Not looking to be Indiana Jones, but George Reisner would be OK.
August 24, 2009 8:48 AM   Subscribe

Are you, or is someone you know well, a practicing archaeologist? Yes? Come on in; I have some questions for you.

I'd like to get some information before I make a big decision about my life path for the next couple of years. Don't worry, I'm already very much aware of the arguments against getting a PhD in a humanities-related field.

1. At what point in your education did you decide to go into archaeology as a profession? Did you get a PhD, or an MA, or both? What track would you recommend for someone who could probably get into a decent PhD program now, would be a stronger candidate with a related MA, but would have trouble affording two more years of school without funding?

2. Is there any professional disadvantage to writing your PhD dissertation in the area in which you're most interested (say, Hellenistic cities in the Near East), when there's a chance you'd consider leaving the academic career path in favor of working as a US government archaeologist? Basically, do research and fieldwork in one historical and geographical area easily translate to a job in another?

3. I'm attracted to archaeology because I'm looking for an interdisciplinary career with a strong focus on history. I work much better when I can break up intense attention to detail with physical activity. I've done archive work (a little conservation, a little research, a little database maintenance), which I felt was almost perfect for me, but not quite. I'm a good researcher, can draw well, and I'm not afraid of spending a lot of my time in uncomfortable physical situations as long as have some information to hunt down. I would like to actually be employable, but I'm not concerned with making tons of cash. This isn't a totally absurd career path to follow, is it?

Thanks for any advice you could give. I'm talking this to death with a solid group of professors, but if any of you out there are actually making a living in the archaeology field, I'd treasure your input like solid gold.
posted by oinopaponton to Work & Money (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
my brother's an archaeologist, but i don't think he reads metafilter. he also took a very untraditional route to become one, as he does not have a college degree--he's just really good at finding things. in regards to it being a career: my brother struggles with finances constantly. he prefers to work for the state, but has done work for private firms. most of the money seems to be in archeological mitigation for construction sites.
posted by lester at 9:02 AM on August 24, 2009

Background: I was in an Extremely Prestigious PhD program in archaeology (in an anthropology department) for 5 years. I had a fellowship and a great adviser. I left well over a year ago and haven't looked back. So, I'm not practicing now, but I was in your shoes and beyond, so hopefully the below is useful.

1. I chose archaeology in my second year of undergrad, and proceeded more or less straight into the PhD program. In my department, the MA was a degree for people who didn't get into the PhD program and were then convinced that it was a good idea to pay for 1-2 years of schooling out of pocket. Hint: it's not a good idea. As has been said before many times, both here on MeFi and elsewhere, never pay for graduate school. If you get into a PhD program without a Fellowship, don't go.

2. It will be harder to get a job for the government with experience in something that isn't Native American or Colonial/Historical archaeology. This hinges on government hiring practices (there was a great explanation of that process in another AskMeFi thread somewhere, but I don't have it offhand). Essentially, a bureaucrat checks boxes, and if you don't exactly match the criteria, you're out (they need a Native Americanist and you're a Near Easternist? Next.). That said, it's difficult to get jobs period, either in government or in academia. The easiest is in CRM for private firms, but easiest is relative. It's a field with tiny demand and far too much supply (i.e. workers). And CRM firms usually don't need PhDs, just people with a BA or MA, unless they specialize in the area/time in question (that is, not the Hellenistic Near East).

3. You want to be employable? Then don't become an archaeologist. And the thing is, there really is no "information to hunt down." The grand conclusions come afterward; in the field, all you're really doing is digging stuff up and noting it. There is never, ever an in-the-field "a-ha!" moment. You found a Neanderthal tooth? Awesome. Now keep digging. Even afterward, the reality of the field is that 98% of papers focus on description ("here's our site for 18 pages, and now 2 paragraphs of basic ideas about what actually went on there") or some sort of very very basic conclusion ("there may have been hunting activity here"). Real overarching capital-I "Ideas" are few and far between, are grounded only in as much evidence as there is (i.e. not much), and will be eviscerated by >50% of others in your field. If you're in CRM, most of your papers will be "we found X." Period, end of story.

Back to academia: the people I went to school with have had a decent placement rate in academic jobs, at least until the economic downturn, but like I said, it's Extremely Prestigious PhD program. And by decent placement, I mean 50% or so. The rest skate by on one-year positions, post-docs, and adjunct teaching. I can't imagine what it's like for smaller, less well-known schools. And if you're in a field where there isn't much demand? I'm so sorry.

All of the above are factors that went into my decision to leave. I couldn't see the true writing on the wall vis-a-vis the reality of the job market until I was deeply entrenched, and your professors will always paint a rosy picture: after all, they're all employed, and most likely tenured or tenure-tracked. My suggestion is to find work with a CRM company and do some mitigation archaeology for a few years. You can do this with a BA, no problem. Then you'll see how you like that side of archaeology, and the process writ large. Going straight to grad school will teach you little about what you really want or enjoy. Once you've done some contract archaeology, reevaluate what you want and whether or not you really want to do archaeology for the rest of your life. If you can find a job that isn't transient.
posted by The Michael The at 10:03 AM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm studying Egyptology right now myself, participating in occasional digs, and I have friends who are professional archaeologists.

1. For one thing, it all depends on whether you want to be a local commercial archaeologist or whether you want an academic position involving exciting digs abroad, two very different things. Most of my friends who work for commercial archaeology companies have a B.A. in archaeology, some have a Masters. A couple of them specialized in Egyptology but also got experience on local digs in Britain and Canada where they now work. Work flow can be unpredictable sometimes though. You don't need a Ph.D. for this but people who have academic positions and do field work for a couple months a year generally have Ph.Ds. I decided to be an Egyptologist when I was six and I'm currently working on a doctorate after doing a BA and Masters. If you're going to do a Ph.D., you'll have to have some prior related study. I'm not really sure what to recommend if you haven't done a related B.A. but can't afford an M.A.! I'm not sure whether if you got some excavating experience at a field school that would be enough to make them consider letting you in directly to the Ph.D. programme- perhaps not, but if you went to a field school connected to the university you wanted to study at and got to know your would-be professors that might possibly help!

2. You can certainly transfer areas, but of course you'll get less milage. You probably don't really need a Ph.D. to be a government archaeologist. If you want to stay flexible though it's good to get a range of experience, which is generally quite easy if you're willing to volunteer some of your time excavating locally unpaid.

3. It isn't a totally absurd career path to follow, but you need to be aware it is more of a gamble than some. But then sometimes that's the risk you have to take if you want an exciting and rewarding career!
posted by Kirjava at 10:06 AM on August 24, 2009

Response by poster: I guess it's relevant that I do have a BA in classical studies and history from a top-tier university, plus I received a research grant to work with an Egyptologist in a stateside archive for a summer. I'm sure I'm not the most qualified applicant Archaeology Department X has ever seen, but I'm not starting from scratch.

The Michael The-- don't worry, I know that archaeology tends toward more sifting quadrants of dirt for pieces of broken clay and bone than anything a normal person would find exciting... those pieces of clay and bone are precisely the information that I mean! I'm 100% okay with that.

Thanks for the input so far-- very helpful (particularly w.r.t. government jobs). Keep it coming!
posted by oinopaponton at 10:35 AM on August 24, 2009

I used to be an archaeologist up until a couple years ago so here's my two cents:
I pretty much agree with The Michael The. If you want to work in the US you need a background in Native American or Historical archaeology. I have a BA in classics and an MA in anthropology and there's a lot of disconnect between the two. Basically I was told I had to pick one or the other. Finally one thing I do disagree with the other posters on is that no one I know with a little field experience and a college degree ever had a problem getting a job in CRM. The pay is OK, you won't get rich but it's enough to live on. Finally, if you don't have any field experience, get some! Take a field schoool or volunteer before you commit to anything.
posted by entropyiswinning at 11:11 AM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

You may be too far along in your academic career for this, but...

I've spent a fair amount of time around archaeologists and former-archaeologists who were looking to translate their background into stateside work. Many of them chose non-archaeological paths, as did I. A few chose related fields like historical conservation architecture (not so much digging, but lots of climbing and peering and scraping and documenting) and the botanical research end of landscape archaeology (taking soil and plant samples to determine what was growing when), where there wasn't quite as much competition and their interests naturally lay.

However, among the folks who persisted in traditional archaeology, one thing that provided a little traction for folks with a non-American Archaeology background looking to work stateside was to work summers while students (or longer if it was near your academic institution) at American sites; here in Virginia - Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier and Mount Vernon (all president's homes) all have archaeology departments. They might not pay (the first summer, at least) but you'll get great experience and contacts in the field. You may be expected to teach and explain what you are doing to tourists in addition to digging, sifting, cataloguing, photographing, identifying, etc, depending on your skills.
posted by julen at 11:46 AM on August 24, 2009

My Dad was a government archaeologist in the Department of the Interior for a while, and now works for an agency in the executive branch doing historic preservation work. He got his BA in anthropology, his MA in archaeology at a different school, and did a lot of work towards his PhD in archaeology at a third school (though he never finished his dissertation).

1. The above is as much information as I can give you about your first point. He was interested in archaeology as an undergrad, but I think the archaeology program at his school didn't exist or wasn't great while he was there. So he started formally doing archaeology in grad school.

2. My Dad did his Master's level work (with a fair amount of field work) on ancient Native American stuff in New Mexico, but when he went to go for his PhD he completely switched research tracks based on (I believe) the projects available at his new school. He ended up studying and excavating a fortified town in Morocco. I don't think he had trouble going from one to the other -- but as others have said, I'm pretty sure he had to draw on that experience in Native American archaeology to get the government job. I believe there was also a multi-year gap from when he stopped work on his PhD to when he started working for the government.

3. I don't think it's a completely absurd career path. But generally, you may find it tough to get a job as an archaeologist. I think you really need to have the right kinds of connections to have a reasonable chance to get a job. There's also a very good chance that after all of your education in archaeology, even if you work as an archaeologist for a few years, you may find that you're not actually doing "archaeology" per se after a relatively short period of time. My Dad went quickly from being a field archaeologist to being some sort of analyst to being a manager doing historic preservation work. My point being that you may not always be doing exactly what you want to do or what you envisioned yourself doing simply because the job may not lead you in that direction.

Good luck!
posted by malthas at 11:48 AM on August 24, 2009

My cousin who was an archaeologist found other work after years of poverty and frustration. She described what she actually did as an archaeologist thusly (I'm paraphrasing here):

Some sort of mining/drilling/etc company will decide that they want to drill/mine/whatever on some land somewhere. Especially if that land belongs to the BLM, they will have to call in archaeologists to determine whether or not there is some significant historical/archaeological reason that they cannot. Since they don't actually want the archaeologists to find anything, they pay very little. In the event that anything archaeologically significant is found, they will probably just drill/mine/whatever there anyway, steamrolling their way through any processes that should impede their drilling/mining/whatever. Did I mention that the money is horrible?

Several of her former colleagues, whom I met a few years back, said pretty much the same thing. One thing she did come away from archaeology with was a firm understanding of federal environmental regulations, which featured prominently in her career change.
posted by willpie at 12:14 PM on August 24, 2009

My background: I have a (double major) BA in Classical Culture/Anthropology, a MS in Geology (geoarchaeology) and am about to start a D.Phil. in Archaeological Science. I have also spent 7 field seasons working/digging at a large World Heritage site outside of the US, and I worked as a lab tech for a CRM firm while completing my undergrad.

A BA degree will qualify you to work as field tech (just the digging) for a CRM firm. A MA in anthropology or archaeology plus field tech experience will qualify you to work as Principal Investigator (the one who dispatches the field techs, sometimes doing field work on larger projects, and writes the reports). Note, my MS would probably disqualify me from a PI position at some CRM firms in the US because my research lacked a large theory component, focusing more on the science-ey parts. In my limited experience with CRM, Ph.D's were not only rare, but actively frowned upon. I haven't really worked out why that is, and it may in fact just be limited to the people I know. Further, I suspect a Ph.D in Hellenistic cities in the Near East would not immediately impress most CRM company owners, but could be supplemented by a lot of lower level field experience in the region of the US where you would like to work. Basically, you'd need to convince others that the skill set you have developed in the course of your studies can be easily transferred to their projects.

Although CRM companies produce hundreds of reports and data summaries every year, it is true there is little new information generated from CRM work, because these reports are filed away as grey literature. The purpose of these projects is to mitigate any loss to cultural heritage in advance of some road widening project, new building development, reservoir construction, etc. If you are looking to spend your life in an intellectually challenging and rewarding career and the idea of grey literature is off-putting, CRM may not be the career path for you. On the other hand, I know plenty of people who find all aspects of CRM both rewarding and challenging. I, personally, do not.

"Archaeologist" is growing into somewhat of an umbrella term that includes not only field workers but also a wide variety of specialists that Project Directors depend on to make sense of the field data. It's impossible to understand the full scope and breadth of a site without a full analysis of artifact typologies, soil profiles, floral and faunal remains, etc. Not all projects can afford all types of specialist analysis, but good projects are designed to solve specific problems or answer specific questions, which is when specialists are called in. Specialist consultants tend to make more money than garden variety field techs and are sometimes sub-contracted by CRM firms. They can be freelancers or hold academic positions.

I personally have chosen the specialist route, concentrating on scientific analysis of specific archaeological materials. My MS and upcoming D.Phil are rooted in technical methods of analysis and associated equipment, which means that I'm hoping to become the "go-to guy" when Project Directors need the type of analysis I can do, regardless of the location or historic context of their site. In the course of my studies, I have seen project budgets slashed and academic departments down-sized, but I study materials that have a modern counterpart and my training could be applied in a modern context. This is my safety net in case it all goes pear shaped and I can't actually do what I want in archaeology.
posted by Eumachia L F at 1:10 PM on August 24, 2009

Shovelbums Field school and job listings (mostly CRM, all US based)
PreserveNet Preservation career and info links...seriously check out the stuff they have up.

Check out federal job listings for can get a good idea of what they're looking for and see how that jives with your own goals. There are temporary seasonal archaeology jobs - if you decide to go for a non-US thesis topic, these jobs would give you practical stateside experience.

Have you done a field school? Lab work? That seems to be the deciding line for people I know when they were considering grad study in archaeology. I've done both, and found I didn't really want to do that for a living...even though I love everything else about the subject.

Can you take a grad level course in archaeology before you apply anywhere? Your local State U should have something, and you would get an intro to some theory. Plus, this would help round the lack of undergrad anthro training.

I don't think it's absurd, as long as you prepare yourself.
posted by shinyshiny at 2:33 AM on August 25, 2009

In the US the two main job tracks are academia and public archaeology (combining all private CRM jobs and government side jobs). There are far more jobs in public archaeology than in academia and academic jobs in archaeology are extremely competitive. The money can be better in CRM than anywhere else in archaeology, but you also have much less control over what kinds of projects you get to work on and in some cases less job security.

For an academic job you will need a PhD in the area you want to do research. You are probably already aware that in the US there is a division between Classical archaeologists who usually work in the Mediterranean area and Anthropological archaeologists who work in the rest of the world. If you want an academic career in the US you will likely have to choose one path or another since the type of secondary training is very different.

As other have said, for a government job in the US you will be best served by training in North American archaeology. For a CRM job you want experience, especially good field experience, in North American archaeology.

As for myself, I was lucky enough to get interested and involved in archaeology in high school and I stuck with it for an academic job in North American archaeology.
posted by Tallguy at 6:38 AM on August 25, 2009

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