Survivorship bias? Stockholm syndrome? Alternate universe?

Posted: 04/09/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

Following on from the previous post on the prospects of new (would-be) museum workers, I cannot not respond to some museum workers’ arguments for perseverance and positivity.

(Especially because they were brave enough to put their name to their comment, I want to make it very clear that any and all of my comments address the situation, not the person in that situation. In order not to pollute some people’s presence in search results with my futile ravings, I’ve identified them by their initials.)

Irrational positivity may make you lucky (or, at least, may not make you any unluckier)

Like others, S.B. recognised that ‘of course luck comes into it – but perseverance and positivity can hopefully play a part in creating that luck‘. She already had nearly five years’ volunteering experience and was on the MA with the atrocious employment rate when she wrote that, so her personal need to keep positive is completely understandable. Unfortunately, it is equally irrational.

First of all, being positive can only make you ‘lucky’ insofar as not being a miserable bastard in a job interview does not reduce your chance of getting that job; in other words, being positive merely prevents you becoming any unluckier.

But you should be a miserable bastard! Why should you pretend to be positive? So “your” customers continue to pay taxes and donate money to pay other people’s wages? So your paid employers don’t feel guilty about extracting your unpaid labour?

This forced positivity, the rictus grin (or, rather, the precisely-calibrated meek-and-eager smile) of jobseekers and precarious workers is insulting to them, as they deny reality and debase themselves in order to have the opportunity to work; it is pointless, as the chance of success is miniscule; and, thus, it is harmful to their health.

Survivorship bias? Stockholm syndrome? Alternate universe?

Employment rates six months after graduation are standard measures. More than 90% of graduates are employed within six months of graduation.

Yet A. R. opined that a decision to give up on a career in cultural heritage after ‘6 months of trying does illustrate that graduates are not coached in the realities of museum work – the MA has never been enough in a highly competitive sector’, volunteering has always been a ‘[core]-requisite when it came to getting your first [break]’.

One more anonymous member of the Museums Association, who got their first paid (still temporary) museum job after six years’ volunteering and three years after their postgraduate qualification, judged:

I don’t think many people would necessarily get a job within 6 months of qualifying, even then. It’s an awfully short time to have tried.

The person who had given up had volunteered at seven institutions over eight years, then done an unpaid internship, then done a Master’s degree, continued to look for cultural heritage work for another six months, then given up…

Moreover, the critics of this escapee’s efforts had had continuous retail/call centre work during their efforts to break into the profession. I find that exploitation of their ability to over-work to be unacceptable and unsustainable as a model for selecting the museum workforce, but those many years of stability in work and (albeit low-wage) income may explain their lack of appreciation of others’ (even greater) difficulties, others’ inability to find any work at all.

Be under no illusions, it’s not a easy sector to get jobs in, so 6 months is not really enough time to really give it a chance (it[‘]s the same in many other sectors as well).

I don’t believe that the original author is under any illusions, but I fear these commenters may be: just because they are almost-self-destructively “lucky” exceptions to the rule, it doesn’t mean that the rule doesn’t exist; it is not the same in many other sectors; and it cannot continue to be this way in the museum sector.

What can we do?

A. T. rightly observed that ‘[u]niversities are businesses and like any other business use very clever marketing’ to obscure the fact that ‘a museum studies qualification is no use at all’ for many commercial jobs.

A. R. also argued that universities ‘need to shoulder some responsibility for ensuring they are not churning out graduates for whom there is no work’. While I agree somewhat, I’m not sure universities should try or could manage to tie their student places to future job vacancies. Should courses in cultural heritage studies have crashed at the arrival of the crisis and closed in lockstep with austerity’s cuts to the cultural heritage sector?

Still, I believe that it’s critical for cultural heritage courses to provide warts-and-all (work and related transferable skills) training. Thankfully, some conscientious educators enable their students to undertake projects that (not only prepare them for careers in cultural heritage but also) develop their skills (in education, social media, whatever) and demonstrate those skills to alternative employers.

Resistance is essential

As so many of us have seen and decried, A. T. observed:

There is currently a mushrooming of jobs for ‘volunteer management’ and an unhealthy habit of relying on free labour is developing. The government drive to volunteering may lead to smaller museums being largely volunteer run and the sector should resist this if it does not want funding to be cut even further.

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