Portfolios and career transitions: pre-program, graduate, and post-graduate portfolio tips

The following article was written by Suzanne Davis and posted on her behalf by Carrie Roberts. Suzanne Davis is Associate Curator of Conservation at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan, and a member of the Education and Training Committee of AIC. Suzanne will be speaking on the subject of conservation portfolios at ECPN’s Portfolio Seminar at AIC’s 41st Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 starting at 4PM.
I can still remember the satisfaction of creating my portfolio in graduate school. This was before digital photography or Adobe Photoshop, and the black cloth-covered binder is filled with slides, black and white photographs (that I printed myself in my school’s cramped dark room), and intricate hand-drawn condition diagrams. Sixteen years later, this binder sits on the bookshelves just above my desk at work, and I still like to look at it sometimes.
Your portfolio is a representation of your identity as a conservator and scholar, so it’s a good idea to be constructive and discriminating in the way you assemble and use it. Typically it’s most useful early in your career, at a time when you might feel pressure to showcase every conservation experience you’ve ever had. But it can serve you best if you’re selective. Think about what you want a review committee to notice, and which experiences you want to highlight. Make it work for you.
If you’re applying to a graduate program, the admissions committee will be concerned with your academic ability in addition to your pre-program conservation experience. If you’ve undertaken research projects in conservation or a related field like art history or archaeology, feature these! The committee will also be looking to see if your research and career interests are a good fit for their program. How does your portfolio demonstrate this? At this stage in your career, your portfolio should clearly reflect your academic identity, interests, and your potential to succeed as student and professional.
Once in graduate school, it’s most helpful to think about your vision for your future. Knowing what kind of job you’d ultimately like to have will help you shape your graduate experience, choose classes and internships, and create a useful portfolio.  Talk to conservators who have the kind of job you’d like. Try to intern with them, if possible. Learn what do they do every day, and what experiences and skills they value. What would they want a prospective employee to feature in a portfolio?
When using your portfolio to apply for post-graduate fellowships and jobs, it’s important that it reflect the full range of your experience. Many portfolios that I see for young conservators focus almost exclusively on conservation treatments and technical studies. But treatment is only one small piece of what most professional conservators do on a daily basis, and technical research is an even smaller component. Preventive conservation knowledge is very important, as is the ability to assess condition, prioritize work, and manage projects. The same is true for communication skills and working with students and volunteers. Experience with outreach and education activities is also good. As you read a fellowship or job description, think about ways to use your portfolio to highlight the skills and experience that the employer seeks.
When presenting your portfolio in an interview, it’s useful to pre-select the projects you’ll discuss. If it will be reviewed in your absence, indicate the projects you’d like reviewers to turn to first. The portfolio should be well-organized, with a table of contents and tabs that will make different sections easy to find.  Consider including short project summaries to give readers a quick overview of each experience. Too much information can be overwhelming, so think about removing projects that are not relevant and do not contribute to the overall message you want to communicate. Many prospective employers will expect a presentation in addition to or in place of the portfolio, so spend some time thinking about how to translate the experience captured in your portfolio into an engaging talk.
Finally – and this is very important – don’t focus on your portfolio to the neglect of other application components. An interview and portfolio review is usually the very last step in a selection process. Without a well-crafted curriculum vitae and cover letter or personal statement, no one is ever likely to see your amazing portfolio. Good luck!
ECPN’s Portfolio Seminar is a FREE event for AIC’s 41st Annual Meeting attendees and will cover topics including ideas for building your portfolio, digital portfolios, and ‘beyond the portfolio’ topics like application materials and networking.
If you are a conservation student or recent graduate and are interested in sharing your portfolio during the ECPN Portfolio Seminar, please contact Carrie Roberts at carrizabel@gmail.com.