Graduate Training in Archaeology Part III
By early Fall of your senior year you should have identified a handful of programs in which you’re very interested. Eventually you should expect to apply to three programs or so; some people apply to five or six, others do just a couple, but its usually not a good idea to only apply to one place.
You will be required to submit GRE scores with your applications, most of which will be due early in the Fall of your senior year, so if you have not already done so you must schedule and take the GREs in the Fall of your senior year. Many people take them a couple of times, in case they have an off-day once out, but this is up to you. Different programs give different credence to the GREs, so know how your preferred programs will view these scores (e.g., as basic ways to make an initial cull, as mechanism to award teaching assistantships, and so on).
The application process can work quite differently in various schools, but its generally pretty consistent from one place to the next in the US. You should expect most applications to be due in late Fall; some will ask for them as early as November 1st or so, and others will give you until March1st to turn in everything. Be aware that financial aid departments can have different deadlines than academic departments, so be sure not to miss one of the financial aid deadlines. When you write to the school initially, they’ll probably send along all the application materials and deadlines. Be aware that these are drop-dead deadlines: if you miss one, you have little or no chance of being granted a reprieve. If it needs to be said, of course you should follow any directions they give you to the letter. Some schools, for instance, will require you to actually paper-clip material in a particular order, tell you where to place the paper clip, specify fonts and word count, have your references send their letters in special envelopes signed across the flap and then integrated into your admissions application, and give you a couple of different addresses to send things, so review all the literature they provide you closely; they will generally be unforgiving for the tiniest infraction because there are a lot of strong applicants. Most universities now do applications online, which has made it a lot easier, but don’t let the appearance of an instant submission tempt you to wait until the last possible day to turn in your materials; inevitably this will be the day you lose internet and get a foot of snow and are stuck at home, so still work ahead of the deadlines as much as possible.
The application package for almost any department will include transcripts for every school you’ve attended, letters of recommendation (generally at least three), a completed application (sometimes one for both the university and the department), and a statement of purpose, which also is known as a personal statement or statement of intent. While you’ll send substantially the same information to every school, a “good” application in one place is not always a “good” application everywhere; every place looks for different things. The bottom line is that some places will reject promising students for a variety of good reasons, so don’t take rejection too personally should it rear its ugly head.
Every application will cost money: expect each application to set you back $50-$100 in most cases, sometimes more.
Two pieces of this package are key. The statement of purpose is probably the single most important element of the application. Generally a statement of field is about a page to two pages single spaced; some schools set limits on number of words or make you print the application within a specific space and with a given font size and spacing. The second critical element of the package will be letters of reference: solid letters of reference will boost your case substantially.
Statement of purpose
A statement of purpose typically outlines your research interests and makes a case (either directly or obliquely) for why you are particularly well-suited to that program. Statements should clearly present your basic research interests, demonstrating a dovetail with those of the department and/or a faculty member, and specify in general how you anticipate pursuing this research in grad school. Any given program or faculty member may look for something distinctive in statements, but strong statements tend to strike a balance between being specific and directed without appearing to have no intellectual flexibility. This means a statement should state a generally discrete area of interest (e.g., industrial archaeology; New England contact period; Late Classic Maya), but it is not necessary (and sometimes counterproductive) to be too fixated on a narrow topic. Don’t try to guess what a given school is looking for in its applicants’ statements, because there is no one way to write the perfect statement. Programs look for different strengths, but most programs will look for some basic things.
Your statement should confront why you are seeking entrance into this program: grad programs want to know if you fit their sense of the sorts of students they are best suited to intellectually (i.e., in terms of the focus of your research) or in a broader personal sense (e.g., a program committed to anthropology as activism will seek out archaeologists who do public interpretive research). How do you find out what they look for?: first of all, read faculty’s literature closely; you should obviously share their basic intellectual position, and your statement should speak at least obliquely to the sorts of subjects they raise in their literature. If you have field experience, you certainly should mention this, particularly if it was with data or a period that you plan to research in graduate school. Some applicants will already have access to a data set of some sort from a dig they’ve already done or a project they worked on, and if you do you should make sure this is clear in the statement. Describe that data (e.g. late-19th century rural farmstead in southeastern Indiana) and be clear that you have been extended permission to work with it if permission is necessary (e.g., if you worked for a CRM firm or did analysis on your undergrad program’s dig, your graduate committee will want to know what sort of material you have to work with and be sure that the CRM principal investigator or your undergrad professor has given you approval to work with the material). If you had undergraduate research experience, by all means indicate that and detail the work you did.
One upshot of this: your statement is generally the same from one letter to the next BUT you must plan to write statements that differ somewhat for different programs–don’t think this is a writing task you’ll complete one Saturday afternoon, or at least don’t expect that afternoon statement to get you admitted to many institutions.
Target a professor or professors in the program you would want to study with and is best suited to what you do. Know that they will likely read your statement most closely and have the most sway over whether you are admitted. Preferably you’ll meet with this professor prior to the admissions review—you need to know if they’re planning on a sabbatical soon, have they recently embraced a wholly new research subject, are they overloaded with students already, are they thinking about taking early retirement, and other pragmatic stuff as well as the personality test. My own feeling is that if you only target a professor without first meeting with them, you’re easier to reject because you’re just a name on a page: human contact makes more sense in most cases.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is let people read your statement before you send it off: take all kinds, supportive and surly alike, grammar police as well as emotive readers, cultural anthropologists as well as archaeologists. You should not nourish a false pride about your statement, no matter how hard you worked on crafting the perfect page: nothing could be more embarrassing or unnecessary than spelling and grammar errors or arguments or passages that are not clear. Just running spell check is not sufficient. Find some professors to review the draft as well as some grammatical compulsives who’ll catch your comma errors and such.
Letters of Reference
You will be expected to solicit several letters of reference from academics or professional archaeologists to support your application. These will be read closely by graduate departments, but as with personal statements, various programs will look for different things in these reference letters.
The application package the program provides will typically email letter requests directly to your referees (or provide web page addresses to which their letters should be submitted). You will be expected to fill in your name and the department to which you are applying, and you will be required to indicate whether you waive your right to see the letter-writers’ letters. You have the legal right to see any of the letters that support your application, and programs technically should not place more weight on a letter that is confidential. Various folks have different perspectives on whether you should indeed waive your right to see the letter, but my feeling is if you’re concerned that Professor X will not write a good letter, then you should ask somebody else; if you know the letter-writer and prepare them well, you should feel sufficiently safe to waive your right to access.
You should expect to solicit three letters, and some students will include even more. Your letter writers should be academics or professional archaeologists. It is certainly nice if you have some luminary scholar providing a letter, but a strong letter from a lesser-known academic can be just as strong if you prepare the writer well and they are able to speak clearly and convincingly about your academic and personal potential.
Your job is to prepare the letter-writers. Just providing the form to three professors is not enough: this is unlikely to produce strong letters. You should first meet with each letter writer individually well ahead of the deadline. You should discuss why you are applying to each program that has made it to the final cut and discuss your personal research interests and how you hope to pursue them in graduate school. This will also provide the letter-writer the opportunity to quiz you on details of your schooling, preparation, and experience.
You should provide your letter writers with your personal statement or a draft–they need to know what you’re saying, and they likely can provide you with suggestions. If you have significant experience, you should prepare a sheet that inventories your field and research experiences. Strong letters will show that the writer knows the applicant’s qualifications and background, and faculty often don’t know much of their students’ backgrounds, so you need to help the writer and provide these details.
Provide each letter-writer a copy of your transcript; you can make this out yourself, but since you’ll be required to include transcripts with your applications, just copy one of those and provide it to the writer. If necessary, highlight the courses that you’ve taken with that faculty member. Again, do this long before the deadline.
Every school will have a different process for receiving letters of reference. For instance, some schools will expect the letter writers to prepare their letters, seal them in an envelope that they sign across the flap, and then return this directly to you to be included with your application materials. Most programs take letters online. Faculty usually expect any mailing expense to be paid by their departments, but some professionals may not have a mailing budget, so you should consider providing a self-addressed stamped envelope for those writers.
Provide each writer a single sheet that indicates the deadlines for each school to which you’ve applied. You should plan to contact each letter writer a couple weeks prior to that deadline and ask them if they need anything else to complete your letter–this is a nice way of asking if they have completed the letter. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned letter-writers have been known to miss deadlines or forget such tasks, so help out your writers and don’t let them misplace you. Many programs will not consider an incomplete application, regardless of how sympathetic they may be.
Regardless of the final verdict, inform each letter-writer of the responses, tell them where you’ve decided to go or what you’ve decided to do, and thank them for the time they put into the task. Few things are more disgruntling than to prepare a letter and then never hear from the student whether the application was successful or not. It is bad manners to meet a faculty member at a conference a year later and let them know you did get admitted based in some significant part on their letter. Your letter-writers will be your colleagues for the rest of your career and will have something invested in your success, so take the time for the modest courtesy.
Plan ahead! If you anticipate going to graduate school directly after you complete your undergraduate training, then you need to start planning in your junior year. If you decide to lay off for a while and perhaps do some CRM work for a year or two, start thinking ahead to the sort of work you want to do and how it will prepare you for graduate school eventually.
During your junior year, peruse web sites for potential graduate schools.
If your primary interest is in prehistoric archaeology, the major meeting is the Society for American Archaeology, which is held in April. By April of your senior year the acceptance decisions will have been made, so if you want to meet up with a whole bunch of prehistoric archaeologists this will be your best chance before the application period.
If you have not taken an archaeology field school by junior year, plan to take one between your junior and senior years. This is absolutely essential regardless of whether you plan to go on to graduate school or CRM.
By the beginning of Fall semester in your senior year, you should be at the point that you’ve whittled the field down to a short list in the neighborhood of five or so. By the time you give your letter writers all your materials around the beginning of November, you should make the final cut.
If you have not already done so, you must take the Graduate Record Examinations in the Fall.
The American Anthropology Association meets in November, which fits graduate school searching very well. If you can afford it, you stand a good chance of being able to meet with somebody from your prospective school at AAAs. The Society for Historical Archaeology meets in January, which is not a bad time, either, since some applications will not be due until early Spring. A variety of regional and specialist archaeology groups meet throughout the year, so don’t overlook smaller meetings as potential places to meet faculty.
Expect to meet with your letter writers and provide them everything they need by November. Keep in mind that they have conferences, end-of-semester responsibilities, and holiday shopping, too, so always give them too much time rather than too little.
Most applications will be due in early Spring of your senior year. Some schools’ financial aid materials will be due earlier, so don’t miss those deadlines if you are seeking loans or other aid. There will be no excuse for missing any deadlines, even if the universities are sympathetic to your plight, so do not bungle a deadline.