Thursday, June 7, 2012

Things I wish I'd known . . .

I am incredibly fortunate in a lot of ways. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up while I was still just a kid. My original dream of becoming a professional baseball player fell through after realizing that I never saw a single woman in the Major Leagues. After that, I was pretty worried about my future (at 9 years old, yup, I was that kind of child). We had a children's book, the Secrets of Vesuvius by Sara Bisel, that was totally fascinating to me. It described the process used to form casts of where people's bodies had been. All the intricate details of someone else's life captured in a single slice of time. It still is awe inspiring to me that archaeologists can actually 'see' people who lived so long ago. And I knew from that year forward, that I was going to be an archaeologist when I grew up.

This passion was manifest in my undergraduate coursework. Although I had to wait till I was 20 years old to start college due to a severe medical trauma in the family, once I started, I zipped through the requirements, often taking the maximum amount of credits allowed per semester. I was at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for a total of three years, I took 125 credits (124 required to graduate), all with the view of getting my degree as soon as possible!! As I mentioned, I was truly fortunate not to have to go through the stress of figuring out a major or changing majors, I knew from the beginning of my college career exactly what I wanted to do.

I also zipped through my graduate coursework. Now that I am writing and editing my thesis, looking back there are a few things that I would have done differently. The following is advice that I wish someone had given me and I'm hoping it can help some budding archaeologists out there.

  • Take a variety of courses related to archaeology and as many technical classes as possible (Geoarchaeology with a lab portion, Dendrochronology, Paleobotany, whatever you can get your hands on). Also include a healthy dose of computer classes. More and more employers are hiring archaeologists with computer skills-not just GIS (Geographic Information Systems), but website and html design as well. 
  • Do a field school during undergraduate coursework. I was working for a CRM (Cultural Resource Management) firm during my undergrad and although I was working in the field 20 hours a week, a fieldschool is a frequent requirement during the hiring process.
  • In addition to your university requirements for graduation, and anthropology department requirements, it is a good idea to review the requirements for working as an archaeologist through the government. Government positions pay on a grade scale and each pay grade has very specific requirements. 
  • Many employers are hiring archaeologists based on regional knowledge in addition to general knowledge. This is also good to keep in mind when choosing a university to attend. For example, if you attend a university in the Southwestern United States, you will most likely have classes that are specific to the region, and are more likely to get hired in that area.
  • Attend an annual archaeological conference-one of the larger ones, such as SHA (Society for Historical Archaeology) or SAA (Society for American Archaeology). It is a perfect view into the professional world of archaeology, and showcases projects from academia, government, and private sectors. It also gives you a chance to start networking and planning your own future in the profession. They are pricey (which is why I skipped so many while an undergrad-but now I wish I hadn't). Include these costs in your school budget from the beginning of the academic year. 
  • Make sure you have photos of yourself working in the field and personal photos of artifacts and archaeological sites as permissible. This is important for social networking and your informal 'portfolio'.

Plotting STPs (shovel test pits)

  • Before choosing a graduate program, ask the average length of time it takes grad students to finish their thesis or dissertation. Some programs will be streamlined to make this process easier or will provide the support that leads to graduation. No matter how quickly or efficiently you work, you can get bogged down in this process, because of the number of people and processes involved.
  • Actually, go ahead and make a loooonnng list of questions. Here's a few to get started with.
    • How many students work on projects in the field? 
    • How many students receive grant money for research projects? 
    • How many students work as teaching assistants? How many students work as research assistants? 
    • What projects are ongoing? What projects were undertaken last year? 
    • Does the department have a good relationship with other departments? If no, why? (Make this as impersonal as possible, you don't want to get involved with interdepartmental warfare before you even start!). 
  • Visit the grad program prior to accepting!! For an undergraduate degree, it is not quite as necessary to visit because most programs offer very similar basic anthropology courses and there are enough teachers that you can be sure to find ones you get a long with. For graduate degrees, you will be spending a lot of time with these professors and it is worth it to make sure that you like them before committing. 
  • Find a professor that is willing to be a mentor, someone you can work with and who has similar research interests. This is essential. Having a professor that will be a thesis adviser, who will let you know about opportunities, and who will be a great reference for you, makes a world of difference. This relationship starts before you arrive at the school. Talk to them at conferences, visit them on campus, and communicate via e-mail.
  • I'm not there yet, but I'm hoping that some of the wisdom I gained from completing a master's degree will be of assistance in the process.

I wish that I had been more aware of the importance of networking and publishing articles during my undergraduate and graduate work. I really just wanted to get out and dig!! I still do! But I've learned that archaeology, as a profession, is about far more than just the archaeological record. It is about working with people today and it takes a lot of skill to tread the water of interpersonal relationships and group dynamics.

You will get your chance to excavate an archaeological site, excavate artifacts, record profiles, catalog artifacts, and interpret the data in an attempt to know who these people were. In the meantime-don't forget to let people know who you are.
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Archaeology, Conservation and Curation by Whitney Rose Petrey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License