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Back to School: Museum Studies Programs During Tough Times

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 edition of the Museum magazine

When the economy took a nose dive in fall 2008, I heard more than one person reference Machiavelli’s 600-year-old maxim: “Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.” As financial hard times have hit the museum field, many professionals have apparently followed this advice by turning to museum studies programs-some to continue their education, others to separate themselves from the crowd and some to defer existing student loan payments. While the competition for museum jobs increases, the pressure also intensifies for programs to attract students. Who benefits from this rush back to the halls of academia-the schools or the students? For now, it seems that both are benefiting.

“When the job market is bad, people tend to go to graduate school.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 14, 2010), from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009, graduate school applications rose by 8.3 percent. That’s even more significant when you consider that from 2003 to 2008, graduate school applications grew by less than I percent annually. The museum field has been no exception to this trend. Gretchen Sorin, director of museum studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (CGP) in Cooperstown, N.Y., can testify to this. “We’ve noticed a significant uptick in our overall number of applications in the past couple of years,” she says, citing an iffy job market as a reason. “I think when the job market is bad, people tend to go to graduate school.”

Eileen Johnson, chair of the museum science program at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, agrees. “School is a refuge during a downturned or recovering economy whereby a student can develop a solid strategy for gaining the education, training, and skills needed to be competitive in the marketplace,” she says. The program has grown at such a rate that leaders are considering placing a cap on the number of students they accept each fall.

While students applying to museum studies programs strive to differentiate themselves from each other, schools are also making ongoing efforts to make their programs comparatively more attractive. Sorin says the Cooperstown Graduate Program is -constantly trying to anticipate where the field is headed. “We’ve made it a priority to explore and to teach how museum staff can think entrepreneurially about their institutions and their communities,” she says. “Figuring out creative approaches to fundraising is going to be the key to success in the future if some of these institutions are going to survive.”

While the shaky job market may drive the unemployed to the safe haven of graduate school, a number of gainfully employed museum professionals may also feel they need a graduate degree in order to advance in their current careers. (Alert: personal testimony coming later!) At Bank Street College in New York, four different tracks ranging from museum education to exhibit development either prepare or refine students for their field. According to Leslie Bedford, director of the Leadership in Museum Education Program, many of the museum professionals-turned students come to Bank Street because they feel like they have to have a master’s degree to get anywhere now. “They are generally a pretty ambitious group,” she says.

They’re. also a pretty loyal bunch. Stephen Light, a Cooperstown Graduate Program graduate, said his wide range of experiences in the program not only prepared him for a variety of jobs in the museum field but also served as a networking platform. “CGP opened doors for me because of its reputation in the museum field, and because of the large number of successful CGP alumni in museums across the country.”

Katy Bunning, director of the Museum Studies by Distance Learning program at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, agrees that their 250 students share this desire for a competitive edge. “One of the main motivations for students applying to our master’s programs is the desire to gain a recognized and respected qualification, which will put them ahead in the competition for jobs, or which might help to progress their career within a particular area or institution.”

As its title suggests, the University of Leicester’s program is available online-an emerging option for those considering graduate school. Students are flocking to the Internet to complete a degree or to pursue an advanced degree. The Sloan Consortium’s 2010 Survey of Online Learning in the United States showed that student enrollment in at least one online course (as of fall 2009) rose to s.6 million-almost I million more students than the prior year and the “largest ever year-to-year increase in the number of students studying online,” says I. Elaine Allen, the study’s co-author. The study also found that almost 30 percent of all college and university students were at the time taking at least one course online.

Phyllis Hecht, director of the Master of Arts in Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says that even though the program only began in January 2008, it now has 350 students from 42 states and nine countries, representing a melting pot of backgrounds. “We have students with undergraduate degrees in art history, anthropology, history, economics, business administration, historic preservation, music, philosophy, and film and media arts,” she says.

Along the same lines, the University of Leicester’s Bunning says that her school’s reach extends much farther than the United Kingdom, with students in nearly every continent. Leicester caters to this broad range of students by considering their varied backgrounds and needs. “We have developed our programs to be relevant and adaptable to those working in museological contexts across different parts of the world,” Bunning says. “This international outlook helps to enrich our programs and is certainly something we are very proud of and wish to sustain in the future.”

Why are online degrees so popular these days? Is it the economic downturn, or is there another lure? It was the attraction of flexibility that drew me to an online graduate degree in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. I realized that unless I wanted to paint pedestals until somebody further up the totem pole retired, I should think about an advanced degree. And I wasn’t necessarily willing to quit my existing museum job to do it.

Loni Wellman, a May 2011 graduate of the Johns Hopkins program and now the educational program manager at the Children’s Museum of Memphis, had a similar dilemma. “Like many people,” she says, “I was concerned about the whole ‘online’ thing. There was-and still is-a certain stigma about online colleges and universities. I looked into options at the University of Memphis, which has a museum studies certificate in their public administration master’s program. However, I just could not pull it off with my schedule.”

I was able to get a degree from a respected university 200 miles from where I lived and worked, and Wellman was able to complete her master’s at Johns Hopkins while living in Memphis and keeping her job. Clearly, online courses allow applicants to choose a program that best fits their needs or specialty, no matter the location.

At the University of Oklahoma’s College of Liberal Studies, which oversees the online museum studies program, Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator Julie Raadschelders points to a shared background among the 140 students. “The most common denominator is that almost all of our students are full-time working adults. A good number of them-perhaps 75 percent-do not live in Oklahoma. There seems to be a nationwide demand for the online format in museum studies, even if students have to pay nonresident tuition.”

Flexibility isn’t a sufficient selling point, though, for prospective students who must commit to two or more years of studying and thousands of dollars in debt. What’s a good hook? Hecht says that students in the Johns Hopkins program “are looking for an innovative curriculum that will give them an edge when they are seeking promotion or job opportunities.”

Online programs must also consider how they will compare to the traditional classroom experience. Bunning says that it’s important not to just replicate the college experience: “Our distance learners have a profoundly different experience to those on our campus programs, in terms of both space and time, so we know we cannot simply replicate that experience- nor would we want to do so, [when] we can see the unique opportunities afforded by distance learning study, such as the possibilities of applying theories and ideas immediately within a working environment.”

Similarly, the University of Oklahoma’s Raadschelders says that the overwhelming majority of online students in their program aren’t looking for keg parties. “We have had many discussions about how to lessen the distance, so to speak, in our distance education,” she says. “I suspect that since most of our students are working adults, they aren’t as concerned about the college campus experience as a more traditional student might be. They are motivated to earn their degree and to acquire a useful, quality education.”

Developing online courses can also help a school improve its traditional classroom programming. At Texas Tech, Johnson notes that the plethora of online options have, “encouraged traditional programs, such as ours, to evaluate and strengthen the graduate programs, be more responsive to current issues while bolstering the basics and focus on recruitment efforts.”

In an effort to bridge the gaps that might occur when people are not physically present together in a classroom, programs like Johns Hopkins have embraced enhanced technology and social media in an effort to keep students engaged with professors and fellow learners. “We post images and audio content to give the courses a ‘human’ feel,” says Hecht. “We have a virtual museum cafe within the course management system so that students can meet each other outside of the classroom. It is a very lively environment where students meet virtually and plan local meetups in their areas. We also use tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Flickr to build community.”

Hopkins graduate Wellman found such communication methods to be extremely helpful. “I was worried about the lack of ‘face-to-face’ time with my professors and classmates,” she says. “With technological advances like Skype and other social networking sites, this fear was put to rest.” A group of JHU online grads and alumni, having never actually met each other, went to the AAM Annual Meeting in Houston last May. “The time was amazing,” Wellman says. “Everyone just seemed to click. We went to dinner together, caught an Astros game and went to sessions. It was like seeing old friends for the first time.”

“For the graduates, the impact of museum studies programs can be life changing.”

“Working adults aren’t as concerned about the college campus experience as more traditional students.”

Such glowing reports spread the word about these types of programs and ultimately play a part in student recruitment. I’ve personally referred two people to Oklahoma’s online museum studies option because of my positive experience. Yet additional students in additional programs could eventually create a problem. Consider that the Association of Academic Museums & Galleries currently lists 57 on-campus graduate programs in museum studies or similar subject matter. Cooperstown’s Sorin says, “I’m quite amazed at the proliferation of museum studies programs out there. There seem to be new ones almost every year. I think having a variety of options for students is a good thing, and there are some terrific programs available for students with different interests.” But she worries that the high volume of different programs could saturate the job market. “There are not positions for everyone who graduates with a museum studies degree or certificate,” she says.

The result is a perplexing cycle. The job market is bad, which leads to increased applications in various graduate programs, both onsite and online. Graduates then flood the job market. And those student loans have to be paid back regardless of whether you can find a job.

Another concern is the relative lack of diversity among program applicants to museum studies programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2009 that minority representation in U.S. graduate schools grew from 28.3 percent in 2008 to 29.1 percent in 2009. Yet Sorin warns that “until both museums and museum studies programs are more focused on looking like and being responsive to those [minority] communities, we will not attract as diverse a group of people as we would like to the profession.”

Bank Street has focused on this issue, offering scholarships from foundations and alumni to support minority students. “Bank Street has always pushed diversity,” says Bedford. “Having highly respected people like Claudine Brown [director of education at the Smithsonian Institution and an African-American] as one of our faculty advisors for 10 years helped create an image of the program as a place where students, as well as faculty of color, were very welcome.”

And diversity doesn’t necessarily start and stop with race. Gender diversity in the museum field is also a concern. AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums wrote in a blog post, “More on the Future of Museum Studies” (Aug. y, 2009), that the museum field is not only about 80 percent Caucasian, but also 8o percent female. The report states that this trend “creates two unhappy groups: museums as employers who want more diverse staff and complain they cannot attract ethnically/culturally diverse qualified candidates, and museum studies graduates bearing large amounts of debt from student loans.”

What is the impact of programs such as the Cooperstown Graduate Program, University of Oklahoma, Johns Hopkins and the University of Leicester? For the graduates (at least those who find or advance in a job), it can be life changing. Cooperstown graduate Light can identify numerous advantages from his higher education experience: a better understanding of why museums are important and how they work, a chance to study the latest developments in the field and connections with fellow graduates. “Alumni networks,” he says, “provide excellent avenues for developing contacts with the very same professionals working on these cutting-edge practices.”

Wellman of Hopkins draws similar conclusions about the impact of her online experience, but for a different reason: “While I’m still the educational program manager, I have been able to take on other opportunities at work. I have a more comprehensive view of how museums work, not just my own education corner of the museum. It has definitely given me job security, which is so important today.”


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