10 Tips for Becoming a Conservator

Tip #5: Think about your education

By this point, you’re probably sure that you want to become a conservator, and should begin to think about your education, if you haven’t already. There are really only two training options in the field of conservation: apprenticeships or graduate school.

Though apprentice training is becoming less prevalent, you can still learn everything you need to know by working with skilled conservators, and supplementing your education with independent reading, coursework, and research. Unfortunately, the time it takes to become a “qualified” conservator will be much longer than a 2-4 year graduate program, and no official certification system currently exists in the U.S. One of the largest benefits of apprenticeships, however, is the flexibility to work part-time, and in any location that you’re able to find a supervisor.

Graduate conservation programs, on the other hand, do require you to attend classes at their location, but only for the first 2-3 years, as the final year is a full-time internship that can take place in another city, or even country. More and more frequently, degrees are required of candidates for fellowships and conservator positions because the employer is familiar with the program curricula and can be confident that you’ve had a thorough education. Having a school affiliation is also a benefit in terms of networking with other alumni, and forming connections with your fellow students.

You have five options for graduate schools in and around the United States for your certificate, MA or MS: UCLA, Queen’s University, Buffalo State College, NYU, and Winterthur/University of Delaware. Each school has its own unique attributes, but they’re all regarded as equally capable institutions and will offer an array of opportunities for learning about conservation, and making the transition from student to professional. If you’re interested in studying abroad, there’s a complete list on CoOL of schools in Australia, Asia and Europe. You may have to work out your own funding for programs abroad; in the U.S., all of the schools offer tuition remission and a small stipend for living expenses.

Check out this blog post by Julie Benner about the Textile Conservation Centre in Glasgow.

After choosing one or more schools of interest, the next step is to look into the admission requirements, such as pre-requisite courses, standardized tests and hands-on experience. Then, check out the application procedures and deadlines, so you can get an idea of how many letters of recommendation you’ll need, what types of objects to put into your studio art portfolio, etc. Faculty members are incredibly helpful if you have any questions about preparing for admission, and there are always people available if you’d like to schedule a tour of the facility.

With so few placements for the number of applicants, I probably don’t have to tell you that the admission is very competitive. Just stay positive and focused on what you need to do to make yourself the best possible candidate. In my opinion, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as you meet the minimum requirements because, even if you’re not chosen as a student for that year’s class, you will better understand the application—and maybe even interviewing—process to prepare you for the following year. Faculty members may also be willing to discuss your application with you and make specific recommendations; this type of treatment is so rare in graduate school, but if you’re willing to make the commitment, the conservation programs really do want to help you succeed. Good luck!