On the Job (Market)

One thing that’s become clear to me since joining the Halleran cohort is that finishing the dissertation is only one of my fellowship obligations. Although I’m no longer bound to the expectations of an assistantship, a new task has quickly taken its place as a demand on my time: applying for jobs. I’ve started my transition out of William & Mary and into the next phase of my life, so let’s take a look at how I’ve been preparing for it.

When I’m not working directly on the dissertation itself, I’m preparing myself for the job market. Image: an open laptop at a window overlooking a wooded scene.

Identifying My Core Interests

I’ve held several museum and academic positions over the years. Until recently, though, I rarely considered what exactly I enjoyed about them. I knew I liked them and that I was good at them, but that was about as far as my analysis went.

This is partially because practical decisions have dictated many of my professional choices. I initially went into museum work not because I had necessarily envisioned a career in it, but because I needed a break from academia and didn’t know what else I was qualified to do. Sometimes I’ve simply had roles assigned to me, as has been the case with all my assistantships. Other times housing availability or salary shaped my career decisions. I chose Roswell over interviewing at the Peabody Essex Museum, for instance, because the salary was higher and had better insurance.

My assistantship at the Career Center was what encouraged me to stop and consider my actual work motivations. Admittedly, it was not one of my top choices when I was ranking assistantships for the 2021-2022 year. Yet it ended up being one of my most satisfying professional experiences. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t working directly in the classroom or a museum. Nevertheless, I left the office each day feeling proud of my work and energized for the following week.

This summer then, I decided to examine my motivations for enjoying work. I took an online course through Beyond the Professoriate where I analyzed my proudest professional accomplishments. I then figured out exactly which tasks I enjoyed about teaching, research, and other roles.

What brings me the most satisfaction, it turns out, is providing people with the resources they need to achieve success. For me, what’s important is not showing off my own knowledge. Instead, it’s about pointing people in the directions they need to achieve their own goals. I’ve applied this insight to my job search by seeking out roles that let me take on more of a mentoring or networking role.

Rethinking the Academic Job…

When I came to William & Mary, getting a professorship after graduation was not a priority. I know that academia is an absolute nightmare, and that tenure-track jobs are few and far in between. Why dedicate any time to such aggravation?

Yet I spent part of my summer drafting such academic documents as teaching and research statements. Right now, I’ve got a spreadsheet of assistant professorships that I’ll be applying to over the fall. What changed my mind?

A major reason for my change in perspective is the desire to continue my research. I know it’s difficult to do when teaching full-time. I know from personal experience though, that it’d be just as hard, if not harder, to do independent research while curating full-time. At museums, the collection largely dictates your research. I could get away with researching the CACP in Roswell because of its institutional history. With a professorship, I’d at least be eligible for sabbaticals and fellowships that would let me continue pursuing my own work.

Another reason is that I’d make a good professor. I know I’m good at teaching and I have a lot of experience with it. Since I’d be working with students, moreover, I’d also satisfy my interest in helping others grow and achieve their goals.

…While Keeping Expectations Realistic

Above all else though, I’m approaching the academic job search as a learning opportunity. I had initially applied to the Halleran without expecting to get it. Similarly, I’m considering this a chance to get first-hand experience with the process more than anything else. In the (extremely) unlikely chance I get shortlisted for a position, great. If not, I’ll have a better idea of the process and the mental labor it entails. Should I choose to apply again, I’ll already have a set of core documents from which to build new applications.

Rethinking the Museum Job

If I’m honest with myself (and I am), I know that I have the best chance of getting a job in the museum field. I’ve been working in museums for more than a decade. My career trajectory shows a consistent increase in responsibilities and accomplishments. I’m focusing primarily on academic jobs this fall because they operate on a different timeline than museum positions, but I’ve also sent out applications for curatorial roles when they match my interests. I’ll also be applying for museum roles more aggressively in the spring.

That said, the time I spent assessing my core work values has shaped my approach to museum jobs. Additionally, between the Ph.D. program itself and my ongoing work with the Barry Art Museum, I’ve grown as a professional. I’m not the curator I was when I left Roswell, and it’s important to me that any future museum role reflects that growth. I don’t want to graduate only to go back to doing the same thing I was before.

That awareness has definitely shaped the kinds of roles I’ve been considering. I’m a mid-career museum professional. At this point, I’ve curated or co-curated more than 40 exhibitions, and I don’t want to create all the shows anymore. As such, I’ve been looking at more mid or senior-level curatorial positions so that I can take on more of a supervisory role and help other curators achieve their aspirations. Academic museums have especially interested me because I’d get the opportunity to work with students. I’ve also been looking at advocacy-related roles as a way of moving beyond the daily minutiae of museum operations to consider the field itself more broadly.

Staying Open to Different Possibilities

Above all, I’ve been keeping an open mind about my professional opportunities. I’ll admit, it’s a lot to think about the different roles I could take on over the next year.

Somewhat paradoxically, what’s helped keep me from getting overwhelmed is the ever-present possibility of change itself. The job I get after graduate school will not be the last one I have. I don’t have to keep doing any one thing forever. I can always change my mind and do something else.

But first, I have to get a job. One thing at a time.


  1. Best of luck Sara! Job applications are the absolute worst. Like Major Major Major Major in *Catch-22*, I found myself switching and swapping the names of my references (as well as versions of resumes, CVs, writing samples, and other materials) just to stave off the boring monotony of filling out nearly identical forms. But it’s great that you’ve figured out what you want to do!

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