How I (Unknowingly) Prepared for My Museum Career

By Matthew Jaber Stiffler, Researcher at the Arab American National Museum and Lecturer at the University of Michigan. Dr. Stiffler received his PhD in American Culture from U of M in 2010.

My transition from academia to the world of cultural museums was, initially, supposed to be a temporary exile. My graduate career, eight years in all, was intended to be the prelude to a long and fruitful career as a tenure-track professor. I was attracted to every aspect of the TT lifestyle: flexible work schedule, summers “off”, spending every day in a challenging and stimulating environment surrounded by diversity of thought, experience, and practice. Plus, since it was the only career that my graduate career had prepared me for, I really couldn’t dream of anything else.

The 2009-10 job market thrust me into the ever-growing field of alt-academic careers. And, after a period of adjustment, I haven’t looked back.

Dr. Matthew Jaber Stiffler

I am part of the management team at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, MI—a Smithsonian-affiliated and American Alliance of Museums-accredited institution. As the Research and Content Manager at the only museum in the nation dedicated to telling the story of Arab Americans, I am in a wonderful position to not only apply my graduate work directly to my career on a daily basis, but I get to travel, work with diverse communities, and manage a very talented and dedicated staff of library and museum professionals. In my daily work I draw on many skills developed or honed in graduate level humanities work.

This is not the career I planned for, but it happens to be the career that I was prepared for.

Useful Graduate School Skills

Whether or not we realize it at the time, graduate work in the humanities trains us to be top-notch public scholars in many ways. All we have to do is tap into that training and refine it to meet the needs of audiences outside of the academy.

Stiffler at an AANM exhibit on Ellis Island
Stiffler at an AANM exhibit on Ellis Island

One way that graduate work trains us for a career in public scholarship is the ability to gain expertise in a field or subfield in a relatively short amount of time. Although in graduate school we spend most of our research and writing energy focused on a highly specialized and periodized body of knowledge, we are adept at quickly summarizing large quantities of scholarship.

Think about the 100-word footnote that you spent three days researching and writing. You had to first identify the major texts in the field or subject, read through them with a keen eye for trends and connections, then follow those texts to other related texts, and finally synthesize them in relation to your own argument. This is a skill that is highly transferrable to many other contexts, particularly museums and historic sites. At the AANM, my area of expertise is assumed to be Arab Americans, writ large. Although I studied Arab American Christian cultural identity in the late 20th Century, that sort of specialization is meaningless in the museum. If we have an exhibit about 19th Century Arab American textile production, I am expected to be able to research and write exhibit text on it. Once I shrugged off the intense specialization of academia, and the anxieties accompanying forays into new subject areas and time periods, I became much more confident in my research skills as a whole.

Another distinct way that graduate work in the humanities prepares you for other careers is through the ability to write succinctly.

Brevity isn’t always in the wheelhouse of the academic, but there are times in your graduate career when being succinct is required. Conference proposals, abstracts, essays for fellowships and cover letters for job postings always force the author to practice economy of language. And it isn’t simply about word counts. The ability to write succinctly about a complex socio-cultural phenomenon without being too reductive is a skill achieved only through dozens of attempts. In my current work situation, I find that most museum visitors look for a nugget of useful information about a topic and not necessarily the theoretical genealogy of the terms used in the exhibit text.

It’s not that the theoretical underpinnings are absent from the work, it’s just that you learn how to present them in more subtle ways. For example, the AANM deals with many exhibits and programs where the theme of citizenship is prominent. In discussions with the curatorial and education departments, we would interrogate the word citizen, and how its use in an exhibit might alienate newcomers from the Arab world or members of the community who have an antagonistic relationship with official government structures. Exhibit or program text that results from these discussions, which draw on theories of cultural citizenship, diaspora, and transnational identity, might use the phrase “community members residing in the U.S.” instead of the term citizen. The effect on the visitor is as powerful, and much more immediate than, if we included a lengthy theoretical argument as to why the term citizen is not inclusive for our community.

Although I learned and/or honed these skills in graduate school, and they are useful in many career contexts, I have yet to find a succinct way of articulating them or listing them on a resume. What would that look like? Perhaps, “research and synthesis” or “flexible expertise”? No matter what you call them on a resume, they are important skills to make known in an interview or on a cover letter.

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