Getting a first job in the museum sector has always been tough. It was tough when I started out during the economic recession of the late 1990s and seems even tougher now. It's easy to fall into the trap of applying for anything and everything, copying and pasting from one job application to another to try to land that elusive interview, but is that really the best way? How do you tailor job applications to give you the best chance of rising to the top of the 'people to interview' pile?
Recently I took part in a panel discussion with three other museum professionals, sharing tips for making successful job applications with a group of interns from the Imperial War Museum’s Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Project. I chatted with IWM's Rachel Donnelly, who runs the partnership project; Fiona Darling, a Senior Producer at IWM; and Carolyn Ball who manages the Discovery Museum and Archives at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums. We've all recruited people to jobs in a wide range of contexts and had our own experiences, good and bad, of writing job applications and nailing - or failing - interviews.
Everyone agrees it's hard work applying for jobs. What we don’t always remember is that it’s hard for recruiters too. Recruitment is difficult for two reasons: first, you have a responsibility to your organisation to make the right decision, because staff are the biggest investment an organisation will make and critical to its success; and second, recruiters have a responsibility to the candidates applying for the role to ensure they have a fair process that enables them to give their best. Few people take recruitment lightly. It’s a long process and it takes up an awful lot of an organisation’s time and resources.
Recruiters want you to do well. There is nothing more encouraging if you’re recruiting for a role than opening a well-written and considered application that makes you keen to meet the candidate and confident that they would be able to do the job.
So – as an applicant, how do you make sure that's you?
Writing applications is hard, time-consuming work but that effort will be visible in the finished application. These are my tips for how to tailor your application to give yourself a chance of winding up in the ‘people to interview’ pile.
1. Make sure this is a job you really want to do. It's far better to write a small number of carefully thought-out applications for jobs you really want than to spend the same amount of time writing 10 applications for jobs you don't know much about. Think about the organisation's purpose, its ethos and values, the size of team you'll be working in, who your colleagues will be, the scope of the role, what opportunities you'll have to develop and learn. The more you undestand of the organisation and your own motivations for wanting to work there, the better you'll be able to tailor your written application and the more you'll be in an interview.
2. Do your homework. It’s a joy to meet or read an application from a candidate who has spent some time finding out about the organisation and is able to articulate why they want to work there. It’s easy when you’re first looking for work to apply for any job that comes along. Recruiters will want to know why this job, why this organisation, why are you the right person and what you can contribute. The more you know about the organisation, the more convincing your answer will be.
3. In your written application it is vitally important that you stick closely to the job description and particularly the person specification and make sure you answer all the essential points. Don’t ignore anything. Narrowing down a pile of 50 or 100 applications to the small number of people who are going to be interviewed can be a technical exercise and in most organisations the recruiter will be working to a checklist. You need to demonstrate how you meet the requirements of the person specification if you’re going to make the cut.
4. Be concise. The recruiter will love you if you make their job easy for them, and this means addressing each of the criteria clearly and distinctly. Consider using bullet points and make sure your writing is clear and straightforward. This is not the place to showcase your literary creativity - the person reading your application may have hundreds to work through and they will probably not have as much time as they would like. Make it easy for them. Keep your application clear, to the point, and short. Check your spelling and grammar. If you're worried, ask someone you trust to proof read your application for you.
5. Adopt a principle from creative writing, which is ‘show, don’t tell’. By this I mean give concise, practical examples that demonstrate relevant skills. If you tell me you’re great at team work I’ve only got your word for it against 99 other candidates who are all saying the same thing. If you show me – if you give me a clear, relevant example – you will be much more credible . Fiona suggested using the STAR technique both in written applications and interviews, which is a great way of keeping yourself focused.
6. Your examples do not have to be from working in a museum. If you are early in your career I would not expect you to have loads of museum experience. What I would expect is for you to be able to show me how the experience you’ve gained in other areas of your life is relevant to the role.
I’ll give you an example. When I got my first full time museum job I had some museum experience from volunteering, work placements and a casual front of house job at Kirklees Museums. However, I later learned from my new line manager that the thing that made me stand out was a holiday job I’d had as a swimming pool lifeguard. I was quite surprised to learn this. It had felt like a very mundane job. I did not save any lives. I spent an awful lot of time scrubbing the changing room floors and cleaning bodily fluids out of lockers. However, in the job application and subsequent interview I was able to use this experience to show my willingness to take on responsibility, ability to keep calm in a crisis, and to give examples of how I'd handled a range of occasionally tricky situations with members of the public. Any work experience will be relevant to a museum if you think laterally about your transferable skills. The important thing is how you make those skills and experience relevant to the job you’re applying for.
There is so much more I could say on this subject. If the recording of the IWM event becomes publicly available I'll post it here. If you're trying to get a job in a museum, I hope some of this is useful - and good luck.