Exit Interview: Why People Quit Archaeology

Why Would Anybody Quit the Glamorous Life of an Archaeologist?

Archaeology FieldWork in Basingstoke
Archaeology FieldWork in Basingstoke. Nicole Beale

Why would anybody quit archaeology, famously described by Kent Flannery as "the most fun you can have with your pants on?" Doesn't the romantic life portrayed by Indiana Jones and dreamed of by jillions of school kids sound like the best career ever? 

Only a tiny percentage of archaeologists have a job teaching in a university like the fictional Professor Jones. The majority of employed archaeologists in the United States, as with most of the western world, work in what is called cultural resource management, archaeological research conducted in advance of federally funded construction projects.

Entry level positions in the CRM practice are called "field technicians" and require a Bachelor's degree in anthropology or archaeology, and many archaeologists begin their professional careers as field techs.

But the practice of archaeology is not for everyone. In this fictionalized exit interview, a talented cultural resource management field technician lays out his reasons why the job is not a good fit for him.

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Tony walked into Jane's office, and dropped his backpack inside the door.

"Hi. Got a minute?"

Jane turned away from her tablet and said, "Sure, have a seat. Ready for Monday?"

Monday was to be the first day of the Anderson Energy Project, a nine-month out-of-state archaeological survey project, in advance of a thousand miles of pipeline.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." Tony's voice froze in his throat and he coughed to get it free. "I can't go."

"What? What's going on Tony?" Despite her words, Jane's voice was calm, good-humored.

"This is your big opportunity, $17 an hour, increased responsibility. You got something else to do? Runnin' away to the circus? Win the lottery?"

"I just got an apartment, Jane. The first one I've ever had. Don't even have furniture. I want furniture, Jane."

"You Want Furniture?"

Tony looked at Jane over his glasses.

She was being purposefully obtuse, after three years he recognized the symptoms. "I want a life, Jane. I want to come home from a day's work, make dinner in my kitchen, sit down in my comfy chair, watch football. I want an address that isn't a post office box or my parents'. I'm 24, for god's sake. I want to meet my neighbors, I want to date a non-archaeologist. I want to vote at the ballot box and know who the local politicians are. I want to throw a cocktail party."

"Oh." Jane stopped smiling. "Yeah, I see. You've been working for me a long time now, you're good at it, you sure you want to quit?"

"I'm tired of motels, Jane. I'm tired of having no benefits and no savings. I'm tired of wearing sunscreen every day of my life and marching through endless corn fields and never having decent clothes to wear and... I don't think I like fieldwork any more."

Jane leaned back in her office chair, concern at last in her voice. "What about graduate school, Tony? You've got the smarts, certainly you've got the talent. With an MA you can get a full time job, benefits, afford a house, supervise fieldwork rather than do it. What about that?"

What Can't Fieldwork Provide?

Tony looked at her carefully.

She wasn't the kind of boss you might call effusive, and compliments from her meant something. He took a breath, and then looked around her office before answering. It was cluttered with books and half-opened boxes. One whole bookshelf jostled with professional journals. A cork board hanging over her desk was littered with stratified post-it notes, and a handful of pictures, pictures of groups of people in floppy hats, dirty clothes, and sunburns. They looked happy. One framed picture sat on her desk--her ex-husband. Max left her because she was on the road so much: and he wanted to have children, something Jane could not schedule.

"No, Jane, I don't think so. I'm going into law, or maybe go back for an MBA or something in computer science. Something. I need a life, Jane, and archaeology, the way it's conducted, archaeology can't give it to me."

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Many of the best and the brightest leave archaeology because the cowboy lifestyle doesn't suit them. There's an enormous amount of travel in the day-to-day lives of archaeologists--even university professors--and even the higher paying jobs are not well-paid compared to most other professional jobs, particularly for people with advanced degrees. It's hard, hot (and it must be said, sometimes really dull) work, and, as we've seen you have to sacrifice "normal" life. 

You might love it--a lot of us do. But I suspect Flannery and the rest of life-long professional archaeologists have an idea of "fun" that doesn't always match what people want. The exodus of young people is a serious brain and talent drain, and there are no easy answers to resolving it.