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Is Going to University for Archaeology Worth It

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Is going to university for archaeology in England worth the expense?

Hello Brandy,

This is a difficult question to field, and one which obviously can only be answered from the depths of your own intuition, common sense, and command of logic.  But I can offer some advice, based on my experience of earning an anthropology degree and completing nine seasons of archaeology fieldwork.

To start off, it has been my observation that an advanced degree from Europe is not equal to one from the USA if your goal is to find work there in archaeology. I have worked with phds who graduated from very good schools in England not be able to get more than an entry level position in the USA; I have also worked with a kid who took a masters degree in Italy who could not even be granted a crew chief position because of technicalities over his education. In point, it is my observation that European degrees are often not honored as highly in the USA when it comes to archaeology. But, then again, there are always situational biases with everything. I am sure that if you did take an advanced degree in England you COULD make it work, somehow, in America — but it may take additional coursework, experience etc . . . If you were to make sure that your studies in England could be of relevance to a US employer, I am sure that you should not be given that much of a problem.  But if you studied classics in Italy and then tried to get an upper level position in Arizona, there could be some obvious conflicts.

[adsense]Though I still hold firm in that if your goal is to return to the USA and make a career in archaeology, getting an advanced degree in Europe may not be the best way to get there. If you want to study in England, it may be better to go through a US university that has a program there. It is rather sad, as many kids have dumped tens of thousands of dollars into European arch. degrees just to return home and have them shat on by employers and mocked by fellow crew members.

Many people see archaeology as an international, multi-cultural sort of profession, but, in terms of employment and education, it is very tribal: you should go to a university of the country of the employer you want to work for. If you want to work in Meso-American archaeology through a US university, then go to school in the USA; if you want to work for an English university, then keep on going to school in England. Many people screw up when they try to jump the nationally determined dividing lines in archaeology: you generally don’t take a degree awarded in one country and try to get a job on a crew from another — things get sticky this way. German excavations are often made up of Germans; American excavations with Americans; Japanese with Japanese archaeologist.

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Also, you may want to keep in mind that, all so often, in international excavations and research highly trained (though often “uneducated”) locals do most of the actual fieldwork, so the only foreign members are the higher ups. So keep this in mind: there is heavy competition for such positions, and having relevant post graduate research and education means everything. Study archaeology for the region of the world you want to base yourself in.

These are my observations. I must admit that there are probably many more out there. Search for the advice of others, try to find successful archaeologists in the USA who have degrees from Europe, ask them how they managed. I can only speak from what has been paraded before me up to here.

Work in archaeology in the USA

Working in the USA gives you a major advantage in terms of finding employment as an archaeologist: you can find work as an excavator, a grunt, a shovel bum as well as a crew chief, a principal investigator, or an academic. Currently, contract archaeology work is relatively plentiful and not too difficult to obtain in this country. The USA has some pretty good cultural resource management laws, and an entire sect of archaeology has sprung up around it.

I don’t want to claim that contract archaeology is a very good career for the field workers, as it is a profession which will have you on the road 60% of the time and unemployed the rest. Though the principle investigators (requires a phd) are able to find relatively stable positions, though the pay is still not very high given the amount of education they need.

While many archaeologists may be stoners or outright lunatics, the work is often just as serious as in any other field of contract (project) workers. We often work right along side pipeliners, land surveyors, and environmental inspectors, and I know that they are just as nuts as we are. I suppose the difference is that our work is, speaking generally, pretty inconsequential to most of society. “We are not building bridges here,” is a phrase that I have often heard spoken when working in archaeology. If I don’t dig a shovel test properly, a gas pipeline is not going to explode.

Archaeology and the economy

Economic pressures impact every type of archaeology. In academic archaeology, the researchers are always at the expense of their funding sources (there are MANY amazing sites around the world that are known but unexcavated due to lack of funding. A rather well known German archaeologist was once showed me the location in eastern Turkey where one of the first forms of Cuneiform writing was found. But the site has been sitting dormant for decades due to a lack of funding). In CRM (cultural resource management, USA professional archaeology) the money comes from companies wanting to develop certain areas, and the archaeologist are always held under the pressure of their bids, the amount of development, and the tidings of the national economy. Also, with one shift in CRM laws 90% of archaeologists in the USA would find themselves unemployed. We live in a world ruled by economics, and the world of archaeology, though based in the past, is firmly in the present in this regard.

To provide you with a little advice, I say match your education to the country of the employers you intend to work for. If you want to work for English archaeology firms or universities, they keep on with your education in England; if you want to work for US companies than go to grad school in the USA. Working for the English could be fine — they are doing research all over the world — I would just HIGHLY recommend getting in good with your professors and talk to them seriously about employment options before working towards your degree. Keep in mind that you currently have sure shot employment in the USA in archaeology (even with just a B.A. and field school), and you don’t need to worry about visas, and the Americans are some of the leading archaeologist in locations all over the world. Also be sure to base your studies in an area of the world that you want to spend a large amount of time in, and make sure that the archaeology jobs there are not competitive to the point where it is virtually impossible to become employed. In point, the profession of CRM in the USA is paved with once aspiring Egyptologist.

I don’t want to give shoving advice here, but I think I have made my recommendation known. This is all just a sample of my impressions, observation, and experience. I admit that I could be wrong, and I know that we live in a world of infinite possibility: whatever path you take CAN be made to reach where you want to be if you keep on it.

To answer the initial question of this article — Is going to university for archaeology worth it? — I must say that this depends completely on your projected lifestyle. If you want to roam constantly without a solid home, without a family, without rent, without many of the solid factors that most people feel are important in life, then yes, becoming an archaeologist is completely worth it. Or at least I have found that it has been for me.

Thanks for asking your question on Vagabond Journey Travel Help.

Walk Slow,

Wade

Wade from 2005 doing archaeology

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Complete question about going to university for archaeology

Not to get too terribly off topic here while getting drunk at a friend’s place, but I just read that you are an archaeology major. My app for Durham UK is for archaeology, haveing a BA in anthropology (emph. on culture) from CU Denver. Read that you are having not so many jobs (bad English due to travel). Am wondering, have been wondering, if getting the UK 1yr taught (as opposed to the research 1yr (which I can’t do as you must enter with a thesis already) is worth the $40,000?) I had seen the tuition charts, but not calculated everything else, and it is still maybe cheaper than the US, esp. if I have a recognized degree at the end, but who knows? Arch. seems to be regarded as a degree for stoner travellers and not a serious profession. Am I wrong? Where do I go to find the stats regards archaeology professions?

thanks much (donation on the way, homeslice),
Brandy

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Filed under: Archaeology, Education, Travel Help, Work

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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