Collections Information Officer – A National Charity
My degree: Linguistics, 2013
My current job (Feb 2017)
I work as a Collections Information Officer at a charity holding museum and heritage collections. This involves managing and providing access to information about these collections, being the admin of the Collections Database software and training staff to use it. I also chair the meetings where any new acquisitions or loans are discussed and agreed. It’s hugely varied – one day I can be cleaning up terminology and keeping track of moved objects, another day building a new database module, and another out at a property listing objects and training volunteers. All the while I’m also available by phone or email if anyone needs help with the database or a number for a new acquisition. It’s part of a specialism in the museum sector known as Collections Management.
My career history
After graduating I didn’t know what I wanted to do but decided I wanted to stay in Edinburgh. The intention was that front-of-house/hospitality roles would provide enough to live on while I applied for graduate-level work. However in practice, the long and unpredictable shifts on zero-hour contracts meant I did not have the time or energy for the in-depth application processes, so I took a chance on quitting this work to focus all my effort on getting a job that would be a better stepping stone. I spoke with the Careers Service at this point and they advised signing up with temp agencies. I was accepted by Crossmatch Recruitment, who thought my CV would be a good fit for a “1 month, maybe longer” assignment with the charity. This was delayed but I was offered other assignments in the meantime. I eventually called again to ask if the initial position was still likely to go ahead and was told I could start that week! It was all data entry at first but I soon became the expert on the database, so was given admin rights. Thanks to a string of extensions and fixed term contracts I have been with them ever since, now in a permanent full-time graduate-level role.
Using my degree skills and/or knowledge
Although Linguistics is not the usual way into this sector, I feel it has been very helpful, even if I often have to explain what it was and how it helps! My role covers elements of more traditional Linguistics careers such as lexicography (controlling terminology, maintaining the thesaurus of object names and categories), and publishing (writing style guides and copy-editing object descriptions). Modules in Scots have proved invaluable when working with Burns manuscripts! More generally, analytical skills and attention to detail help to give me the edge over arts graduates who would be better qualified on paper. The need to be methodical in allocating numbers to objects uses a lot of the skills from coursework. Syntax helps with putting together queries for advanced object searching and automating data cleaning. Semantics could be useful too, as more and more museums are uploading data to the Semantic Web.
My useful experience
A big part of the agency picking me up was the way I had arranged my CV to put administrative experience at the top, giving equal weight to both work and society roles. This meant I didn’t have to put the less-relevant hospitality work at the top even though it was more recent. In particular my Secretary and Librarian roles in Edinburgh University Wind Band stood out to the agent and meant I was offered assignments that I probably wouldn’t have got purely based on my work experience.
My career decisions
I did attend careers fairs but found these difficult without an idea for a starting point, and found a lot of the application processes off-putting as they so often want to see that you’re interested in them in particular. Lots of people (not careers advisers! Ed) tell you “just apply for everything” but it’s just not feasible to write dozens of bespoke applications for things you aren’t sure you want to do, so I made a deliberate decision not to waste time on roles that didn’t interest me. Applying to office temp agencies turned out to be the best decision I made as it gave me a foothold, and the agency found a perfect fit for me that I’d never have thought of myself!
Advice to students interested in my role
Volunteer! If I’d known about Collections Management work from the start, I would have sought out voluntary roles. I’m now in a position where I recruit and manage volunteers, and though I don’t have the power to give them paid work, lots of employees here did start out as volunteers. But do understand there might not necessarily be a paid role – the best volunteers let their enthusiasm and dedication shine through to the point where they become indispensable naturally.
If you’re the right kind of person for Collections Management you’ll know instinctively – if you like everything to be organised and labelled, have drawers full of stationery, own your own filing cabinet…
Advice on making your career decisions
It’s helpful to think about the sectors you’re interested in rather than fixating on the job title or responsibilities – because I knew I was interested in the charity/museum sector, I was able to work my way up from an initially very repetitive data entry assignment into a permanent graduate-level role. Luck and good timing got me the initial position (as it was never advertised) so if you get an opportunity like that, make the most if it.
I’d also advise against taking a low-paid job that’s not relevant to your career just to pay the bills, as the time and morale you lose outweighs the money you’ll make.
Talk to the Careers Service – I felt stupid going in with no idea what to do but they were always really helpful!