A Roadmap to Your Early Career in Archaeology

Whether you’ve committed as an anthropology major in your undergrad, recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree, or you’re still curious about what it could all mean for you, this intro will help you figure out where to go in your early archaeology career…and how to get there.


This is simplifying things, but there are two main options for you when you’re starting out in archaeology – academia, or cultural resource management (CRM).

Academia

If you’re coming straight out of undergrad and you have your research topic picked out, you’re accepted into grad school, and you have funding figured out then you’re in a pretty good spot. Getting to that point is very demanding and can be pretty stressful, but it can also be rewarding if you played your cards right during your undergrad career. Your field experience during grad school will mostly be limited to volunteer time during the summer months on your adviser’s project. Ideally, your expenses will be paid for by your adviser’s grant and you’ll get to do something cool like fly to Portugal and dig on beaches and in mountain caves for Neanderthals while wolfing down fresh seafood and vinho tinto. From then on, you’ll be working to build your summers in the field into a thesis or dissertation. The end game of the academic track (remember, I’m really simplifying things here) is to develop research questions for your own project – one that you’re passionate enough about, and that has the potential for decades of work – and use grants and university funds to get you through summer field sessions. The flip side of the academic track is teaching. Some view it as simply a means to an end – get those months of lecturing and grading tests and papers out of the way so you can get back to spending your summers with your one true love (the site you dig).

We’ll do a more advanced overview of academia in another post, but for now there’s one important thing about this decision you need to know: as long as you have the résumé to get you into a decent school, this option is never closed off to you. In fact, it’s pretty common for academics and grad students to snatch up short term CRM gigs in their down time or when they need more funds or a change of pace. Really, do anything you can that will beef up your CV and give you a leg up on your competition. In my own life, the time I took after undergrad to work in CRM was some of the most valuable experience I’ve had, and I kept up with CRM work here and there while I was in grad school.

 CRM

CRM is the most common line of work for anyone not pursuing the academic track. Straight out of undergrad, you’ll be applying for field technician positions. This is the starting point for a career in CRM, and, as I mentioned above in reference to the academic track, field teching can often fill gaps when you’re pursuing other things. You won’t climb much higher in rank with only a bachelor’s degree; although some companies have varying stages of field tech positions based on levels of experience. After some time gaining this entry-level experience, you can work your way toward a crew chief position – which is about as high as a bachelor’s degree can get you in traditional CRM settings (there are some rare exceptions).

So, why do CRM at all if you need a master’s degree to climb the ranks? First, the experience you might have gained from field schools during college (unfortunately) can’t prepare you for CRM fieldwork. That’s not to say that either academia or CRM is better than the other – it’s mostly that the pace and scope of work is often radically different between academic and CRM projects. Working in CRM is also a pretty good litmus test to see where your goals and priorities lie…as if field school wasn’t a good enough sink-or-swim trial for you. A really good discussion of the debate over CRM vs. grad school is presented in an episode of the CRM Archaeology Podcast (if you don’t listen yet, you should start now). The take-away point is this: if you have any hesitation whatsoever on going to grad school, then work in CRM until you figure it out. Otherwise, you run the risk of spending a lot of time and money on something that might not pan out for you if you can’t commit to a research project. Besides, no matter where your career in archaeology eventually goes, you’ll pick up a lot of great skills and connections in CRM that will open up a lot of doors in your future.


How to Get There

Always be grinding

Still in your undergrad? Grades are always important, but they’re not enough to hold you up alone. Field school is also important, but that’s also not enough. Remember: your end game at this point is to finish your undergrad with as many options available to you as possible. Take advantage of resources while you’re in school; get your adviser to create an independent study for you and turn that work into a conference poster or even a presentation. Play your cards right, and your anthropology department will likely cover the costs for your conference registration, travel, and food. Did you survive a monster final paper and did you also totally ace that monster? Talk to the professor from that class about doing the same thing – send that beast to a conference. Grad schools and future employers all want to see if you can turn research into a finished product, like a report or presentation. Sound intimidating? That’s ok, but if you’re always on your grind then you’ll come out of college with a degree in anthropology, a pretty stacked CV, and a lot of opportunities at your choosing.

Have you graduated and you’re struggling to get your foot in the door at your first CRM gig? Keep your trowel game strong by getting active in other ways. Check out any volunteer opportunities through local universities or your alma mater. Find out if any professional societies exist near you and attend their meetings; same goes for your state’s heritage council. Also, read. Check out the recommended reading list at the bottom of this post. Do anything you can to stay current, in the loop, and thinking about the kind of research questions and career goals that might guide you when opportunities do open up for you.

Are you already a CRM field tech and want to know how to make the next step? Ask your supervisor/field director/project manager that you’d like to take on more responsibility. If they’re working with enough of a cushion in their timeframe and budget, then chances are, they’d love to delegate any work they can to someone who’s on their grind. If they don’t respect the grind, then keep grinding until you find someone who will. Getting a taste of the inside workings of the guts of a CRM report will also be a good litmus test for you – I’ve met plenty of people who worked their way into crew chief positions only to realize it really wasn’t what they wanted. It takes strength to make that kind of decision, and there’s no shame in being that honest with yourself.


Recommended Reads

CRM Collective – curated posts offering a wealth of knowledge and insights on careers in CRM. While you’re on this site, check out the CRM archaeology podcasts and links to other great CRM blogs.

Field Archaeologist’s Survival Guide, by Chris Webster (2014) – a range of advice and experience for all stages of a career in CRM, from eating healthy on the road and maintaining your gear, to surviving down time between contracts.

Archaeology in Practice: A Student’s Guide to Archaeological Analyses, by Jane Balme and Allistair Paterson (2005, newest edition 2013) – a fairly dry intro-level textbook that covers more of the details on what exactly CRM is and what “we” do.

Archaeology By Design (Archaeologist’s Toolkit), by Stephen Black and Kevin Jolly (2003) – another textbook geared toward teaching undergrads and new CRM archaeologists what goes on in CRM, and why and how things happen the way they do.

Undergrad Guides

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7 Responses

  1. Bill White says:

    You guys could have started and ended with “Always be grinding”. Eric Thomas, I presume?

    Pretty sweet guide for undergraduates that want to move into archaeology. You are correct on all levels. I’d add, always be networking. Archaeology is a very, very small field. All of us are only a single LinkedIn message away from every archaeologist in the world. Do not be afraid to connect with other archaeos on the internet or in person.

    And, as Andee and Chris told you, always be grinding.

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  4. This design is wicked! You obviously know how to keep a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Great job. I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

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