? 15? years do not have PhDs? It’s my anecdotal sense that museum curators hired in the last decade are much more likely to have PhDs.

  4. After witnessing my daughter’s unsuccessful 2+ years job search for a permanent Collections Management position I question whether it is wise for a student to pursue a career in museum work at all. She has a MA in Museum Studies and a BA in Archeology (both from prestigious colleges), and experience primarily in object handling and movement and database management. She has held several internships and contracts at the NMAH. She is intelligent, diligent, knowledgeable, and a team-player. She is technically savvy and has extensive computer and social media skills. None of this has enhanced her chances of landing a job. In reality, it seems, there is no “key” combination of education and experience, just plain old luck. Apparently there are too few jobs and too many applicants–and it is a known fact that many museum personnel (especially in the federal jobs) never leave once they’re in. How I wish my daughter had gone into ANY field but this. As it is, she’ll probably be looking to change careers out of necessity, though she’s resisted doing so up till now. This has been very frustrating for her.

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