Is a Career in Archaeology Right for You?

A large team of people working under a tent at an excavation site
Georgian National Museum

For those interested in a career in archaeology, there are a number of different career paths and a wealth of specializations to consider. Archaeologists enjoy unique job perks, such as the opportunity to travel and meet new people, and one day is almost never like the next. Find out from a real archaeologist what this job is all about.

Employment Prospects

Currently, the main source for paid archaeological jobs is not at academic institutions but associated with heritage or cultural resource management. Archaeological investigations are conducted in the developed world every year because of CRM laws which were written to protect, among other things, archaeological sites. Access the latest United States Department of Labor Statistics to see more about jobs for archaeologists, in academia and out of it.

An archaeologist can work on hundreds of archaeological sites over the course of their career. Archaeological projects vary a great deal in scope. In some cases, excavations at a single site can last years or decades, while in others, a few hours is all that's required to record it and move on.

Archaeologists work everywhere in the world. In the US and most developed parts of the world, much archaeology is conducted by firms contracted with the federal and state governments as part of cultural resource management. In terms of academic archaeological endeavors, nearly everywhere in the world (with the exception of Antarctica) is visited by some archaeologist from somewhere at sometime.

Required Education

To succeed as an archaeologist, you need to be able to adapt to change fairly rapidly, think on your feet, write well, and get along with lots of different people. You will also need to complete some formal education on archaeology in order to qualify for many positions.

The educational requirements for a career in archaeology vary because of the diversity of career paths available. If you plan to become a college professor, who teaches classes and conducts field schools in the summers, you will need a PhD. If you plan to run archaeological investigations as a Principal Investigator for a cultural resource management firm, who writes proposals and leads survey and/or excavation projects year-round, you will at least need an MA. There are other career paths to explore as well.

Archaeologists use math a lot in their work, as it is important to measure everything and calculate weights, diameters, and distances. All kinds of estimates are based on mathematical equations. In addition, from any one site, archaeologists could excavate thousands of artifacts. To be able to get a comprehensive understanding of that number of objects, archaeologists rely on statistics. To truly understand what you're doing, you must understand what statistics to use when.

Some universities around the world are developing online courses, and there is at least one PhD program that is primarily online. Of course, archaeology has a large field component and that cannot be conducted online. For most archaeologists, their first excavation experience was at an archaeology field school. This is an opportunity to experience the work of an archaeologist in a real historical site setting, such as Plum Grove, the territorial home of the first governor of Iowa.

A Day in the Life

There is no such thing as a "typical day" in archaeology—it varies from season to season, and project to project. There are also no "average sites" in archaeology, nor average excavations. The time you spend on a site depends for the most part on what you intend to do with it: does it need to be recorded, tested, or fully excavated? You can record a site in as little as an hour; you can spend years excavating an archaeological site. Archaeologists conduct fieldwork in all kinds of weather, rain, snow, sun, too hot, too cold. Archaeologists do pay attention to safety issues (we don't work in lightning storms or during flooding, for example; labor laws typically restrict your crew from working more than eight hours in any one given day), but with precaution, that doesn't mean a little rain or a hot day will hurt us. If you are in charge of heading up an excavation, the days might last as long as the sunlight does. In addition, your day will likely include notes, meetings, and lab studies in the evenings. 

Archaeology is not all field work, though, and some archaeologists' days involve sitting in front of a computer, doing research in a library, or calling someone on the phone. 

Best and Worst Aspects

Archaeology can be a great career, but it doesn't pay very well, and there are distinct hardships to the life. Many aspects of the job are fascinating, though—in part because of the exciting discoveries that can be made. You may discover the remains of a 19th-century brick kiln and, through research, learn that it was a part-time job for the farmer; you may discover something that looks like a Maya ball court, not in Central America, but in central Iowa.

However, as an archaeologist, you have to recognize that not everyone puts understanding the past ahead of everything else. A new highway can be an opportunity to study prehistoric and historic archaeology in the land that will be excavated; but to the farmer whose family had lived on the ground for a century, it represented the end of their own personal heritage.

Advice for Future Archaeologists

If you enjoy hard work, dirt, and travel, archaeology may be right for you. There are many ways you can learn more about a career in archaeology. You may want to join your local archaeological society, to meet others with your same interest and learn about local opportunities. You can sign up for an archaeology training course called a field school. Many field opportunities are available—even for high school students—such as the Crow Canyon Project. There are many ways for high school and middle school students to learn more about careers in archaeology.

Future archaeologists are advised to keep your notes under a rock when working on the top of a windy hill and to listen to your intuition and experience—it does pay off if you're patient enough. For those who love the fieldwork, this is the best job on the planet. 

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Is a Career in Archaeology Right for You?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Is a Career in Archaeology Right for You? Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Is a Career in Archaeology Right for You?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).