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Grow Where You’re Planted: How to Progress in Your Career without Changing Institutions

Category: Alliance Blog
A person holding up a plant in a pot with a face sculpted on it
Do you have to change institutions and positions to keep growing in your career? A thirty-year veteran of the field says the answer is an emphatic no.


At some point in all of our careers, it happens. You run into a past colleague, often while mingling at a museum networking event, and after a hug or handshake you jump into updates. They tell you about their current role, a few states away and a few steps higher on the career ladder than when you last saw them, and then they ask the question you’ve been dreading: “So, where are you now?”

Your answer: Exactly where you were five years ago. Same museum. Same position. You’re even in the same office. You did get a new chair, though…three years ago.

If you spend any time on LinkedIn, it’s easy to assume everyone you know is moving up, heading out, or starting something new. You’re encouraged to celebrate this promotion or that new venture with an emoji or a comment. (Posts on launching a new accounting system don’t make the cut.) This deluge of status updates has led several mid-career individuals to ask me: “If I’m not moving, am I not growing?”

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My answer to them is an emphatic no. While some career choices require institutional movement, many of us can absolutely experience career growth without a position change. It’s not the moving van you need; it’s just the right mindset.

To find that mindset, the first step is identifying how you want to grow. Are you more interested in a personal challenge or in expanding your resume? Are you aiming for a new position in the future or focused on leveling up where you are? Are you happy in your role and organization but want to keep up with developments and trends in the museum field? Whatever your motivation, here are five methods of expanding your professional footprint without expanding your title.

Strategically Extending your Responsibilities

When you occupy a position for an extended period, you become more efficient over time at executing your duties. But sometimes, instead of making your job easier, this efficiency simply results in more work. If you can handle all your responsibilities comfortably, you must be able to take on more, your colleagues seem to think. And so you find yourself assigned with new tasks, often ones that are not aligned with your personal goals.

This phenomenon, while helpful to the institution and your colleagues, isn’t always helpful to your career growth. One way to avoid it happening is to recognize when you find yourself with discretionary time and ask in advance for responsibility in an area you seek to grow in. This might be collaborating on a single project or absorbing a whole new department into your business line. By proactively expressing interest in how you can be of help, you increase the likelihood of additional tasks you receive being aligned with your interests and career goals.

For example, when I started experiencing discretionary time on the job, I identified writing as something I wanted to integrate more into my role. So, I shared with colleagues on a new exhibit team that I was interested in authoring the project curriculum guide. At first they politely declined my offer, as I wasn’t a member of the team. In the weeks following, however, their workload climbed exponentially as the exhibit deadline approached, leaving less time on their plates for the guide. I received a knock on my door and a formal request to take on the project. It was great writing practice, an opportunity to collaborate with new colleagues, and resulted in a beautiful piece for my portfolio thanks to a talented art department. It also led to additional writing opportunities and a nice new line on my resume.

Providing Internal Mentorship

Long-term employment at an organization brings considerable historical knowledge. Things that have become second nature to you might be posing challenges for a new team member. Serving as a facilitator to that team member during onboarding, formally or informally, is a great opportunity for growth. If staff management is not already a part of your responsibilities, you gain leadership experience. If you already manage a team, it can be a way to demonstrate your leadership and mentoring skills more broadly, as well as learn new collaboration or technical skills.

One mid-career professional I know found herself in an accidental mentoring role when her museum asked her to provide basic onboarding support for a new hire who was added to a department without a supervisor. In the process, this appreciative team member also asked her for advice on institutional culture and effective collaboration approaches. This person found serving in this support role led to her learning new procedures outside her core responsibilities. In addition, the museum’s administration team recognized and applauded her leadership and collaborative spirit.

Leaning into Learning

No matter how long you’ve been in a position, there’s always more to learn. Therefore, digging more deeply into your role and associated best practices is another good way to grow within your position.

While the value of this additional education is clear, identifying the right learning path takes some thoughtful reflection. For some, a formal degree or certificate will be the right direction, and there are a wide range of programs from which to choose. In fact, the options can sometimes be overwhelming. A targeted search engine like the one found on the Alliance website can be helpful in narrowing down your choices.

Before pulling the trigger on a program, it’s important to ask yourself some hard questions. Explore your main motivation for returning to school and determine why a degree or certificate program will uniquely meet your needs. As part of that reflection, consider the cost of the program you are contemplating and how that aligns with your career goals and earning trajectory. For example, in exploring diversity and inclusion certificates, I identified two equally interesting programs with very different timelines and costs. For me, the shorter program aligned more closely with my budget and how I planned to incorporate it into my career, so I went with that one.

If costs are prohibitive, there are many other pathways to expand your knowledge base and skill set. You may even find significantly more diversity in course content and learning modality working outside a formal degree. One benefit of the pandemic is virtual learning has moved to the forefront, providing newly accessible learning pathways. Live webinars and on-demand recordings provide targeted learning opportunities that fit within the average workday and may more immediately impact your practice. (I have one scheduled next week to help me figure out what I’m doing wrong with my pivot tables.) Your organization may subscribe to learning portals like LinkedIn Learning, or you might search out free or inexpensive courses through a platform like EdX. Whatever your learning goals, there is likely a platform and module out there to support you.

Performing Professional Service

Deepening your connections with professional organizations can be a benefit to your own career and a support to your peers. It’s a chance to build your network, stay aware of current happenings in the field, and build new skills. Service opportunities may include live meetings, virtual gatherings, or even projects you complete independently in support of an initiative. The Alliance is a great place to start, with involvement opportunities for any career stage, from committee service to advocacy to peer reviewing for museums participating in excellence programs.

You might enjoy a more independent activity, such as peer review for a museum publication you enjoy. Participating in grant review for an organization such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services may be a mixture of independent service and collaboration. Some service opportunities will expect prior expertise, but others will be eager to welcome collaborators at all levels of experience, including emerging professionals. Professional service can also be crafting a journal article, presenting at a conference, or even writing a blog for the Alliance!

The network you build through actively participating in professional service can benefit you and your organization even years later. I’ve connected with former collaborators to invite them as event speakers, received leads on reliable sign fabricators, and even been invited to participate in advisory boards or review panels based on a recommendation from a past committee collaborator.

Extending Externally

Looking externally for professional growth and challenge doesn’t have to mean a career change. Some of us find professional satisfaction through volunteering, or even paid consulting. You may simply enjoy helping with specific events at a neighboring institution, or you may agree to support a small evaluation project at an institution out of state.

External connections can take many forms, both paid and unpaid. Each organization will have their own guidelines about working outside the institution, so you’ll want to check in with your handbook or human resources staff to ensure any outside involvement is aligned with your policies.

Just prior to the pandemic, I was approached to teach a virtual university course. As a former professor, I was eager for the opportunity to use my downtime to revisit working directly with students. While I went into the experience with a focus on what I could share, what quickly emerged was a learning opportunity for me. To be an effective professor, I needed to be current on the latest research and literature in the field. While this of course made for a solid syllabus, it also provided insight helpful to my regular work. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time we need to stay up to date on our field’s best practices, and this was a nudge to do so.

Next Steps

At this point, you’ve identified your motivation for growth and one or more channels that you feel are the best fit for you. What happens next? With your end goal clarified, and your method of getting there identified, your next two steps are making your action plan and then doing the work.

Your action plan will vary depending on the pathway(s) you have selected from above. It will be comprised of a starting place, an end goal, and your path to achievement broken down into concrete, manageable tasks. Commit this plan to a visual format, whether hard copy or digital, to help you stay on track. You might use an online project management program, or you might be a fan of color-coded paper planners. Whatever process works best for you, progressing one step at a time along your action plan will not only get you to your end goal, but often will raise your spirits as you take the journey, reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose.

Whatever path you take, even if it’s not taking a path at all, the very act of career self-reflection is growth in and of itself. The most powerful growth sometimes happens inside of us, without any witnesses or outward signs. Participating in internal reflection to discover you are exactly where you want to be without modification is an equally powerful example of growth.

Think back to that hypothetical networking event I mentioned, and the former colleague’s dreaded question. With some reflection now, maybe when that scenario does come to pass, you’ll find your answer is: “I am exactly where I want to be.”

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