This is the first interview for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Museum and Field Studies program. This alumnus graduated in May 2016. Her emphasis was in Collections Management as well as Anthropology and Indigenous Arts. She currently works as the Museum Preparator at the San Francisco Airport Museums. Thank you, Jesse, for answering these questions!
Why did you choose the University of Colorado-Boulder?
There were a number of factors, as there are for most people. I mostly applied to schools on the West Coast, where I’m from, so at first, Colorado seemed so far and like such a leap from my comfort zone. However, after I went to visit the school for an interview I realized it was the perfect fit for both my experience and my future goals as a museum professional. The top 3 reasons were: 1) They offered me a Graduate Assistantship position in their museum, so I graduated with two years of paid work experience for my resume in addition to the degree and got tons of hands on collections work. 2) The program is very interdisciplinary as the campus has a natural history museum (with anthropology, paleontology, botany, etc.) plus the library, archives, art museum, history museum, and local museums in Boulder… so there was lots of exposure to the museum field as a whole. Students come to the program focused in all different departments, and although I focused in anthropology, I got to learn from students and teachers who were studying dinosaurs, contemporary art, lichens, etc. And finally 3) The mentorship is INCREDIBLE. All the staff for the program, the advisors, the supervisors for your work positions, and the faculty are just beyond amazing. It is a super small program (usually no more than 10 students a year) so you get a ton of one on one attention and help with career development, and that was super important to me.
What was your favorite class and/or professor and why?
My favorite class was the Advanced Collections Management Practicum taught by two staff Collections Managers (Christina Cain – Anthropology and Talia Karim – Invert. Paleontology). It was a hands-on training course and we covered so many topics and actually got to try doing all these things I wanted more experience in. For example, writing condition reports, numbering objects, making mounts, collecting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) data, trying new databases, and more. Both instructors had so many years of valuable experience from which to teach and it was by far the most challenging and most rewarding course I took in graduate school.
What particular skills were taught in the program?
The program is very focused on practical career skills. For example, program development, evaluation, lab work in natural history, collections management skills, database usage, and tons more. There is certainly a research emphasis as well, and research components to all coursework, but the majority of instructors and students are most interested in getting the hands-on experience. Many practicums are offered and every class in the MFS program included some sort of project/product that you could use in a career portfolio. For example, in my Assessment seminar, we were asked to design our own program evaluation from top to bottom, actually conduct it over the semester, and produce a report with our results. I have now used that report in multiple job interviews as an example of the kind of work I can produce. However, for those more interested in research skills, don’t think that’s lacking in the program. Every student has a cognate department in addition to the MFS program (for example Anthropology, Geology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, etc.) where they take subject-specific research focused coursework to enhance their practical training.
Did you complete a thesis or capstone project? If so, what was your topic?
I completed a “Master’s Project”/capstone as opposed to a traditional thesis. My project was entitled “Preserving Ethnographic Basketry Collections,” and it included 3 main sections on different ways we can think about preservation: preserving information, preserving collections items, and preserving access to those collections. It was designed to be a very easily accessible resource for museum staff at small museums and included brochures, step-by-step guides, videos, lots of photographs, etc. It was essentially a manual for how to specifically manage a basketry collection and it culminated in an exhibit I designed and curated of Native North American basketry in the CU Museum of Natural History called “Weaving the World Into A Basket”.
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.?
In this program, like many others, it was really a mixed bag. I came to it a year out of undergrad with several years of internship experience and a year of work experience in the field after college. Most of my classmates similarly had a few years experience in the field but were still fairly early in their museum careers. There were also a couple students coming from libraries and non-profits who were coming from outside fields (more like nearby fields). The program does accept students right out of undergrad but is more focused on taking students who really know that this is what they want to do based on some experience in the field already.
Related, who would you recommend your program for? Any particular focus or for those interested in theory vs. application?
Honestly, I would recommend this program specifically to students who want both theory and application; the kind of students who would love a theoretical seminar in a department like Art History or Anthropology (your cognate) but can also enjoy project-oriented work and learning practical skills in their MFS coursework. I personally loved having the cognate aspect, it was like getting a graduate certificate in anthropological research as well as the Masters in Museum and Field Studies.
Was housing provided for grad students or did you find your own housing and was it a challenge?
In Boulder, housing is tough and pretty pricey (though if you come from the Bay Area like me, it’s not that bad comparatively). There is some graduate housing through the campus, but it is actually a bit easier to live off-campus in Boulder. Personally, I lived off-campus with a couple other graduate students one year, and in a studio downtown by myself the next year. Most people use Craigslist or their personal networks to find places, and the MFS program is great at trying to connect students to each other for housing. It does take awhile to find housing in Boulder, just because it’s a huge university in a pretty popular college town, so one definitely needs to look very early. Denver and the small towns between Boulder and Denver can also be an option for graduate students. Many of my classmates lived in the smaller towns just South of Boulder because the public transportation is great and you can take a bus in.
Did you or any of your peers work while pursuing their degree?
I mentioned in a previous question the Graduate Assistantships (GA’s) that the program offers and those are a great way to gain paid work experience on-campus in the museum’s different departments while pursuing your degree. I did GA’s in the Anthropology and Zoology collections in the CU Natural History Museum and my classmates mostly did the same. There are also Research Assistantships and other work-study jobs on campus that some students pursue, and others had part-time service industry jobs outside the field. Some students also held part-time jobs at museums in Denver or nearby towns in Colorado, but the course load and work required in the program take some much of your energy that having a full-time job outside of the full-time program would be pretty tough. Students who were doing the certificate program as opposed to the full Master’s degree were able to have full-time jobs because the course load is lighter, so that is worth considering. And then there is always the internship! The program requires you to do an internship, usually over the summer, which can certainly be paid work experience as well.
How many of your classmates also worked at the museum?
In my cohort, everyone worked in the Natural History Museum (we were a small cohort though, so it was easy to work with us to find the perfect fit of assistantship). In larger cohorts where 10 people might want assistantships, it is likely still possible for everyone to get the work experience, but not always in the section of the museum you’d prefer. For example, if you were in Anthro or Art History, but the cohort was large and there wasn’t enough room for 4 Anthro assistants, you might end up doing yours in paleontology (while still focusing your academic work and other training in your chosen field). Even that’s not bad though, it just diversifies your training.
You mentioned you were able to work at the Natural History Museum through a graduate assistantship, how much of your tuition did that cover?
I did have the graduate assistantship (which was around $22/hr pay and up to 20 hours per week by the 2nd year), and part of that compensation for my 50% appointment was tuition remission. I then had some grants, loans, and savings to cover the rest. Boulder is a pricey place to live though, so I definitely kept a tight budget. I was an out of state student the first year too, but then you become an in-state student the second year so the expense is slightly less.
Any other insider information you would like to provide about your program or university?
This is a really self-directed program, in that sense that you will get out just as much as you put in. There are incredible support networks, great faculty, great courses, and all that good stuff, but with so many options for different departmental cognates and tracks you can take, you really need to enter it with a very clear idea of what you want to do in mind. It’s probably not the right program if you don’t know what interests you about museums and you’re just curious about getting your feet wet, it’s for those that are already super committed to their goals and just need good resources and people to help them get there. If that’s you, it’s perfect.
Any advice for those looking into graduate school and beginning a career in museums?
Oh so much, so anyone should feel free to send me an email with specific questions. Mainly I’d say what I said before, to have your long-term goals always in mind. That way even when you feel bogged down or frustrated by entry-level work and difficult internships, you know why you are doing this. You can always be taking a step in the right direction, even if it’s not fast enough progress, as it so often isn’t in our field. Just make sure you know how tough the field is and why you’re getting into it. Oh and work your network, can’t say that one enough. Every job I’ve gotten has been thanks to being brave enough to reach out to my network.