Don’t Call it Quits Before You Even Start

In an earlier post, we set out a roadmap to jumpstarting your career in archaeology. It’s a good plan, but it’s also hard to go wrong if you hustle and make the most of your opportunities early on. But let’s say you didn’t hustle, you missed the boat, and you’re looking at a really uneven playing field. It might look like the best bet would be to pack it all in and give up on becoming an archaeologist.


Finishing your undergrad Anthropology degree with a bad GPA is a pretty hard thing to come back from. Archaeology is an extremely competitive field. Employers and grad schools alike are looking for the top students who work hard in the field, and can also write reports, complete research, do lab work… the list goes on. Don’t be discouraged from a few slip-ups in your undergrad though, there are other tasks you can focus on to make you attractive to future employers, and help you start your archaeology career. You do however need to start with being brutally honest with yourself in asking if archaeology is right for you. Moving forward from a lackluster track record, the first thing you need to accept is that now (like, right now) is when you absolutely have to grind. And you can’t let up.

If you’re nearing the end of your undergrad with a botched GPA, focus on extra-curricular activities that will expand your network and beef up your resume. Talk to your professors and try complete an independent study with them, and an undergraduate thesis. This thesis is a huge advantage for CRM jobs, and grad schools because it proves you can write. Too late for an undergrad thesis, or can’t get approval from your advisor? Volunteer on an excavation project and take meticulous notes, then write up an excavation chapter for the research report. This will help the excavation director out in a big way and give you a chance to dig your way out from the mess you made in undergrad. Take your research to local conferences, and get some experience presenting either through lecture, or a poster format. While you are at those conferences, sit through every possible session and take detailed notes on each topic (bonus points for tweeting them!) After the session is over, pick your favorite speaker and ask them a question about their research, and where you may learn more about the topic. When you hit their company up with your resume after graduation, they have a face to put to your name, and although your GPA will still be noticed, at least they won’t question your commitment to the field!

Getting a Job

Unsurprisingly, there are many graduates with average-to-low GPA scores, and little field experience. This is unsurprising to me, because many students have advisors that don’t even know what archaeology is, much less the experiences you need to get a job with it. If you’re looking for a job in Cultural Resource Management (CRM), be prepared to travel. Apply for jobs (Shovelbums, ArchaeologyFieldwork) in every possible state near you, and understand that you many be required to drive there without paid drive time. Now is the time to be humble; companies aren’t going to care about how passionate you are for archaeology when they’re sorting through 200 resumes. Your first job may be in some exit ramp town with low per-diem, doing a brutal coal survey… but YAY! You got a job! You need to remember that those jobs that advertise *No Experience Necessary,* are probably not the best projects or even companies to work for. “No experience necessary” translates to “management nightmare”, so bear in mind that this probably won’t be your Forever Job. All the same, get that tick of experience on your resume and move on; don’t be discouraged. After you build your CRM tool kit and network base, you can set standards on what type of projects you accept, and even what wages you’re willing to work for. You’ve got to serve your time in the salt mines first, so get salty!

Grad School

Getting into grad school with a low GPA from undergrad may be one of the hardest things you’ll do. You have to understand that everything (GRE scores, letter of intent, letters of recommendation) have to be STELLAR to even make up for undergrad. Put yourself in their shoes, professors want to fund a graduate student who is going to be committed and work hard in class and on their summer projects and collections. Academic departments need their investments to pay off. With anthropology programs getting budget cuts every year, they have to be cautious with who they accept. This is why I fully recommend getting CRM experience and a great list of contacts for letters of recommendations to back you up on your commitment to the field. Remember that not all master’s degrees are made the same, and grad schools that accept mass amounts of students while only funding very few should be watched out for. My employers and advisors both said the same thing when hiring applicants with Master’s degrees: a 1 year degree, or a degree that doesn’t require a thesis would not be picked for a project manager job, because they did not have the writing experience needed for that position. Don’t take my word for it, ask questions and do the research. If you’re thinking about taking out loans to put yourself through grad school, I highly suggest you read this great post on Succinct Research about how student loans will impact your career path.

Don’t be discouraged, every archaeologist I know feels like they could have done *something* more while they were in undergrad. Take opportunities where they come, be humble in everything you work towards, and stay in contact with all of your peers! It’s a small field, and the quote “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” will guaranteed come into play during almost every hiring situation.

Do you have any advice for those low GPA archies looking for work? Comment below, Tweet us, or e-mail me:


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4 Responses

  1. An important note, as regards grad school applications: If your GPA is bad for reasons out of your control (family issues, your health, etc.) make sure to EXPLAIN that in your application materials. If you can show that you can write, that you have experience (through avenues such as those suggested in the post) and that you’re a good candidate who just had a rough patch, grad school can still happen for you. Don’t be ashamed to talk about the factors at play in your GPA, and remember — you finished, despite any problems along the way!

  2. Dave Schatz says:

    Overall I agree, that a poor BA level GPA is tough to bounce back from, but it can be done. Honestly though, I have seldom if ever looked at GPAs as an indicator of success in this field. When I’ve hired or evaluated folks I look much more at work experience and/or interests expressed in the intro/cover letter of the CV or resume. I would rather take a chance with an inexperienced enthusiastic candidate for a position that one who views a position as just another field/lab project that they have little interest in. The cover letter can make or break your application much more that a poor GPA.

    As far as additional, undergrad writing goes, field experience will be much more important to getting a job than writing experience. Newly minted BAs seldom make writing contributions to reports (not that opportunities aren’t there), so I would not invest too much effort initially in writing as a key part of a resume. It helps, but will not be something that employers will be looking for.

    You are right on about the grad school stuff. A well written cover letter can paper over some poor undergrad decisions, and make you an attractive grad school candidate. Being clear about your problems and owning them shows maturity and thoughtfulness that many programs will find attractive.

  3. Rachel Perash says:

    I think networking is always very important, especially if you have a bad GPA. Having professors from the school you are applying to vouch for you can get you accepted into a program (although funding might be another issue) when you would otherwise be overlooked due to GPA.

    As a request- can you do a post about non-CRM or academic jobs?

    • Christopher says:

      Thanks for the comment, Rachel! We’ll definitely do a post on non-CRM or academic jobs soon. We’re still gearing up a new podcast series that already has some great discussions on academic career paths. We’ll have a companion post on the blog for each episode of our new podcast.

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