Off-topic: Career Paths in Archaeology

In this post, I will again digress, slightly, to discuss possible career paths in archaeology. I addressed an aspect of this issue in my earlier posts on graduate school,which gave some of my thoughts on preparing for an academic career. This time, I’ll talk more generally about possible career trajectories and ways to prepare for them. This discussion will serve as an introduction to subsequent posts, which will detail my own efforts to chart a particular career path.

I have observed a couple pathways to career “success” in archaeology. I define success in terms of acquiring a steady job doing something close to the kind of work for which you prepared yourself in graduate school and through subsequent work experience. One pathway I would consider a high risk, high reward strategy. The other pathway entails lower risks and commensurately lower rewards. I’ll discuss the high-risk strategy first.

The greatest excitement in archaeology generally comes from fieldwork which sheds new light on an old problem or fieldwork which identifies new problems to be solved. Fieldwork also provides opportunities to find the first, oldest, youngest, largest, smallest or whatever-superlative that’s-ever-been-found. In any case, fieldwork remains key to generating high levels of enthusiasm and support for the work that an archaeologist is doing. This simple fact is reflected in many (but, certainly, not all) of the job postings for academic jobs in archaeology. Most job descriptions for such positions will identify an ideal candidate as a person who, among many other things, has an active program of field research. The sad truth is that few people get famous (or secure academic positions) researching old collections. What makes this truth so sad is that a lot of archeological data already exists, is available for research, and has been incompletely reported. In some parts of the world, collection facilities don’t have room for many new collections. And yet the imperative exists to keep surveying and keep digging.

Thus, candidates for academic jobs would generally be wise to develop an active field research program. I consider this a high-risk strategy, however, because there’s little guarantee that the work will provide truly novel data that speaks to interesting problems or that leads to new questions or that results in the discovery of the first, oldest, youngest, largest, smallest or whatever-superlative that’s-ever-been-found. Certainly not if the archaeologist in question is working in a place like Mesoamerica, which can seem like an archaeological theme park, with hordes of professors, students and volunteers in tow, wafting through each field season. More likely, all that hard work (and fieldwork can be incredibly labor-intensive) will make a modest, incremental contribution. Such contributions will not likely move the meter sufficiently to impress an academic search committee, no matter how well-formed the underlying research design.

Taking this path therefore risks producing a highly competent but rather generic field archaeologist, destined to manage projects in the CRM world. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as that the prospective candidate anticipated and planned for that career path. It’s unlikely, however, that an archaeological student who trained as a Mesoamerican/European/Andean/your-culture-area-here specialist will end up working solely in that particular area during the course of a CRM career. Frustration thus ensues.

The other, lower-risk career path is to specialize in a technical discipline, such as zooarchaeology, geophysical prospecting, underwater archaeology, chemical analysis, or quantitative methods. Sometimes academic jobs are posted specifically for these specialties, but such postings are relatively rare. A demand always exists for the services of these specialists, however, as consulting members of academic research programs or as suconsultants on CRM projects. For individuals with the appropriate training, opportunities exist to work in the exact specialty for which the archaeologist trained. Thus, this career path is likely to entail less frustrations: the specialist training provides appropriate additional research opportunities. Of course, such specialists also generally work in support of another archaeologist’s project and not on projects of their own devising.

© Scott Pletka and Mathematical Tools, Archaeological Problems, 2011.

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One Response to “Off-topic: Career Paths in Archaeology”

  1. matthewjoy Says:

    I found this blog searching for “Mathematical Archaeology”. It’s hard to find honest experiential blogs on this topic but you have done a good job and I needed to tell you that. I have spent the last three months looking into socio-cultural anthropology and archaeology. I am preparing to begin college again since I left fifteen years ago. I have no degree presently. I plan to go all the way to PhD and beyond. As I start community college again, I will do extra credit, projects and whatever I can to establish my resume, eight years before I expect my first paid job. I fully expect to volunteer and intern for many years to come and this is my beloved choice. I will be close to sixty by the time I get my PhD and I have to compete with kids. Therefore I must start immediately to impress teachers, professors, and myself with not knowledge, but applied experience. In this century, nothing else matters if any of us wish to hold a job. I need to plan now for my dissertation and future fieldwork. I need to volunteer every summer and winter in my field, and even if not in my field. Anthropology is people, and people always need love and understanding so there is always an opening for volunteering. I totally agree with your thinking about everything and thank you for posting your mind.

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