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16 Museum Job Application Dos and Don’ts: Or How (Not) to Get Hired

Monday, March 17, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kaia Landon
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Hiring is a funny business. Applying for jobs can be difficult and time-consuming. But people often do things while applying to jobs that you just can’t believe. Sometimes that is born of neglect, lack of understanding of the process, lack of time to prepare, or sometimes just plain craziness.

All of the below are based on true stories from museum and museum department directors. Seriously.

  1. Tailor your resume AND cover letter to the specific job you’re applying to. For example, if the job announcement asks for skill in underwater basketweaving, one of these documents should include information on your skills therein. If the job title is Chief Underwater Basketweaver, both these documents should highlight that experience, education, etc.
  2. Make your resume easy to scan. If I can’t tell at a glance that you’re qualified for the job, you go in the round file.
  3. Research the organization you’re applying to. Look at their website – maybe not every single page (with a large museum that could get a little unwieldy), but look at everything relevant to the position you’re applying to. Look at the organization’s 990 (if the organization is part of a larger bureaucracy, they may have a smaller 501(c)(3) foundation whose 990 might be instructive). You can do this on Guidestar (you have to register for a Guidestar account, but since it’s free, you have no excuse not to). Google them. You should have some knowledge of the organization before you apply, and quite a bit before you interview. You might find out why the position in question is open, or that the organization is always hiring (which is usually a very bad sign). Knowledge thus gained will not only help you answer their questions, it will help you ask questions as you interview them.
  4. Don’t complain on the application form about having to fill out an application form. Yes, it sucks, but someone in HR made this the process. Either they’re doing the hiring, and they’ll really not appreciate it, or someone else is doing the hiring (who doesn’t control the process), and they don’t care (nor do they want to hire a whiny person to work for/with them).
  5. Don’t assume that being qualified means you’ll get the job. It’s rough out there. For a low paying, part time, entry level job without benefits there are likely to be at least 50 applicants. 20 of them are people who were advised to apply to everything under the sun (and are not even remotely qualified). Even this sort of job sometimes gets folks with an MA and 10 years of experience in the pool of applicants.
  6. Don’t send a resume/cover letter without there being a job/vacancy announcement. Museums do not just sit around hoping someone wanders in who wants a job. When we have an open job, we advertise for applicants. We don’t hire otherwise.
  7. Don’t apply for jobs for which you are not qualified. If your job experience is as a preparator, do not apply for a job in development. I know those development jobs pay nicely, but they have plenty of people with development experience applying. Don’t waste your time. More importantly, don’t waste the time of the person who is hiring. IF you are truly looking to change tracks within the museum field, your application materials should make that fact pristinely clear, and should show how your experience has in fact made you qualified for that new track.
  8. Don’t address your application to “To Whom It May Concern” unless you have no other options. If you’re emailing it, there’s a good chance the recipient’s email address contains some good clues as to their name. If you’re not sure whether you should be addressing it to Mr. or Ms. (never Mrs.!), Dr. can be a safe default, especially in large museums (any time you’re not sending to an HR Dept.). (In my experience, some folks with Ph.D.s get ornery if called Mr., but almost no one gets upset at being called Dr. if they’re not.) Also, LinkedIn or a basic web search can probably answer who you’re sending to, and what their gender is. Personally, I prefer “Dear Search Committee” or something along those lines if it’s a generic organizational email address you’re sending to.
  9. Don’t give one-word answers in an interview, even if the questions seem to be looking for a yes or no answer. Trust me, they aren’t. They want you to say, for instance, “No, but my experience doing X, Y, and Z have given me experience I can translate into. . ."
  10. Don’t threaten to sue for discrimination if you’re not hired (particularly at the application stage, when the organization has not yet given you any reasons to sue, and has no idea whether or not you are part of a protected class).
  11. Do make your resume clean and simple. Choose one font, and it should be black. No weird layouts.
  12. Do email your resume as a .pdf (unless some other format has been specified). This means that even if the organization has one of the three computers on the planet still using WordPerfect, they’ll be able to open it and it will look as you intended it to.
  13. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Your resume shouldn’t have any typos.
  14. Figure out a way to make a comprehensible story out of your job/education history, especially if it seems a little all over the place. This might go in your cover letter, or it might come up during the “tell me about yourself” part of the interview.
  15. If your prior experience is in a niche that is different from the niche where you’re applying (church museum, history vs art vs other field, etc.) be sure to avoid specialized jargon that may not be familiar or relevant.
  16. When the job ad includes a hiring range, don’t include a line in your cover letter demanding to be paid significantly more. That’s just not going to happen. If you don’t like the stated salary range, just move on.

Useful links:

Landing a Job in the Museum of the Future

Some interesting comments from Nik Honeysett at the Getty about what you can learn about yourself from the job ad for your successor


Kaia Landon is the director of the Brigham City Museum of Art and History and the Box Elder Museum of Natural History.  She also serves as the Secretary for the Utah Museum Association, and as the AASLH state team leader for Utah.


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