How did I get here? Archaeology to DH to HPC

You too can have a randomly successful career outside of archaeology by pretending to still do archaeology.

I work in the digital humanities which can be very broadly defined as the use of advanced computational tools and techniques for humanistic inquiry, and can be very narrowly defined in millions of different ways depending upon who you talk to and how many beers they have had! I really didn’t choose to have a career in digital humanities and High Performance Computing, but rather it has developed organically as a series of fortunate accidents. As a PhD in archaeology using geographic information systems to investigate the spatial dimensions of early Christianity in Scotland, I had never even heard the term “Digital Humanities” until an opportunity presented itself at the University of Alberta in 2008 to manage the research computing department of the Faculty of Arts and in which I could leverage skills I had developed in graduate school to great effect. Even in that job I think it was a few weeks before someone explained to me what digital humanities was. On my first day, I has to ask what a ‘wiki’ was.

Leveraging these skills has lead me down what is known as the alternate academic career path, working on and managing research across a wide range of disciplines that I would never have had the opportunity to work with had I only stayed in Archaeology.  Being part of Compute Canada now is a new opportunity to work with researchers using the most cutting edge tools and techniques in Humanistic inquiry.

A significant challenge with Digital Humanities and Social Sciences is that the research encompasses many different disciplines and domains as disparate as digital musicology to behavioral intervention. Therefore, you have to be very agile and aware of important trends in order to support the needs of researchers, to understand their data and methodological concerns at a fairly deep level. Now that I am working in the HPC world, there is a whole new paradigm of technology and possibilities for innovation that I am learning anew and I also need to be able to contextualize the benefit of adopting these technologies to researchers across the many different fields.  I also face the challenge of explaining what the Digital Humanities actual are to people who have historically worked with and supported HPC technology for traditional sciences such as physics and chemistry for whom Humanities data is a mystery.

My advice to others, especially as they finish up their undergraduate and graduate studies in archaeology would be to look at yourself as broadly as possible when you are trying to figure out what you want to in life. When I came to the realization near the end of my PhD that I was not likely to find a job in early medieval Scottish archaeology anywhere near where my husband was likely to find a job, it was a hit.  How could I not be a total failure when I had just spent the last ten years of University studying to become something, an archaeologist, and now that was not going to happen. The resulting identity crisis, which I have seen in numerous friends and colleagues, can be very destabilizing.  I am X, this is what I have studied so long to be, now I cannot be X, what am I then?   The truth is that you probably have skills that can be leveraged for very exciting purposes.  The #Alt-Ac, alternate academic, career path has been hugely rewarding for me. I am still involved with research, and many times the assistance you lend can be invaluable. In my case, this has led to several publications in venues and on topics I would never have even knew existed.  So, look beyond your discipline and look at your skills in a very holistic way.