Emerging Professionals: Careers in Conservation by Puneeta Sharma - News in Conservation, Issue 45

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In the October issue of NiC we started to address some of the issues relating to opportunities for emerging conservators entering the profession. In this issue we continue on the theme with an opinion article from Puneeta Sharma, who recently graduated and is now working as a conservator.

Following recent debates on the view that it is extremely hard upon graduating to achieve paid employment in conservation, I know the difficulties involved in getting paid employment in this sector; it’s extremely competitive and starting salaries can be low. However, that being said, it has always been difficult securing well-paid jobs in the arts and heritage sectors, so it would be assumed anybody wishing to take up a career in conservation knows the risks associated with employment before embarking upon the profession. Through this piece I aim to share my experience and hopefully show that it is possible to embark on a career in conservation even at hard times.
I graduated in June 2014 with an MA in Conservation (Art on Paper) from Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. I was in a class of 20 students from across the globe and approximately half of these were from the United Kingdom and other EU countries. I knew the risks, but still made the decision to pursue this career; my undergraduate degree was in Fine Art and I knew the difficulties involved with an arts-related job. Nevertheless working towards a career that I was passionate about was important to me so I decided that working as a Paper Conservator would bring me immense job satisfaction and allow me to work in a heritage related field.
There were key beneficial factors involved in my beginnings in this profession. During my MA I was living with my parents in London and this gave me the opportunity to take on a variety of unpaid placements whilst seeking paid employment. As a requirement of the Masters course at Camberwell College of Arts, each student had to take on an unpaid placement to broaden their knowledge and understanding. I was able to continue with the unpaid placements I had started at the British Postal Museum & Archive and Osterley House, the National Trust after graduating. Expenditure and living costs did somewhat hinder my ability to carry out these placements, as is the case for many other students. However, living at home definitely made this easier.

Towards completion of my MA, I applied for every available position related to my MA, regardless of location, duration or financial remuneration. In fairness, I was tenacious in my efforts. I spent hours filling in applications and researching possible job locations. This meant I was fortunate to secure a one-month paid internship at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, which was an incredible learning opportunity straight out of university. Whilst in Cambridge, I once again set about spending almost all my free time applying for every single paper and preventive conservation job or internship I could find. I would say I was shortlisted for approximately 40% of the positions I applied for, but I had to decline some interviews as I was not able to cover the travel expenses myself and Skype interviews were not an option. This is one of the major set-backs for recent graduates and a frustration found amongst many of us applying for jobs. It is difficult paying for a train journey or flight when one is currently unemployed, working part-time or struggling financially. An alternative would be a Skype interview but I was rather surprised at how frequently I was told Skype interviews could not be held. It would be useful if Skype could be used to hold an initial interview, allowing the applicant to meet the interviewers before making a journey to the institution.
But let’s take a look at the positives; conservation is a unique profession where we, as conservators get to handle the rarest and most fascinating works of art and documents known to man, in order to preserve them for the future. What we do is vital to maintaining knowledge about the human race and the planet. If it is money that drives you, then this isn’t the profession for you, but job satisfaction is likely to be guaranteed.
A large majority of my classmates have secured posts in the UK; some were still students when they secured jobs whilst others had only been out of university for a couple of months. Many of my other classmates secured paid internships in other parts of the world, including the United States of America, China and the Netherlands. This is a really attractive aspect of the profession; the ability to travel and apply our skills working with other collections. The class of 2012 and 2013 similarly had great success gaining paid work across the globe (see map of UK & Ireland)

What do recent graduates suggest?
I asked some of my former classmates what advice they would give to someone looking for paid work upon graduating or for students currently studying conservation.

Fay Humphreys, Book and Paper Conservator, Cambridge University Library:
“Apply for everything but tailor your application to the position, so make sure you give specific examples of when you have done something that relates to the work you would be doing. And prepare well for the interview, go through your answers first and make sure you know them.”

Jana Kostalikova, Conservation Assistant, Churchill Archives:
“Do as much volunteering as possible to get experience in a real working environment. That way you not only develop your skills but you can also meet people with same interests or professionals who might remember you and help you in the future.”

Jessica Pollard, Project Conservator, The National Archives:
“Take any opportunities that come along and make the most of them. Ask questions, offer to help, make contacts and get involved! You must be open to trying new things, and getting involved with all aspects of the conservation profession. It is great to have a passion for a specific specialism but do not limit yourself to this, you can gainvaluable experience and learn new skills from many different areas. Apply for as many jobs and internships as possible to gain experience with writing applications and attending interviews. Prepare to be flexible. Upon graduating, keep contacting people and remind them who you are. It's often about who you know, and being in the right place at the right time.”

Corinne Henderson, Trainee Book and Archive Conservator, PZ Conservation:
“Tailor your work experience to your interests, and use your networks to find out the most you can about a place and the people who work there before applying for a job. Don't panic, be excited, and be prepared to move about a little!”

Laurie Endean, Assistant Conservator, Durham University:
“Firstly, don’t sell yourself short when you're writing personal statements or profiles in application forms, everything in your life that you have done will be applicable to something that employers want in a conservator. It's important to remember that you're not JUST going to be a conservator; you'll be part of an institution and within that, a team. Even if you're the only conservator there you will still have to work with other people and be a part of the department. So showing that in interview and on an application form is important. Secondly, don't be afraid and don't let things put you off applying. After doing a BA or MA I think people forget what they've just learnt. There is so much more knowledge to get by working, but you have also amassed a HUGE amount in the last few years. Lastly and most importantly... ALWAYS BE PASSIONATE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO! Employers see passionate people and can appreciate it! If you don't have it you won't get very far!!”

And so, it would seem, a career in conservation is possible after all…

A career in conservation IS possible, and with passion, persistence and genuine enthusiasm for safeguarding heritage, I believe you can find a job. For those thinking about doing an MA in Conservation, think about what interests you about conservation. Are there places you could volunteer at, which have collections that fascinate you before you start the course? If you are currently a student, have you thought about doing a placement in another part of the country or even abroad during the holidays? This is a great way to meet more professionals and experience in a new location.
Volunteering is important because it helps us to meet other conservation professionals and discover more about this fascinating field. If there is an area you think you might be interested in, explore it! I have always had an interest in historic houses, which led me to volunteer at Osterley House whilst studying. Here I was able to develop my knowledge and understanding on various aspects of preventive conservation. Having a wider knowledge and understanding of the preventive and remedial aspects of conservation has meant I can talk about a wide range of experiences in interviews, rather than just those focused on Paper Conservation.
The world will always need conservators, and if this is something you want as a career choice and you’re able to adapt to new situations and new locations, then persistence is key. I had real doubts initially when I heard about the lack of jobs, but then I realised, there’s nothing else I would rather do, that combines my interest in art and history, whilst using my hands and constantly learning. So I took the gamble, and I’m glad I did.