How to Become an Archaeologist - Career Path Resources

Exploring the Ways to Become an Archaeologist

Have you always dreamed of being an archaeologist, but don't know how to become one? Becoming an archaeologist takes education, reading, training, and persistence. Here's how you can get started exploring that dream job.

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Tel Rehov Field School, Israel
Tel Rehov Field School, Israel. Nava Panitz-Cohen

An F.A.Q. for beginners, this list answers the following questions: Is there still work in archaeology? What's the best part about being an archaeologist? What's the worst? What's a typical day like? Can you make a decent living? What kind of skills do you need? What kind of education do you need? Where do archaeologists work in the world?

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What's It Like to Change Your Career?

Girl reading as she waits for her train
Girl reading as she waits for her train. Mo Riza

Sureyya Kose is an IT professional in Australia who is in the process of changing her career to archaeology. In this ongoing series of letters, Sureyya describes how she decided to change careers, how she got into school, and how she juggled school and job responsibilities along her way to becoming an archaeologist.

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Archaeology FieldWork in Basingstoke
Archaeology FieldWork in Basingstoke. Nicole Beale

There is a wide range of different kinds of jobs that archaeologists do. Despite the traditional image of the archaeologist as​ a university professor or museum director, only about  30% of the archaeological jobs available today are in universities. This essay describes the kinds of jobs which are available and their availability and gives you a little taste of what each is like.

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Archeological Society of Maryland Helping Out at Lafayette Square
Archeological Society of Maryland Helping Out at Lafayette Square. Baltimore Square

You don't have to do your studies alone, and, like every other profession on the planet, there are associations that you can join to learn about the study, hear lectures, and even go on field trips. Some require that you have your MA degree to join; others have no requirements at all. Here's a comprehensive list of professional and amateur archaeological societies compiled by archaeologist Smoke Pfeiffer.

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Computer Keyboard
Computer Keyboard. dbdbrobot

There are several online courses you can take, some few of which can lead to an advanced degree. But there is no substitute for the laboratory and excavation studies you'll need to take to become a professional archaeologist.

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2011 Field Crew at Blue Creek
2011 Field Crew at Blue Creek. Maya Research Program

The best way to know if you really want to become an archaeologist is to go on a field school. Every year, most universities on the planet send their archaeologists out with students on training expeditions. These expeditions can last a year or a week or anything in between, and in many cases you can sign on with them to see if you like the experience.

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Warriors Project Field Crew 2006
Warriors Project Field Crew 2006. Paris McCoy (herself in lower right in photo)

There are so many to choose from, it may be difficult to know what makes a good field school from a poor one. Here are some suggestions about choosing a field school that will be a good experience for some one who is considering an archaeological profession.

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Students at Paisley Caves (Oregon)
Students overlooking the spot where the 14,000 year old coprolites with human DNA were found in Cave 5, Paisley Caves (Oregon). Northern Great Basin Prehistory Project at the Paisley Caves

Archaeological field schools are conducted all over the world, by many if not most universities and by many other historical societies and not-for-profit research institutions. Here is a list of the current digs going on in the current year.

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Know Thyself - Princeton University's Eno Hall (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)
Know Thyself - Princeton University's Eno Hall (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology). David Goehring

Archaeology is taught in different university departments in different countries: in anthropology, ancient history, classics, geography, and occasionally even in archaeology departments. Here's a listing of schools offering graduate level education in archaeology. To become a professional archaeologist, you will need a graduate degree, M.A. or Ph.D, depending on your career choice. But if you're not there yet, and need a bachelor's degree first, you can use this list to find a department that will have archaeologists on staff.

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Why You Should (or Should Not) Go to Graduate School

University Classroom (University of Calgary)
University Classroom (University of Calgary). D'Arcy Norman

Choosing to go to graduate school in any given academic area is a risky business. Throughout the developed world, a Bachelor's degree is becoming a requisite for most management and business jobs. But going for an MA or Ph.D. is expensive and, unless you can get a job in your specific field, possessing an advanced degree in an esoteric subject like archaeology may actually be a detriment should you eventually decide to leave academics.

Still, we do it. Why would anybody get an advanced degree in archaeology? There both good reasons and bad ones, in fact, there are probably as many reasons as there are people who end up going. The best advice anyone can give you is to decide what you want to do with your degree, before you rush into school.

What You Can Do with a Graduate Degree

Do you want to practice archaeology in Cultural Resource Management? Far and away the most jobs available are for people in the private sector, performing surveys and investigations in advance of federally funded road and other projects. These jobs require an MA, and in my experience it doesn't much matter where you get it; what matters is the field experience you pick up along the way. A Ph.D. will give you an edge for the upper management positions in CRM, but without years of experience you're dead in the water.

You want to teach? Be very careful; jobs are few and far between, even at the smaller schools. To obtain a teaching job at a four-year or graduate level institution, you will need a Ph.D. Some two-year junior colleges hire MAs, but for the most part, they too can get Ph.D.s for those jobs as well. If you plan on teaching, you will need to choose your school very carefully.

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Choosing a Graduate School

University of British Columbia, Anthropology Museum
University of British Columbia, Anthropology Museum. aveoree

The most important thing to consider when you're searching for the ideal graduate school is your goals. What do you want out of your graduate career? Do you want to get a Ph.D., and teach and do research in academic settings? Do you want to get an M.A., and work for a Cultural Resource Management firm? Do you have a culture in mind you want to study or an area of specialization such as faunal studies or GIS? Do you really not have a clue, but you think archaeology might be interesting to explore?

Most of us, I should think, don't really know for certain what we want out of our lives until we're further along down the road, so if you're undecided between the Ph.D. or the M.A., or if you've thought about it pretty carefully and have to admit that you fit into the undecided category, this column is for you.

Look at Many Schools

First of all, don't go shopping for one graduate school--shoot for ten. Different schools will be searching for different students; and it will be easier to hedge your bet if you send off applications to several of the schools that you might want to attend.

Secondly, stay flexible--it's your biggest asset. By that I mean, be prepared for things to not work out as you expect. You might not get into your first school; you may end up disliking your major professor; you may fall into a research topic that you never considered before starting school; because of unforeseen circumstances today, you may decide to go on for the Ph.D., or stop at an M.A. If you keep yourself open to the possibilities, it will be easier for you to adapt to the situation as it is bound to change.

Third, do your homework. If there was ever a time to practice your research skills, this is the time. Many if not most of the anthropology departments in the world now have web sites; but they don't necessarily specify their areas of research. Seek for a department through professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists, or the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources pages.Do some background research to find the latest articles on your area(s) of interest, and find out who is doing the interesting research and where they are located. Write to the faculty or graduate students of a department you're interested in. Talk to the anthropology department where you got your Bachelor's degree; ask your major professor what she or he suggests.

Finding the right school is definitely part luck and part hard work; but then, that pretty well describes archaeology right there.