Museum Careers Advice- How to apply for jobs

Earlier this week, I was very kindly invited to speak at an employers panel at a Researcher Career Pathways Event at Oxford Brookes University. In preparing for the panel, I jotted down some top tips, which I thought I’d share here, kicking off 2016 blog content and continuing in the PSA theme I seem to be developing with the content here. Before I get into the tips, I will say that this is drawn from my experience in working in museums and universities, mostly for natural history and heritage related roles so is probably the most relevant to those sectors. Industry, particularly science and engineering is a whole different kettle of fish but certainly some of this information will be transferable.

I’ve had over ten years of experience in recruiting across a range of roles, from volunteers to project assistants through to being involved in the recruitment process for positions on the same level as me and above. The museum sector is famously ‘oversubscribed’ with people trying to get a foot in the door but in my experience, it’s rarely been challenging to shortlist five or six people from a long list of applicants. This isn’t because there aren’t fantastic candidates out there it’s more to do with the lost art of the job application. I’m almost loathe to publish this advice as it may make shortlisting that bit harder in the future.  So without further ado.


  1. Job applications are a game For most of the recruitment I’ve done, the shortlisting stage is very straight forward. The essential and desirable selection criteria are put into a grid and then each candidate is given a score against each criterion, normally on a 0 (not met), 1(partially met) or 2(fully met) scale. These scores are then added up and are the basis for the recruitment panel deciding who to select to interview. This may sound straightforward but I’d say more than 50% of the applications I’ve ever looked over don’t seem to understand this (I didn’t either until I undertook recruitment training). This is important in writing applications for a number of reasons, the first one being that you should ensure you address as many of the criteria as possible. Desirable and essential criteria are weighted differently, however, you may see your application on the reject pile because somebody perhaps less experienced than you has gone to the effort of addressing all those ‘fluffy’ criteria and you’ve focused solely on what you think is the important point or two. And yes, that includes the ones about computer skills, team working and time management. If you don’t address these you might still be shortlisted but if there are hundreds of applications, your unnecessarily lowly scored one either won’t make the cut or becomes a riskier bet. On which note…
  2. Imagine you are being shortlisted by a crotchety old grinch who is tired, doesn’t know you and rushing through applications at the last-minute. This isn’t to say that this is who is normally responsible for recruiting but do be aware that your application may not necessarily be being looked over under ideal conditions so try to ensure that your application is clear, concise and the most relevant bits of information are ‘easy’ to find. If you tuck away important information or spend the first half of your covering letter waffling on about how you are generically enthusiastic and brilliant without being specific, crotchety old grinch might miss some of the details or worse will subconsciously (or consciously) be less generous than they might be otherwise. Shortlisting is undertaken by more than one person precisely to iron out some of these biases but you want to do everything you can to get yourself into the ‘interview’ category rather than borderline.
  3. Evidence of experience Everyone can write that they are brilliant, enthusiastic, work well in a team or on their own but in applications and interviews, you need to back this up with examples that demonstrate you are what you say you are. In shortlisting this may be the difference between getting 2 points over 1 or even 0. You need to put the recruiter in the situation where it is impossible not to say that you actually meet the requirement. This means less generic waffle and more concrete examples so that there isn’t a shadow of a doubt, even for grinches. This is often where sloppy job descriptions can help you too! If a criterion is poorly worded along the lines of ‘Willingness to work underwater’, the sentence ‘I am willing to work underwater’ gets you a full two points (or a tick or a fully met…) and you can spend more of your time and word count on other criteria. Criteria with ‘experience of’ and ‘demonstrable knowledge’ are harder to satisfy but make sure you do.
  4. Don’t rely on your degree experience Doing your Masters degree or PhD may have seemed like a big, life-eating deal to you but the fact of the matter is that the job you are applying for, especially a research oriented one, requires a far faster pace and you’ll look back on your degree days pining for the luxurious amount of time you had to fully throw yourself into something. Do use your degree to evidence subject specialist skills and knowledge. Unless you have really strong examples don’t rely on your getting a degree to evidence time management, team work and communication skills because if a degree is required for a role, every candidate will have the same basic experience. A lot of people will default back to their degree experience at interview, when it may not be the best experience to use. However, I would advise mentioning what you did at the same time as your degree or the opportunities you  took advantage of being a student and attached to a University e.g. conference organising, presentations, volunteering, public engagement, teaching, creative writing etc. I expand on this with reference to Museum Studies degrees in an old blog post I wrote at UCL.
  5. Do a bit of research Visit the museum, especially if it’s free. Dig around the website. Look at their social media. It looks really bad if you have to admit in an interview that you didn’t (and it’s happened, more than a few times) but also, this might be a place you end up working at so you should really be sure you want to. I’ve been asked in an interview before to name a specific scientific paper. A colleague of mine was asked “Why does this museum exist?”. These questions do come up.
  6. Prepare yourself Some questions will always come up at interview so yes it may be a bit embarrassing preparing and practising answers but in the stress of the moment it really helps to stop you waffling your way through. You should commit yourself to playing the interviewing game too, yes the real reason that you applied might be that there’s nothing else at the moment and you’ve got bills to pay but for God’s sake do not say that in an interview (believe it or not people do).
  7. The interview starts at application You should assume that your interview begins with your first formal interaction with your potential employer. In the way you address your application or contact the administrator. That annoying tour bit with someone’s secretary before the interview proper? That was part of the interview. Either formally or informally (subconscious biases do creep in) it’s all part of the selection criteria and you don’t want to be known as the person who has sent ten emails about how to fill out the application form beforehand. Yes, do ask about the role, that’s really important (see below) but you want to be assessed on your quality as a candidate without being, unfairly, tarnished before you’ve even sat down at the interview table.
  8. Sleep on it This advice is applicable in many aspects of life, particularly in academia but sleep on it. Have your application ready to go in good time then put it away for at least a day, ideally a week. Without that critical distance you can’t, for example, spot that you’ve incorrectly spelled museum throughout your application and it’s better to spot this with time to edit it rather than two days after sending it off. Other examples include, applications with the wrong covering letter, copied applications for other jobs and in one strange example, an application with a black and white A4 image of a huge set of  testicles suffering from elephantiasis tropica interleaved between the CV.
  9. Get it in early! Don’t wait until the day before the deadline for a host of good reasons. Sometimes, due to administrative quirks, application deadlines are at funny times, like midnight on a Sunday. This means that in the event of a technological error, either yours or the institutions, there’s probably nobody to deal with it until the Monday after the deadline and because so much is now delegated to our automated overlords (electronic HR systems) it may be that through no fault of your own you’ve ‘missed’ the deadline and it’s impossible for the institution to accept your application. Most museums and universities are more human than this but just in case, you don’t want to be caught out. Secondly, in a lot of the shortlisting I’ve done, you get sent the applications in a big pile (electronic or physical) in the order they were sent in. You definitely, don’t want your application to be 174/175, see point 2 above.
  10. Ask the employer If you have questions about an aspect of the job such as: do I stand a chance without the specified degree, will the institution support visa applications, is there flexibility in the working day then do ask in advance. Job descriptions should be robust enough so that if it’s an essential criteria, it means it’s essential but sadly, they aren’t (more than I’d like to admit are often cobbled together from existing or previous job descriptions). As long as you don’t end up badgering the person in HR, nobody is interested in you wasting time applying and the employer wasting time reading it, if from the off it isn’t going to work. Something that I was encouraged to do at university, and encourage others to do, is to organise informational interviews at places you’d like to work- an informal chat with someone who’s job you would like. These may be refused if there’s an open vacancy listed but at all other times, many museum people are more than happy to do this kind of thing.
  11. Confidence This is the easiest advice to give, but the hardest to take. If you have been invited to interview, you deserve a place there. Trust me, employers are not interested in asking you along to interview ‘as a wild card’ or to poke fun at the earnest opening line of your covering letter. Also, be critically aware of your own psychological gremlins. The interview panel probably hadn’t pigeonholed you as ‘out of the industry for too long’, ‘too junior’ or ‘career career-switcher’ until those words came out of your mouth in the interview (all real examples) and then in the post interview decision-making these can then be in your ‘cons’ column whilst trying to decide between two close candidates. You earned your place at the interview, try not to talk yourself out of it.
  12. Apply, apply, apply If you ever think “I don’t know whether to apply or not”, apply. The very worst that can happen is you end up with an updated CV, covering letter and application/interview experience. The very best is that you got the job you would have missed out on. I mentioned in the opening that despite the oversubscribed reputation of the museum sector, rarely is it difficult to shortlist to five or six to interview and if you keep your eye on the museum sector listings, there is a proportion of jobs which get re-advertised because the right candidate wasn’t found. I’m not saying apply for everything (and in fact this is a bad tactic for smaller museums because then you get a reputation for applying for anything) but if you meet most of the criteria, give it a punt. One of the most important points that came out of the Oxford Brookes University panel was that, university, museum and industry employers are looking for ‘bright sparks’. If you’re looking at a job application and feel you can hit the aptitude, knowledge, enthusiasm criteria but are missing some of the criteria that could be picked up in a training course, then apply because that’s how employers are looking at potential employees. Passion and drive are near impossible to skill up in and that’s a key thing we’re looking for.

If anyone else has any top tips they’d like to pass on, then do drop them in the comments and I’ll put them up here to pass on!

UPDATE 12/01/2016 Edited some garbled sentences that got in there, probably because I didn’t sleep on it long enough.

UPDATE 18/02/2016 This blog got picked up by Museums and Heritage Advisor as part of their February 2016 Careers Feature.


11 thoughts on “Museum Careers Advice- How to apply for jobs

  1. Pingback: Tips for an effective museum job application | Rupert Shepherd

  2. Nice post, Mark – I’m often frustrated by candidates who could very probably do the job I’m recruiting for, but don’t address the criteria and so cannot be shortlisted. Surely universities should, as part of careers advice, teach their students how to write a basic public sector job application? After all, much of the sector does things this way because we’re all trying to be scrupulously – and provably – fair. Perhaps if a few of us produce this kind of advice (I wrote something rather more brutal a couple of years ago), we can start persuading museum studies courses, at least, to teach their students one of the basic skills required to actually secure on eof those elusive museum jobs?


  3. Hi Rupert and thanks!

    Many years ago, when I did my undergraduate degree, we had a whole module as part of our third year on all aspects of careers, from options, where to look for jobs, how to do a presentation, how to write job applications and undertaking informational interviews.

    Many universities do have excellent careers services but my feeling is that students don’t make the most of them but I’ve always tried to get this as formal or at least optional content on degrees, particularly for postgrad training (who can be the worst at this). Trouble is, many courses are already squeezed for content and often many museum folk aren’t placed to insert this content onto courses!!


  4. Love it! I would also add the tip ‘decide why you want to work there – especially there not just ‘it’s a job’ – and add that to your letter. As someone who has also read and written many applications / tenders, knowing someone has a genuine excitement about the place for reasons that are meaningful to them lifts their application off the people. I want to interview people who can show they want to be there, and feel positive about what could happen in that position.

    I totally agree about including practical experience – and this includes transferable experience. When shortlisting, don’t be afraid to say how one experience in a totally different type of job fulfils the same criteria. On the recruiting end we don’t expect you to have done this exact job, just that you have done some of the component parts in one way or another – proving that with examples from elsewhere in life is fine.

    Oh and also – prepare some good interview questions, you’re interviewing them too. Interview questions that show you’ve thought about the post and the organisation in some detail also prove you do really want to be there. (EG what will be the biggest priority for this job in the first month / year? I see you have X exhibition coming up, I wondered how you decide what shows to programme and what it is about that exhibition that appealed to the organisation? Or other details relevant to the role / content of the work / people and partners you’re likely to be working with)

    Also – walk in the interview with a smile, say hello, and put your hand out to shake, even if you find all of that socially awkward and painful (rather than shuffling and mumbling in). Fake it until you leave the room no matter how you feel.

    Great post!


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