Graduate Training in Archaeology, Part II

What are your degree options in graduate archaeological training?  There are two basic degree options in the US, although many programs offer a range of specializations that can be tailored to your needs.  Virtually all archaeologists in the US come out of Anthropology programs, but a handful graduate from American Studies, history, or folklore programs that are sympathetic to material culture studies and archaeology.  Some British and European programs offer stand-alone Archaeology departments that are not part of an Anthropology department, which tends to provide very specialized training and somewhat less breadth than Anthropology programs, and going to school in the UK and Europe can be very expensive.  The vast majority of American archaeologists should expect to get their graduate degree from an Anthropology department.

Many grad programs offer both a PhD and Masters.  Sometimes a student planning to advance to a doctorate has an option of bypassing some Masters requirements or the degree itself; other programs require a Masters along the way and then will test the student before allowing her to advance to PhD status.  The logistics vary widely from one institution to another.

An increasing number of programs offer a terminal Master’s degree; i.e., they offer only a Master’s degree.  Many such departments are oriented to producing archaeology students for CRM employment, or at least for employment outside the academy.  These sorts of programs tend to stress practical skills and the details of conducting archaeology in the real world of deadlines, intellectual flexibility, CRM law, and byzantine bureaucracies.  Such programs often have no Masters thesis but instead place students in an internship with an employer who gives student a work experience focused on a project constructed by the student.  Others require a standard thesis, which typically runs from 50 to 100 pages.

What are the attractions of going the terminal Master’s route?

1. In almost all cases, a Master’s degree is a vastly more pragmatic job strategy than the long haul of going after a doctorate.  A Master’s will yield increased pay in CRM, and it avoids lengthy PhD training and subsequent tortured competition for jobs in academia.

2.  It is more inexpensive to go to school for two years rather than four or more.  Its not shallow to consider expense in this decision, because pursuing a doctorate for even the most driven student is a venture that should take several years and will likely demand student loans, liberal family borrowing, dipping into savings, and the benefits of a credit card.

3.  A Master’s degree does produce more competitive students after graduation who can expect better pay than bachelor’s students.  Your degree won’t in itself produce a job, the job market even for Masters students these days is quite tough, and you will still be compelled to present field experience and skills to a CRM employer, but the degree will help secure a more stable and lucrative position.

4. A Master’s degree is typically less demanding in a wide range of ways: there is less coursework and there are fewer requirements to fulfill the degree, so there is much lower attrition than in PhD programs.

5. In general, a Master’s degree is completed quickly and is less likely to drag on because masters programs are more structured than PhD programs; this is not always the case, since some doctoral programs demand students leap through many hoops and a few Master’s programs are quite fluidly structured.  Because most Master’s programs are trying to get students out in two years, though, they tend to have clear and systematic structure, and some students do better in a highly structured program where their courses are required and their progress is closely monitored.  On the other hand, other students flourish when left to their own devices, so know your personality and the program’s philosophy.

6. Master’s programs exert less pressure to publish and present at conferences.  In a doctoral program, you’ll be compelled to begin assembling professional papers and presenting papers at meetings, especially if you entertain the notion of entering the academic job market.

7. In general, a Master’s degree committee has a less onerous role than a doctoral committee because the Master’s thesis and degree program is much shorter than a doctoral dissertation and PhD program.  You may want a really intrusive committee or advisor during your Master’s degree study if you need to have somebody occasionally light a fire under you over those two years.  However, the relationship between an advisor and student over the course of a dissertation and PhD study is very long and can run the course of any human relationship that involves power.  The work a PhD produces during their dissertation and their relationship with their advisor will shape all facets of their subsequent professional life, so it is not a normal relationship.  Most grad students and faculty advisors alike are pretty smart people and have strong wills, too, so this is a relationship that can be infused with a very wide range of sentiments that are not normally unleashed over two years and a typical thesis.

8. Someday you will want a real life, in some sense of the term.  Your significant other, disturbed cat, and family will likely rearrange their lives for you over a couple of years and even pack up a U-Haul and move off to distant College Town, but they may not be quite so eager to spend five to ten years immersed in your schooling.  You should be very clear about the intensity of any graduate training with the people who are attached to you, and they may well be more receptive to the shorter commitment involved in a Master’s degree.

D. What are the detractions of a terminal Master’s degree program?

1. A resourceful student can challenge themselves by expanding on the basic requirements of a Masters program, but some Master’s programs are very highly structured and offer little or no opportunity to take any classes beyond the standard 36 hours or thereabouts.  This can be a dilemma in a highly structured doctoral program as well if you’re keen to explore other subfields, perspectives, or disciplines, but even in a liberally structured two-year Master’s degree program you can only take a few electives.

2. PhD programs often have archaeology faculties oriented to research projects that demand graduate student labor, so there are many opportunities to carve a niche on a project and produce original research.  Lots of PhD programs have faculty who manage long-term excavation projects that are geared to producing numerous dissertations, and a few Master’s programs have such projects geared to producing thesis research and fieldwork opportunities.  In general, though, intensive and original research projects are somewhat more likely to occur in a PhD program.

3. As in many PhD programs, Masters programs often have considerable cultural anthropology credit course requirements taught by faculty who may have mixed interest in archaeology or material culture.  This is not a problem unique to either Masters or doctoral programs; rather, it is a problem that tends to be found in certain departments where archaeology is not highly regarded.  In programs where archaeologists and cultural anthropologists see themselves as true colleagues, cultural anthropology courses will be essential elements of your training.  But if your ethnography professor thinks archaeology is stones and bones lacking any substantial cultural insights, then you’ll only be unhappy with the program and robbed of key intellectual training.  Consequently, understand the program’s attitude toward what it is you want to do before you get there.

A PhD is a considerably longer and more intensive experience in even the shortest and easiest programs–archaeologists should really expect six years and reasonably know that more is possible.  Archaeological research is a painstaking and demanding process, and the process of taking classes, finding a project for your dissertation, digging a site (should you choose to do original field research), analyzing it, and then writing it up to the satisfaction of yourself and other scholars can take a very long time.  Those people who are self-driven, committed to a project, and enjoy the intense process of excavation, analysis, research, and writing can flourish in doctoral training.  Doctoral programs vary widely in structure; some are very highly structured with well-detailed hoops, while others are much more liberally structured.  Most give students considerable latitude to construct a program with a committee, the group of faculty that will guide your doctoral research.  However, this still means that a potentially lengthy period of time will be spent between you and your advisor (a.k.a., chair) determining what it is you need to do to be prepared for your dissertation research.  This may require a little bit of coursework or a lot, and the latter of course adds to the time you’ll be submerged.  Those programs that do grant their students a fair amount of latitude determining their program are not well-suited to students who need assertive direction, so attrition can be a pressing problem: once again, be honest with yourself and decide whether you need somebody to light a fire under you or just leave you alone to explore.  Virtually all programs will require language competency (generally passing a reading proficiency test) and/or special skills tests, though some programs will waive this if the skills are superfluous to the student’s interests.  Even if you escape that, though, doctoral training will still demand a series of examinations: e.g., a written dissertation prospectus (i.e., what you propose to study); public presentation of the prospectus; oral and/or written exams defending research preparation and training prior to dissertation research (the stage at which grad students are called ABD, meaning “all but dissertation”); preparation of a dissertation; and the final defense of the dissertation and program training–be prepared for a long haul.  If anyone tells you that you’ll be two years on Masters and three years on your doctorate, they’re at best hopeful.

Paying for this length of training is a significant burden; teaching assistantships can significantly reduce cost, but they often increase the length of your education because the teaching workload cuts away at your personal research time.  You may be fortunate to secure some grant or outside funding, but most folks are compelled to borrow money and live quite meagerly.

A PhD traditionally has prepared archaeologists for academic employment, but increasingly more PhDs turn to CRM today, in large part because the academic job market is quite bleak.  The dilemma is that many PhDs went to school training themselves to teach and be an expert on a narrowly defined topic.  Yet CRM demands a quite different set of skills in addition to that intellectual training.  Great thinkers will always find work in CRM, but the best CRM scholarship comes from very bright folks who also have very good practical skills:  they know their artifacts, are excellent field archaeologists in a wide range of settings, they are flexible generalists, and they understand CRM law and the business itself.  If you’re interested in doing CRM archaeology, you can tailor a PhD program to provide excellent preparation, but if you train thinking you’ll be a theory-builder, your capacity to do much CRM will be significantly weakened.

Those future doctorates looking toward academic employment will find a thin thread to hang on.  There is keen competition for even the lowliest jobs, and pay is not particularly good.  Many newly minted doctorates typically flock to part-time teaching positions and non-tenured full-time positions that have expanded as tenure stream jobs slowly disappear.   Part-timers typically have little or no benefits, which is a big drag when you need a filling, have the flu, or feel compelled to feed your family, and many institutions treat their non-tenured faculty pretty poorly.  Tenure stream positions provide enormous creative opportunities and research possibilities, but it is worth being sober about this job market.

Most archaeology students can secure challenging intellectual training in a Master’s degree program, but some of us will always have research interests that need a more lengthy, rigorous, and intensive educational experience that can only be found in a doctoral program.  Know what you want out of graduate school and be honest with yourself about your own temperament and commitment before you decide on beginning a doctoral program.  You can always keep this option open in a terminal Master’s degree program anyway:  if you decide at the end of two years you’re ready for more, then you’ll be able to go on and have a Master’s degree to fall back on as well.

Choosing a Graduate Program

The process of choosing a graduate program can be an exciting but onerous task.  You will be evaluated throughout the rest of your professional career by the program and its faculty, so you will have something serious invested in whatever place you decide to go.  At the same time, you need to find a place that suits you intellectually, financially, and personally.

In your junior year you should begin the hunt in earnest if you anticipate beginning grad school in the Fall immediately following your graduation.  There are a number of things to think about as you shop graduate programs.

1. The most critical question you must answer is what do you want this degree to do for you in terms of long-term goals?  As I’ve suggested, for many archaeologists, a Masters is an increasingly smart strategy in pursuit of CRM work, and an increasing number of programs are geared to training students for CRM research.  If you have some complex and ambitious project, you may be compelled to take on the PhD route.

2. What are you interested in?:  obviously you should choose to go to a school where people do the sort of research in which you’re interested.  This can be found out through your own reading of the archaeology literature:  find out what scholars do work that is interesting and exciting, then find out where they teach.  You can also find out who is doing interesting research right now, as opposed to a decade ago, by attending conferences and listening to students and faculty who are researching topics that interest you or have intellectual perspectives you are attracted to.

You should plan to troll the AAA Guide to Departments, which is a systematic listing of every anthropology department and faculty member in most US and many worldwide departments.  A current AAA Guide to Departments is kept in most departments.  A number of fine websites inventory graduate programs in archaeology including the Society for Historical Archaeology (which inventories historical archaeology programs and includes links to web pages).

Virtually every department with a graduate program will have a web page, and this can give you some sense of the program’s research strengths, intellectual philosophy, pedagogy, and basic self-image.  Web sites can tell you as much about a program’s personality as they can tell you about all the dry facts you need to know.

3. Assess the competitiveness and character of programs: understand how difficult it is to get in to a given program, the number of students in already, and the type of students and faculty already there.  Be  reasonable: the top-notch programs are very competitive and can afford to pick and choose; they will very strenuously assess your undergraduate program (i.e., where you went to school and who you trained with), GREs, GPA, and statement of purpose.  Big programs are sometimes less likely to have money to spread around to their students; more people will be competing for the teaching assistantships, and this may create a more divisive atmosphere.  Some programs will also be peopled by a lot of very smart people whose competitiveness can make for an unpleasant social experience, and graduate school should be challenging but not miserable.  Smaller programs have more contact between students and faculty–this is really critical in grad school; it is annoying to not be able to meet with your undergrad advisor, but you can do nothing without your grad advisor and committee’s permission.

4. Personality: do you like the people who you want to study with?  You can only know this by seeing them speak, talking to their students, and meeting with them, all of which you can do at conferences.  I suggest that folks send a brief email or call a professor prior to a meeting and ask if they might take a few moments at the upcoming meeting to talk about the department’s graduate program; most faculty will do their best to meet with you or find some other way to accommodate you.  You can simply walk up to a prospective faculty member at a meeting, but you should understand that these are busy times for them and they may not be able to talk with you without advanced warning.  Email inquiries also work very well with some faculty.  Some students are leery to approach a professor because they are concerned they might end up saying something goofy and endanger their application.  My feeling is that you’re likely to say several goofy things over the course of a couple years or more, so if you end up being modestly inarticulate or have a bad hair day most faculty will forgive you:  if they don’t, then this is the time to find out.  You should share your concrete questions about the department with the faculty member, asking about their interest in doing whatever it is you do, their courses, funding, or whatever else is of interest.  This is a critical time to find out key details about a program and a faculty member, but it also is a personality test:  you really need to get along with this person if s/he will be your advisor.  Finding somebody who is active intellectually is important, but I think it is generally far better to train with a lesser-known but personable and sympathetic advisor than a world-class luminary who gives you no time and is busy, grumpy, or focused on advanced doctoral students.

You want to know about the program from the faction most likely to offer up the unvarnished reality?  Seek out some current students.  Talking to current or recently graduated students can illuminate a lot about the program; they’ll gripe openly if they’re not pleased with something, and they’ll also hail the program if they’re happy with their experience.   They’ll also share facts of life things you need to know:  e.g., how much rent is in College Town, the local social life, departmental activities, and so on.

Some programs suggest campus visits.  Since this could be outrageously expensive, I’d suggest only considering this at a late stage.  However, if you’re close by your prospective school, by all means consider visiting.

5. Where’s the cash?:  At some point you want to know how much money they have to spread around to students and how it is spread.  You don’t want to spend the rest of your life paying back loans or recovering from credit card debt inflicted by graduate school living.  You’ll want to know how much teaching and research assistantship money is available, how many students are competing for it, and how it is distributed (e.g., merit, intellectual progress, taking turns–such as in second year but not first–, and so on).  Teaching assistantships (a “TA”) generally require you to do some teaching, often in discussion sections that break off a larger lecture taught by a professor.  They can include grading papers and exams, developing exercises and section lectures, and various tasks to assist a faculty member.  Generally they include a cash stipend and include a tuition waiver; in different programs, you can expect some modest benefits, and in others you can expect no benefits at all:  ask a faculty member or student for details in a given program.  Many programs today extend students a TA in their second year but not their first; you can only know a program’s general policy by asking.  A research assistantship (an “RA”) usually assigns a student to a particular professor for whom you might do any number of tasks.  Like a TA, an RA usually includes a stipend and tuition waivers.  Fellowships are full tuition waivers that are usually accompanied by a stipend, and they are designed to provide sufficient income for a student to apply themselves fully to coursework without worrying over their phone bill or other real life hassles.  Usually fellowships are competitive and based on academic merit; some fellowships are designed to fund minority students, women, members of underrepresented groups, or special academic interests, so look closely at the department’s literature and ask questions about the range of funding possibilities.

6. Program reputation: this is not a be-all and end-all, but more respected programs with well-known faculty certainly will help in the ultimate job search.  Know what your preferred program is noted for:  e.g., they may be a strong CRM training department, they may be Marxists, etc.

Ready to apply?  Then move on to Graduate Training in Archaeology, Part III.

Posted on January 17, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on UE BOOM and commented:
    Pretty cool page. Here.

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