Addressing the Archaeology Professor Myth: Is it Possible to Realize Tenure Track Position? 2

is it possible to get a tenure track archaeology professor position?Sometimes you read the obvious, but it doesn’t really sink in. Sometimes the obvious sinks right in to your core.

I just finished reading two blog posts this week about the travails of post-PhD life. In 2011, Roderick asked “Is your PhD Worthless?” Partially answering his own question, Roderick mentions the success/survival of those that did the unspeakable— gave up on professordom and sold their services to the private sector. He says, when you ask around your department about these individuals, nobody seems to know their fate:

But, of course, nobody knows about them. They are the ones who failed – the ones to avoid, at all costs…Who were we talking about, just now? It’s easy to forget – those faces we used to see in the corridor, those names our advisor has known down the years – we, after all, have something better to do. Those unmemorable unspeakables – unspeakable? unmemorable?

Why don’t the faculty remember them? Roderick says it’s because they didn’t get a tenure track position.

Slate columnist and freelance blogger Rebecca Schuman also views things from Roderick’s position. In her well-known, viral piece “Thesis Hatement”, Schuman tells the world not to go to graduate school for a PhD. Why? Because you have almost no chance of getting a tenure track position.

Since when did the tenure track become the “be-all and end-all” of a college education?


As an archaeology PhD student, there is no end to the real and perceived pressure to keep believing in the possibility of attaining a tenure track position, even though landing one of those posts is less likely than winning the PowerBall jackpot. I don’t know if it’s the professors or the other PhD students that have filled their bellies up with the tenure track Kool Aid. Why is tenure considered the Holy Grail? It is true that most profs and PhD students don’t want to face the fact that professorships are extremely difficult to come by. Why isn’t this acknowledged more often? Are the profs afraid that you’ll drop out and take your money with you if they pull back the curtain to reveal the true Wizard of Oz?

Or, maybe universities are in denial that their product is severely defective. It wouldn’t be good for students to realize that the degree they’re seeking isn’t going to magically lead to a middle-class paradise. Schools probably don’t want you to know where your money is really going. According to the New York Times, universities with expensive presidents cost more than ones with more moderately paid executives. These schools also use more adjuncts and part-time faculty. Maybe universities want you to think the money is going to the football or basketball team rather than the school’s CEO.

Anyone with intelligence should know that degrees don’t get you jobs. Skills, knowledge, abilities, and connections are what get you a job. And you don’t need a college degree to have those things. In fact, a whole industry has sprang up to fill the needs of potential college students that understand going for a university degree is an expensive endeavor. For example, take San Francisco’s Uncollege. This “school” was founded by Dale Stephens who was unschooled from 6th to 12th grades (Unschooling is an excellent way to educate children, but it requires a parent or adult to stay home and unteach them. Check out the Wikipedia definition or read the classic book “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich). Stephens realized students were overpaying for school and that most of us could “hack” our educations in order to “make it” in today’s marketplace, so he started his own non-college and started charging students $15,000—16,000 to attend (irony?).

FYI: Stephens, my entire undergraduate career at an accredited university (Boise State) cost less than 10 weeks of your non-school. I also attended workshops, coaching meetings, and guest speaking events AND I received a degree that is recognized around the world as evidence I know how to learn. Guess what? I still had to figure out how to make my dream a reality regardless of how much advising, learning, and networking I received in college. I love the idea you’re following and applaud what you’ve done so far. I wish I had the dough when I was a teenager to go to uncollege in order to fund my college education. It sounds to me like your uncollege is really similar to joining a mastermind group, which is what college is supposed to be, except you don’t get a degree at the end of uncollege.

The unschooling movement is also exemplified in Michael Ellsberg’s best-seller “The Education of Millionaires”. I agree with Ellsburg’s position that it’s what you think and what you know how to do that will serve you better when looking for a job than a college degree will. Dale Stephens also has written a book on unschooling. I haven’t read Stephens’ book “Hacking your Education”, but I guess I’d like to ask both Ellsberg and Stephens; How will a hacked education help people who want to enter careers that require a college degree? For instance, how could you submit a CRM report to the SHPO if you didn’t meet the Secretary of Interior’s standards and you didn’t work with anyone that met those standards? Or, how would you become a respected astrophysicist if you didn’t have a PhD in astrophysics and get articles published in the leading astrophysics journals?

My point is: There are some jobs and roles in our society that require a PhD. Thus, it is not worthless to get a PhD even if you can’t get a tenure track position. The prestige conveyed by a PhD provides the social proof that is required for some jobs. Given the fact that most Americans believe in the sanctity of a college education and the fact that a never-ending stream of young people is flowing into our universities, there will never be a time when an unschooled or uncollege educated individual will be given the benefit of the doubt UNLESS they have a proven track record of success. The average American will consider a person with a PhD more authoritative than an unschooled, high school graduate 9 times out of 10 unless the unschooled person can use their accomplishments to prove mastery of a skill/field/trade. I’m sorry, but 100+ years of convincing us that college=good is not going away anytime soon.

Synergy between Unschooling and Schooling will Produce a Better Education and Better Professors

During my time in graduate school, I’ve also noticed that a large number of academicians (profs and students) are unwilling to admit that the vast majority of archaeology in the United States is conducted by cultural resource management archaeos and that the majority of archaeology jobs is in CRM. There are a number of reasons for this, but the nature of the CRM industry is the primary reason for this discrepancy. Archaeology professors have to teach and commit hours toward “service” (i.e. serving on committees). This leaves them less time to do archaeology than people who are working on sites for 40 hours each week, 50 weeks a year. I’m not sure why academicians are slow to acknowledge the viability of CRM archaeology as a fruitful career.

While CRMers spend more time doing archaeology, they spend almost no time teaching archaeology. All that experience and skill rarely gets transferred to up-and-coming archaeos. Conversely, most professors spend a considerable amount of time teaching and mentoring students, but less time in the field. Students would benefit from exposure to the real-world experience of CRMers and the theoretical experience of professors.

What would happen if CRM professionals joined forces with college professors to create archaeology programs that actually prepared students for life outside of school?

There are some universities that are doing exactly that. The CRM Archaeology Podcast has interviewed Steve Hackenberger and Ben Ford who are two exemplars of what happens when students experience the synergistic confluence of the professional realm and academia. In his interview, Dr. Ford clearly states his university’s goal is to prepare graduate students for careers in CRM archaeology— going so far as to get them RPA-qualified by the time they graduate. It looks like some schools haven’t gotten drunk on the tenure track Kool Aid and are preparing their students for the reality of the job market. This is an example of unschooling at school.

What about students that attend “tenure track über alles” departments? How are they being served for life after school? Basically, they aren’t.

That takes me back to my original question: Is it possible to attain a tenure track position as an archaeology professor? The real answer is yes. It is possible, but students should also be aware of non-academic opportunities. In fact, we should be doing all we can to prepare ourselves for work in CRM archaeology, historic preservation, or heritage conservation because those industries are always looking for the best and brightest. Your best chance of success is obtaining the skills necessary to work outside academia. It is likely that if you prepare yourself for a bright non-academic career you will actually be increasing your odds of landing a tenure track position. It seems like professional-academia collaborations are becoming more common, even in archaeology. This is becoming a selling point for some graduate degrees (as seen through the proliferation of Applied Archaeology MA programs). Individuals with PhDs that are successful in CRM will be hot commodities in mid-sized and smaller universities across the country.

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2 thoughts on “Addressing the Archaeology Professor Myth: Is it Possible to Realize Tenure Track Position?

  • Paul Mullins

    Of course some university departments continue to ignore the realities of doctoral employment, evading the genuine possibilities of a research life beyond the walls of the ivory tower, fantasizing about contingent faculty life as a phase rather than a sentence, retreating to their own insular research projects, or (in the case of archaeology) simply not understanding archaeological scholarship and employment in CRM and agencies. But plenty of programs are explicitly focused on training students for something other than TS employment (most of us terminal Master’s degree programs focused on applied skills of various sorts), and students and faculty alike need to have some sobriety and let go of their fantasies about the professorial life and the utter unpredictability of TS job searches.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      You are completely right, Paul. I think we’re in a transitional period where an increasing number of grad programs are trying to prepare students for the reality of the industry. I want to see more CRM companies and agency archaeos help these programs by sharing their knowledge and offering work experiences. The government already has a lot of internships, but most CRM companies are just complaining that their new hires don’t have the skills but aren’t doing anything about it.

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