Archaeological Careers and Idealism
In December 2011 the Lumina Foundation report Hard Times: Not All College Degrees are Created Equal inventoried the employment prospects for various college degrees, and they soberly recognized that “unemployment for students with new Bachelor’s degrees is an unacceptable 8.9%.” They found that Anthropology and Archaeology graduates had an unemployment rate of 10.5%, so this has created some hand-wringing in archaeological circles and unleashed some hollow political rhetoric from a variety of fiscal conservatives, anti-academics, or critics of socials sciences and humanities. The situation is perhaps not as dire as some observers believe, and archaeology is not simply an indulgent pursuit of a handful of dry scholars, but there certainly are some shifts worth understanding for those who wish to become archaeologists.
The Lumina report is actually pretty even-handed and dispassionate about sober realities. For instance, they acknowledge that “graduate degrees make a quantum difference in employment prospects across all majors,” and in Anthropology and Archaeology students with graduate degrees had an unemployment rate of just 4.1%. Certainly archaeology students who wish to work for Cultural Resource Management firms or state and federal agencies should always anticipate securing a Master’s degree, because the employment for undergraduate degreed students simply is not substantial or predictable. A Master’s program provides an opportunity to develop concrete skills like Geographic Information Systems, artifact conservation, database management, or oral historical interpretation that are not afforded in comparable depth in an undergraduate experience.
Many archaeologists would point to a difficult CRM economy reflecting the slowdown in construction and archaeological compliance review, and the academic job market is stable but certainly not growing in many disciplines, including Anthropology. Yet a series of sensationalized bloggers spun the Lumina data to launch attacks on archaeology if not the whole of the social sciences. The Daily Beast led this charge counting Anthropology and Archaeology among the “13 Most Useless Majors.” Some thoughtful defenses of the discipline pointed to the social role of archaeology and the consequence of heritage without necessarily dissecting the economic and educational realities of archaeological employment. This prompted science blogger Martin Rundkvist to respond that this was simply more evidence of “silly humanities idealism” and concludes (based on unidentified evidence) that “It would have been more accurate and honest to say that archaeology is not a career path for anyone who wants to get employment relevant to their college major.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, but there are ways to prepare thoughtfully to ensure an archaeology student will be employable when they leave school. First, a Master’s degree is almost essential in the present job market, and it simply makes for a much more solid scholar. Second, there is still an enormous amount of compliance archaeology in the US, but many smaller firms have folded, so the chances of securing a job exactly where you are is probably idealistic. Graduates may well be required to move to a new place, and they likely will do a fair amount of traveling from one contract site to the next. Third, some observers will never embrace a liberal arts education that yields a reflective and broadly based thinker, as opposed to somebody who emerges from the academy with a series of technical skills. Philosophically, the academy trains students in liberal arts, sciences, and professional schools to think and can’t simply be reduced to job training labs.
People show up at my office regularly indicating they have always been utterly fascinated by archaeology: some come after a career in an ostensibly productive major, others are current students who are unhappy in one of those majors that would supposedly yield them a job one day, and a few are taken by the discipline after a class, but they almost universally are responding to their own deep-seated desire to simply be an archaeologist. I am always sober and critical and remind them that being an archaeologist requires an exceptionally broad training and may not look just like it did on their favorite television shows. I would never tell them what I do is not fabulous fun and fascinating, but I spent a very long time in school, I need to know some challenging science as well as some popular culture, I spent many months away from home, and I went on plenty of excavations that were frankly kind of boring. Some of those folks do decide that its fine to go on an excavation some summer but it may not really be a career appropriate for them. But for others they can have their mid-life crisis now and live the life they want to live provided they realize the challenges of this path. That may be “silly idealism,” and shallow observers can reduce the discipline to “useless,” but the goal is to have students who are fulfilled and contribute to broader communities, and on that count archaeology has a very good record.