Off-topic: Archaeomath’s Guide to Success in Graduate School for Archeology II

In my previous post, I detailed some things that prospective graduate students should do to prepare themselves for graduate school. In this post, I tackle the graduate years. The tips are focused on things that you should do while you are still in graduate school to improve your future academic job prospects.

Tip Group 2 – Early Years of Graduate School. During these years, you will be satisfying course requirements, obtaining funding (if you didn’t already snag some), and developing and writing a Master’s thesis. If you are serious about an academic career, you will begin establishing your qualifications for such a career at this point. One of the more important credentials will be your publication record.

  • Tailor your coursework to your thesis research. Work with each professor to tie your class paper or project to a chapter or portion of that thesis.
  • Scale your thesis project to a level of effort sufficient to produce one publishable article. Save the book-length monograph for your dissertation. Anything longer than 50 double-spaced pages will require extensive trimming prior to publication in journal.
  • Work with an existing artifact assemblage or data for your thesis. Ideally, you should only spend a couple years working toward your Master’s degree. To meet this schedule and produce a publishable thesis, you would be very hard pressed to acquire enough data through fieldwork to write a thesis worth publishing.
  • Don’t waste your time going to a lot of conferences if you don’t have a paper to present. Conferences are a good way to catch up with people you haven’t seen in long time. Conferences are not terribly useful for networking, if you don’t have a paper to present. Let’s face it: many archeologists are not that good at this kind of interaction. If they really wanted to talk with people, they wouldn’t study human behavior through the lens of their garbage.
  • Go to conferences if you are ready to present your thesis or if you will be giving a paper with your advisor.
  • Give poster presentations rather than speaking at a session, unless you have been invited to speak at an organized session. General sessions are not likely to attract enough people interested in your research to make it worth your while. In addition, the main focus at many sessions is keeping the session on schedule. Discussion opportunities are inevitably more limited. With a poster, you will have a much greater opportunity to actually talk with people.
  • Get some CRM training. You may need to go outside your own institution to get it. As noted previously, most archeologists ultimately work in CRM and not in academia. Scoff if you like, but that’s the reality. It’ll probably be your reality, if only for a couple years before you can land that sweet academic job. You’ll be much happier if you actually know what you’re supposed to be doing. Learn the regulatory process and how it applies to archeology.

Tip Group 3 – Mid-Career Graduate School. During these years, you will be publishing your Master’s thesis, developing your dissertation project, finding funding for your research, and initiating your dissertation fieldwork. This time is the crucial period for establishing your academic credentials through a solid publication record.

  • Focus your early solo publication efforts on niche or regional journals. Contributions to edited volumes are also an acceptable venue for your early efforts. Like it or not, your reputation (and lack thereof) will matter when people review your work. Everyone would love to have their first publication be in Current Anthropology or Nature, but that goal is not realistic for most people. Start small at first. Then build on that work in subsequent publications.
  • In a similar vein, focus your early papers on presentations of new data. This kind of paper is easiest to generate and hardest to reject. Your work needs to be theoretically-informed, obviously. There will be reviewers, however, who scoff at the presumption of a newbie who’s trying to publish some Grand Theory of Stuff. Establish your track record as a diligent scholar before trying to impress the old silverbacks with your credentials as an innovative scholar.
  • Collaborate with your advisor. Your Grand Theory of Stuff will be much more likely to gain acceptance if you co-author it with another established silverback.
  • Work on a field project for your dissertation that can be spun into future field projects. In addition to a successful record of publications, prospective academic employers want to know that you can provide field and research opportunities for their students. I wouldn’t, for example, join an established field project at its tail end unless you’re confident that you can make a go of it on your own.
  • Do a little CRM work on the side. If you’ve made it this far in school, you could probably use the money. As noted, you are also likely to end up working in CRM. The contacts and experience that you obtain working a few local CRM jobs will be valuable later, if your pursuit of an academic job is unsuccessful.

Tip Group 4 – End of Graduate School. During these years (which may last a long time), you will be analyzing field data, writing your dissertation, preparing for your future career,. and submitting job letters for open positions. If you haven’t already started to establish your publication record, you may have very little opportunity left to do so, depending on how long you take to write your dissertation.

  • Don’t be in a rush to graduate, unless you have severe financial constraints. The clock on your viability as an academic job applicant will be ticking once you’ve graduated. If you haven’t landed that first academic job within the first three or four years of graduating, you aren’t likely to get one. At that point, most schools will figure that you’ve been rejected for other opportunities for good reason.
  • Organize a session at a major conference around a topic that is central to your dissertation work. This session will give you a little extra visibility prior to graduation. If successful, you may also be able to organize an edited volume around the proceedings.
  • Turn your dissertation’s “theory chapter” into a publishable article. At this point, you presumably have a publication record going for you. Hopefully you now also have enough credibility and a sufficiently strong paper to get your work accepted in a major journal. Having just one article in a major journal at this stage will provide a significant boost to your chances of getting interest on the academic job market.
  • Try to find teaching opportunities available to ABD candidates and obtain a few part-time teaching gigs. Local community colleges may provide such opportunities, in addition to the spots available at your own university. Prospective academic employers will want to know what classes you’ve taught and are prepared to teach. If you can establish your ability to teach a diverse range of classes to a diverse audience, with documentation of teaching efficacy (good class evaluations), you will give your academic job chances another boost.
  • Once you’ve graduated, apply for any limited (one-to-two-year) appointments as a university lecturer for which you are qualified. You can often turn this experience into a full-time gig somewhere. Of course, you need to be sufficiently mobile to make this kind of short-term move.
  • Start dialing your friends at local CRM firms. You may need a place to hang your hat while applying for academic jobs. And you may need to settle on CRM as a long-term career path.

Hopefully, you find these suggestions useful. Maybe they seem obvious, but I certainly didn’t think strategically about my career while I was in graduate school. My lack of forethought definitely shaped my prospects once I was finished.

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

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