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More Than Half of Museum, Zoo Educators Weighing Career Change, Survey Finds

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More than half of educators at science museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and science centers who responded to a survey were considering a career change because of the COVID-19 pandemic or other issues linked to pay and job security, researchers reported in a new study.

Published in the Journal of Museum of Education, the study led by North Carolina State University researchers found educators in the field faced challenges related to pay, job security, advancement and other issues. Researchers said those challenges could serve as barriers to entry to the field for people who can’t rely on other sources of wealth to sustain them financially, and could keep the field from attracting a more diverse talent pool.

“With the onset of the pandemic, I was seeing a lot of frustration from this community, and educators losing faith in their service-focused mission,” said Kathryn Rende, a graduate student at NC State. “But what we also heard in this study was that the pandemic was the tipping point for some issues that were longstanding.” 

In the study, researchers surveyed 132 science educators working in museums and other non-school settings from across the country in October 2020. They contacted educators using email listservs. The majority of respondents were white women between the ages of 25 and 44 years. All respondents were college educated. More than two-thirds were entry-level or mid-level employees with some supervisory duties like managing interns or other full-time employees. Fifty-seven percent said their work involved activities like planning or running programs. 

“Most people we surveyed were focused on educating targeted populations, like doing youth programs, or managing programs for on-site audiences, and almost all of them had some managerial job duties,” Rende said. 

Before the pandemic, 88% of educators found their work moderately or very challenging; 95% said it was very or extremely rewarding. 

After the pandemic started, 57% of educators said the difficulty grew, and fewer than 30% were finding their work very or extremely rewarding. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely stressful for educators at all levels,” said study co-author Gail Jones, Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor in STEM education at NC State. “We documented that for many informal educators, whose work is dependent on public participation, the pandemic was devastating.”

The study showed that 59% reported they were considering or exploring a career change, in some cases, as a result of the pandemic. Educators who were considering a change cited concerns about upward mobility, their pay, job insecurity and competition for jobs.

In an open-ended section of the survey, some respondents wrote about challenges they faced during the pandemic, including: furloughs, losing their jobs altogether, seeing colleagues laid off, issues associated with shifting programming online, financial losses from reduced budgets and concerns for their personal safety.

The survey explored some of these ongoing concerns for science educators. Researchers found the national median salary for respondents was between $40,000 and $49,000 per year, below the national median income for people who hold four-year or master’s degrees. Forty-three percent of respondents agreed their income could support themselves or their families, with half of those respondents only “somewhat” agreeing. Seventy percent of respondents said they would be unable to sustain their career without additional support from spouses, parents or others. In the write-in section, some respondents said they lived paycheck to paycheck.

Researchers said persistent low pay in informal education could be barring others from entering the field and contributing to lack of diversity in the profession.

“While it is bad for the field, it’s also bad for other people who aren’t even represented here because of additional social, cultural and economic barriers,” Rende said. “The literature in the past has focused on putting the burden on the educator – do more work, have more credentials –but I think we also need to look structural changes in the way that we perceive the labor and the workforce in informal science institutions.” 

The study, “The Privilege of Low Pay: Informal Educators’ Perspectives on Workforce Equity and Diversity,” was published online in the Journal of Museum Education on Nov. 22, 2021. In addition to Rende and Jones, other authors included Kathryn Fromson and Megan Ennes. 

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Note to editors: The abstract follows.

“The Privilege of Low Pay: Informal Educators’ Perspectives on Workforce Equity and Diversity”

Authors: Kathryn Rende, Kathryn Fromson, M. Gail Jones and Megan Ennes.

Published online Nov. 22, 2021, in Journal of Museum Education.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2021.1975484

Abstract: Despite attempts to diversify the informal science education workforce, institutions like museums, zoos, and aquariums continue to be places of privilege where few can afford to make education a life-long career. This exploratory study examined informal science educators’ perspectives on workforce equity, diversity, and professionalization. Through a nationwide survey and selective interviews, educators (n = 132) were asked about their career motivations and personal and professional challenges faced before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Results show that 59% of informal science educators surveyed were considering academic or career changes, citing workplace practices and cultures that perpetuate overwork and underpay and that have contributed to the marginalization of educators who have been historically excluded from working in the field. Our goal is to amplify educators’ voices and encourage reflection on how museums and other institutions have upheld oppressive structures that prevent goals of equity, diversity, and inclusion from being holistically achieved.

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  1. Being a past museum and nature center educator and now an informal educator for a park, I don’t see how these professions are ones of privilege. Most of us, like the article says, don’t make enough to support ourselves. If you work for a smaller organization, as I always have, you make even less than most in the field. I didn’t get into this field due to privilege. It was due to hard work, paying off student debt and making sacrifices. My parents did not have a lot of money. My dad worked hard and provided what we needed. We weren’t privileged like some rich people that don’t have to worry about bills. I get frustrated hearing that all of the time, and especially when I earn way under any privileged people.