guest post: always have a head start

Today’s post for Emerging Museum Professionals Week is brought to you by Marine Soichot (@MarineSoichot). See other posts in the series here.

After undergraduate studies in bioscience, Marine switched to social science and focused on climate change communication. She recently achieved a PhD and worked as a freelance consultant in Paris in science and environment communication. Few months ago, she moved to La Réuinon (a French island in the Indian Ocean) to develop a new science and nature centre. To know more, you can read her blog.

When Adrianne asked for contributions about “emerging museum professionals” as a guest post on her blog, I wondered what she meant. This term is definitely a jargon word I don’t know as a French native speaker but I felt it can apply to me. To be honest, I don’t really work with museums in the strict sense of the word (with collections and so on). I consider myself much more as an “emerging cultural professional” or an “emerging science & environment communication professional” but if we take a large definition of museums it works as I deal with science and nature centres.

So, what can I say about my experience as a newcomer in the museum world? I can tell how I have managed to be where I am, I mean a project manager position to develop a new science and nature centre in a tropical island somewhere in the Indian Ocean. To be honest, when I tell what I do people look at me, frown and ask, “How have you ended up there?”

A little bit more than 10 years ago, I started my education following a highly respectable way in France: classe préparatoire + Grande Ecole. If you don’t know anything about this French curiosity, have look a this comic (first part, second part). So, I studied biology in the Ecole Normale Supérieure until I passed the aggregation, two curiosities in the global curiosity of Grandes Ecoles. Sorry, Jorge Cham has not translated them in any comics.

As I was studying in Ecole Normale Supérieure, I was supposed to become a researcher or a biology teacher. Honestly, I didn’t like the lab (and the lab didn’t like me) and I was not feeling a strong appeal for educating children at school. I was more interested in science communication, especially in museums and science centres. Here is the link with our topic: I did a training at Palais de la découverte and then I knew that was the kind of place where I wanted to work. During these years, I was also involved in a science shop project and I was more and more interested in science and society issues and science studies. So I decided to mix science communication in museums and science and society issues. I achieved two master’s degrees, one in museum studies and one in science studies and then a PhD. My research was about how science museums and science centres deal with climate change.

I started my PhD thinking about a plan B in case plan A didn’t work. Plan A was becoming a researcher in museum and/or science studies and having a decent position in a university. By decent, I don’t mean two or three simultaneous underpaid part-time jobs. So what could Plan B be? I didn’t know but I knew it was possible to find something. The PhD program was three years of liberty to experiment and meet people and find a job or create my own at the end. So let’s go out of my office, out of college, out of research. Of course, I was not out of research all the time as being a PhD candidate was my full-time job and I was paid for that. But you know, there are nights and weekends also. Furthermore, I am convinced researchers have to go out of research from time to time to contribute to dialogue between research and civil society.

So, one of my main out-of-research actions was creating a blog about history, sociology and philosophy of science. But it was not an I-am-telling-you-what-I-know-and-what-you-have-to-know blog (in another word a deficit model way to communicate).  It was about what science studies can tell us about today’s issues. This blog was a part of a broader project, Prisme à Idées, which brings young researchers together to explore research, innovation and society with an interdisciplinary approach. For the blog I worked with other young researchers but also with journalists and a web agency.  This was a starting point to explore new ways for science communication but above all, to meet people and build a professional network. I have also been more and more interested in museum, communication and digital technologies as well as in environmental issues and sustainable development. So if I have to sum up my procrastination explorations during my PhD in a few tags, it would be #science #environment #communication #web #museum.

In practical terms, I have spent lot of time reading blogs, following conversation on Twitter, checking contributions on several networks (Museum3, LinkedIn, Knowtex, Academia.edu, etc.), attending conferences, and drinking beers in professional after work events. It is like jumping from a rock to another to go across a river. You meet someone or read something interesting, which drives you to someone else or to another interesting reading. Social media can give you a boost in this process and step by step you find new collaborations and resources. It has become a way of life as I began to work as a freelancer in science and environment communication.

Indeed, after defending my PhD, I chose not to go on with research but I have to say that my first clients and jobs came through the network I built for my PhD. Here is one example: In May 2010, a guy from a consultant firm called me. He was looking for people who could give him a social scientist’s point of view about climate change. We talked for two hours on the phone and then we met for lunch from time to time. He did a PhD too, in lunar seismic science, and he was now working in environmental risk management. One day, he forwarded me an e-mail: “I saw that it’s about climate change and exhibition. I thought you could be interested in it.” Indeed I was! It was a job ad for a content developer position with Lord Culture to work on an exhibition about climate initiated by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep). I applied two days after the deadline, they called me and I had an interview. It was the perfect job, I fell in love with it. They call me back the 26th of January 2011. I remember the exact day because I defended my PhD in the morning and they called me in the afternoon (I was in my bath and I went out of it in a hurry to call them back). I worked on the project for a while. It was my first real contract as a freelancer.

So, moral of the story is that you should spend time talking and helping people even if it seems to be a waste of time because one day they will return the favour or they will just remember you when they see something you can be interested in. That is exactly how I have ended up in my current awesome job: a project manager two-year contract to develop a new science and nature centre in a tropical island.

What will be the next step? The project I am working on will be over in two years. I have time but I would really like to work abroad for a while after that. I was looking for a job in London when I was offered the position in La Réuinon. I agree UK and La Réuinon are both islands but it’s not really the same. Now I’m thinking about South Africa or Australia (but another English-speaking country could be great). I would like to work in an agency (communication, web, cultural sector) or a foundation. Any idea of great places to apply?

FREE STUFF: Leave a comment on any of the posts during EMP Week (April 16 -20, 2012) to be eligible to win a copy of How to Become A Nonprofit Rockstar: 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career by Rosetta Thurman and Trista Harris.The winner will be randomly selected and notified via email on April 23, 2012 (so please don’t forget to include an email in your comments).

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4 thoughts on “guest post: always have a head start

  1. Hi Gretchen,

    thanks a lot for your comment. About creative museum professionnals in the South of France, you definitely have to get in touch with Yannick Vernet (@yannickvernet). He works as a digital project manager in Mucem (Museum of European and Mediteranean Culture which will open in 2013 in Marseille) and defines him self as a “museo hackivist”. I am sure he could point you more interesting people and institutions in this region. In a broader geographical perspective, take a look at Museomix, a 3 days event in last november during which curators, designers, explainers, etc. “hacked” the Musée des Arts Déco in Paris : http://www.museomix.com/a-propos/

    You can also get in touch with Julia Ferloni. We studied together at the National Natural History Museum and she is now a curator in Marseille. She works at the Regional Center for Heritage. I am not sure this center is really “innovative” but Julia is a passionate and wonderful person and I am sure she will be glad to help you. I am sending you her contact by email.

    Let’s stay in touch by email or twitter (I like you post about Twitter for people of a “certain” age). All the best.

    Marine

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  3. Hi, Marine, I found your post interesting because I have family in Nice and visit France often to see my grandchildren. your description of your early formal approach to education and then your decision to be more creative in your search for a career rings very true to what I know of education and approaches to education for museums in France. It sounds like you have found a wonderful, flexible path for yourself. When I go to Nice I am always visiting museums and wishing I saw more creative and interactive ways of working with visitors, especially children and families.If you have any thoughts about museums or colleagues in the south of France who are working along the lines you describe I would love to know about them. I blog at Museum Commons and also edit a journal on museum exhibitions and so am always looking for stories and good coversations about innovative museum work. You can contact me at gretchejennings@rcn.com if you have further thoughts you’d like to share. Best- Gretchen

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