Podcast Episode #3

Kate Meyers Emery
Manager of Digital Engagement at the George Eastman Museum

Dan Gorman, Interviewer

Listen on Spotify

Episode #3 Transcript:

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the working PhDs podcast. This episode was recorded while our guest, Dr. Kate Meyers Emery was working at the George Eastman Museum. She is now the digital communications manager for Candid.

Daniel Gorman: Welcome to Working PhDs. My name is Dan Gorman. I’m a History PhD candidate at the University of Rochester. Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Kate Meyers Emery, the manager of digital engagement at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Dr. Emery, thank you for being with us today.

Dr. Kate Meyers Emery: Thanks for having me.

DG: So in episodes like this, we start off by recounting where you began in academia and how you wound up where you are now, which is working at one of the largest cinema museums in the United States. Uh, did you study cinema in grad school?

KME: I did not. I actually studied archeology, and more specifically I was studying mortuary archeology. So cemeteries and human remains is very different from photography and George Eastman and movies. My degree more broadly is anthropology. And so that’s very relevant to museums and there’s more of a connection there.

As an archeologist I was doing a lot working with collections, managing collections. So there is a connection I think, at its center. It’s not as obvious, but when you start diving down into the skills and kind of inner workings of these organizations, you can see a little bit more clearly how I got to where I am.

DG: So let’s talk a little bit about your experience in graduate school. When you were there, did you do a lot of teaching? Were you involved in museum exhibits? I’m curious how you became drawn to the public engagement aspect.

KME: During my degree, I really stuck to doing mortuary archeology, I think in terms of my coursework and in terms of the research I was doing, what I was doing every summer. It was very much focused on mortuary archeology and studying cemeteries.

But the way that I paid for grad school was through teaching and a variety of digital humanities jobs that I held early on. I did some fellowships that were related to cultural heritage informatics. I helped create an educational video game. I worked for an archeology company on campus and was very focused on public outreach as part of that.

And early on in my graduate career, I created a blog called Bones Don’t Lie that was really focusing on mortuary archeology, but from a very public perspective. So everything I was doing kind of adjacent or in tandem with my official degree was very digital was very public outreach was very focused on engagement.

DG: I know from our past conversations how passionate you are about the work at the George Eastman museum for our listeners who don’t live in the immediate Rochester area. What is the George Eastman Museum?

KME: The George Eastman Museum is a museum of film photography, and the legacy of George Eastman that is based on Eastman’s historic estate. For those that don’t know, George Eastman was the founder of Kodak. He also was the pioneer of popular photography. And now the museum includes both a historic home and a large gallery space, as well as a 500-seat movie theater.

DG: What drew you to the George Eastman Museum in particular?

KME: I mean, honestly, they had a job.

It was timing. I did my PhD at Michigan State and I was one of the top three candidates for a tenure-track job in Denver. And I had just gotten back from, like, this three-day epic interview and was feeling like, “Oh, my God, going back into a tenure track position is going to be like doing a PhD again,” and just kind of having this feeling of like, I don’t know if I want to keep doing this.

I don’t know if I want to keep doing this grind. I don’t know if I want to be waking up early on weekends to write.. I don’t know if I want to deal with all of the intense travel for conferences. I started just looking on Indeed and just different jobs sites, seeing, you know, what are other things I could do?

So I just, just looking up, “All right. What are museums in Rochester that are hiring currently?” And the position of manager of digital engagement had just opened up at the Eastman Museum. It strangely fit this subset of skills that I had been building throughout my graduate career, so I decided to apply. And I thought for sure that they would never hire me because I had such a different background, but no, they were like really excited about it. They were excited that I had a PhD because of all of the skills that I would bring with that. It was just good timing on my part that I just happened to be thinking about, maybe I don’t want a tenure track job at the time that this job became available.

DG: Let’s dig into skills a little more. So, as opposed to the lengthy CV that we submit for academic posts for fellowships, most other places are looking for a briefer resume. Can you talk a little bit about how you translated your academic work broadly into specific skills and outcomes for your resume?

KME: One of the things that I did on the resume was, I really focused on experience rather than jobs as categories. In graduate school, we tend to do things that are fellowships; they’re not jobs in the traditional sense, but they are jobs or they’re part-time jobs. I really tried to focus on the measurable outcomes of what I did in each of those positions. So I was producing this much content on social media; I raised engagement on digital accounts this much. I tried to just really strongly, for each one, focus on, you know, “Here are the highly transferable skills that directly apply to the job.”

It was a challenge. I mean, my CV, I think is 14 pages. And so getting that down to a two-page resume was difficult, but it was just really thinking about what do they need to see to know that I’m qualified for this job. And just being okay with the fact that I was leaving stuff off. There’s an emotional attachment to our CVs of all the things that we’ve built up, all the papers we’ve written, all the conferences we’ve gone to, and you just have to be okay with the fact that you’re just going to drop these off because they’re not relevant. They were relevant, but they’re not relevant for the job you’re applying for.

DG: So, what does a typical day at work look like for you? Let’s say pre and post COVID, what would an ideal normal day at the office look like for you?

KME: Weirdly, my pre and post COVID are pretty similar other than the fact that like I’m at home or not. I think one of the perks of being someone that was digital is I already worked from home some days. So for me, the transition wasn’t huge, but my typical day.: The first thing that I’m doing is I’m looking at social media and I’m looking to see what happened over night, that we might’ve missed what’s going on in the community. What’s going on in the world. I’m kind of reading the room and just seeing what comments we’re receiving. Is there anything we need to be responding to? Is there anything I need to be concerned about? And then I’m scheduling our content for the day.

 My job is highly varied based on the needs of the museum at that point. Some days I’m helping to run webinars, some days I’m doing video editing. Other days, I’m just working on social media campaigns, or I’m looking at analytics and doing assessment there. One of the cool aspects of my job is I basically work with everybody, because we want to be sharing all the different stories that are happening. So I’m in a lot of meetings doing story mining. I’m in a lot of meetings to just figure out the tone that we’re going to be taking with a certain exhibition. What messaging do we want to get across?

 A lot of what I do is actually very education focused, which relates almost directly to my PhD. And we’re having discussions about, what are the learning goals for social media? What do we want someone to get out of all the social media posts relating to an exhibition, a display or some other thing that’s happening at the museum?

DG: Has there been a particular exhibit or two that you’ve really enjoyed working?

KME: You know, each one has its own interesting aspects to it. I think I get excited about them in different ways. So we’ve had ones that are really fascinating from a technical perspective of what people are doing with photography and what they’re able to accomplish. We’ve had ones that are exciting because they’re just good for Instagram. We had one exhibition, “A Matter of Memory,” that people just took the best Instagram photos in there because the photographs were so colorful, and they were just so large and varied. So that was fun just from an audience engagement perspective of people doing interesting things in the exhibition to create their own content.

DG: So as we move towards the end of our conversation today, what’s something you would like to develop further in your career? Is there a particular type of online engagement you would like to like dive into further? How would you like to continue to evolve in this role as museum educator?

KME: My job when it started out was very much marketing and communications. Probably the part that I didn’t have experience in was just marketing. I’m really good at education and public outreach, but doing like direct marketing to people was something that I struggled with more, ’cause it just felt so against all my training and everything that I’ve ever done. So I’ve had to get used to that. And I think the way that I’ve taken it, particularly with the Dryden Theater is that it’s education as marketing or marketing as education.

I tend not to do the direct, like, “Hey, come see this thing.” It’s more like, here’s a really cool thing. If you want to see it here are the details. And since then it has expanded a lot into more education interpretation. I think that is something that I want to continue shifting towards.

And increasingly I have actually wanted to get back into working more with physical objects. I think having space from my dissertation and from being a grad student, it made me realize what parts of my graduate career I really loved. I hate doing papers. I hate publications. I just, that whole process is just not for me, but I love working with objects. I love working with collections. So right now, what I’ve been doing is been trying to shift my work a little bit so that when I am producing different educational content, that I actually get to work with objects, that I get to work with historic documents. I think I’ve gotten so digital now that I’m like, all right, you know, I want to actually work with something that I can touch and handle, and something’s a little bit more tangible.

DG: The last question I’ll pose to you is what advice would you give to students who are looking to follow your career path or more broadly a career path outside of academia?

KME: I think just from a practical perspective, one of the best things that I did for myself was having an online presence that was separate from my university. So when people looked me up on Google and were kind of diving into my social media, it was all very professional and it really spoke to the career path that I saw for myself, but it wasn’t so directly related to my organization. I was kind of standing alone as a scholar. So I think having a website, having a really strong social media presence can be really helpful, especially one that’s really professional.

Just showing that you can kind of do public communication, showing that you are mature enough to exist outside of the university and are your own independent individual, I think, is really good. From just a more personal, emotional perspective, it’s giving yourself permission to not be okay. I dealt a lot with just feeling like I was failing because I wasn’t going into a tenure-track job. Because I was told so much that this is the goal. The goal is that you are going to be a tenure track professor. And it was very emotional to take a path that wasn’t that even though I was happy, even though I had way less stress, even though like everything was better, there was still this kind of guilt for not taking the path that my advisors wanted me to take.

And I think it’s just kind of being okay with that. Like give yourself the space to grieve the fact that. You’re not going to have this job that maybe you thought you were going to have, and accept that you can do what you want, you can make the decision. And that the most important thing is to move back to your hometown and be around family.

That’s not a negative thing. You don’t have to be so dedicated to the job that you’ll move anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with taking a different path based on a different priority. Surround yourself with people who will be supportive of you on a different career path. Find a mentor that can help you.

I was lucky enough that I had a mentor in grad school who was not on my committee, who was very supportive. And so I think it’s finding people that will champion you, it’s finding communities that will be supportive and just accepting that some days you’re going to feel guilty about not taking that path. And that’s okay.

DG: Dr. Kate Meyers Emery, thank you so much.

KME: Thank you for having me.

PC: This episode was produced by Marcie and Suraj. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as the link to our website in the description of each episode. Our working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.