Head of Human History

Never underestimate the value of a good research degree, says Elizabeth Cotton, now head of Human History at Auckland Museum.

Elizabeth Cotton

Key facts

Career: Head of Human History at Auckland Museum
Programme: Master of Arts, Postgraduate Diploma in Arts
Subjects: Ancient History, Museum Studies

“After finishing my MA, I went to live in the United Kingdom for seven years and ended up working at the British Museum as an executive administrator.

“During all that time I had toyed with the idea of doing a PhD in Egyptology and then thought about a material culture conservation qualification. In the end I really wanted to come back to New Zealand so I came home, did a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Studies and ended up working in collection management in New Zealand museums.

“After doing that for a while I landed a fantastic role as a senior adviser with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage but in the end missed museums so I applied for my current role.“Jobs in the museum sector are quite rare, especially permanent ones. So go for the contract roles, volunteer if you have to, and get to know people. And do all the work you have to do to reach your goal, whether it is further study or internships.

“It’s important to persevere and remember that it is okay to do the not-so-flash jobs that set you up for the better jobs in the long run.

“When I was a student, I worked in a bank as a teller and as a waitress in restaurants, and following that I worked in various administration, finance, and support roles. I learnt skills from all those roles which still help me today, especially around working with people, listening, applying for funding, budgeting and so on. It is worth it in the end!

“I would encourage students considering studying to think really hard about what you want to do and tailor your course of study accordingly. Ending up saddled with a massive debt has to be worthwhile so don’t be shy about changing what you want to do early in your studies and then sticking to it – I did it after my first year and never regretted it.

“Never underestimate the value of a good research degree, those are skills you can’t learn anywhere else.”