Once an Archaeologist…? Plan B Careers in Archaeology

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.

Geoff Smith and me working on La Cotte material for the QAEJ project in 2011. Photo by Alison Lewis.

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.

At the first ESHE conference in 2011, giving a poster on my PhD research. Photo by Elinor Croxall

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.

Heron from a birding trip: you never know how archaeology might fit into your life!

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!

Trowel my undergrad friends gave for for graduation

11 thoughts on “Once an Archaeologist…? Plan B Careers in Archaeology

  1. Interesting perspective. However, as a professional archaeologist without a PH’D or MA for that matter, I see completing a doctorate in a different light. For me, a PH’D is undertaken not just to get a job but to fulfill a longtime interest. It is not about getting rich but about becoming ‘enriched’. You do not know how lucky you are. When I decided to study archaeology 30 years ago, much to my parents dismay, I had no illusions about whether I could secure employment at the end of my journey. I didn’t take archaeology because i wanted a job. Rather, it seemed to be a ‘calling’. Of course, the job market was different 30 years ago and students didn’t go to university to “get a good paying job”. There were plenty of good paying jobs out there requiring no degree what so ever. If you went to university for that reason, then I pity you because you were misguided. Having said that, I would encourage you to continue with your vocation. Don’t let life happen to you, YOU happen to life! If there is no government funding available, find a way to RAISE some from the private sector. Have a fund raiser, creat a non-profit organization….BUILD.

  2. Thanks for your comment James. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had. I chose to do archaeology for exactly the reason you suggest, because I love it. I chose to pursue it further to MA and PhD level because I loved the experience of researching something I’m passionate about, as you can see from my 2011 Day of Arch posts. My point this year was to chronicle my personal experience and circumstances, to caution others about the challenging postdoc situation right now, and to say that there’s always another option you can find if you think a bit laterally.

  3. Martin R says:

    Post-grad studies in archaeology is an academic pyramid scheme. Avoid!

    I don’t know about your book deal, but the ones I have been offered worked out to writing a 250 page book in three weeks assuming a normal modest wage — if every single copy of the thing got sold.

    Here’s my own recent blog entry on the topic of plan B.


  4. Hi Martin,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. “Pyramid scheme” is a bit harsh, but I do agree that there are probably way too many postgrads > PhDs > Postdocs being produced. It’s a shame as it leads to so many people being disappointed. I was told that some countries only permit PhDs to be undertaken for the number of positions that are expected to be available. Perhaps this is too extreme, but I think the fact that Research Assessments score positively the large number of postgrads and PhDs is the real cause of the saturated market. Yet no-one seems to follow up on the career trajectories of all these PhDs being awarded every year.

    You piece on Plan B is really interesting, almost a mirror of mine but somewhat further on from where I am.

    I have a great editor at Bloomsbury, who’s been awesome in supporting me. As it’s a popular book on birds and humanity in prehistory, I’m hoping it’ll do well enough to cover the advance!

  5. Gracie L says:

    Great article! I am an Egyptologist myself with a Masters, and have found the same obstacles within this field. However, in addition to educational programming (good thinking by the way), I have found a very rewarding career in the museum field. For those looking for that ‘career B,’ consider getting a museum internship. I work with the Smithsonian and get to handle artifacts all day in the collection=heaven.

  6. Thanks very much Gracie! I do love a nice rummage in a museum basement, and happily did a lot of that for my PhD research. I agree museums can offer a great Plan B, although it seems in the UK that even with degrees in archaeology, you’ll still need substantial voluntary experience to get your foot in the door. I applied for a Portable Antiquities Scheme Internship last year, and although I was interviewed and very nearly got it, ultimately they felt I didn’t have quite enough experience of museum-situated work- despite this being a training position!

  7. Andy Farke says:

    Excellent post! My only objection is that “Plan B” implies that careers outside of a tenure track position at a major research university are abject failures. As you have shown, this is not the case. But, it’s an attitude that needs to be scrubbed from the community (we have similar issues over in paleontology).

  8. I should add as a general postscript:

    On 20th July 2012 I received an email offering me the Marie Curie Fellowship that I had applied for last summer (see my 2011 Day of Archaeology posts). After deliberating for a week, I’ve decided to take it and will therefore be working at Universite Bordeaux1 from summer 2013 for two years, on some incredibly exciting Neanderthal archaeology, for the TRACETERRE project I wrote with Jean-Paul Raynal and Marie-helene Moncel.

    I guess this goes to show that, to some extent, you’ve just got to be patient. The Marie Curie was the last major postdoc funding I applied for, and it was only 6 months after I’d decided to start focusing my energy away from a research career, that I ended up being successful.

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