Three things I wish I’d known when I first started life as an archaeologist outside of archaeology

Hello there, and welcome to my post! Let me begin by quickly introducing myself. My name is Adam Schneider, and I’m an environmental archaeologist currently employed at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). The purpose of my research is to study how changes in environment impacted premodern (and sometimes also modern) societies, and to use what I learn to generate new insights about the future impacts of anthropogenic climate change. (If you’re interested, you can find out more about my work here: https://colorado.academia.edu/AdamSchneider or https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Adam_Schneider3.)

As I mentioned above, I’m a postdoc at CIRES, which is an interdisciplinary environmental sciences institute at the CU-Boulder. But even though I work at a place that takes transdisciplinary research and communication seriously, archaeologists are nevertheless pretty thin on the ground here; the vast majority of the institute’s faculty, research scientists, and postdocs come, not surprisingly, from natural science fields.

With that in mind, in this post I’m going to share some tips that I’ve learned on how to successfully navigate life as an archaeologist outside of archaeology. There are a lot of things that I could talk about, but for the sake of keeping this (relatively) short, I’ll focus on three things in particular that I wish someone had told me when I started working outside of archaeology. Fair warning: as is so often the case, your results may vary. But I hope that what I’ve learned over the years will prove to be of at least some use to other early-career archaeologists out there!

So without further ado:

  1. Don’t be afraid of looking clueless – ask that “stupid” question!

It goes without saying that one of the greatest benefits of working with scholars from other fields is having access to the benefit of their expertise. On the other hand, because I work mainly with environmental engineers, atmospheric physicists, hydrologists, and the like, there have also been many times that someone I’m talking to starts discussing things that go way over my head. At one level, I realize (or at least I tell myself) that feeling clueless at times like this is completely normal. But, like many other early career academics (and especially those of us who are on the job market), I also feel a huge amount of pressure to look super-capable all the time, and that can make it daunting to admit that I’m totally lost when the person I’m talking to is discussing the details of, say, setting up complex historical hydroclimatological models, or explaining the finer points of abstruse historiographical debates about a particular person, place, or event.

And in those “I have no idea what’s happening right now” moments, it can be really tempting to just silently nod along like you know what people are talking about, rather than asking useful but potentially embarrassing questions about the specifics that you don’t understand. But you know what? DON’T DO IT! Some of the most helpful conversations I’ve ever had with scholars from other disciplines have begun when I asked a question that I thought was “stupid”, because swallowing my ego and being honest about the limitations of my knowledge gave the person I was talking to a chance to explain what we were talking about in terms I could understand. Asking a “stupid” question has not only helped me to learn a lot about what my colleagues in other disciplines do, but on more than one occasion, it’s turned out to be the first step in developing a new research project. So go ahead and ask that “stupid” question – more often than not, you’ll be glad that you did!

  1. Most scholars in other fields want to learn more about what we do!

While it’s important to not be afraid to admit your limitations, it’s also equally important to be willing to step into the role of Expert in your own areas of specialization, as well. And here’s the thing: I’ve found that non-archaeologists are usually happy to learn more about what we do, what we know, and how it might connect with their own work. In fact, they are often very eager to talk about ways that our work might overlap. (And, if you get very lucky, a collaborative project can result from a conversation like that, too!)

Having said that, it’s only right to acknowledge something that can make it very hard for us early-career archaeologists to “expert back”: the dreaded Impostor Syndrome. For many of us (especially those of us who are still early in our careers), it can be really hard to feel confident that we know what we’re talking about in the presence of our colleagues. And for me, at least, this can be even more true when I’m interacting with scholars from other disciplines, since I feel like I’m now an impostor who’s being thrust into the even more pressure-packed role of an ambassador for archaeology – especially if I know that the person I’m talking to is a respected, well-established scholar in their own field. But here’s the thing: even those of us who are still early in our careers are, in fact, experts in our chosen areas of specialization. So as long as we’re honest about the limits of our knowledge (see above), and we can communicate what we do know well in terms that can be understood by non-specialists, “experting back” is not only okay, but can be a really good way to network, or even develop new collaborative projects!

  1. Other disciplines have their own academic cultures, which can be very different from ours – and it really pays to get at least a working knowledge of them!

Because most of us these days tend to reside within a single academic discipline, it can be very easy to forget that each field has its own culture. And because each disciplinary culture has its own conventions, expectations, unwritten rules, internal politics, personality clashes, and so on, which have has evolved over time. (After all, the same is true of archaeology, too.) These can sometimes be very confusing – or even downright irritating – to outsiders, who frequently don’t understand the reasons for them. But if you’re going to do a lot of work with scholars in another field, it’s well worth your time to learn what you can about the culture of that discipline, because there’s a lot of very useful information about practical things that you’ll pick up in the process!

For example, my work involves a pretty substantial amount of paleoclimate research, so last year I started looking into NSF’s grant program in paleoclimatology so I could put together a grant proposal. To my surprise, I discovered that there were two different programs – NSF Paleoclimatology, and NSF Paleo Perspectives on Climate Change (P2C2) – which each fund very specific kinds of research. I also learned that the P2C2 program has a lot more funds at its disposal than the Paleoclimate program (or at least it did back in 2016); but since P2C2 has very strict rules about what kinds of research it will consider for funding, I ended up having to drastically revise the research question I was initially planning to focus on in order to for my proposal to meet that program requirement.

Another reason why it’s worthwhile to learn about the cultures of other academic fields relevant to your research is that they often have different publication conventions than archaeology does. For instance, in the natural sciences, word count limits tend to be a lot shorter than they typically are in our journals (often around 5000-7500 words, and sometimes even less.) What’s more, many natural science journals count not only the references, but also each figure and/or table, as a part the total word count. And believe me, finding something like that out the hard way because you didn’t know the conventional expectations that journals in a given field have is not a good time!

 

So there you have it, folks: those are three things I really wish I’d known about when I first started life as an archaeologist outside of archaeology. And I should add that, although when I first started working towards my PhD I certainly didn’t expect I’d end up housed in another discipline, I’m actually quite happy with how things have turned out. So for all you early-career archaeologists out there, if you’ve ever thought about whether your skills might translate well to a related field, I’d definitely recommend you look into it – you never know where it might lead!