Things move fast in archaeology, major discoveries are made that can transform our perceptions of the past and its relation to us, a perfect example being the Neanderthal genome in 2010. My own situation as an archaeologist has changed dramatically from 2011’s Day of Archaeology, and this is what I’ve chosen to write about for 2012: what happens when you’ve been doing archaeology for half your life, but have to step away from it full-time? I hope my experience can give people a more realistic idea of the benefits and risks of pursuing your archaeological dream…
Last year I wrote about the Quaternary Archaeology and Environments of Jersey project, which I was working with as a late Neanderthal archaeology specialist. Although the project is still going from strength to strength (and started 2012 fieldwork officially today, on a probably rather soggy Jersey), I will not be there this summer to enjoy the delights of stone tool collections, the La Cotte site and the sponsorship of the Liberation Brewery.
Like many others finishing their PhD since 2008, I’ve struggled to get research funding or a paid academic position. Despite gaining a clutch of prizes during my undergraduate years including best dissertation (on the missing Mesolithic of Shropshire, with own fieldwalking, test pitting and aerial photography survey), full AHRB funding for my MA and a coveted University Research Scholarship for my PhD, I’ve realized that exceptional academic calibre isn’t enough anymore to gain a foothold for a research career.
The ‘Post-Doc’ world has become ever more challenging over the past decade, with some truly horrifying statistics. Only a third of UK science PhDs get postdoc positions, while only 4% manage to secure a permanent academic position. Arts PhDs aren’t in a better position either, and in addition lack the obvious career transition to STEM industry jobs. The reality is that there are too many PhDs being produced, including in archaeology. While I was at Sheffield, there were 50 PhDs registered. I haven’t seen anywhere near that number of research jobs or funding possibilities over the past two years since I finished my PhD; there is simply not enough opportunity out there to meet the postdoc output of even one department! I’ve been lucky enough for the past year to be supported by University of Manchester with an Honorary Research Fellowship, that allows me to remain part of a department and benefit from the network of very active and supportive researchers there. However, Honorary = unpaid, and this position of trying to publish, attend conferences, network with colleagues, and work unpaid on projects is one many of my fellow graduates are in.
Universities pressure staff within departments to keep taking on new PhDs as it boosts their research rankings, yet there is virtually no open discussion of the possibility of failing to forge an academic career after your doctorate (and it generally IS regarded as a failure). Then there are the perennial issues of vast disparities in quality of PhD supervision, with no system in place for assessing performance in this area, despite the support and advice received during your PhD being vital to your success afterwards. Everyone eventually comes to realize that an impressive publication list is what will get you noticed for postdoc funding and academic job interviews, yet many PhD are discouraged from publishing during their time as students (or even from speaking at conferences) by supervisors who fear repercussions if theses are submitted “late” (after more than three years).
Despite coming very close to getting postdoctoral funding (I almost won a Marie Curie Fellowship to work at University of Bordeaux), after two years without any income beyond occasional expenses for working on field projects, I’ve had to take the difficult decision to shift my path out away from an archaeological research career. I needed to bring in some income to my household, and frankly I was getting very dispirited by repeated disappointments of funding rejections etc. In January 2012 I decided not to apply for the next round of postdoctoral fellowships (with success rates of 3-7%!), or try again for a Marie Curie that would require me to live away from my husband for two years, just after I’d got used to a home life after eight years of degrees in three different cities.
Instead I’ve upped the hours I was already working in non-archaeological jobs, and started to get a bit ‘leftfield’ in trying to keep archaeology in my life. Through my Honorary Research Fellowship at Manchester, I’ve been running Discover Archaeology workshops with young people aged 13-17 at the University, giving them an idea of why studying archaeology is relevant to them. This has been a lot of fun, and involved practical sessions on getting to grips with artefacts (animal bones, pot sherds, flints), as well as getting them to think a bit more deeply about things like the archaeology of death and how this can widen your understanding of diverse practices ongoing today. The sessions take quite a bit of preparation, and are very intensive, but are really rewarding. It’s always great seeing young people’s faces light up as they identify a beaver skull (“it’s kind of like a big rat”) or work out the relative ages of different pots. However, these workshops aren’t regular, and I receive barely more than minimum wage for running them (including preparation time). I would like to do more of this kind of work with schools, and I hope to make some connections soon with existing organizations who might like to have a Neanderthal specialist on the team (everyone knows kids love them, right?!).
Another exciting possibility for keeping the archaeology flame burning in my life has also developed since the start of 2012. I post on Twitter as @LeMoustier, and have found it a fabulous way to interact with many very cool archaeologists across the world. Additionally, I’m into birding in my spare time, and have connected with quite a lot of people in that sphere too. Following a tweet I posted on cave art, I got into conversation with @chiffchat, who turned out to be a Senior Commissioning Editor for Bloomsbury Press, and was just looking for the right person to write a book on cave art, prehistory and birds… Following a great trip to London to meet @chiffchat (aka Jim Martin), where we bonded over lunch and Neanderthals, yesterday Bloomsbury officially announced their acquisition of “Dawn Chorus in Eden: Humanity and Birds in Prehistory”, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, coming 2014! So I will be working on this book part time over the next two years, trying to communicate my passion for prehistoric archaeology, especially the Palaeolithic, through describing how birds have been part of the human story from the beginning. It’s not a full-time archaeology job, but it allows me to keep doing something I love, and get paid for it.
I want to finish this Day of Archaeology post on a positive note. I’ve been doing archaeology since I was 14, on work experience digging at Fishbourne Roman Palace. It’s part of who I am in a fundamental way as it is for almost all the archaeologists I know, it’s shaped me, given me incredible experiences (and a husband!). I don’t regret doing my PhD, but those considering a career in archaeological research should not be under any illusions of employment afterwards. I didn’t have an official career Plan B, and I might have done a lot differently with hindsight if I had. But if archaeology is your passion, there’s ways and means to keep on *being* an archaeologist, although it might involve a little lateral thinking and maybe getting yourself on Twitter!