Rachel English graduated from the Museum Studies program at the University of Leicester in 2016. She currently works as a Curator in a science museum. Quick thank you to her for answering these additional questions about her time in graduate school.
Why did you choose the University of Leicester?
I first looked at Leicester because my mentor at my first museum job told me that if she could ever go back to school, that’s where she would go. I eventually chose it because the student body was very international and it was well respected all over the world. For someone who didn’t quite know where they wanted to end up, it was good to know that the reputation would stick wherever I went.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
I really loved this short intensive course I did on the interpretation of difficult histories in museums, and the difference between a museum and a memorial and how that line gets blurred. Very emotional, very different from the kind of work I had previously done or that I do now, but I loved it.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
It was kind of a mix of academic and practical skills. We learned a lot about theory, and research, and how to conduct interviews and all of that, but we also focused on things like how to write evocative label text, how to design an exhibit, how to handle, pack, and ship objects, etc.
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
I wrote my dissertation on the use of pop culture within a museum setting to make collections or institutions relevant to new audiences. In non-academic terms, I wrote about how museums reached out to nerds.
Where were you and your classmates in your career? Just out of undergrad, or coming from an entry-level museum position, or coming from outside of the field, etc.?
We were a pretty mixed bag. You had to have had some kind of museum experience to apply to the program. There were some who came straight from undergrad, some of us that had had entry-level positions, and lots of people who were artists or archaeologists or designers or others who were looking for a career change.
Related, who would you recommend your program for?
You had to really enjoy the academic challenges to succeed in this program, because it was so focused on theory and research. It’s a great program for people who think they may want to do a PhD, or for people who have been in the field but want a really strong theoretical grounding. If you’re just looking for practical skills, this probably isn’t the best fit, but I still highly recommend it.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
I lived in school housing but you could also find your own. In general the people that found their own housing may have had to work a bit harder to find it but ultimately had a calmer experience than those of us crammed into student housing.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
Try everything. Learn all you can about as much as you can because your career is going to look so much stranger than you imagine. I’m a curator in a science museum now, but I’ve worked in archives, living history sites, small regional history museums, and small town tourist car museums. I have an academic background in none of that but I went in with a lot of enthusiasm and a willingness to deal with a large learning curve. Work for free as little as you can, but realize that you may have to anyway. Become the people who make sure the next generation doesn’t have to sell themselves short that way.
If you can get away with not going to grad school, don’t. It worked for me: the way I like to learn, the kind of career path I was looking for, etc. But the field thrives when we come at it from as many different perspectives as possible. If it’s a choice between lived experience and a grad degree, I’ll choose the lived experience every time.
Choose a school you can afford, and work while you’re there. This industry is never going to make you rich. Location matters because of the people that you’ll meet and the opportunities that you’ll get, but it’s not everything. Meet as many people from as many different places as you can.