This article was first published as an installment on the Valparaiso University English Department's new blog, "How I Got My Job," which features articles by alumni of the English Department describing their job experiences after graduation to current undergraduate students. You can see the original post here.
Catch that Grace
"How I Got My Job": Regional Museum Director
I don’t think college equals job prep. But, college friends, if you’re going to agree with me on that point, you’ll also need to strap on your practical cap when it comes to making a living. Important tools, as far as I can tell: creativity, drive, frugality, pragmatism—and probably a sense of receptiveness to the crazy twists of grace.
In college, I worked full time service-sector jobs in the summers and did part-time campus employment during the school year, all of which was important because learning to work is important for everybody (as is paying tuition). I was lucky to get into the fully-funded three-year MFA Program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University after graduating, where I taught a 2-1 composition load each year and worked (for freesies) on the journal Flyway.
But, my first job outside of the academy? Seemingly unrelated. Academic work I’d done for my English Honors Project at Valpo led me to an unexpected relationship with the director of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum in my hometown. We clicked and stayed in contact, and the next summer (after year one of the MFA) I did an unpaid internship there to fulfill a program requirement for the MFA. I afforded it by writing a small, local grant that would pay rent in Iowa while I lived for free with my parents. The following summer (after year two of the MFA), I became one of three part-time, seasonal, but paid employees as “Associate Curator,” a position they made up. Did I have museum experience? Not outside of the prior internship with them. But could I write, tell a story, and think critically about this historical figure as well as this museum’s potential role in telling that story to our community? Yes. And the museum had already seen that I could.
The next summer, after I graduated from the three-year MFA, the museum director stepped down, and I joined the other part-time curator to share a part-time co-directorship. Then, when plans to move back to Ames, Iowa didn’t work out, the museum offered to extend my part-time funding into the school year, making me sole executive director. Note here: that’s a nonprofit kind of executive director, i.e. $15 an hour, 20 hours a week. I gladly accepted, given the free room and board I had with my parents.
I won’t pretend that I managed any of this without a good bit of luck—but when luck strikes you really need to grab it and coax it to hang out awhile. You have to catch that grace. It helps to have several sticks in the fire at once (e.g. grad school/teaching, journal editing, museum). It also helps to be able to articulate to others why you are perfect for the job, whatever it is. This involves becoming perfect for the job, as well as being able to stumble into the job, which involves cultivating good relationships. This is all abstract until grace starts to hit—but when it does, take note!
Dénouement: I haven’t stopped putting sticks in the fire. In addition to directing the museum, I also took an adjunct teaching position at Valpo, which I found through conversation with a Valpo prof. A minor gig, but it supplemented my part-time museum income through the spring semester, helped me knock off the private loans from my undergraduate years (note: ~$30,000 in federal ones still remain), and added a line to my CV during PhD applications. Meanwhile, the responses to a second round of PhD applications started coming in, and I accepted a fully-funded offer for a five-year PhD in English at New York University. That’s where I am now, as a MacCracken Fellow, and shortly after arriving I applied for and received a research assistant position with a professor in my department, which supplements my income a bit and develops my academic profile further.
I don’t know if my future lies in academia, museums, or something yet undiscovered by me. Grace is the word. Four and a half years out of graduating from Valpo, the journey continues!