Graduate Training in Archaeology

This is the time of year when I have just finished writing letters for my students applying to graduate school, reviewing applications from prospective grads, and chatting with students who are contemplating going to graduate school.  If you are contemplating a career in archaeology, at some point your family, significant other, cat, or–better yet–you will wonder if this leap actually promises to bring a lifelong livelihood, challenging and enjoyable work, and, well, filthy lucre.  Regardless of whether your interrogators pose these questions with cheer or derision, they’re reasonable things to consider.  In general, the career news in archaeology is good, but it as an uncertain moment for archaeological employment in the private sector and academy alike.  Most students should commit to graduate training at some point if they want to do something besides dig excavation units and get laid off on a regular basis into perpetuity.

The graduate school leap is not quite as overwhelming as it may appear from the distance, but it is still a serious decision that can change your life in quite profound ways.  This page only represents my best advice for students contemplating archaeological employment and graduate school, and it only is my advice:  everybody has individual things that need to be considered, from their research interests to the sort of places they want to live, and your interests are best-served if you talk to as many people as possible, including professors, students, family, and anybody else, and treat my counsel as well-intentioned but imperfect because every student’s needs are unique.

Cultural resource management is the umbrella term for a range of archaeological research that is conducted to satisfy various federal, state, and local preservation laws that require the preservation and documentation of archaeological resources.  The emergence of CRM since the mid-1960s has revolutionized American archaeology in many ways, because it has provided access to a staggering range of archaeological sites that would otherwise have been destroyed, and it has of course provided many more jobs than the handful of positions once available in academia.   Today almost all archaeology students in the US will enter jobs in CRM, which includes contract archaeology firms (i.e., businesses that conduct compliance archaeology for profit), museums, historical societies, and many federal, state, and local agencies (e.g., National Park Service, military, Forest Service, etc).  Cultural resource management archaeologists study every conceivable time period from Pre-Clovis to the twentieth century, they work in every US state and territory, they conduct terrestrial and underwater research alike, and they study virtually any cultural or social group that has spent time in North America.  It is extremely unlikely that any of us will ever become filthy rich doing archaeology in CRM or the academy, but the development of a wide range of preservation laws, increasing public awareness of historical, cultural, and archaeological preservation, and the rapid pace of development throughout the country has provided a fortuitous moment to be an archaeologist.  Nevertheless, preservation laws are under assault in some places.  There are some genuine drawbacks to CRM employment that are worth considering, but an appropriately sober and well-trained student can expect to find interesting and stable archaeology employment.

For those interested in what jobs are out there for archaeologists at every level of training, Archaeology maintains a list of many current jobs in various reaches of CRM (they have a very well-updated Facebook page and a Twitter feed too).   The American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA) is the official organization representing cultural resource management firms in the US, and they include listings of CRM firms looking for laborers.  Cultural Resource Management is the National Park Service’s review of CRM news throughout the US, which includes a wide range of historic preservation projects as well as archaeology.

If you have an undergrad degree and an archaeology field school, you likely can find at least temporary employment with a cultural resource management firm as a field excavator (sometimes these jobs are labeled “field technicians” or “shovel bums”).  You will have almost no chance of securing work with most contractors or CRM archaeologists if you have not had an archaeology field school; virtually all will expect you to have completed a field school, and most will expect you to have completed your undergraduate degree.  It is not particularly critical that you have a field school in some well-defined area of specialization, since basic field technique varies relatively little between most contexts.  However, some contractors may require you to have worked on, for instance, historic period sites if this is their current focus, or Archaic if this is what they’re preparing to dig for their coming project.  In general, most CRM firms and agencies work with a very wide range of resources and will only expect you to have received fundamental skills training in a field school; if you have additional experience, of course, this will boost your case.  Depending on the region, firm, and economic vagaries, you can expect to make something in the neighborhood of $10-$20 an hour (which may include a per diem for food and/or lodging in some firms but will not likely include any benefits and will in many cases run the length of a contracted project, after which you are again on the job market).

Like any contract labor, contract archaeology has serious downsides; you can be laid off sometimes, some firms don’t pay you if the crew isn’t in the field or the project is delayed for reasons outside the firm’s control, and it is real work, regardless of romanticized notions of archaeology as a pure leisure–cultural resource management firms don’t have the leisure to just let employees blow off a day; a life of digging test pits can change the shape of your spine; contract firms often must meet rigorous deadlines; and the collective burden of sunburns, poison ivy, occasionally boring sites, and weeks in dumpy motels far from home can significantly change how you feel about archaeology.  Your best chances to direct excavations, prepare reports, and secure a more significant income and challenging work depend on graduate level training.

Why go to graduate school?

This seems a ridiculous question, but a surprising number of folks simply go to grad school with no clear idea of what it will do for them.  This is not like a trade school certificate that places a stamp of approval on a certain type of skilled laborer:  different programs produce different kinds of students who are well-suited to some work situations and skills and not suited so well to others.  In general, graduate programs in archaeology have tended to train students how to think and articulate but leave the burden of what you will do with those intellectual skills to you.  This has been a bit of a dilemma in CRM archaeology in particular, where concrete skills–lithic analysis, understanding of Harris Matrix, GIS competence, research skills–are essential.  On the other hand, some students leave grad school with very strong technical skills but demonstrate no substantial understanding of the most basic anthropological terms.  You should also understand that some programs tend to produce competitiveness between students for a variety of reasons, so the personality brew in various programs can be quite different and perhaps not to your personal liking.  You need to understand what it is that you need to know, what you already have pretty much in hand, and what graduate training at a particular school will add to both that will make you a better archaeologist.

There are plenty of very good reasons to NOT go to grad school:

A. “It will build my self-esteem”: students in grad school now can help disabuse you of this notion, because graduate school is a challenging intellectual and social environment.  Many programs are not particularly well-suited to making people feel better, and in fact they may have just the opposite effect.  Sure, your family and friends will perhaps grant you some modest increase in status now that you’re in graduate school, and they may even inflate that status when you graduate.  Nevertheless, there are many far less tortuous ways to build ego and self-esteem.

B. “It will get me a job”: well, of course it will help, but competition can be fierce, particularly at the highest levels.  Graduate degrees DO help enormously when you go off to secure archaeological employment, but they’re not the be-all and end-all—you’ll still be judged on your personal skills, experience, who you were trained by, where you trained, what sorts of sites you worked on, and so on.  The diploma may open the door, but your skills will land you a job, not the degree.

C. “What else am I going to do?”: grad school is a bad place to find yourself and figure out what you want to do.  Normally if you can’t figure out generally what you’re interested in (e.g., historical archaeology, lithic analysis, etc) or why you feel graduate school will help you, CRM employment following your undergraduate training may be a better route to give yourself professional breathing time.  You can dig with a firm and get to see the business and discipline from the perspective of a field archaeologist, which can help you understand exactly what it is you most want to do.

D. “I just like being in school”:  enjoying your undergraduate training is a very good starting point, but graduate school can be the most selfish thing any human can ever do, so it tends to attract certain personality types—good grad students can be intensely self-centered,  utterly focused, and able to maintain that for years.  Being self-centered sounds a little awful, but it can be essential, because an archaeology project is labor-intensive and usually takes years to complete.  The average length of time from bachelors to PhD in the US across disciplines is 7.5 years—if you go the doctoral route, you better be utterly committed and know that your family, significant other, and pets are all ready for a long intense haul that could involve seasonal migration for many archaeologists, poverty for most, research periods and conferences away from home for all, and a whole new bunch of smart but neurotic peers.  In many doctoral programs, a significant number of incoming students will not last to a degree because of poverty, an inability to bring a project to an end, a good job offer along the way, or all sorts of life events.

E. “I know exactly what I want to do”:  this is not always a good thing for folks entering a graduate program.  Successful grad students don’t always focus on a very well-defined topic from the outset; instead, they’re relatively flexible thinkers who have a general way of thinking about archaeology, have a clear but broad area of interest (e.g., Adena mounds, African-American archaeology, etc), and find a project that accommodates their thinking and interests.  Sometimes the most focused incoming students are the most tortured along the way because they have the most difficulty adapting.  I think having a solid focus–“this is what my Master’s thesis will be about”–is less important than flexibility, because you go to grad school to find ways to amplify your thinking, not to give a degree to what you basically already knew.

For more on graduate options and the concrete details of applying, see my entry Graduate Training in Archaeology Part II.

Posted on January 17, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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