Brad King earned his PhD in history from the University of Toronto. He is a vice president at Lord Cultural Resources, an international museum and cultural planning firm.
A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the supposed goal of a post-PhD job search. What was your experience? What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
I would think that most of us, particularly in the humanities, enter a PhD program with the goal of obtaining a tenure track position at a university. I know I certainly did—I wanted to be a history professor—but soon after I began I realized that my plans might need to be changed. Although academic job market predictions in the early ‘90s were hopeful (due to an expected wave of retirements of the ‘60s generation of profs) it became clear to me, and many others, that the situation was not going to be as rosy as forecast.
So it didn’t take long to realize that a professor’s job might be difficult to obtain due to sheer supply and demand. And, because I was a bit older than many of my peers (I was nearly 36 when I finished), I did not believe that I could afford to spend a lot of time in the academic trenches as an adjunct or sessional instructor. So I began planning alternatives really very early in my PhD program. And it so happened that the university was encouraging us to be open-minded about alternative paths at this time as well, which I thought was realistic. For me, it was museums that interested me most, so I got some volunteer experience while a grad student and was fortunate to have been able to do a material culture minor field as part of the PhD program. That was my Plan B, which quickly became my Plan A as I came closer to finishing.
What was your first post-PhD job?
I didn’t look very hard for an academic job—not only was I discouraged by the job market, but I was also frankly feeling a bit negative about the whole academic thing in general by the end. I was tired of it all and I’d lost faith in my dissertation (because I’d lost perspective on it: in retrospect, it was actually a pretty good piece of work). But anyway, the point is that I was in no mood for academics at the time, and I had an interregnum between my graduation in June of ’99 and my current job (which I began in March ’00) during which I worked as a duct cleaner with my brother-in-law—work that I quite enjoyed after ten straight years of hard academic labour, freshman to PhD. I think I needed the break.
That was a temporary “bridging” job, obviously. My first job that utilized the credentials that I had earned was as a consultant here at Lord Cultural Resources, which is a museum and cultural planning firm. I had been looking for museum jobs, but in so doing had discovered the large service sector that surrounds them—a sector that I didn’t even know existed. Actual museum jobs were also few and far between, and so I picked what I thought was the best of these consulting companies and made my approach.
There were a number of factors that got me the job:
- I was not shy about seeking assistance, and I had obtained a HRDC (Human Resources Development Canada) internship in my back pocket to offer to prospective employers (I think this HRDC program has been discontinued, unfortunately);
- I was persistent in approaching the company and tried my best to make direct contact with the company president (not possible in this case, but I bothered the HR person enough so that she passed the resume on to the company president);
- The PhD was significant: I now know that my resume and phone calls got the boss’s attention precisely because of the PhD, as well as the volunteer experience which demonstrated interest;
- And I was fortunate, because the company leadership was (and is) academically inclined, and—most importantly—it also so happened that there was a person going on maternity leave at the time and there was a gap that I could fill.
And so I made the best of that internship and was offered a position when it ended. I remember being very surprised as to where I had ended up: just a few months earlier, I had never even heard of any such job as “museum planner,” but now, there I was, planning museums as a consultant at Lord Cultural Resources. And I was gratified to find that the company was run by two of the most intellectually active people I have ever met, within or outside of a university. It was a good fit.
But: while I may now have been “Dr. King”, I was also a newbie at consulting, so I started on the first rung of the career ladder in this field—at the junior consultant level. So I still had to put in my time.
What do you do now?
I work for the same company—it’s now 13 years and counting. As I said, it is a good fit. We offer management, exhibition, facility and training services to museums and cultural institutions around the globe. I have been very lucky: this is a great job for an academic, and there are opportunities for publishing and conference speaking in addition to our day-to-day work.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
Because I’m now a VP in the company, I do a lot more administration and management of staff these days—but I still lead projects and play a direct role in working with clients. Some of my recent work has been in developing cultural plans for municipalities as well as our company’s more “traditional” work in servicing museums. Like most consultants, my day is taken up with client meetings, research and writing (of reports intended for clients—still our main product), business development and project management, along with my administrative and supervisory duties.
What most surprises you about your job?
Those who work in culture are not necessarily the best paid—but they are passionate and the dedication of people who work in this field never ceases to astound me, and the projects they champion (and ask for our help to develop and implement) are often fascinating.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I am on the road a fair bit and while travel can be taxing, I still enjoy arriving in a new airport and exploring a new place. And I’ve been to some pretty interesting places: I never thought I would travel to Saudi Arabia, say, or Nigeria, or Malaysia—or to Manitouwadge, Ontario, for that matter, where I once had a small project. In my travels I’ve met some amazing people. And I find something interesting in every project—from the smallest small-town museum to some of the major international cultural projects that I’ve been lucky enough to work on. The stories are great, and it’s part of my job, depending on the project, to learn about the subject matter: topics as diverse as the sculpture of ancient India to the history of railroading in Moncton to the military history of the United Arab Emirates, among many, many others. These are the things I enjoy most about my job.
What would you change about it if you could?
I’d do less administration/management and more museum planning! And it’s private sector business, so we have to be concerned about business development and cash flow and having enough work to keep us all going, which can be worrisome in times of economic crisis. We have to worry about competition and about shifts in the market, which happen regularly. I could do without these headaches, but that’s the deal when you’re in the private sector.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
More of the same, for the foreseeable future. One should never say never, and I will always be open to unexpected new opportunities, but for now I’m not going anywhere.
What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
My own experience shows that there are professions and companies that may not be household names, but which are fascinating nevertheless. Be open to the unexpected opportunities and seek out the lesser-known. And it’s a cliché, but network, network, network. Opportunities come from people, from reaching out, from connecting, and those of us who have been there are usually happy to help.