By Emily Macgillivray, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of American Culture
In 2002 pop-rock band Matchbox 20 released their third studio album, More Than You Think You Are. At the time, I was an angst-y, insecure, awkward, teenager. Fourteen years have passed, but grad school and particularly talks about the job market and “life after the dissertation” can easily bring up feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness, making me feel like a 15-year-old walled up in my room badly singing along to Unwell.
When I received a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship at the Charles H. Wright Museum I was both excited and anxious. I was excited to to explore what working in a museum would be like and to better understand how history operates outside academia. I was anxious that despite the benefits it would leave me with no time for my dissertation and as a result I would end up disappointing my advisor, not making enough progress on my dissertation and essentially digging myself into a stress-induced hole by the Fall Semester. However, with my ten-weeks at the museum complete, I feel motivated, reinvigorated and eager to return to my dissertation and increasingly confident of the practical and transferable skills I am building during grad school.
If I was anxious about the fellowship and having less time for my dissertation, what was my motivation for applying? Along with it being an excellent source of summer funding, I was interested in learning more about how historians engage the public, or the field of public history. My introduction to the field came while working on collaborative project between professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students during Professor Tiya Miles’ Mapping Slavery in Detroit project. I figured working at the Wright would build on my experience and allow me to immerse myself in a museum-setting for ten weeks to learn build on my skills.
During my time at the Wright, I have been responsible for creating inventory procedures for the collection consisting of over 35,000 objects. The museum is undergoing the Museum Assessment Process (MAP) which is a step towards receiving national accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. This isn’t a task that I thought I would have been qualified for before beginning my fellowship, but it turns out the fellowship was just what I needed to clarity the “transferable skills” I had already developed while working on my dissertation. Curious as to what the skills may be? Check out my list:
Reading, summarizing, assimilating large amounts of information: You know during preliminary exams when your days were constantly of consumed by reading one book after the next and making notes summarizing the books? Remember how hard it was to explain to friends and family not in academia why you couldn’t go to “insert social event here” because you were madly trying to get through the hundreds of academic books and articles on your lists before your exam? Personally, I know when I finished my oral exams that I did not feel like I had developed a bunch of skills that I could put on a resume for a job in a non-academic career. But in reality, I was developing important skills like being able to read large amounts of information, distill the author’s main arguments, and put those arguments into conversation with other authors’ arguments. Now before my time at the Wright, I figured all PhDs can do this, so really what’s the big deal? But my time at the Wright showed me that workplaces value this skill and just because we assume all grad students can do this, does not mean it it is common in the “real world” or not valuable.
Being able to quickly acquaint yourself to a new field: This builds off the last point. Because humanities graduate students are particularly good at assimilating and summarizing large amounts on information, we can acquaint ourselves to new fields quickly. By the end of my fellowship I comfortable using the museum “lingo” I had never been exposed to previously, and I noticed that other staff members on the curatorial team looked to me as the expert on inventories.
Developing a step-by-step, systematic plan for tackling large tasks: You know that beast of a thing called the dissertation that we are often either attempting to work on or thinking about how we should be working on it? It’s big, unwieldy, and it can be hard to make a plan of attack to figure out how to actually get-it-done. Well a lot of non-academic tasks are also big, unwieldy, and have been put off because employees don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to efficiently figure out how to get the task done. By first learning about how other museums successfully designed and carried out inventories of their collections, I was able to design a plan that fit the Wright’s resources and needs so that that over the next two years the 35,000 plus objects in the collection can be organized, catalogued, photographed, and entered into a searchable electronic database (that will be open to the public and staff).
Organize scattered bits of information to illustrate an overall story or narrative: As a historian who is interested in women who often did not produce many textual documents, I’m used to searching for bits of information and then piecing this information together with contextual sources to create a cohesive narrative. At the Wright, I had to look into a subject where limited amounts of information were published (museum inventories are not a hot topic) and figure out how to adapt this information in a way that made sense for the Wright. Most of the published information on inventories talks about best-case scenarios with the ideal amount of resources (space, staff, etc). However, most museums need to figure out how to perform inventories in NON-ideal conditions. Designing an efficient process for the Wright was the narrative that I was responsible for creating.
Supervise and instruct others in complex activities: As humanities grad students, I think many of us feel our strengths lie in reading, research, and writing—activities that are often performed solo. Yet we also have experience teaching, presenting, and working in groups. In both of these tasks we need to break complex concepts into understandable pieces, even for people who may not be familiar with the field. At The Wright, I was also responsible for recruiting and training volunteers to work on the inventory and I was able to draw on the same skills I use when presenting in academic conferences or teaching in a classroom. For training, I worked to appeal to multiple learning styles, and used a variety of teaching methods to train the volunteers (including an oral presentation with a reference handout, watching applicable how-to videos, and doing hands-on practice together in the collections). Also, while there are set of inventory procedures, there are a variety of circumstances that will arrive that don’t fit within the normal rules (i.e. objects that have been improperly or only partially catalogued, objects that may be improperly labelled, objects with missing labels etc.). As a result, volunteers were encouraged to use their critical thinking skills, just like undergrads in humanities classrooms.
Showing the importance of your work: Many of the staff members in other departments of the museum had never been in the collections area and had no idea of why an inventory was necessary. My supervisor asked me to present to managers in other departments to explain the basic procedures and why this big, time-consuming task would benefit the museum as a whole, not just the curatorial department. This reminded me of how we as academics need to make our work relatable to academics from other fields and to other voices. Whether it is giving an academic presentation or writing a grant proposal, we need to explain the importance and relevance of our work to people who may not have any background or previous knowledge of our fields.
I was worried the fellowship may “set me back” in terms of my dissertation progress and increase my anxiety. Instead, I found working in a new environment where I was drawing on my grad school skills in ways I hadn’t expected has actually eased a lot of the anxiety I have about my finishing my dissertation and taking the next steps in my career. Hopefully reading through this list may give you some ideas about the skills you are also developing during your PhD and how they can transfer over to a non-academic job.
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