How 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.

What Is the Life of an Archaeologist Like?

Archaeological Search For The Civil War Grave Of Fererico Garcia Lorca
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

This FAQ for beginners 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?

What Kinds of Jobs Can I Have as an Archaeologist?

Archaeology FieldWork in Basingstoke

Nicole Beale/Flickr

There are many 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, from beginning to professional levels, employment prospects, and a little taste of what each is like.

What Is a Field School?

2011 Field Crew at Blue Creek

Maya Research Program

The best way to know if you really want to become an archaeologist is to attend a field school. Every year, most universities on the planet send their archaeologists out with a few to a few dozen students on training expeditions. These expeditions can involve real archaeological fieldwork and lab work and can last a year or a week or anything in between. Many take volunteers, so, even if you have no experience at all, you can sign up to learn about the work and see if it fits.

How Do I Choose a Field School?

West Point Foundry Project

There are hundreds of archaeological field schools held each year all over the world, and choosing the one for you may seem a little daunting. Fieldwork is conducted in many different places in the world, for different fees, from different universities, for different lengths of times. So, how do you choose one? 

First, find out: 

  • Where will it be held?
  • What culture/time period(s) it cover?
  • What kind of work will be conducted?
  • How much does it cost to attend? 
  • How many years has the work been going on?
  • What are the staff like?
  • Can you gain undergraduate or graduate credit from the university?
  • What are the accommodations like (food and shelter)?
  • What will the weather be like?
  • Will you go on tours on the weekends?
  • Is there a safety plan?
  • Is the field school certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists in the US (or other professional organization)?

All of those characteristics may be more or less important to you, but the best kind of field school is one in which the students actively participate in the research. As you're looking around for a field school, reach out to the professor leading the program and ask about how students participate in the excavations. Describe your special skills—Are you observant? Are you a good writer? Are you handy with a camera?—and tell them if you are interested in actively assisting with the research, and ask about opportunities for participation.

Even if you don't have a special skill, be open to opportunities to learn about the process of field work such as mapping, laboratory work, small finds analysis, faunal identification, soil study, remote sensing. Ask if there will be an independent study required for the field school and whether that study might become part of a symposium at a professional meeting or perhaps part of the report.

Field schools can be expensive—so don't treat it as a vacation, but rather an opportunity to gain quality experience in the field.

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

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

If you're going to be a professional archaeologist, that is, make a lifetime career at it, you will need some level of graduate education. Trying to make a career as a field technician—simply traveling the world as an itinerant field worker—has its joys, but eventually, the physical demands, the lack of a home environment, or the lack of good wages or benefits may chill the thrill.

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 M.A., and 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 along with it, you won't be able to get that job.

Do you want to teach? Recognize that academic 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 teachers with only M.A.s, but you will likely be competing with people with Ph.D.s for those jobs as well. If you plan on teaching, you will need to choose your school very carefully.

Plan Carefully

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 getting an M.A. or Ph.D. is expensive and, unless you want and can get a job in your specific field, possessing an advanced degree in an esoteric subject like archaeology may actually be a hindrance to you if you eventually decide to leave academics.

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 most essential asset. 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 a 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 changes.

Research Schools and Disciplines

Third, do your homework. If there was ever a time to practice your research skills, this is the time. All anthropology departments in the world 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 is a fairly good description of the field itself.

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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "How to Become an Archaeologist." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). How to Become an Archaeologist. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "How to Become an Archaeologist." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).