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Job Hop or Career Climb: Let’s stop demonizing non-linear career paths

As another college semester finishes, I reflect over the summer on the next generation of students graduates to emerge into the workforce as fluid job seekers, who deserve better than the sector they will inherit. I dream of what a fair workforce would look like and how to transform our flawed systems towards spaces of equity; for the sake of the graduates, career changers, and the legions of disillusioned museum workers, that are on the verge of leaving.

I just wrapped up teaching another semester of graduate, museum studies students across two different top-tier universities. I’ve noticed one thing that frequently came up, in group conversations, in written essays and presentations, were issues of labor, job seeking, party, and unpaid internships.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce and these graduates are navigating scarce employment prospects in perilous times, despite a post-Covid economy where nothing is secure and every position is at-will and subject to unceremonious elimination. Let’s normalize owning our right to a nonlinear career path and being proud of it.

There is an unspoken culture of intrusion and control amongst leadership in many museums as if you owe all your time, talent life force, and intellectual property in service of the museum. That isn’t right. We must not apologize for being resourceful, taking on outside work and opportunities to sustain our income, peace of mind creative pursuits.

Often HR managers and other hiring decision-makers engage in fear-mongering to dissuade applicants from negotiating for more money or benefits and expecting new hires to work long hours for low pay being servile, sacrificial and long-suffering. It’s easy to be told a sob story by leadership about low budgets and expired grants on why they can’t pay a living wage from well-endowed institutions that demand esteemed credentialing and long employment track records, for less than optimal wages, but is that fair?

Be encouraged no matter what flack you may be catching from the field in your active or passive job search. You have rights and options. You are on a non-linear career path, as a free agent, moving through a journey of employment experiences that will shape your trajectory, arming you with various skills for your career toolbox.

One thing is for sure on this non-linear career path, you are not beholden to anyone or any place. You can and should own your story! If You had to work a variety of gigs, contracts, part-time jobs, and out-of-the-sector positions, to cobble together a full-time salary, that’s your truth and it’s nothing to be ashamed of! If anything the museums and cultural institutions should be ashamed of how they commodify and extract your labor with no promise of security or longevity or investment.

If you are in the role of a hiring manager or decision-maker extend some grace. When you see a candidate that has held many roles, in short periods, realize that their path was a nonlinear one, that took tenacity, persistence, creativity, and ingenuity to navigate. Don’t demonize someone who has had multiple contracts and projects over the span of short years. Guaranteed it wasn’t their first choice, but rather a response of necessity to stay afloat, alive, and employed. Museum work isn’t for the faint of heart and it is a privileged space that is challenging to become upwardly mobile within.

If you’re a person of color, you may not know how to talk about your own racialized experience in a way that allows you to advocate for yourself in predominantly White spaces. The good of the institution is often positioned at polar odds with living wages, promotions, job security, labor unions, and BIPOC professionals. Realize that time and years matter as much as being a quick study, tenacity, perseverance, and claiming space for yourself and your lived experience against the odds.

In the spirit of equity for all, I believe for every six-figure curator, privileged historian, or top-producing fundraiser, there needs to be a new hire that is fluently bilingual, an unpaid intern upgraded to a paid internship, a one-year diversity fellow whose contract is converted to a living wage job with cross-departmental support for diversity.

Think back to your origin story in your career and how bumpy or smooth was your start? What was your entry into the field? Did you have a safe harbor and soft landings or was the rug continually snatched from under you? When graduating and initially job hunting did you immediately find your footing or did it take some time. On your job hunt were you stressed, weary, out of options, consistently unconsidered, rejected or erased, or in calm and healthy head space. Were you offered benefits, paid days off, or waiting for the other shoe to drop as you tried to politely ask for a raise or promotion.

In general, we as museum professionals need to show each other grace, compassion, and the benefit of the doubt, especially when we are in spaces of decision-making.

Remember these tips for the non-linear journey ahead:

  • Skills are cross-functional
  • Credentials are relative and aren’t a necessary indicator of success in the role
  • Precarity is around every corner in a field that forces entry-level and mid-career professionals to work in several places to cobble together a decent salary to exist in major metropolitan areas where many prominent museums are located
  • Many museum professionals are unceremoniously laid off and pushed out. Burnt out and hitting a glass ceiling.
  • Unpaid internships perpetuate the systemic inequities afire mentioned
  • Negotiating salaries is a learned skill in the museum sector and can and should be practiced.

About the author – Monica O. Montgomery MA

Monica O. Montgomery is a museum leader working at the nexus of equity, community and inclusion and believed museums must be in service to society. She is the Curator of Social Justice and Special Projects for the FUTURES exhibit presented by Smithsonian Institution Arts + Industries Building. She has independently curated 40+ social justice, contemporary art and public history exhibits, experiences and festivals, with renowned organizations like the South African Embassy, Brooklyn Museum, Portland Art Museum, Historic Germantown, T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, Teachers College, The Highline and more.

As a museum consultant she works with a myriad of organizations on community engagement, building diverse representation for BIPOC in museums and capacity building. Additionally Montgomery is a professor who loves engaging students around the cutting edge of progressive history, humanities, arts and culture best practices. She teaches graduate courses around Museums, Community Engagement and Social Justice at renowned institutions like: American University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Pratt Institute and NYU. She holds a Bachelors of Arts in Broadcast Communication from Temple University and Masters of Arts in Corporate Communication from LaSalle University.

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