From PhD to Program Manager at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

In the next two blog posts, we speak with Sean Carson, who has a PhD in Music Theory and Composition. He currently works for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. In this first post, he tells us about his job and shares his experience leaving academia.

BA: What does your job entail?

Sean: I work for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (, which is part of UC Berkeley. My job has changed several times since I started here about eight years ago, but I’ll focus on what I did for the longest.

For five years, I ran a program called L@TE, which was a weekly series of live performances (usually music, but often dance, performance art, etc.) in the museum building. Essentially, my job was to make these events happen, with all the attendant planning and preparation. Since every show was unique, and I was working in a space not really set up for live performances, there was a lot of improvised problem-solving throughout.

BA: What does a typical day look like for you?

Sean: I think I’m going to “outsource” the answer to this question, because I kept a blog about a week in my job at this website:

BA: What kind of abilities are necessary to do your job?

Sean: In my case, having some experience in putting on live performances was helpful, because I was able to talk to musicians in their own language, and I was sensitive to the special acoustic properties of the space. None of those experiences were directly related to my graduate work, though sometimes there was a little overlap. Probably the most applicable experience I brought to the table was a lifetime of dealing respectfully with flaky artists.

I do think that, in the case of this particular position, it was a plus to have an academic background and the ability to express—verbally and in writing—complex ideas. Then again, the job kind of grew up around me, so it’s possible that, had I not possessed those skills to begin with, they wouldn’t have been considered part of the job description.

BA: Are there resources someone interested in your job could consult?

Sean: Honestly, I sort of fell into this job by being in the right place at the right time. I’d say that, in an institution that purports to be creative and enlightening like a museum, the odds are greater that an artistic background might lead to more interesting and fulfilling work, but in my case it was truly blind luck. To actively pursue a career in, say, concert production, I think one simply needs to do a whole lot of it and get to know other people doing the same. Unfortunately that probably means volunteering at first, while holding down a day job. Doing your work well, perpetually networking, and being willing to try new things can open up doors, but it usually happens slowly, from what I’ve seen.

BA: Backtracking a little, how and why did you decide to leave academia?

Sean: I don’t think I did anything as dramatic as the phrase “leaving academia” might imply. I kept applying for teaching jobs for a couple years after getting my PhD, but not getting anywhere. After a while, I stopped trying and just focused on my “day job” instead. In many ways, it was a relief to do just one thing instead of two.

BAMPFA exteriorBA: Was the transition difficult?

Sean: The transition was disappointing, certainly, but not particularly difficult. Like many others, I always had another non-academic job, usually full-time, throughout my time as an undergrad and grad student, so it was simply a matter of moving into a job that I enjoyed well enough to imagine working at long-term.

I think the process was much easier for me than it might be for some, because I never categorized my doctoral program as a career investment. Surely, I’d have loved to get an academic position somewhere – teaching and doing research remain far and away my favorite things to do, and I’d jump at the chance even today – but primarily I thought of the time and effort spent as an investment in myself as a human being. Yes, that’s about as corny as can be, but true.

And actually, in my fields of music theory and composition, it’s relatively easy to continue to work outside the academic world and (this next bit is much less likely) garner enough attention and reputation that one might be considered for a teaching position later in life. No expensive laboratory equipment required.

BA: How did you go about the job search? What was the process?

Sean: For my current job, the Internet made things extremely easy, I must say. I simply started searching for jobs in my vicinity, knowing that I wanted to work in a field at least tangentially related to the arts. I don’t think of my case as typical – I was just using craigslist and looking at the job websites for various institutions and arts organizations. Then it was merely a matter of finding a job that had the flexibility I needed (at the time, I had a child just entering first grade), a salary I could live on, and fellow employees that I felt I could get along with. I was lucky enough to find those all in one place. If I were looking for a new job today, I’d probably do the same thing, plus ask friends and acquaintances in the local arts community to help me out.

BA: What was the job application process?

Sean: My job started out as an entry-level position, nothing fancy, so I sent in a resume and cover letter, highlighting similar things I had done in the past, and went in for an interview. I imagine that I was probably among three or four people that were interviewed.

BA: How did you assess company culture before taking a job?

Sean: Here I admit to being rather blatant: before going to the interview, I walked through the building and asked anyone I ran into how they liked working there, explaining that I was considering it myself. People were very honest and open, and quite positive about the place. I also felt a solid rapport with everyone that I interviewed with, and that clinched it for me.

(End Part 1)