Archive for the ‘Off-topic’ Category

Blogging Archaeology and The Future

April 1, 2014

As part of the upcoming SAA session on blogging and archaeology, Doug’s Archaeology has been hosting a monthly discussion (“blog carnival”) on related topics. Doug asked bloggers to consider the future of blogging and archeology for this final month. In this post, I consider how the field of archaeology might benefit from the work being done by those groups and individuals who blog about archaeology.

The blog carnival usefully highlighted the variety of work that people are posting. The ecosystem of archaeologically-themed blogs seems as mature as found for any other subject. Blogs cover personal experiences of students and professionals, provide field project updates, highlight research, discuss news, aggregate news, and explore odd corners of archaeology. Interestingly and importantly, not all of these blogs are produced by professional archaeologists.

Professional archaeologists in America have been moved recently to defend and promote the relevance of their field, in response to questions about whether such work should receive scarce public research funds. Some professionals have called for the field to rally around a unified set of topics for investigation. These efforts are reasonable, but they also highlight a problem.

Professional archaeologists are not necessarily their own best spokespersons. They clearly have a self-interest in the funding of their research. Professional archaeologists are also not always great communicators of their work, particularly to lay audiences. Not everyone is going to be good at everything. Consequently, the work of bloggers who write about archaeology could be a real resource to the field, testifying explicitly and implicitly that archaeology does matter.

My hope is that professional archaeologists and their national and regional societies figure out a way to tap into all the enthusiasm and talent that exists. Public outreach efforts should not be limited to any single venue, such as blogs, of course. Nevertheless, this resource already exists and could be very easily incorporated into a comprehensive media strategy. The collection of papers on blogging and archaeology at the upcoming SAA meetings in Austin looks like a good opportunity to get further exposure to ideas about the potentials and pitfalls of blogging, for those folks who are interested.

Off-topic: Career Paths in Archaeology

January 17, 2011

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.

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

January 19, 2010

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.

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

January 18, 2010

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.