Last week, I talked about how degree inflation is making it harder for young archaeologists to land entry-level archaeological field technician jobs without having a graduate degree. There is a lot of incentive for cultural resource management companies to hire field techs who have more than a Bachelor’s degree:
- Graduate degrees have a lot of prestige in our society. If one degree is good, certainly a graduate degree is better.
- The analytical mind necessary in CRM archaeology is cultivated in graduate school.
- There is an assumption that folks with a graduate degree are better prepared to do the higher level of writing, analysis, and synthesis required in CRM.
- There is also an assumption on the part of aspiring CRMers that they must get a grad degree just to get any kind of job.
- Certain government agencies and projects mandate everyone in the field must meet the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Archaeology, which ask for a minimum of a graduate degree in anthropology or a related field.
- Finally, companies and new-hires both assume they will move up in the ranks and, one day, make it to the supervisory caste. At that point, the graduate degree will be necessary.
However, all of these scenarios leave out one important aspect of any career: The sunk costs invested in garnering each CRMer’s real-world experience. A graduate degree costs time and money. Training archaeological technicians takes time and money. Properly learnin’ up a crew chief, field director, or project manager takes a whole lot of money and time.
A quandary throughout the CRM industry: What is the most cost-effective pathway to get archaeologists from college to a livable wage? Many believe getting the grad degree and THEN the experience is more effective. Others, including myself, think it is better to get some CRM tech experience under your belt BEFORE going back for your grad degree.
(Notice how I believe: 1) you need a college degree to do cultural resource management and, 2) you will need a graduate degree if you want to keep doing cultural resource management. Being educated is part of being an archaeologist. Even Indiana Jones had an education and he wasn’t applying for jobs against 120 other PhDs.)
I do not believe any tech should be hired just because she has a graduate degree. Field experience should trump degrees when it comes to being a CRM archaeological technician. Here are six good reasons why cultural resource management companies should not hire field techs with a graduate degree.
1) A graduate degree does not equal experience— I’ve brought it up before but, this week, the resounding cry came from my peers on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Most CRMers who have been in the industry for a few years do not believe college properly prepares new archaeologists for the realities of doing cultural resource management. I heard more than once that a couple summers in the field in grad school is not enough to prepare you for CRM.
There are a number of reasons for this but the most salient is the different contexts in which CRM and academic archaeology are conducted. Academic archaeology is conducted to learn more about a certain time and place. There is rarely a legal nexus or reason why the work is being conducted other than the fact that archaeologists want to learn more about the past. A lot of the time, academic work is done by volunteers, students, or other #freearchaeology folk who are there to get experience and “live the dream.” Research excavations can be fast paced, but there are rarely repercussions for not getting everything done.
In cultural resource management, you are working against time, spatial, budgetary, and political constraints. There are consequences if you make mistakes or do not complete the work. When it comes to research potential, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. You cannot control what comes out of the ground or how much time you get to analyze it. The pace is frenetic and relentless when compared to academic archaeology where you get all winter to think about what you just did and what you will do next.
The only way to learn CRM is by doing CRM. Field school is a great exercise but there is a difference between doing eight, six-week field schools and doing CRM for 50 weeks in a row (if you’re lucky). Doing a couple more field schools during your Master’s or PhD still comes to less than what you’d experience in a single summer as an archaeological technician in CRM.
2) Companies can’t pay techs enough— The average college graduate owes about $29,000 in student loans for their Bachelor’s degree. If you paid your techs $13/hr., they would gross about $27,000 annually, not including taxes and assuming they had work all year round. It would cost about $130 of their monthly income to make payments on that $29,000 in student loans. This sucks but it could be worse.
A master’s degree can cost between $30,000 and $120,000. Let’s assume you got a “cheap” Master’s at the University of Arizona (where I’m currently a PhD student) and only had to pay the annual in-state rate of $12,000/year. Let’s also assume you only took loans for tuition and worked to pay your other bills (rent, food, gas, car, ect.) as a research assistant, bartender, or did any other odd job. And, let’s assume again that you took a forbearance on your undergrad loans and didn’t have to make payments on that. It takes 2 years to finish the Applied Anthropology MA program so that would be about $24,000. Okay, assuming you got a reasonable interest rate for your loans (3.5%) it would cost about $108/month to repay that money over the next 30 years at that field tech wage of $13.00/hour. Again, not so crippling as long as you stay employed all year long and don’t want to buy a house or a car or have kids or…be a middle-class American grown-up.
But, let’s talk about what it would be like to go straight through from undergrad to grad school and then take that $13/hour field tech job. If you borrowed the whole time and ended up owing $53,000 for your anthropology Bachelors and Master’s, you would be have to be expected to pay about $240 each month for all of those loans. After 30 years, you would have repaid about $85,700 including $32,678.75 in interest!
Thirteen dollars an hour works out to about $27,000 a year with gross pay of about $2,250 a month. We all know the government gets a cut so that $2,200 would be chopped down to around $1,660 after the feds and state (of Arizona) got through with you. Take away the student loans and you’re looking at about $1,420/month of take home pay as a field technician.
CRM companies seriously expect someone with a Master’s degree to be able work their way up the ladder on $1,420 a month? How long can they keep that up? A person with a BA would be getting about $110 more each month in take home pay simply because they have $24,000 less in student loans to pay. That’s $1,200/year more that could be used to pay student loans faster or invest. It’s about $15,300 in compounded growth assuming the extra $100 each month was invested in an index fund for 10 years that averaged 5% annual growth. It’s nearly $40k if you did that for 20 years.
These estimates are really, really, really speculative, but they highlight the conundrum recent graduates with student loans face when confronted with a job market that asks for a graduate degree. They took on the added burden of student loans and, I believe, are justified in being frustrated at their career prospects at the tech level. Conversely, its borderline unethical to ask young people to take on more loans just to compete with an ever-moving finish line.
3) Sour-pants techs mess with your team dynamics— Negativity can destroy a CRM project. It can weaken a CRM company. Bad dynamics in the field cost both time and money.
Frustrated crews full of complainers do the bare minimum (i.e. digging only their quota of probes and doing no more). Cranky-pants whiners in the field and office bring down morale and make others feel worse about their work. They cause arguments, fights, and (sometimes) rebellions. The overall quality of archaeology suffers because these “Bare-Minimalists” are only there for a paycheck. They don’t care about research, insight, preservation, or heritage conservation. It’s hard to think about anything other than yourself when you spend every day bitching about how bad your life is and how it was a complete mistake to try and become an archaeologist because (insert spineless, victim-based, agency-less reason here).
I have been on crews where morale is low. I worked for companies where everybody, from the top brass to the bottom of the barrel, spends each day complaining about their job. It sucks.
In my personal experience, the biggest field tech complainers are: 1) long-time field techs who are frustrated by the fact that their career has stalled because of degree inflation and/or, 2) field techs with a MA who are pissed that they have to do tech work because they have a grad degree and want to be supervisors. Since you need long-time techs because of their skill and experience, it’s worth it to listen to a little bellyaching in order to get the job done so long as it doesn’t hinder the project. But, it is simply not worth it to put up with morale-destroying complaints from techs with grad degrees who are frustrated their degree didn’t get them where they wanted to be (yet).
4) MA Tunnel Vision blinds companies to diamonds in the rough— Have you ever seen Henry VIII’s suit of armor? It’s on display in the Tower of London and I highly recommend you see it if you have a chance. From what I remember, the suit of armor was made for King Henry VIII for a jousting tournament during the fifteenth century and most of it looks pretty much like all the other suits of armor I’ve ever seen. Except for one part that clearly sticks out: Henry’s codpiece.
In fact, I barely remember anything about that armor except for the codpiece. I won’t go into detail but you can look at the photo in this article and see why that particular part stuck out in my mind.
Imagine this. You are a hiring manager at a CRM company and have 4 temporary field tech positions open. No guarantees this will lead to a permanent position. After posting the ad, you have 12 applicants—six of whom have a Masters’ degree. Many of the techs with a Bachelors have quite a bit of field experience, including one old soul who has an Associate’s in anthropology and 10 years’ experience. Only one of the Masters applicants have more than 2 years’ field CRM experience.
What do you do? Hire the “best fit” (i.e. those who have the most experience regardless of educational attainment). Or, do you hire the MA’s under the illusion that these guys will help you more in the end because they can fulfill SOI standards someday? What if your company’s applicant tracking software weeds out all the BAs, leaving you only with MAs because they have “better” credentials?
This is the problem with focusing on degrees rather than actual experience. Fixating on the degree over experience is like staring at Henry VIII’s codpiece without paying attention to the rest of the suit of armor. There is no guarantee the techs with experience and a BA got good experience, but at least they’ve been out there and know what to expect. Conversely, the MAs may turn into bad apples after they realize they won’t get to apply what they know about optimal foraging theory because they’ll be getting paid minimum wage to dig shovel probes through a superfund site in Tacoma, Washington for the next 8 months.
A tech with a BA is doing this to get experience and because they really want to do archaeology. The tech with an MA is doing it because he/she wants to become a supervisor someday and that can’t come soon enough.
5) Entry-level grad degree requirements only fuels the education bubble— The Great Recession lead many of us to believe that more education is the key to a stable future. Got a Bachelors? Well, double down on a Masters? Better yet, get a PhD if you think you have the chops? (This sounds eerily familiar. I wonder why?)
Colleges love grad students, especially Master’s folks. We can teach their classes for peanuts, which means they don’t have to hire as many instructors. Whereas most PhD students get support in the form of tuition waivers, teaching assistantships, and grants or scholarships, Master’s students are on their own to pay for college (see #2 above). Plus, MA students pay higher tuition and out-of-state students are rarely in school long enough to get residency. Master’s students routinely pay more for their degree. The movement towards more education only helps universities.
But, this cannot go on forever. We are living in an education bubble and anthropology isn’t immune. Undergraduate anthropology enrollment is down in several universities and articles like this or this don’t do much to convince students anthropology is a viable career option. Millennials are interested in changing the world through work but they are also value shoppers who aren’t going to risk their future on college degrees that everybody tells them are not worth the money.
When aspiring CRMers learn that all the jobs are going to people with a Masters, they either drop out of the market and do something completely different or go back to college for a Masters. There are a lot of problems with either scenario:
- CRM archaeology loses another enthusiastic practitioner.
- New graduates take out five-figures in loans in order to break into a career they may not like.
- The glut of grad degrees further devalues that degree.
- All of this deters even more students from studying anthropology.
Perhaps the worst side effect is the fact that this adds to the student loan bubble that will, ultimately, bring our economy down.
6) Field technicians are not expendable— The cultural resource management industry is built upon the people who actually go out and do the fieldwork. You can have all the PIs, researchers, lab directors, and support staff you want, archaeological technicians are where the rubber hits the road. They are the ones who do the data recovery and find the sites. They are the reason why we know so much about the past. They are the foot soldiers in the battle for historic preservation and heritage conservation.
All of the best CRMers I know started out as field techs. They may have taken a field school, but being a tech shaped who they are today. I can almost always tell which CRM supervisors spent time shovelbumming and who didn’t.
When techs are hired based on degrees rather than experience, the whole process of working your way up in the industry is undermined. Each MA who is hired over a BA with experience tells young CRMers all of their real-world experience is worth less than two years of book learning. The message is: the degree is what has value, not experience. It makes techs think folks with a BA are like shovels that can be replaced when they break. An MA, on the other hand, has potential and is worth the investment.
Valuing degrees over experience fuels aggregates all of the previous five reasons I mentioned, but the sentiment that techs aren’t real archaeologists is the most damaging. Imagine watching your company hire an inept archaeologist with a grad degree to supervise you. Envision repeatedly teaching someone with more education how to use a compass, dig a shovel probe, and fill out a STP form. Think about how you’d feel if you had to listen to someone who couldn’t dig their way out of a playground sandbox tell you how to excavate a pithouse or privy or shovel probe transect. How would you feel if, after a couple years of sweating in the sun surveying acres of barren desert, you watched someone with less experience get moved up to department head even though you’d seen her screw up countless times on countless projects?
It would suck, wouldn’t it. You’d probably be cynical and frustrated. You’d probably think, “Maybe I should give up on my dream. I mean, managing a Starbucks isn’t that bad.” (No offense to Starbucks, which is an important part of CRM archaeology not only because they let you use their bathroom for free regardless of how filthy you look as long as you buy a coffee.)
Oh, wait. There are a lot of folks who know exactly how that feels. That feeling like an archaeological technician is simply a tool companies use to dig sites is the reason why I wrote this blog post. Because it is all too common in our industry and needs to stop.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop
With colleges cranking out thousands of anthropology majors each year, including hundreds of MAs and PhDs, it does not look like companies will be able to resist the urge of hiring archaeological technicians with graduate degrees. Perhaps, they shouldn’t stop.
The biggest problem with this phenomenon is the fact that it fuels the education bubble. We are all overeducated but underqualified because it’s much easier to get college degrees than it is to get industry experience. All you’ve got to do is pay $, show up to class, follow instructions, and fulfill all the university’s requirements. Competition is fierce for the few jobs in CRM archaeology and they will go to those who are willing to sacrifice the most. Today, it’s looking like those who find gainful employment will be the ones with graduate degrees.
The bar has been raised and I would be convinced it was a good thing if wages had risen accordingly. Sadly, this is not the case. Stay tuned for my next post: Degree Inflation in Cultural Resource Management: Some Solutions.
This blog post came directly from conversations I had with other cultural resource management archaeologists on social media. Dialogue is crucial. Keep the conversation going. Write a comment below or send me an email.
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