8 reasons why you should not to get an Anthropology PhD

Should cultural resource management archaeologists have a phd?A Bachelor’s is what you need to get a job as an archaeologist. A Masters is what you need to keep working in CRM. A PhD is overkill at the present moment, but probably will not be in the near future.

The following post is not intended to dissuade anyone from getting a PhD and doing cultural resource management archaeology. I wrote this to start an honest discussion about getting your Doctorate in anthropology. Some of us have been strongly encouraged to go on for our PhD. Others have a strong desire to get a PhD in order to do archaeology. Regardless of your reasons, you should read this post if you’re thinking about or are already enrolled in a PhD program.

As the vast majority of archaeologists work in CRM and have a strong opinion about PhDs doing “real archaeology” (they don’t really like it). Most CRMers feel like meeting the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Archaeology is enough to do CRM work. However, we are entering a stage in the industry where a Master’s is what they want archaeological technicians to have. After they realize the difficulties of landing a faculty job, a tide of PhDs will start trickling into CRM and companies will welcome them with open arms. If an MA is good, a PhD must be better. After all, you learn CRM by doing it. Someone with a PhD is a prime candidate to be learned up in the ways of CRM. (BTW: I’ve seen this happen before a number of times. It’s a real thing in CRM.)

If you’re thinking about subjecting yourself to the rigors of a PhD program, it might be good to talk to someone else. If you’re already in a PhD program, you might want to think about why you’re doing this and if it’s such a good idea. I don’t want to convince you to quit, but I do want to share my thoughts.

(DISCLAIMER: After years of doing cultural resource management, I have become a tenure-track assistant professor at a major university in the United States. Because I’m just starting out, I don’t have any grad students but I do dispense advice. This blog post contains a sample of what I talk about with the students that tell me they want to become an archaeologist, especially the PhD students. My comments do not reflect the sentiment of my employer. As usual, I’m shooting from the hip and risking my reputation on saying the kind of stuff others aren’t willing to say. I’ll probably get schooled for writing stuff like this, so wish me luck.)

(TRIGGER WARNING: Some of you will read this and feel a sharp spark of anger/frustration/anxiety after reading this list. You must chill. I broke every single one of those commandments I say you should not do. This is supposed to spark a conversation. Take it with a grain of salt.)

PhDs in CRM

The majority of archaeologists work in CRM. An increasing number of them have PhDs, which I believe is a good thing. Having more individuals with a background in anthropological research is a bulwark against the business über alles culture of many CRM businesses. CRMers are a hybrid of scholar/businesspeople, but the quest to make payroll sometimes diminishes the curiosity and investigative nature of the archaeologist inside each of us. I believe increasing the number of PhDs is one way we can increase the level of scholarship in the industry. Conversely, this can also be done by increasing the number of CRMers with a Masters as long as they don’t completely forget why they do archaeology for a living.

I have a PhD. I did it for my own reasons, including many of the ones I recommend against below. I also include 8 reasons why you should get a PhD. Ultimately, the choice is yours.

Eight reasons why you should not get a PhD

1) Because you think it will help you get a job. Networking and experience is what gets you employment in archaeology. Degrees and certifications help (especially a Master’s), but you’re not going to get hired simply because you have a PhD. Nobody will want you if you don’t have experience, so go get some experience. Nobody will hire you if you don’t show them you know what you’re doing through articles, presentations, word-of-mouth, networking, or through your online persona. You can only show what you can do by contributing to projects, so figure out a way to get some under your belt.

2) Because you can’t find an archaeology job. Can’t find a job in archaeology? Well going back to graduate school can be one of the worst things you can do. Grad school is expensive and takes time. If you don’t have any experience or do significant networking, you’ll be in the same shoes as you were before you went back to school.

Focus on landing that first archaeology job by networking your ass off and talking your way into an entry-level position. From there work your ass off to show you deserve this job and are serious about moving forward. Graduate school should be your pathway to bigger, better things, not a way to get in the doorway.

3) Because you want to be the boss. None of the best bosses I’ve ever had in CRM had a PhD. All of them had tons of experience and a Master’s (except for one aged guru who had a Bachelor’s and over 40 years of experience).

All of the worst bosses I’ve ever had in CRM had a PhD but no experience.

Sure, you can get hired as a supervisor with a PhD but it will be difficult to supervise CRM projects without having done CRM first. Also, long-time CRMers will not respect you until you show them you know what you’re doing. Scientists use direct observation to make determinations. They will need to directly observe you doing a good job before they’ll pay attention to what you say. You should care about your co-workers respecting you because you need them to do good work for you so you can look good.

It’s a cycle of reciprocity—Take care of them and they’ll take care of you. This is part of being a good supervisor and it doesn’t require a PhD.

4) Because you love learning. You don’t need college to learn. You don’t even need a college degree as proof of learning for most jobs. Archaeology is a little different in that there is strong incentive to meet the Secretary of Interior’s Qualifications for Archaeology, but I’ve worked with quite a few field techs that had a high school diploma who were just as good as the techs with a BA.

If you really love learning, I recommend you do not get a PhD and do a self-guided “One-Year Alternative Graduate School Program” (https://chrisguillebeau.com/the-one-year-alternative-graduate-school-program/). Build it yourself. Do whatever you want as long as its legal. A DIY grad “degree” would probably be cheaper than a “real” degree and you’d probably learn more.

5) Because you want to make a change. You don’t need degrees to make a change in the world. Getting a PhD may increase your prestige but it’s not a requirement for changing the things you’d like to see changed.

If you want to make change in the world, start immediately. Don’t wait until you’ve spent eight years on a PhD to start changing the world.

6) Because you want to become a professor. I cannot recommend that anyone get a PhD simply because they want to become a professor because the academic job market is too capricious for you to know if your research will be what anyone wants when you get done. You also can’t be sure who your competition will be. Finally, you can always teach at a community college, on Coursera, or in some other way without a PhD.

I know you need a PhD to teach at an American university but, rather than obsessing over degrees, I recommend you focus on creating an amazing career. Publish a sh*tload of stuff on your research interests (Yes, blogging, vlogging, podcasting, and other media texts count. And, they’ll reach a bigger audience than any of your peer-reviewed publications), and get really, really, really passionate about some aspect of archaeology. So passionate that you can become known as an expert (see #4 above about a DIY graduate education).

Build an excellent career. Become a stellar scholar. Do this well and its likely universities will come looking for you. Plus, you’ll be able to parlay your excellence into other positions while you wait for your first Nobel Prize.

7) Because your parents/advisor/spouse/ect. wants you to. This is the hardest one for me to understand. Why would you do what somebody else told you to do unless it was what you really wanted to do?

By the time you enroll in college, you are an adult. Don’t get a PhD because somebody else wants you to.

8) Because you want to increase diversity. Okay, this isn’t an option for most folks reading this blog. Diversity includes a wide range of characteristics but most archaeologists are middle-class, college-educated folks that don’t really meet diversity criteria. Still, you might be thinking of going further in your studies because you’ve noticed the lack of diversity in archaeology.

This is admirable. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why I say you SHOULD get a PhD (see #7 below). However, if you’re GLBTQ, a POC, first-generation college student, a single-parent, someone with a disability or any combination of the aforementioned “othernesses,” just know you might end up in a situation where you are the diversity for your entire organization. And, that’s a tough place to be.

How many brown or black faces have you ever seen on a CRM company’s website? If they had a POC, how many times did you see that individual in their marketing materials? What do you think that says about diversity in CRM?

You will be alone. People will ask you ignorant questions. You might experience discrimination. Basically, you will be an “other” that the rest of your co-workers will be “trying to figure out” (i.e. figure out which box they can put you into so they can know where they stand in comparison to you). This is real. I’ve experienced it before. If you have any questions, please email me or write a message below.

Eight reasons why you should get a PhD

Now that I’ve told you some salient reasons why you shouldn’t get a PhD, let me just tell you that anthropology PhDs have an outsized influence on the field. For all the projects CRMers do, with a few exceptions, most cultural resource management archaeologists really haven’t done much to move the needle of archaeological thought. PhDs do.

There are an infinite number of reasons why you would get your PhD and become an archaeologist. Here are eight I can think of off the top of my head:

1) Because you’re altruistic. You might go back for your PhD if you actually care about other people and want to do the kind of archaeological research that has potential to give back to communities. This is hard to do in CRM but it’s not that difficult as a PhD student or scholar. You can use the prestige and knowledge associated with your academic credentials to help make change in communities.

Working for the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) at the University of Arizona was career-changing for me. I’d already done nearly a decade of CRM by the time I went back for my PhD, but working for BARA is what taught me that archaeology can be a force for positive change in communities. I’m prouder of what I did there during those four years than 80% of what I did as a CRMer.

In Graduate School, you have a chance to give back in a way that really doesn’t exist in CRM because, in consulting, the profit motive can be so overpowering. I only know of a couple CRM firms that are community assets in that they actively try to give back to the communities in which they work.

I know I just said you shouldn’t go back to school if you want to make a change in the world (see reason #5 above) but grad school will give you that chance. You just have to be willing to take it.

2) Because you’re really, really, really good at school. You will need to be an excellent student to survive a PhD program. I mean, we’re talking EXCELLENT.

You have to be good at school just to get accepted. Then, you’ll be in a program with a bunch of other excellent students. You will no longer be the smartest person in the room. Then, you’ll need to do all your dissertation research, the project, grant writing, and, most likely, teach class. All of that scholarly stuff will take place against a backdrop of bills, spouses/dating, children (maybe), and the expectations of being an adult.

There’s a reason why less than 2% of American adults have a PhD. It’s partially because doctoral programs are difficult to complete. Being an excellent student is a major part of earning your doctorate.

3) Because you love taking on huge challenges. A doctoral program is difficult (see #2 above), which means you will have to be the kind of person willing to take on huge challenges.

Money will be a perennial concern, both funding for your research and funding for your personal life. Dealing with all the psychological issues associated with grad school (imposter syndrome, inferiority complexes, anxiety, stress, depression, and anything else you can throw in that basket) will cloud your thinking, adding to the difficulty. Finally, you will have to persevere over many, many years (4—5 yrs. If you’ve already got your Master’s; 7—10 yrs. if you’re coming in with a Bachelor’s). If graduate school is a half marathon, a PhD is an ultramarathon.

As an undergraduate or lower-level CRMer, somebody else landed the projects. All you had to do is show up with a trowel and some lunch. As a PhD student, you hustle up your own projects. And, it is your responsibility to get them done properly. All of this is a big challenge—probably the biggest one you’ve faced in your career to that point. But, it’s a training course of what will be expected in CRM at the highest levels.

You will have to be willing to take on a challenge of this magnitude if you have any hope of finishing a PhD program. This is another major reason why people don’t finish their PhD.

4) Because you want to get out of CRM but keep doing archaeology. This is probably the best reason for getting a PhD because you probably have what it takes to survive a PhD program. All that CRM training will make you a hardened. A life of deprivation as a field tech, crew chief, or field director is excellent training for a PhD program. Someone with a CRM background is much more likely to survive a PhD program because you’re already ‘bout that life and know what it means to feed yourself by digging holes.

CRM is the environment most of us will call home for our entire careers because there are not too many options outside the industry. And, most of the other options—running a non-profit, working for UNESCO or the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, or teaching at a university—require at least a PhD if not winning the archaeology job lottery. You don’t have much of a chance at those positions without a PhD.

Worst case scenario: You use your PhD to become a Principal Investigator at a CRM company. If you can handle the stress, it sure beats digging shovel probes when you’re 55 years old.

5) Because you want to do the kind of research you’ve always dreamed of doing. (see Tip #1 above) If you do CRM, you will have almost no control over what you research. Your work will be bounded, intellectually and physically, by the budget and the project area. In graduate school, you have much more latitude on what you study and what your dissertation research will focus on. It’s not easy and the budget will still be a constraint, but your work will be all your own.

Getting to do my type of dream research is one of the central reasons why I went back for a PhD. I got a taste of following my research interests in CRM, but was able to kick it into overdrive as a graduate student. Even if you go back to CRM after getting your doctorate (or, gasp, never finish your doctoral program), you will have gotten a chance to follow your dreams—something few of us get to do as CRMers.

6) Because you already have a Master’s, data, and funding. This magical trifecta of a Master’sàa dataset you can useà and funding (tuition waiver, RA/TA, scholarship, or grant) will take you a long way in a PhD program.

Most students accepted to a PhD program are smart scholars but, oftentimes, they are missing a dataset with which they can work and money to fund their studies. At the PhD level, most students are receiving a tuition waiver through various means. But, many arrive without a dataset which means they’ll have to figure that out after getting accepted to the program. In my experience, finding a dataset and/or funding is the biggest reason why PhD students drop out.

If you have some CRM experience and all three of these in place, you should strongly be thinking about going after a PhD because there is an extremely likely chance that you will be an asset to both the program and CRM companies after graduation. Your experience is something doctoral programs need. We need grizzled CRM veterans to ground in-class lectures, provide valuable insight into discussion, and talk realistically to other PhD students, many of whom have never heard the raw truths about being a professional archaeologist.

If you have an MA, data, and money, you are nearly half way to a PhD. Why not go the full distance?

7) Because you want to increase diversity. I know I just said you shouldn’t go for a PhD just because you want to increase diversity (see tip #8 above) but I’m going to contradict myself again on this one. You will be blazing a path for other students that fit in the “others” category if you can finish the PhD program and find gainful employment on the other side.

This will be no small task because most doctoral programs, anthro faculty, and CRM companies have very little diversity. You will have to put up with all the macro and microaggressions until your co-workers get used to you working there (some never will). You’ll probably put up with it from clients and others who aren’t used to this demographic change. If you can put up with it, you will be forging the way for the others who come after you.

There always has to be a first. There are always people like Jackie Robinson, Harvey Milk, Rachel Maddow, Barack Obama, Nikki Haley, and all the other “others” that did something first. Somebody has to go first. In archaeology, it’s very likely you could be that person.

8) Because you can. Ultimately, this is the real reason why you should be going back for a PhD. Because you believe in yourself and know you can do it. You are always only a few hours, days, weeks, years away from realizing your dream. If you’ve always dreamed of getting a PhD, go for it.

You need food, water, air, shelter, companionship but nobody needs a PhD. Everyone with a doctorate earned their degree because they knew they could do it. You can too.

Tell me what you think

This post is not an “Ultimate List.” It’s just part of the conversation I have with anyone that tells me they want to get their PhD so they can do archaeology. It was designed to spark a lively, realistic discussion about the pros and cons of getting an anthropology PhD. If you have anything to say, please leave it in the comments below or send me an email. Thanks for reading.


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