The Person Behind the Application: Musings from a Public History Job Seeker

, , ,

“After you graduate and get the letters M.A. after your name, finding a job should be no problem.”

These encouraging words were offered up to me at a recent museum conference, and although I appreciate the sentiment, the statement is not exactly true. Months after graduation, I am increasingly discouraged about the prospect of  securing a position that meets my basic requirements in the field of public history. The majority of job descriptions discourage me from applying due to arbitrary years-of-experience requirements and salaries below a living wage. These are not new issues, but my hope is that through examples from my lived experience I can provide a fresh perspective on the situation that many recent graduates face when searching for employment, while encouraging public history institutions to see the value that recent graduates can bring to their institutions.

Illustration of a scale balancing money and a lightbulb (idea)

Finding a job feels like a balancing act between finding a position that pays a living wage and finding a position where I can put to use my public history skills and ideas.  Graphic from available here.

The first thing I do after finding a job posting is scroll down to the bottom of the page to read the qualifications. Often, the first line in this section states how many years of experience the institution is looking for in an applicant. As a recent graduate, I have a range of experiences but not years of experience performing a specific job.

Many these requirements are not referring to a skill required to be successful in a role. For example, a recent job ad that I read required “three to five years of professional work experience in a museum.” Although my experiences and skills satisfy most of the other qualifications listed, I hesitated to apply, as I have not worked in a museum for three years. An institution may include this in the job description to weed out truly unqualified applicants, but in doing so they inadvertently weed out diverse applicants whose qualifications do not include years of experience. Statements like this, specifically for early-career and entry-level positions, send the message that these institutions have no interest in hiring a recent graduate. The numerous and unique skills that such a person has, including a recent education, fresh ideas, and an eagerness to learn, are not considered valuable.

Not only do these arbitrary experience requirements show that the skill sets of recent graduates are not valued, but they also shrink the diversity of applicant pools, disproportionately excluding women. A recent study published by the Harvard Business Review took a deeper look at the infamous Hewlett Packard statistic that shows that men will apply for a job if they meet 60% of the requirements, and women are more likely to apply only if they meet 100% the requirements. Researchers explored the reasoning behind this statistic, and discovered that women actually believe that the stated requirements for the position are, in fact, required.

Men do not witness, experience, or expect to be discredited due to their gender as frequently as women do. It is not that women lack confidence in themselves, but rather that they lack confidence that the system will give them a chance if they do not have all of the listed qualifications for a job. In the example above, I hesitated to apply for the position solely due to the experience requirement, assuming that my limited experience would automatically disqualify me. Although this specific example addresses gender bias, job descriptions can discourage other underrepresented people groups from applying, primarily through lacking inclusive, intentional language.

Even if my experiences and skills align with the qualifications, salary often represents a serious obstacle to securing a position. For a young, recent graduate, it feels nearly impossible to enter the field without having an additional source of income. Due to recent efforts to be more transparent with salary and financial information by both the NCPH and the AAM, a salary is often listed, but that doesn’t mean that it is a livable wage. During a recent interview, I inquired about the pay for the position and was met with surprise that I would be concerned about pay, as most employees are there for the mission of the museum. I was told to “not expect to get rich,” followed by the reasons that the job was low-paying. The interview ended quickly, as did my interest in the position. Shortly thereafter, I was informed that they had decided to go in another direction as well.

In this situation, the value of the mission is taken to supersede the financial value assigned to employees. On a similar note, at a museum conference I recently attended, a speaker closed out a session by describing the mission-centric reason that many people enter their career and how public historians are willing to sacrifice their “lives and fortunes” for the cause. This rhetoric, which is rampant in the field, contributes to the mindset that money does not matter, and is not a concern for public history professionals. Although many individuals in the industry do share a commitment to mission-minded work, they should be able to expect appropriate financial compensation.

Low salaries are inherently exclusionary. The interviewer in the above situation obviously did not know why I was asking about salary, nor why asking about salary is important. As a single woman with a chronic health condition, I need a salary that supports myself and my additional health care costs, which can be quite expensive. Most individuals seeking employment have diverse reasons for considering income, including debt, student loans, families to support, etc. However, accepting a lower-paying position because one enjoys a spouse’s income and health insurance—what Michael Holland refers to as the “The Spousal Income Subsidy”—is quite common in this industry. Given the mission-centered nature of museum work, where value primarily is attributed to the product, content, or experience generated, those doing the hiring can forget that the humans behind the content also hold significant financial value and require appropriate compensation.

By the time I complete my job hunting for the day, I have usually eliminated most new job posting for these two reasons. Unfortunately, these trends in the field are not new. In 2013, Matthew Exline discussed his job hunting experience, referring to steep qualifications for entry-level positions as a “catch-22.” Despite the persistence of these issues, strategies for improvement have been named. For instance, Katherine McNamee has described a range of equitable hiring protocols successfully implemented by the American Association of Museums (AAM). And a house museum in California recently decided to reevaluate how their institution financially valued their employees, which led the institution to raise its employees’ salaries and maintain cost-of-living raises.

Now, in the midst of pandemic recovery, is an opportune time for an institution to examine its hiring processes and budgets, and how it values its human assets, and ultimately to implement change. Removing years-based qualifications and placing greater financial value on entry-level positions is a step in the right direction, for both the sustainability of the field and for diversity initiatives.


~Mary Culler earned her Master’s degree in history from Virginia Tech in 2022. After a year-long job search, she recently accepted a full-time museum position, but remains very passionate about the challenges recent grads face in the field. Her research interests focus mostly on gender history, and she is passionate about forging connections between historic research and contemporary activism.









1 comment
  1. Thank you for this, Mary. I am in the throes of my PhD. At the end of my MA in 2021-2022, I worked for my local museum, which not only had zero opportunity for advancement or professional development in the field, but I made $15.73 and hour. Needless to say, I opted to leave (which broke my heart, as you as history professional can understand), and have bounced around in jobs that could pay my bills. I began my PhD program in Jan. this year, and can identify with what you say in your article about requirements listed in job postings. No job I have come across anywhere is inviting to apply for, realistic in qualifications wanted in an applicant, or suggests/welcomes applying for new grads. It’s nice to know I am not the only one feeling despair toward my chosen career…which I bring a lifetime of experience and skills to as a result of my over 35 years in other employment roles. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.