Greetings from Whitehorse, Yukon! Outside it’s a balmy -27, there are a good couple feet of snow on the ground, and a raven is hopping around, checking out the scene. The last you heard from me, I was discussing conservation issues in Ottawa, or musing on the transforming field in Montreal, so what gives? To put it simply, I finished school and got a ‘real’ job as the Executive Director of the Yukon Historical & Museums Association. The last couple of months have seen a flurry of activity as I prepared for the big move, so I haven’t been blogging as often as I’d like. Now that I’m safely ensconced in my new digs, I’ve had some time to reflect on what it has meant to gain an education in heritage conservation, the reality of jobs in the field, and how I’ve charted my path through it all.
I had two major goals throughout my education: to develop a set of skills, networks and experiences that would help me snag a job in a highly competitive field upon graduation; and to take the time to figure out exactly what I’d like that job to be! I wouldn’t call it a definitive guide by any means, but hopefully it’s of some use to those thinking about a life in the heritage lane.
Learn to speak several ‘languages’.
Although they share many of the same philosophical underpinnings, each sector of the heritage field has its own special language and theoretical frameworks, so it’s well worth becoming fluently multi-lingual. During my undergrad, I learned to speak Collections Management, Exhibit Design, Memory and Identity, and Non-Profit Status as I focused on public history and museums. Then as I trained in Heritage Conservation in my graduate studies, I gained another language based on Minimal Intervention, Cultural Landscape and Values-Based Approaches, Policy Development, and Project Management.
Heritage is a multi-disciplinary undertaking, and the field has to consistently struggle against siloization. Learning the different languages of the field allows you to access different types of knowledge, helps increase exchange between sectors, and, as an added bonus, helps to diversify your overall employability.
Make the most of your student status.
Generally, students get special rates for conferences, organization memberships, bus fares, etc. There are also lots of programs and experiences which are generally only available or advertised to those linked into an academic institution. Making this most of these opportunities is key to not only gaining experiences that look nice on a CV, but also allows you to explore the different positions available in the field. Why not try a student membership at different professional organization at $50-60/year, and then decide which you’d prefer to invest several hundreds of dollars a year in for a professional membership, post-graduation? Often these memberships open up even more doors for networking and experiences: my ICOMOS Canada membership, for example, was the key to an all-expenses paid trip to Cape Breton to take part in week-long workshop for the Affordable Housing Partnership, which links heritage conservation with larger goals of community development.
As a side note, don’t be afraid to advocate for more affordable student or youth rates! Often conference rates are set with the professional or civil servant (and their expense accounts) in mind. Sometimes all it takes is a friendly reminder (as in the case of the 2012 HCF Conference, or the Ontario Heritage Conference) of the financial realities of today’s students to make attending these events a little easier on you and your cohorts. Better yet, why not get involved in organizing the conferences themselves?
Seek out mentorship.
Here’s my dirty little secret: I still don’t really know what I want to do when I grow up! I do have a better general idea, or at least a bit of an action plan, than I did a few years ago, and this is due in part to the mentorships I’ve had along the way. Having a mentor figure is a great way to learn more about the field you’re looking to enter, and vent about your own dreams and frustrations. Mentors are also great gateways into meeting others in the field. Above all, it’s always nice to have someone rooting for you!
Some groups, like the ACO’s NextGen, actively seek to match students with mentors; alternatively, some of my best mentorships have arisen from conversations with strangers at conferences or public events, and through volunteering.
Don’t underestimate the power of volunteerism.
I firmly believe that I would not have my current, amazing job were it not for the experience I gained as a volunteer with Heritage Ottawa. While I worked my way through my graduate studies, I arguably gained most of my relevant skills and abilities through my time as a Board Member and Heritage Keeper Coordinator. While I learned a lot in the classroom, it was my practical experiences outside the classroom that helped me gain insight, test academic assumptions, and build a marketable skillset. And at the end of the day, it just plain felt good to be contributing my training to making my community a better place—a little mental pick-me-up I would rely on when feeling particularly blue about papers and readings.
One of the benefits of the heritage field is that there are tons of non-profits looking for extra help. You could stick with one like I did, or try volunteering with a few to see what works best. Before volunteering, however, it is a good idea to take a look at your schedule and consider, realistically, how much time you can invest while still keeping on top of work, school, sanity, and other responsibilities. Then think about what you’d like to get out of the experience: I’ve found most smaller non-profits are happy to work with you to develop a position that benefits both you and their mandate.
The usual benefits of networking, mentorship and experience-building also apply to volunteering. As a bonus, you are adding a youthful voice and different perspective to the field. Association with an organization can also have tangible benefits: check to see if there is money available to cover Board member expenses to attend conferences, participate in workshops, and other events which you’d otherwise pay for yourself.
It is not easy to find a good job, post-graduation, in today’s world, period. The heritage sector is especially challenging given the shrinking availability of funding for non-profits (and increasingly, government departments themselves), the dominance of sporadic, contract-based work, and the glut of labour to name a few issues. I was extremely fortunate to have landed my current gig, but also had to relocate across an entire country to do so.
Looking back on it all, being flexible (both during school and post-graduation) was perhaps the biggest boon to my own particular situation. During school, I stretched the hours in the day so as to take in as much as I could on the school, work and volunteering fronts. I utilized opportunities, mentorships and networks to help gain experience and a better sense of what I want to do. To support my studies, I looked for jobs related to my field: when those dried up, I landed gigs generating content for online blogs, editing papers, or doing office admin. For life post-graduation, I expanded my job search to include a wide geographic and thematic range. I’m not going to lie: it hasn’t been easy. Some weeks I was so stressed out that I couldn’t sleep. I also wouldn’t recommend preparing for both Christmas and a long distance move at the same time! Through it all, however, I’ve had my family, friends, and mentors, a sense of accomplishment and of contribution to society, and a burning passion for what I’m doing, to keep me going.
Everyone has their own path to follow, and this is especially true of the heritage field, with all its many (rewarding) career options. I’m still not entirely sure where I’ll end up, but that’s okay: it’s all the journey and not the destination. Develop your own road map by connecting with your passion and playing the angles, and you’re guaranteed to end up exactly where you want to be.
And if you’re ever in Whitehorse, do stop by to visit!