5 Tips for Applying to Jobs in the Heritage Industry

Will you be applying for jobs in the Heritage Sector in the near future? Here are some basic tips and info from the VOiCE team. Good luck with those applications!

1) Don’t let rejection get you down 

Whether it’s a job, a voluntary position, or a funding application – rejection has happened to everyone.  

It’s okay to feel down when an application/interview isn’t successful. The key thing is not to give up, and make sure to still apply to other positions in the same organisation.  

There are so many reasons why a company might go with another candidate, the majority of which will be entirely out of your control, so put in the best application you can and request feedback for the times that you aren’t successful. It may help you with the next application.  

Writing a good application and performing well in an interview will likely be different skills to the ones you’ll actually be using in the job role. It’s important to develop these skills in order to get you to that next stage. As practice can make perfect, you’ll always gain useful experience and knowledge of hiring systems each time you go through a job description and create a response to it or each time you answer a set of interview questions. Just because you’ve got some bad news this time, doesn’t mean that this won’t make it more likely that there will be good news next time. 

2) Each organisation has their own recruitment process/formula 

Working in the heritage sector is a competitive business. In the early stages of an application process, you might be up against hundreds of other candidates for one position, so from their point of view, recruiters need to find (relatively) quick ways to make numerous candidates into a handful. 

A common way that companies will reduce the number of candidates is to score your application/cover letter/supporting statement – out of, for example, 20. If you want to score highly, you’ll need to prove that you’ve read the job description in great detail. Shape your skills and experience around the words that they have used, because, in this instance, they want to hear these phrases come right back at them. You want “excellent communication skills”, well let me tell you about the time “I used my excellent communication skills to…’. 

Clear, concise and relevant examples are extremely important. Be passionate about the place you want to work and don’t be scared to sell just how suited you are to this position. 

We cannot say it enough, ALWAYS read the instructions. Each application process will be slightly different and, in a sense, this is the first test that they are setting for you – are you applying to any job or this job?  

Formatting, word count and requests to add information into particular sections of an application are all quick ways for recruiters to reduce the number of candidates. If they request that your cover letter should not be longer than two sides of A4, then it is important to respect their wishes. Think of this as a way to demonstrate you have the skills that they’re asking for. For example, attention to detail and all tasks being completed to a high standard. Your prospective manager will want to know that you can follow instructions and be managed.   

It is incredibly important to consider what they have asked you to include, and we mean this on a very basic level. For example, a cover letter is different to a supporting statement. Plenty of generic instructions exist online regarding the difference between these two documents but the institution you are applying for will likely also provide their own guidance. 

If this is a competency-based application/interview process, (it is likely that the job description or supporting documentation will state this), then the application is asking you to give examples of how you have handled particular tasks and challenges. For example, a competency-based question will likely start with the phrase ‘Can you describe a situation when you had to…’. You should consider using the ‘STARR’ method to respond to this type of question. Plenty of instructions regarding the STARR method can be found online. It stands for ‘Situation; Task; Action; Result; Reflection’ and is asking you to demonstrate times in the past when you have utilised your skills and behaviours to achieve success. Practice can make perfect regarding competency-based responses. 

CV 

Unless you have decades of experience behind you, it is unlikely that your CV needs to be longer than a page – two at most. It is a tool that gets you through the door, one that interviewers can use to ask for more information at the interview stage, so keep the information relevant and concise. It’s more important that your CV has no typos and is easy to read/understand than if you’ve included every single little detail. Remember, the recruitment team might be sitting in front of 100 CVs and they’re only human, quality over quantity is going to speak volumes, so keep your format simple for that exact reason. 

Many institutions have clear and lengthy discrimination policies – so those recruiting don’t need to see your date of birth or a picture on your CV – infact, it’s likely a lot easier for them if they don’t. Additionally, data protection and privacy laws are a constant consideration. References will be requested further down the line so don’t put people’s full names and addresses on your CV. The phrase ‘References available upon request’ will suffice. People’s personal data is protected by law, so adding it to your CV (that’s available online or handed out freely) screams that you’re new to the job searching world. 

3) Develop your networks 

Social Media Presence 

Be active on Twitter, heritage sector institutions use it a lot, and this is something you can do in your pyjamas at home. If you take five minutes to quickly scroll through a few local heritage institution pages every few days, it’s amazing how quickly you’ll build up a useful picture of what is happening here and now. Not to mention ‘Job Klaxon’ posts are a regular thing. 

Remember that there is a social media team behind that page and screen. It’s a team, (potentially one that is smaller than you imagine), that has spent time brainstorming ideas; constructing posts; creating graphics; scheduling content and trying to think of something witty to say that isn’t another comment about the weather – *insert generic statement about the recent storms here*. Smaller institutions and groups will genuinely notice their top fans and people will always remember if they’ve felt supported by you. Throw those likes around. Share their post. Someone might recognise your name down the line… and some VOiCE members have worked in social media teams before where random individuals have become an infamous enigma of the office – who is this wonderful human who always likes our posts immediately – where hath they come from… and is this a team member’s mother… (probably…). 

Networking 

Now, we’re not going to lie, we’ve all heard the word #networking too much, and yes, it makes us feel a little queasy as well… but you don’t need to think about networking as a buzz word or the need to turn up anywhere in a three-piece suit with a business card, (although who are we to talk, it can be important to build a brand).  

When we suggest #networking, we’re talking about attending the odd event; being polite and friendly to the people you interact with there and consider asking a question if they open things up to the floor.  

If you’ve signed up to an in-person event that has limited numbers and you realise you can’t make it, put that ticket back in the pool. There is likely a waiting list and a physical list of attendees being crossed off somewhere as people arrive. If your name starts to regularly sit there remaining blank then you may find that you’ve made a reputation for yourself with a few people before you’ve even set foot in the building. 

Visit Onsite 

We’re not suggesting that when you see an email at the bottom of a job application that is closing in a few days, that you send off a message requesting a private tour of the location as soon as possible – it’s extremely likely people just don’t have the time to facilitate something like that, (even if they’d like to!), and whilst you’ve probably been told to provide evidence of how enthusiastic you are and how willing you are to go above and beyond the rest, you also want to come across as realistic; understanding of the way the company operates and that you are respectful of other people’s time.  

So whilst that’s not required, many of these heritage institutions are open to the general public. A little, personal scouting mission would be possible (especially if it’s not the sort of place that you need to book). Get a feel for the place, see what they have on display; do they have a café, a gift shop, a reading room? Did someone greet you as you entered? Did you see team members interacting with each other and, importantly, did they seem happy to be there?  

You probably don’t need to wait for Doors Open Day to get inside a building or onto a tour. Many heritage institutions in Edinburgh have regularly offered (COVID-19 permitting) access onsite and behind-the-scene tours of their venues. VOiCE have found quite a few on Eventbrite. In the past, and within a few clicks, we were able to head backstage at the Kings Theatre before it closed for refurbishment. We listened to stories about their staircase, their ghosts and the art installation that sits above the theatre stalls. Another day could be spent at an industry based talk in the beautiful dome at the National records. Sit and look up at the statutory records you are encircled by. Perhaps you could head through the store rooms at the National Library and get to grips with their shelving systems and management. 

Volunteer 

A reality of this industry, like many others nowadays, is that volunteering can be crucial to getting an entry level job. We recommend that you start as early as possible. Many University students have gaps in their weekly schedule, (and a student loan to sustain them financially during this time), so if you are able to volunteer whilst studying then you’ll be setting yourself apart from the crowd. You’ll be opening your world up to the varied career options that are out there; you’ll be establishing contacts/connections and getting your face known. Plus, you’ll have tonnes to write about in a job application. 

A silver lining of COVID-19 restrictions has been how many hybrid/flexible working voluntary positions have been made available in recent years. So if you’ve been nervous to suggest that you might be free a few days a week incase you end up not being able to fulfil that commitment, then maybe there is a different style of volunteering out there that suits you. 

Transferable knowledge and skills are so important in this industry, so volunteering doesn’t necessarily need to be directly related to the Heritage sector. Have you gained experience in fundraising; customer service; working with children; data entry or working FOH at an event? It’s all so applicable. The Heritage sector is extremely diverse, not only will you be expected to have a wide range of skills/knowledge base but also that you’re willing to keep learning. Embrace volunteering in areas that you never thought you would. It’s amazing what aspects of a job role from your past can suddenly make for the perfect example of how you remained flexible; adaptable; resilient or willing to be a team-player in your future applications. 

LinkedIn 

If you’re using a platform such as LinkedIn then it’s important to keep it up to date. You never know when someone might be viewing it and of course, this is an opportunity to sell yours skills and recent experience. If a prospective employer is taking an interest in you, then that’s an excellent sign, so make sure it’s an opportunity that works in your favour. On that note, what privacy settings are you keeping on your social media accounts? 

You don’t always know who you’re sitting next to 

Storytime – I attended a talk at University a few years ago. The chairs were placed a little too close together, so close that their metal legs had interlocked and tangled, you know the ones. I helped an elderly lady move some seats to be able to get comfy. Got her bags under her seat. She sat beside me and smiled. “It’s awfully cold in this room.” “Yes, isn’t it just.” I remarked and then I went back to replying to a message on my phone. The lady? A retired academic that I had corresponded with over email several times. She’d sent me tonnes of her work that wasn’t available online that I had wanted to read for a University paper. She was funny and quick-witted over email, self-depreciating in a way that made her seem confident. She had scathing remarks regarding her opinions on ‘academia’ that were funny. She had fresh ideas; her work contained many of her own theories (genuinely her own), ones that were engaging, unique and when they went against common beliefs she argued for them well. I had admired her from a distance and had been nervous to email her the first time. I found out who I was sitting next to the week after. I was not best pleased with myself. I have not bumped into her since. 

4) Work out where the institution you are applying for sits within the sector 

The answer to this question does not need to be particularly abstract, start by asking yourself some simple questions.  

  • How big is the venue/institution you are looking at?  
  • Is it open, even in part, to the general public?  
  • Do you think there are 20 employees – 200 employees – 2000? – you get the idea – because this will affect the Operations side of the company considerably.  

A company which is 20 strong will be tight-knit and some of the roles within the organisation will likely be fluid. Several people may be wearing a couple of different hats at any one time. A company which employs over 2000, will likely have multiple sites and distinct departments/roles. You may only meet some ‘colleagues’ from different branches over email, indeed, you may not meet some at all (no matter how long you work there). If you get the sense that you’re joining one department of many, then where does this department sit in the grand scheme of the institutions purpose? 

  • Are they publicly or privately funded? 
  • Is this an institution which sits within and is supported by another organisation? 
  • Are they located centrally, for example in a city, or more rural? 
  • Do they have sister organisations? 
  • What five words would describe the company’s goals/aims/facilities? 
  • Do they organise or take part in well-known/annual events? 

In an application/interview process, the people that are considering your application will likely relax as soon as you suggest you have any idea who they are and what they’re talking about. Equally, it’s difficult to come back from the accidental suggestion that you haven’t done your basic research. 

The Bigger Picture 

It’s basically important to keep your ear to the ground in this regard and try to place the institution you’re applying to into the bigger picture.  

You can make a start on this by subscribing to mailing lists, newsletters or simply scrolling through their social media/website. You might find that they regularly collaborate with an institution that sits down the road from them or that high numbers of their staff have previously worked for other nearby heritage institutions (this world and the degrees of separation within it are not that big!). 

5) Remember the people undertaking this recruitment process are just humans 

Everyone who has/had a job has been in your position before – and they probably enjoyed the hiring process just as much as you are now. 

They’re just real people, and they want your interview to go well, that’s why they invited you to it. 

People like talking about themselves, especially to a receptive audience. Talking about the company, the job position, how long they’ve worked there, the positives that come with being involved with this institution – these are all useful/safe topics that these people will want to give you details on. Try get to know them a bit, ask them what they’re most excited about when it comes to the project you’re hoping to come on board with. Actively listen. On a basic level, they’re working out whether you’d be a good fit for the company. The job role is one thing but can they see themselves sitting opposite you five days a week for the next few years… can you see yourself sitting opposite them? 

On some occasions, one of the interview panel may be the person you are hoping to replace and this can be excellent opportunity to interact with them and their wealth of knowledge. They want to see their work and projects taken on by the best possible candidate. They want to see someone walk through the door that puts their mind at ease because they can leave their role in good hands. Don’t be afraid to ask them why they’re leaving – infact, don’t be scared to prepare lots of questions in general. 

Finally, remember, the people in this interview room don’t sit on interview panels every day that they come to work. They might be nervous from their side of things, because they want to come across as knowledgeable and professional as well. Like we say, applications and interviewing are different skills to the job that people end up undertaking and no one wants to see it go badly.  

There will be good reasons that you’ve been asked to interview for a position – work with your interview panel to show them just how right their gut instinct was. 

Written by Lily Mellon 

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