I really had no idea what to expect when I decided to become an archaeologist. There weren’t any guidebooks back then and I didn’t know anyone who was already an archaeologist. Other than my mother, not too many of my family members supported my decision. They were all worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a job. Or, they thought I’d be captured by rebels in some jungle somewhere and would never be heard from again.
None of that stuff happened.
There is no straight-as-an-arrow, tried-and-true path to becoming an archaeologist. Most of us attend college, getting our first taste of archaeological fieldwork and research in the process. After college, we typically find jobs in the cultural resource management industry as consultants, at a museum, or at a university. A Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology, History, American Studies, or a similar field is usually the base level of education for a job in archaeology in the United States. Individuals that want to do archaeology as a career should plan on getting a graduate degree (either a Master’s or PhD) because this is required to move up the ranks in the archaeology industry.
In addition to excelling in school, there are three tips I recommend to everyone who tells me they want to be an archaeologist:
1) Think about what you want to get out of life. Will archaeology help you fulfill those goals?— This is a pretty general recommendation, but it is absolutely essential that every aspiring archaeologist think about how this career path will help them live a more enriching life. Will archaeology make you feel better about your place in the world? Will you be happier doing archaeology as a volunteer or as a paid employee? Do you have aspirations of being wealthy and having the finest material things? We are all in pursuit of happiness and contentment in life.
We all want to have a job that helps us realize that contentment, but not everyone will realize happiness by doing archaeology as a job. Not many people can be happy digging a hole in the ground in 100+—degree heat collecting tiny fragments of broken glass or sifting through thousands of pages of text in a library somewhere looking for a single reference to a single event on a specific day 200 years ago. Also, archaeology doesn’t always pay well. It is unlikely that you will be able to sport Prada purses or drive a BMW while working an entry-level archaeology job. That’s part of what it means to be an archaeologist. Would that kind of work make you happy? For most people, archaeology is a better hobby than career.
2) Are you willing to go against the flow?— Archaeologists are not created. We are born this way. Almost all the archeologists I know have wanted to do archaeology since they were a child in preschool or elementary school. Most of us didn’t take our first archaeology class until we were in college, over a decade after archaeology first piqued our interest. This means we remained interested in ancient Roman ruins, Native American pueblos, and Egyptian tombs for over a decade before we actually had a chance to learn about those things in school. Every archaeologist needs to think about what it is about archaeology that got her/him interested in the first place. What made you decide you want to be an archaeologist? The motivation that got you started in the first place will keep you going in the long-run when times get tough and you start thinking about throwing in the trowel.
If you want to become an archaeologist, you will also have to overcome criticism and misguided suggestions from friends and family. Oftentimes, we let well-intentioned advice from our peers, parents, and friends guide our actions. This frequently keeps us from pursuing our dream jobs, like archaeology, in order to follow a less ambitious career path. It’s also hard work to become an archaeologist. You will need to finish high school and earn an undergraduate college degree before you can get your first entry-level position. It is also very likely that you will have to go back to school and earn a graduate degree at some point in your career if you want to break through the proverbial “glass ceiling”. All of that takes drive, endurance, and perseverance. It can also cost a lot of money to get a job that doesn’t pay much until you make it to management-level positions.
All along the way, folks will tell you to go a different path towards jobs that are likely to pay you more money. But, that’s not why you’re trying to become an archaeologist. You will have to make decisions contrary to what society, friends, and family tell you in order to achieve your ultimate goal. You will need to steadfastly hold on to your dream and always believe it is possible.
3) Do a Knowledge-Skills-Abilities (KSA) Assessment— Do you have the skills it takes to become an archaeologist? If not, what will you have to do in order to attain those skills? Do you know what those skills might be? A KSA will help you answer these questions.
A KSA is an informal analysis that will help you recognize the skills you currently have, identify those that you do not yet have, and figure out a strategy for closing the gap between what you already know and what you need to know. For the purposes of this assessment, knowledge includes things you may have learned from a book, school, or the internet. Skills are the ways you have already used this knowledge. Abilities refers to skills you have mastered.
For example, at some point, you probably learned how to write a report in English class. Hypothetically, you may have used your report-writing skills while working at a pizza delivery company to write a damage assessment report when one of your co-workers accidentally backed a company truck into the side of a building. If you had written dozens of damage assessment reports while working at that company, you could safely say damage assessment report-writing is one of your abilities.
Conducting a KSA that would help you figure out what it takes to be an archaeologist is relatively simple. Any aspiring archaeologist can visit the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook and check out the general duties of being an archaeologist. You can also Google “archaeology jobs” and see what skills and abilities employers are asking for in their job postings. Once you’ve identified a suitable job description, you can do a simple KSA to see what skills you will need to acquire in order to qualify for a job in archaeology.
We must stress:
You can become an archaeologist if you really want to. There are thousands of us in the world and there will be thousands more in the future. Archaeology always needs more dedicated practitioners because there is no end to what we don’t know about our past. There is no end to exploration and the expansion of knowledge. If you want to become an archaeologist, do not be dissuaded. I believe everyone that really wants to become an archaeologist will achieve that dream.
Written by: Bill White
About the author: Bill White is a husband, father, author, and PhD Archaeology student at the University of Arizona. He has been getting paid to do archaeology since 2004. Currently, he is the Research Publications Director of Succinct Research and blogs at the Succinct Research Blog.