Off-topic: Archaeomath’s Guide to Success in Graduate School for Archaeology I

I’ve had a few thoughts on strategies for success in graduate school (and beyond) rattling around in my head for a number of months. Since they won’t do me any good, as I’ve long since concluded that phase of my life, I’m posting these thoughts here. You may wonder what credibility I have as an expert on this topic. As noted, I did complete graduate school, and I have had the opportunity to compare my experiences to those of my colleagues. Beyond those credentials…Dude, you’re the one googling for tips on this subject, so my credibility is probably not your foremost problem.

My advice is predicated on the notion that you care about your future once you’ve graduated and you think you want to teach. I personally did not give a great deal of thought to life after school. I just really wanted to do archaeology, and I had a vague notion that I might get a teaching job after I’d finished school. Things worked out alright for me, I guess, but I wouldn’t recommend my cavalier approach to you. I have grouped my tips by the order in which you should undertake them during your graduate career.

Tip Group 1 – Preparing for Graduate School. To get the most out of your graduate-school experience, you should prepare for it before you enter. These tips will be most helpful if you are still an undergraduate. If not, you may be able to undertake some remedial training and other actions to get up to speed.

  • Get training in soils, geomorphology, statistics, and GIS. Having knowledge in these topics will give you tools for fieldwork and laboratory analyses, regardless of the areas where you will work and the issues that you will study.
  • Get diverse field experience. Take a couple field schools in different parts of the world. It will give you exposure to some different ways of running projects and to the methods appropriate to different settings.
  • Get some real-world experience prior to graduate school. Graduate school will always be there. You need not rush straight from your undergraduate institution to graduate school, and many graduate programs prefer that applicants get some real-world experience prior to graduate school. This experience will allow you some time to affirm your commitment to graduate work in archeology and to develop your ideas about the type of archeology that you would like to undertake in a graduate program.
  • Work as a field and laboratory technician for a cultural resource management (CRM) firm. Temporary and permanent positions as a field and laboratory technician are open to anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a little prior field and laboratory experience. Experience at a CRM firm will serve multiple purposes. It will give you a valuable perspective on your commitment to archeology. It will allow you to hone your craft as a field worker, so you can enter graduate school prepared to conduct your own field work. And it will provide you with some sense of a possible future career track. Most archeologists ultimately work in some facet of CRM. Very few archeologists teach at a university.
  • Page through major journals and the programs for some of the major conferences to identify current topics of interest to the field. As much as I’d like to believe that it would still be possible for you to set the (archaeological) world on fire if you have a well-developed but esoteric interest in—for example—cogstones, I have my doubts. Archaeology is like any other field of study, subject to trends and fancies. Make sure that your research interests are relevant to contemporary concerns in the field. Otherwise, you will have a hard time getting accepted at a good graduate school, attention for your research, major publications, and a decent job.
  • Commit to working in an area that will allow you to distinguish yourself. Sorry to say, but the world has enough Mayan archaeologists. Mayan archaeology may very well have been the subject that first drew you to the field, as it did many others. Your chances of landing that sweet teaching job as a Mayan archaeologist, however, are not high, despite the number of jobs open to people with that specialty. Plenty of other complex societies left an archeological record worthy of study. Try one of them.
  • Develop a tentative plan for your graduate work. By the time you enter graduate school, ideally, you will have some notion of the topics on which you would like to work. The more focused you can be, the more effective your time in school will be.

In an upcoming post, I’ll provide some tips for your early years in graduate school.

© Scott Pletka and Mathematical Tools, Archaeological Problems, 2010.

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