Confessions of a CGSer: The NEMA Career Growth Studio in Review

By Amanda Goodheart Parks, ABD Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History

This past November, I had the privilege of participating in the first ever NEMA Career Growth Studio. Due to work conflicts, I wasn’t able to attend this year’s conference, so as hundreds of my fellow museum folk headed home after three days of NEMA, I wandered into the Cambridge Hyatt feeling as though I had walked in late to a really great party. However, my fears of feeling left out were quickly assuaged when I was greeted by Dan Yaeger, Marieke Van Damme, and Sarah Marcoux Franke, my guides for this exciting new Career Growth Studio experiment.

We began with a cocktail hour, a welcomed opportunity for the twenty-five or so attendees to meet and mingle. Topics of conversation varied. Some dove straight into networking mode, while others debriefed about conference sessions. I chose the “get to know you” route, and quickly discovered I had much in common with my fellow CGSers. Most of us were women in our 20s and 30s with graduate degrees, and though our respective jobs, institutions, and life goals varied, a common theme began to emerge in one conversation after another— “I love working in the museum field, but…” More on that in a bit.

After we ventured upstairs to the penthouse suite overlooking the Charles River, I sat down at a table of CGSers I hadn’t met during the cocktail hour, and over a fantastic spread of seasonal delights such as butternut squash bisque (the food was spectacular!), we began chatting. Sure enough, that pesky refrain began to crop up again— “I love working in the museum field, but…” Shortly thereafter, Marieke joined our table and talked about her Joyful Museums project, an initiative dedicated to inspiring positive workplace culture in museums…and then the floodgates opened. Suddenly, our friendly dinner conversation transformed into a confessional for overworked, underpaid, emerging museum professionals. Comments ranged from, “…I’m grateful for my full time museum job, but I feel trapped and undervalued in my current position,” to “…Every job posting requires 5-7 years of full time experience. How will I ever get hired?” to “…On the outside, my organization looks like a great place to work, but our director’s management style is toxic…”

At first, we feared it was just our table. We feared we were the only ones caught up in a seemingly endless venting session — it wasn’t just us. Sure enough, all four tables of CGSers were using our first meal together as a forum to voice gripes, fears, and guilt relating to working in the museum field. Luckily, Dan, Marieke and Sarah sensed our need to voice these frustrations, so our first activity was filling an entire flip chart with our concerns in an act that seemed more like group therapy than career growth. Afterward, we took our first of many “mindfulness pauses” to reflect and jot down our homework before calling it a night. Yes, I said homework. We were assigned the task of committing the following things to paper: Our biggest professional regret, our proudest professional moment, and a goal we wanted the Career Growth Studio to help us achieve.

Career Growth Studio Blog Photo

When we reconvened the following morning over an array of breakfast delights (did I mention the food was spectacular?), the mood was one of relief and excitement. Relief because we had unburdened ourselves of our worries the night before, and excitement because we were looking forward to gaining new skills and knowledge to help quell said worries. Through a series of modules on topics ranging from Networking to Leadership, we spent the morning getting to know one another’s work situations, identifying solutions to our challenges, as well as sharing tips and best practices. Our facilitators offered points of departure for discussion, but for the most part, the best conversations stemmed from the group itself. Dan, Marieke, and Sarah jokingly referred to us as guinea pigs at the start of our time together, and to some extent, we were, but their willingness to structure the workshop around our specific needs, rather than stick to a pre-determined agenda, was what made the Career Growth Studio so beneficial. After an amazing lunch and some wrap up conversations (seriously, did I mention the food?), we ended with an agreement to create a private Facebook group to continue our conversations. We also plan to meet at next year’s NEMA conference in Portland, just as NEMA welcomes a second cohort of CGSers into the fold.

While the best part of the Career Growth Studio was working toward my individual professional goals, here are a few universal takeaways from my CGS experience:

1. Lead by example regardless of your position in your institutional hierarchy.
2. It can take up to two days for your body to recover from a stressful event, so find a stress management technique that works for you and stick with it!
3. Two words: Elevator Speech. Write it, memorize it, but most importantly, be it! You should have a different elevator speech for each of the following situations: Networking, Social Events, Representing Your Institution, and most importantly, Representing Yourself.
4. Reflective practice isn’t just a conference buzz word! Incorporate reflection and mindfulness into your daily life to inspire creative thinking and positivity.
5. And finally, never underestimate the power of a hand written thank you note.

In conclusion, as a museum professional in the early stages of my career, I found the NEMA Career Growth Studio to be equal parts catharsis and inspiration. In my opinion, the opportunity to talk to colleagues from other museums is the best part of NEMA conferences and workshops. The Career Growth Studio took this one step further. By granting my fellow attendees and I a safe, encouraging, and supportive environment to speak frankly about our professional challenges, goals, and dreams, NEMA allowed us the opportunity to not only better ourselves as museum professionals, but our New England museum community as a whole.

Amanda Goodheart Parks earned her M.A. in Public History from UMass in 2010. Currently an ABD Ph.D. candidate, Amanda works full time in the Education Department at the Springfield Museums in addition to her ongoing work on her dissertation which focuses on gender in the New England whaling industry.

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