Coping with Professional Rejection: Advice from Conservators in the Field; compiled by ECPN

Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN)
Coping with Professional Rejection: Advice from Conservators in the Field

The field of conservation provides opportunities for rewarding and enriching work. As in other areas of life and other competitive fields, most of us in conservation have also experienced the disappointment of rejection and can lend an empathetic ear. Internships, graduate school, fellowships, jobs, conference presentations and papers– not scoring something that you’ve been working towards can be difficult to cope with, even when you’re aware that it is a challenging goal. It may be comforting to know that even the most accomplished conservators have experienced rejection in some form; in fact, greater ambition can lead to more frequent rejection. A few of us on the ECPN board have reached out to peers and supervisors, as well as others in related fields, to hear how they’ve coped with rejection and to compile some of their advice for emerging professionals. Below are some of those anonymous responses. We plan to carry this momentum of thinking creatively about navigating opportunities in conservation and related fields into future ECPN programming, so stay tuned. Of course, much of what is reported below is subjective, so if you have further advice to offer, please comment at the end of the post and share your story.

Coping with Rejection:

When talking to supervisors, people on hiring committees, and program chairs for conferences and publications, the advice most frequently offered was to recognize that rejection is not personal. There are many, many factors that go into selection decisions that you will be unaware of when applying. For example, there may be a planned upcoming exhibit at a museum that the public does not know about. One candidate may have experience that relates to this exhibit and you do not. You have good rapport during the interview, but ultimately the other candidate is better suited to the undisclosed future needs of the lab. The upside is that the institution now knows you and perhaps will contact you in the future when another position opens (something that has actually happened to respondents).

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” can feel a little too cheerful when you’ve just received disappointing news, but for most people, there is truth in that statement. Perhaps an even better opportunity or experience will come your way! One person that we interviewed remembered the time she was declined for a prestigious summer internship. Her back-up plan for that summer turned into one of the most important projects in her early career– an opportunity that eventually led to a published paper and a fellowship. Think about times in your life when this sort of thing has happened to you, and find comfort in unknown possibilities.

Some respondents mentioned that they really wanted a job or fellowship for reasons other than the job itself (i.e. the institution, geographic location, etc.) and being turned down made them realize they would not have been a good fit in the actual position. Sometimes rejection happens to a qualified individual because their personality is not a good fit for the particular lab or institution. Some workplaces might have need for a bubbly personality to help balance out a shortage of energy around the lab. On the other hand, another conservation department is looking to add a calming presence to their space. Graduate programs are known to aim for a sense of diversity and overall harmony amongst the personalities of the students in an entering class. It’s practically impossible to anticipate the needs of the hiring manager or interview panel, so just be your authentic self and have a certain level of faith that you will end up in the right place for you. It may seem counter-intuitive, but even decisions partly based on personality aren’t personal.

There are many articles written on “not getting the job” advice through other fields. Here is a small sampling:

“10 reasons you didn’t get the job (reasons you can and cannot control)”

“6 reasons you didn’t get the job that no one told you”

“How to ask for feedback”

Seeking Feedback:

Though it may not feel like it initially, remember that rejection can be an opportunity to grow. Turn a disappointing moment into a constructive one by requesting feedback and using that information to become an even stronger applicant when you submit your next application. If the bad news is delivered over the phone, politely ask the person if it would be possible to receive feedback on why you didn’t get the job, or how you could strengthen your application for next time. If you receive a non-acceptance email, reply in a way that is professional, being careful not to burn bridges. This a small field and you are likely to meet this person again. And you never know if another job will open up in the future. Graduate programs expect to provide feedback to applicants, as do places that regularly host interns and fellows. Even if someone is not used to providing feedback, if asked nicely, they will usually respond politely. Try not to be defensive about the feedback you receive, even if it stings. Taking constructive criticism to heart will make you a stronger candidate for future interviews.

Previous ECPN webinars have addressed how to make the most of your pre-program experience, strengthen your applications, and how to self-advocate. The webinars are free to watch on the AIC YouTube channel,

Conferences and Publications:

It may not be possible to seek feedback when your abstract is not accepted for a conference or publication. Just as in a work environment, you never know what the other abstracts provide – they may be more applicable to the theme of the conference, or together develop a theme that does not include your paper. It can be helpful to try smaller conferences (like regional groups) or allied fields for presentations, and smaller publications (like newsletters or a guest spot on an established conservation blog) for written work. Even though your work was not accepted by one outlet, does not mean that it is not worthy of publication or presentation! If you are unsure where to submit next, or what to do after your abstract or paper has been turned down, ask your mentors and peers for feedback; they may have advice on other submission options or suggestions to help refine your idea.

Remembering Other Options:

When entering a small competitive field, like conservation, a savvy long term strategy is to have a “Plan B.” Thinking about career alternatives does not mean you are less dedicated to your career goals. Instead, see your “Plan B” as an alternative path to professional success, which may or may not intersect with conservation in the future. Set parameters and create a timeframe for yourself by realistically considering how much time, energy, and financial resources you want to spend on achieving your goal. It’s important to remember that the path to being a conservator is often not a straight road from an undergraduate degree and pre-program internships to graduate school and a great job. People enter conservation with a diverse range of experiences, sometimes after spending years in another field where they have developed other useful skillsets. Many conservators have shaped successful careers by making decisions and finding opportunities that were outside the path of institutional fellowships and jobs. For example, one conservator we interviewed had to move to a new city with her family. The new location did not have a conservation job available, so the conservator worked as a curator for seven years until a conservation job opened. Working as a curator helped the conservator understand how all departments in a museum work together for preservation, and ultimately this understanding made the person a better conservator and an indispensable employee.

Plan B

Preservation and collections care are not only the responsibility of conservators but are managed by professionals working in many fields. Below we have compiled a very brief list of museum departments, careers, and fields of study that are essential to the preservation of cultural heritage.

-Collections Care departments, including collection managers and registrars, play an integral role in the acquisition, safe storage, transit, and display of objects. Like conservation, professionals in these fields often have a background in art history, anthropology, studio art, or museum studies.

-Chemical and Materials Science departments within universities and other institutions offer fascinating careers for those with a strong science background. Working in analytical research brings a different perspective to future conservation projects and forms connections to researchers and scientists.

-Museum Education is an evolving field that is dedicated to helping visitors better understand and engage with museum collections. Working with many departments across a museum, educators develop and run

programs that relate to works in a collection or special exhibition. Through teaching and outreach museum education plays a vital role in enhancing the public’s knowledge of and access to cultural institutions.

-Development and Fundraising is an essential part of all cultural institutions. Successful development campaigns not only facilitate the construction and expansion of museums, but the acquisition and long-term care of collections.

-Public policy for cultural heritage is a critical aspect of preservation. This is particularly true during periods of war and political turmoil when invaluable objects of art and cultural heritage can be threatened by looting or destruction.

-Library and information science has long been an allied field to conservation through the preservation of books and archives. As a developing field that is shaped by technology, areas of specialty also include database engineering and management, information analysis, and web development.

-Moving image archivists focus on the preservation of film, video, and digital media. Graduate programs are offered at a few major universities in the United States. Follow the links below to find out more about the field and graduate programs.

Association of Moving Image Archivists,

Selznick School of Film Preservation,

New York University,

University of California, Los Angeles,

Private Practice

Don’t forget about private practice! Conservators who have completed training can consider joining or starting a private conservation practice as a great way to create their own opportunities in the field, especially if there are scant institutions with conservation jobs in a particular area. FAIC offers an online course for establishing a conservation practice, and joining the AIC specialty group Conservators in Private Practice (CIPP) can provide a network of support. ECPN is partnering with CIPP at this year’s AIC Annual Meeting in Miami for a discussion panel that includes established and emerging private practice conservators. The panel will be from 4-6pm on Wednesday, May 16th, 2015 and is followed by the annual ECPN Happy Hour from 6-8pm. See the AIC website for more details.

ECPN is planning future resources for developing “alternative” career paths and working in private practice. In the meantime, an ECPN-hosted Q&A Webinar with established private practice conservators can be found on the AIC YouTube channel (“Considering Your Future Career Path: Working in Private Practice”), as well as a written synopsis of the main portion of the webinar on the AIC blog Conservators-Converse.

Your Advice?

Art conservation is a competitive field in part because the people who pursue it are passionately driven. As we continue to advocate and educate, we will create more opportunities and more qualified candidates. Responding well to constructive criticism and expanding our concepts of the “ideal path to a conservation career” can be very helpful when dealing with rejection. What do you think? How do you cope with disappointment? What was your path to the field?

2 thoughts on “Coping with Professional Rejection: Advice from Conservators in the Field; compiled by ECPN”

  1. Excellent blog, Fran and ECPN committee members! Thank you so much for making this advice and encouragement available at a time of year when many emerging conservators may be dealing with rejection first-hand. Thank you especially for the advice regarding alternate paths for those with conservation training. It is important to keep in mind that training in the field of conservation arms you with a wide and unique set of skills and knowledge that can easily lead to success in a variety of positions in and outside of the museum world. It is also important to remember that we NEED more people with this knowledge in other roles, as those who are making the decisions do not always have the information that will allow them to make decisions that are in line with best practices or advocacy for preservation.
    My addition to your excellent advice is to keep in mind that conservation is a rapidly changing and evolving field, and you may not even know which skills will become invaluable in the future. My background in library and archives conservation has been incredibly helpful in developing and overseeing preservation plans for a collection of arcade and pinball games in my current position. The museum makes many of the games available for play by museum guests, and we have to keep this in mind when making preservation decisions, similar to the way that we keep use and access in mind when working with library collections. This and many other aspects of my position have allowed me to harness different points in my training and realize that our instructors and mentors are not just teaching us to treat artifacts so much as they are teaching us to think critically and apply our knowledge to the development of fields that may not have even existed when we started out training. Go after the things that you want, but do not turn down or shy away from opportunities that might not perfectly align with what you think of as your skill set. These may turn out to be the most challenging, engaging, and rewarding parts of your career.

  2. Excellent points, Carrie! Thank you so much for you comment. We truly are hoping to provide more programming on this topic, so I will keep in mind your advice for the future. Thanks!

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