When archaeology field techs have to teach PhDs how to do archaeology 35

Taught_a_PhD_to_Draw_a_PlanviewThe other day, I saw this compelling and telling message on my Facebook news feed, “Got to teach a PhD how to draw a plan view today.” It wouldn’t have struck me as interesting except for two things:

  1. The guy doing the teaching just got his BA 2 years ago and is a budding field technician, and
  2. The person being taught has achieved the highest level of academic success and doesn’t know how to do a relatively commonplace archaeology task (I think I drew my first plan view in 1999 as an undergraduate in field school).

Is there something wrong with this picture? I think so.

Why are field techs doing the job professors should be doing?

This situation is not unique. I’ve been in similar shoes as a field tech that had to teach PhD co-workers and supervisors a lot of things that every field archaeologist (or, even, adult American) should know how to do. These tasks include:

–Showing a PhD graduate how to book a hotel room and rent a car using a credit card (Her major professor or parents had always taken care of that for her in the past).

­–Showing a PhD crew chief how to use the Trimble (Including how to turn it on)

­–Showing a PhD crew chief how to use a compass (She had to use mine because she brought a Playskool, Boy Scouts one without declination or a sighting mirror)

­–Showing a PhD graduate how to dig a shovel probe (In his only other archaeological experience in the Mediterranean, he’d only used a brush and trowel).

­–Explaining to a PhD graduate how archaeologists identify historical deposits in a backhoe trench (The backhoe ripped through the remains of a burned building and garbage deposit that I believed was historical, so there was a 3-foot-thick layer of charcoal, glass, and ceramics marking the historical deposit. Quite visible.).

­–Showing a PhD “historical archaeologist” how to date a bottle based on its date code (She didn’t know we could date bottles based on these codes).

­–And, on more than one occasion, explaining that we are doing cultural resource management— not “academic archaeology” (CRM has a regulatory context and we don’t just get to dig and write whatever we want).

The list could go on, but I think I’ve already embarrassed some of the people that read (or, used to read) this blog. I understand that we all need to start somewhere, but c’mon man! How do you get a PhD and NOT know those things? How can you make it through almost a decade of higher education and not know how to do archaeology? I’m not the first to notice this problem or the first tech that has had to teach their boss how to do her/his job. Why does this keep happening?

Colleges are not upholding their end of the bargain

In the old days of university education (back when women and minorities weren’t allowed to go to college) the adage that you were learning for intellectual stimulation and self-improvement made a lot of sense. Back then, you didn’t really need a college degree to have a trade or make a fruitful living for yourself. All you needed was some sort of skill or apprenticeship and, in time, you could start up your own bakery, cobbler shop, or haberdashery. College was a luxury reserved for intellectuals, rich folks, and people that wanted to follow one of the few professional tracks in their society (basically, law and medicine). Only lawyers or doctors actually needed degrees to practice. And, oftentimes, those requirements were overlooked by the general public in favor of “time served” experience.

Today, things are different. A college degree is almost mandatory for most jobs in our society and it’s not uncommon to find a coffee shop manager with a graduate degree. Is there degree inflation? Yes. Is that bad for archaeology? I say no, but there are many that rightfully disagree with me. Nevertheless, a college degree is practically mandatory for paid employment in archaeology and a graduate degree is practically mandatory for a career in archaeology.

That being said, your degree should provide you the basic skills needed to perform the trade you’ve chosen. This does not just apply to archaeology. If you go to school to become an engineer, your education should give you the skills needed for an entry-level position in engineering. If you get an MBA, you should know enough to adequately perform in a business management role. And, if you want to become an archaeologist, a graduate degree should give you the skills necessary to do archaeology. Period.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed some of the steps being taken by universities towards providing a better education for their students. I do think steps are being taken, but I feel like they could be taken a bit faster. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a poor PhD graduate flounder in CRM or academia just because their education let them down. It’s not fair to let down the very students that are dropping some serious coin on these degrees and spending some of their most productive years sitting in a classroom somewhere. Students are not a number or a product. We are human beings that will make quality contributions to the field if given the proper guidance.

College is no longer simply an intellectual pursuit. If you want intellectualism, just follow Chris Guilebeau’s advice– create a 30-day Semester of Improvement for yourself. Take 30-days and intensively study any topic you’re interested in. I mean, scour the internet AND your local libraries. Read hundreds of books and articles. Contact and converse with professionals and recognized leaders. Start doing your own homework projects. Treat it like you were in school and put aside 6–8 hours a day, 5–6 days a week intensively studying every aspect of something that interests you and I guarantee you will learn much more in 30 days than you would in an entire semester of studying that topic in a university. With the freedom and interconnectivity that exists in modern society, you can embark on intellectual pursuits anywhere, anytime. You don’t need a college for that.

You do need a college for the degree, which is a form of social proof that demonstrates you can and did learn something about a specific topic. That’s the one thing colleges have going for them. But, this is going to mean less and less if these degrees don’t provide you the skills that you will need in your chosen career field. It’s unfortunate that CRM companies are forced to take untrained employees and spend thousands of tax payer dollars teaching them the ins-and-outs of the trade. I know several companies that make a practice of hiring greenhorn MAs and PhDs and using their techs to teach them how to do cultural resource management. The idea is that you can teach them the trade, but you can’t give them the social proof that comes along with a degree.

The result: a bunch of botched projects, feelings of inadequacies, and bad archaeology. I think that’s sad.

FYI: If you’re a PhD student and you don’t know how to draw a plan view, figure it out before you start working as an archaeologist.

If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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35 thoughts on “When archaeology field techs have to teach PhDs how to do archaeology

  • Chris Webster

    Great post! I need to play devil’s advocate for a minute, though, and bring in a new perspective. Before I do so, I’ll point out that I too have been frustrated by having to teach my supervisors how to do simple tasks.

    I’ll take my example from the military. New officers are well-known as “green” and need training. It’s actually one of the jobs of a Chief in the Navy (someone with at least 8-12 years of experience) to train them. Why do they do this? The officers are on a different track and career path than the enlisted men and women.

    When officers get to their posts they have been trained in leadership (they still need work, though), command, and customs and manners. They haven’t been trained in the minutia of their first positions within a command. That is reserved for on the job training.

    How does this apply to archaeology? Does it actually apply? Maybe it does, but, maybe it shouldn’t.

    Someone that decides to get a PhD is making a statement that they are on a very different track than a field tech. The field tech might want a PhD, but, there is a difference between want and action.

    I guess what I’m saying is that a PhD is theoretically being groomed for a different sort of roll within the CRM Archaeological structure. They won’t necessarily know everything when they get to their jobs just because they have a PhD. For one thing, a doctoral program is really not the place to learn that skill. I’ve taught more than a few BAs how to do basic archaeological tasks that one could argue they should have learned in college.

    A good leader should know their weaknesses and strengths. They should be able to delegate and to draw on the strengths of their team members. I have an MS and I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ll more than likely spend the rest of my career in some sort of leadership roll. Still, I’ll always get that one 20-year field tech on my crew and if I think I know more than they do because I’m in charge then I’m going to learn a harsh lesson.

    The first rule of leadership is to understand that you don’t know everything. The second rule is to “praise in public and punish in private”, but that’s another topic.

    I understand that it can feel frustrating to teach something to someone that the world has somehow deemed better than you, but, realize that we are all chasing the same goal. If you don’t like what you see, then, go get your own MS or PhD. Don’t just sit and complain about it.

    If that tech that sarcastically mentioned teaching a PhD how to draw a profile were on my crew I’d likely let them go for not being a team player.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for the response, Chris. Your analogy to the military is really enlightening and actually does apply to the CRM context. I was never in the military but I assume officers go through basic training just like the enlisted folks, right? If that’s so, what would you say if an officer showed up to a battle exercise and she/he didn’t know how to load their gun? Personally, I’d feel like her/his training was of a lesser quality than the enlisted person that would have to show her/him how to use their weapon because, while they’re on different career tracks, the enlisted person’s training actually prepared them for their job. I don’t expect everyone to know how to do all the minutiae of their jobs the second they arrive, but I do feel like they should know the basics (in this case, knowing how to draw a plan map).

      What graduates are learning in grad school is the biggest issue. Employers will need to be more vocal, but schools are not preparing their graduates for any career path other than the academic route (and, I’d even say they aren’t realistic about that either). No matter what degree you get (bachelors, masters, PhD, post-doc) you need to be familiar with archaeological field methods. If you’re a graduate, you need to know enough to be able to teach these methods to someone else. If you got a MA or PhD and don’t know the basics of field archaeology, you need to ask for a refund.

      I know it sounds snarky, but that’s just how I feel.

      Also, I think it’s okay to snark sometimes on Facebook. Those were my friend’s private comments and I don’t think it makes them any less of a person. I mean, they didn’t identify the PhD by name so I think it was a little justified venting.

  • Chris Webster

    One more thing: a graduate degree is not an increase in knowledge. It’s an increase in ability and understanding. Those are very different things. Knowledge comes with experience and you’ll never have all of it.

  • Drew Cozby

    Thanks for a great post. These are issues we discuss all the time.

    First, one must remember that cultural resource management (CRM) is not so much about archaeology, but all about completing a process and making money. CRM, above all, is a business. Every private enterprise I have ever worked with, whether CRM or not, always finds it necessary to train new employees, especially those just out of school.

    Second, I see CRM field work as a skill-set. Something you learn while out on the job, sort of like an apprentice position. So much of working on a CRM field crew has little to do with archaeology and much to do with practical knowledge. For instance, a brilliant mechanical engineer may be able to design an incredible plumbing or electrical system, but does not necessarily have the skills to actually build the system he designed. He relies on skilled plumbers or electricians. Same is true of freshly minted archaeologists. They come out of school with a lot of theory, but little hands-on practical knowledge. As far as CRM goes, the ability to communicate effectively, manage people, work with others, implement a plan, and get the job done is as important (if not more important) than the amount of archaeological knowledge they have acquired. I have been on many crews in which we had high hopes for a new employee with spotless academic credentials, only to find out on the job that they were unable to get along with others or they lacked any work ethic. Needless to say, they were not invited back for the next field session.

    BTW, I have worked as a field tech and crew chief on many great projects all over New Mexico. I am published. I DO NOT have a degree in archaeology or anything related to archaeology. The two most experienced archaeologists I have worked with in the field do not have archaeology degrees. One has an associates degree in auto mechanics and the other didn’t go to college but grew up in the business. Both are out in the field right now. Go figure.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading. CRM is definitely a skill set that probably can’t be completely taught in college. There is definitely a lot of stuff in CRM that varies by state, region, and company and everyone will have to learn how things are done in that specific area.

      Like you said, CRM is big business. It benefits companies to tell universities what they expect in their new-hires and (if possible) pony up the money or internships to back up those needs. Field school is the main place where we learn how to do field archaeology and this is where the basic skills should be taught. Universities working in conjunction with CRM companies could collaborate to create field school curricula that teaches skills that will actually help students get jobs. Thus far, CRM companies have been too hands-off with regard to the training of new CRMers and that’s the reason why a field tech is teaching a PhD how to do field archaeology. Companies definitely benefit when they have sleek, skilled employees and they benefit even more when their newest employees are ready to hit the ground running.

  • Lindsey

    With all due respect, I completely disagree with this post on many levels. I think that, yes, there is a disjunction between academic and field/crm archaeology… but I’m not sure that this is news to anybody. This is the case between most university programs and careers… in university you learn the theoretical background and hopefully some background skills, and the bulk of practical knowledge while later on the job and during company training. While this is, admittedly, quite a shame, and a commonly identified flaw in the university system, it is a SYSTEM WIDE problem. Engineers, nurses, teachers, lawyers, etc., are provided with a large amount of on-site training by their employers or through probationary periods, consolidation, or articling, etc. It really is the responsibility of the CRM company to make sure that new employees are properly trained before going out into the field.

    As a PhD student, who has only participated in academic excavations, and never in CRM, I admittedly am likely lacking in many practical skills that field archaeologists have. Does that make me less of an archaeologist than the field tech with 5 years of experience? No. Does my PhD education make me a better archaeologist? No. We have different skills based on our different education and experiences; we have different strengths and weaknesses. I am fully willing and excited to gain a different kind of field experience and associated knowledge when I eventually work in CRM. But to just ‘expect’ I will have all of the knowledge and experience to fully jump into a field tech position after school is completely ludicrous… all companies need to train their new employees to company standards, no matter what field you are in. I will also admit that I do not know how to use a compass’s sight mirror, nor do I understand declination. But I have other skills… Instead of using a compass, I’ve surveyed and mapped with a $30,000 GPS apparatus and made much more technical maps than me and a compass could ever make. Should students be expected to be apologetic for having learned how to use much more technical equipment rather than a compass during their undergrad? Sorry, can’t help you there. Train your employees to your liking and your own standards. As long as you hire an employee with a good head on their shoulders and a willingness to learn, you should be fine.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      First, I want to thank you for reading the post. Second, I want to sincerely thank you for disagreeing with me. I created this blog as an outlet for discussing relevant issues in cultural resource management, archaeology, and historic preservation. We all learn from interacting with each other and disagreements represent one of the biggest opportunities for learning.

      I hope you aren’t offended, but I suggest you figure out a way to get work in CRM BEFORE you graduate with your PhD.

      There is a very real apprenticeship ethos in CRM where a BA/BS is considered the baseline qualification for entry-level work (although, as Drew mentioned, you don’t even need a degree to be a field tech). Graduate degrees are considered prerequisites for supervisory-level positions. With the degree inflation that is rampant in CRM today, some crew chief positions are requesting experienced folks with a MA/MS. I’ve worked on a number of crews were all 6-10 of us had at least an MA and 5+ years experience. The PIs took turns on choosing who would be the crew chiefs, project directors, and project managers because we were all capable. In CRM, a PhD usually signifies you are interested in becoming a PI, department director, or company owner. These positions usually ask for at least 10 years managerial experience and a PhD. As you can see, experience in conjunction with a graduate degree is important for forging a career in CRM management.

      I recommend you get experience ASAP because you have the very real possibility of being a PhD with no experience. In the CRM world, this is a tenuous place to be because you are overqualified for teching and underqualified for the supervisory positions that come along with your degree. You can partially remedy this by doing a few CRM projects here and there before you actually have the degree in hand. This will demonstrate you’re familiar with how CRM works and that you’ve done some fieldwork, which will open doors for you as long as you’re willing to come in at the entry level. I know where you’re coming from when you say the field tech and the PhD have two different, but very valuable skill sets. But, as far as CRM companies see it, a field tech with good references and 5 years experience is a much more useful asset than a PhD with no experience. That’s why you need to do your best to get experience.

      And, I strongly feel like field schools should teach students the skills they’ll need to work in CRM and beyond. It’s not that difficult to do. I learned basic field techniques in my field school at the University of Idaho, which included mapping, filling out paperwork, the basics of archaeological survey, and excavation techniques. I wasn’t a pro, but at least I had an idea of how the whole thing worked.

      You don’t need to know everything, but it is not “ludicrous” to think that someone with a college degree should be able to jump right into a field tech position. What did you spend 4+ years and $20-40k doing if it wasn’t learning how to do a job? Please, email me if you want to talk more or have something to say in private bill@succinctresearch.com

  • John Parker, Ph.D.

    I have gone through graduate programs in archaeology and anthropology that didn’t require classes in map reading, map making, or many of the other “necessary” techniques for fieldwork. I have also bumped into graduates from those institutions in the field who had no idea where they were, what a UTM was, or how to plot the site location on a USGS map. In my own defense, I came up through the system before Trimbles were invented, but I can make a mean map with my standard transet.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      There is definitely something about those old-timers like you that came up before the techno-gadgets. Some of the best site maps I’ve ever seen were drawn by folks with a compass, a pencil, a datum stake, and a pull tape. My grad classes didn’t require any of those necessary fieldwork skill either. I had to learn the hard way, which is why I’m so adamant about helping others so they don’t have to go through the ordeals I had to.

  • Jeff

    I agree with most of what you say here, but, knowing how to use a Trimble is not something that every archaeologist learns in field school, or even in CRM projects. I did not know how to use one until about 5 years ago (I’ve been doing CRM since the 1980s). I had never worked on a project (either in CRM or academia) that had used a Trimble before, so I had never had the opportunity to use one. And, yes, I have a Ph.D. Trimbles are still not universal in either CRM or academia, so, an archaeologist with a Ph.D who has never seen one is not a shock to me.

    I also don’t know how to operate a total station, but, give me a transit, and I’ll run circles around you. The reason I don’t know how to use a total station is that by the time they became common, I was in a supervisory position, and it was always more prudent to have other people run the total station so I could concentrate on supervising the crew.

    But, I do agree that many people coming out of grad school (whether with an M.A. or Ph.D) do not have the knowledge to function as a project director. I have had experiences as a crew member where I had to do all of the map reading and compass orienteering because the project director (a person with an M.A.) had no idea how to do either task.

  • Colleen Morgan

    This is an endemic problem in academic archaeology. Field skills, if they are taught, are seen as secondary to the “real, important” work. Every field school should employ a professional archaeologist to teach both undergraduate and graduate students, and possibly their professors how to dig.

    The best excavations do exactly this. And well they should, as it is often the students’ $$ paying the bills.

    Lindsey’s attitude, sadly, is also endemic. She doesn’t know what she is missing, and I would argue that YES, she is less of an archaeologist as she does not know where her data is coming from.

    There are also huge problems with the Americanist methodology, but we probably shouldn’t get into that either. As a fully trained “field tech” I was still not well trained enough to excavate with professional archaeologists from the UK. This is not due to regional differences regarding the stratigraphy, it is a fundamental problem with the way that Americanist methodology teaches you how to dig and not how to see.

    Students should DEMAND that they get the best training possible, but sadly they don’t know enough to know when they are being trained badly. And thus the system rolls on, bad graduate students become bad profs, badly teaching students, and the archaeological record suffers.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that students should demand better training, but, oftentimes, they are unaware of the quality of education they’re actually paying for. Many professors are also unaware of the skills they should be instilling in their students because of the whole academia/CRM divide. This crap has to end because there are thousands of dollars in student loans that don’t get repaid, families that don’t get started, and homes that don’t get purchased because a small segment of our most educated citizens don’t have the skills necessary to land a job. I understand that this isn’t just an “archaeology” thing. Colleges in general need to demonstrate that, in addition to BCS bowl-eligible sports teams, they are giving their students valuable skills that are applicable in the workplace.

      I believe field skills are essential to the whole archaeological process. If you don’t have a good grasp on how archaeological data is produced you will have a very difficult time studying any other aspect of archaeology or making any significant contributions to the field.

  • E. L.

    I think this is definitely true, and it’s because not all PhD programs even value teaching field practices in the US. There are some schools with CRM firms attached, and some with big US-based field projects, and those train their graduate students well for CRM, but many focus on other issues and just don’t even care. Coming from the latter sort of program, I would EXPECT an experienced field tech to know more about field methods than I do. I’m about to finish a PhD myself, and I’m very much aware that I’m going to have to convince someone to let me start at the bottom so I can develop those practical CRM skills that I haven’t learned in school.

    So what have I been doing instead? Working on field projects outside the US, where laws and practices are different. Learning, writing, and speaking about lots of theory. Getting a broad enough background to teach courses in general, regional, and historical archaeology at an undergraduate level. Figuring out how to do research from the ground up – i.e. conceptualizing a project that addresses theoretical questions but can be completed by one person with a very small budget, surveying existing literature to learn about methods I could use, finding collections to study and teaching myself how to identify and date the artifacts I’m working with (yes, some PhD programs never teach students things as concrete as THAT!), learning the local laws and speaking to landowners about possibilities for field survey, etc. I’ve done a lot of very independent work and I’m now confident that I can learn whatever techniques, practices, and background material I need to, but I definitely won’t be able to walk into a job with the same starting knowledge as someone who’s been working in the field and receiving daily training from professionals.

    What’s interesting and surprising to me about your post is that people with so little practical experience are being hired as crew chiefs because of their degrees. There really are different skill sets involved. I expect to start at the bottom, but I am concerned it’ll be difficult because I also know a lot of recent graduates who get told, “you’re overqualified, we’re looking for someone who’s less likely to leave.” What do you think would be the best way for a PhD student or graduate who doesn’t have opportunities to work in CRM during school to catch up on that training (whether because they’re doing academic field research in other countries, teaching to make a living, or are not in a location with CRM possibilities)? Could there be “boot camps” where they’d have to start at the tech level? Does openness to training people really vary a lot among firms?

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      It sounds like you’ve created an excellent education for yourself based on your own initiative and interest. Kudos. I’d like to talk with you some time about your process because I’m going to create a free CRM MOOC this summer. I’d love your input on what you thought was important and why you sought out those topics. Please, email me bill@succinctresearch.com

      I think there are several ways you can get a little CRM experience even while you’re in school. The first step is to make a comprehensive list of all the CRM companies in your area and all the archaeologists there. Make sure to note research interests because you’re looking to make sincere connections based on mutual interest. Who knows, you may even help them with one of their side projects. Once you’ve made the list, you need to connect with some of your leads and get your resume or CV in their hands. Create a CV or resume specifically for that company/individual that emphasizes how you can best help them.

      Volunteering is great, but you’re looking for a job not a hand-out. Paid employment looks much better on your resume than volunteer gigs. Once you’ve contacted these companies, you should offer your services. Since you’re not a specialist in anything (yet), just say you’re looking for a few hours each week doing anything even filing paperwork. If at all possible, offer to be an on-call field tech or lab tech. If you can manage it, tell them you can work on weekends. This may turn into something because sometimes companies need an archaeological monitor for just a single day and all their regulars are out in the field. Or, they may have some project that involves working weekends (like multiple 10-day sessions) and need some extra crew. You never know. Don’t be discouraged if they say they don’t have anything or know of anything. The point is to introduce yourself, make contact, show you’re not a wierdie and stay connected with occasional (like once a month) emails or phone calls. You want to stay in their mind so that when something does go down, you’re the first person they think of calling.

      As far as a bootcamp, I was just talking about doing a weekend workshop thing with some anthro grad students at the University of Arizona that would teach basic fieldwork skills (site identification, survey, map making, documentation, ect.). I don’t know if that will ever happen because I’m an overwhelmed PhD student myself, but it’s a possibility. Perhaps you could create something like that at your university.

  • E. L.

    (P.S. I’m sorry that my comment was very focused on what people are doing in PhD programs, and how to make archaeological employment better for them, when the post was expressing frustration at how unskilled graduates affect others. But I think the goal of actually having good archaeology done efficiently is the same for all of us, so I really would like to hear people’s thoughts on how to work together to make a positive rather than a negative impact.)

  • Tom

    Interesting that this topic should come up. It will be featured in the sessions at the annual symposium of the Ontario Archaeological Society, in October 2014. One thing that’s often missing in the New World context is an effort to report back to our First Nations about the cultural elements revealed in both academic and CRM archaeology…putting a human aspect to that which we do. Good discussion going on here – thanks!

  • Ashley

    Wow, you’ve gone off on quite a bit of a tirade there. To put my comments in perspective, I’m currently getting a PhD. I worked as a field tech in CRM when I was getting my master’s, and then worked full time as a lab manager/archaeologist for a company while finishing my master’s thesis. Pretty much everyone I go to school with currently has had some type of CRM experience. This doesn’t mean everyone or every field tech knows the skills you describe – it sounds like you have been/are at least a crew chief, based on the skills you list. I learned how to use a Trimble, but only because it was my best friend who did GPS/GIS stuff and I told him I wanted to learn. Total station/data collector knowledge was limited to the people using the machine, because no one saw the use in teaching all the field techs how to use it. I have learned how to use a compass a few times, and have forgotten how just as many times, because it was needed so rarely in the region I worked in. SO what I’m saying is that all of the things you are saying field techs know, are really dependent on where you are working, what kind of project, and what kind of people are running everything.

    With that said, I do try and push all the undergrads I come across to look for CRM jobs in the summer, and/or take a year off before they do any more schooling and do CRM. But if you are in school – you only have the summer, and in this job climate, it’s extremely hard to get your first job. Volunteering might be an ok idea, but you can only do that if you are privileged enough to not need the money – most of us, if we can’t find a job in CRM, have to find a job elsewhere. Most projects I have seen in the past few years don’t exactly line up with my summer plans, and if I’m excavating in the field, as I am almost every summer, then guess what, the month on either side is probably not conducive to what a CRM company is looking for. And that’s with me having contacts in CRM and not wanting to put a company in a bad position where I’ve gotta leave halfway through a project.

    You are very focused on skills (which are very important), but not on anything else that one might need if they moved up job positions. Even in CRM, a large excavation should have some type of broader questions that are trying to be answered. I have found that many people without higher degrees have problems coming up with anything outside of technical questions. When I helped write up site descriptions, and arguments for why sites were NR eligible, it needed to be couched in a wider, historical and theoretical argument – my PI felt I was more adept at this than he was, due to having more theoretical training in my master’s program (he obviously has a master’s, but from a very skills/CRM focused institution). This is precisely what I have to do every time I submit a grant proposal. I also have a lot of background knowledge about historic times periods (the girl who did not know about date codes probably never worked with glass bottles – perhaps you should have asked what time period she was familiar with before being so smug. And 90% of the field techs I’ve known would not know that either; they don’t know much of anything about historic artifacts and where I worked, in the freaking Northeast, have disdain for historic sites planted in their minds by other CRM workers before them), so I don’t have to spend a ton of time figuring out sources to look for in order to describe a site’s broader significance.

    Many schools with archaeology don’t even have a lab, let alone an entire offshoot that can be dedicated to CRM. Many schools admittedly do their students a disservice in their skills teaching. Students who go overseas to dig learn methods that are often not applicable at all to the U.S. and should at least be told that by their professors/site directors. But it’s just as bad when people in CRM decide that because I’m getting my PhD, I must have no idea what I’m doing, I am in some sort of plush position, and everything I think about is airy-fairy theory. SO yeah, there are serious problems at the university level – one of the biggest being the number of people who think they are going to get a teaching job and don’t even consider CRM until they can’t find work. But there are also serious problems with the attitudes of many field techs in CRM. No, it’s not particularly fair to have to teach more highly paid people how to do some of this basic stuff, but it’s also not fair to assume they aren’t adding anything of value to the large company – when was the last time there was a lack of suitable people to hire for field direct/PI positions?

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading, Ashley. I understand that this post sounds really smug and as if I’m going off on a tirade. That wasn’t the point, but there’s no mechanism for inserting vocal inflection in written text and I didn’t want to weaken my prose with a bunch of qualifiers just to keep from making somebody mad.

      You are definitely in a class of your own. You have taken the time and effort to get work in CRM and get some experience throughout your education. Working full time while finishing your thesis demonstrates you are an exemplary person. I don’t know if I could have done that. Now that you’re in a PhD program, you will have the opportunity to influence your fellow students in a way the professors can’t because of your experience. I am a long-time CRMer that has worked across the country and just entered a PhD program last year. Students like us approach grad school from a different place than most of the other grad students. I know your cohort will benefit from your experience and perspective.

      I wrote that post because I wanted to point out that there are a huge number of MAs and PhDs that graduate each year without having learned the basics of what will be expected in CRM. Skill requirements will vary by regional standards and based on the prevailing regulatory context (some companies never use compasses, some companies rarely dig or think about historical artifacts, some governments have less strict site recording standards, ect.). But, many of the things I pointed out in my post are skills that can and should be learned in an undergraduate field school. Didn’t have access to a Trimble or encounter any datable bottles in your field school? So what. That doesn’t mean that you still can’t learn archaeological survey methods, site mapping and feature recordation, and how to fill out paperwork. And, you also need to know WHY you are doing what you are doing. No field school could possibly cover all the skills necessary for CRM work in every state of the Union. But, they could at least expose students to the basics– giving them experiences they can build upon.

      How can we expect MAs and PhDs to address the higher-level, theoretical aspects of archeological work when they aren’t even competent in the basics of data collection and management? I assume individuals working in CRM with grad degrees are interested in moving up to the supervisory/management caste. I feel like it is absolutely essential that these future managers know the basics before they’re let loose on proposals, research designs, NRHP eligibility recommendations, and site interpretations. I feel like these folks should learn the basics BEFORE they get a grad degree, preferably by being field techs for a few years. A quality field school that covers the absolute basics could also suffice.

      This post is part of an unspoken conversation raging throughout anthropology/ archaeology departments around the world. I’m not the first person to say this type of stuff out loud, but I hope this can motivate some of us out there to take action and try to remedy the problem. I have my own plan on how I can help others and I am aware of many other professors and CRM companies that are trying to bridge the gap. CRM companies will have to work in conjunction with grad degree-granting universities to develop curriculum that better serves students.

  • Sally

    This article sounds too much like the in-the-field bullying I’ve seen these tech’s with a BA or less engage in when an academic comes around. I may have skimped on buying a good compass back in my CRM days but I sure spent a lot of time listening to mind boggling conversations between CRM tech’s with nothing beyond a BA or not even that trashing evolution, failing to name even 1 archaeologist (I’ve even seen Canadian and American CRM field tech’s who don’t even know who Lewis Binford was), knowing next to nothing of the culture history of the areas they work in, breaking arrow points to ‘see if they’re artefacts’… you name it. And after all the bravados in the field, when it came to writing a basic CRM report or even field notes, none of them could spell, not to mention put together viable sentences. But you don’t see academics trashing them in articles…

    • Dover

      Well, not exactly. The Register of Professional Archaeologists, which seems to be presided over by a large number of academic archaeologists, was created specifically to watch over and trash the lousy Field Technicians you describe. Whether that ever really happens is another matter. Maybe someone should create a Register of Field Technicians to watch over and trash academic archaeologists.

  • Sally

    This article sounds too much like the in-the-field bullying I’ve seen these tech’s with a BA or less engage in when an academic comes a good compass back in my CRM days but I sure spent a lot of time around. I may have skimped on buying listening to mind boggling conversations between CRM tech’s with nothing beyond a BA or not even that trashing evolution, failing to name even 1 archaeologist (I’ve even seen Canadian and American CRM field tech’s who don’t even know who Lewis Binford was), knowing next to nothing of the culture history of the areas they work in, breaking arrow points to ‘see if they’re artefacts’… you name it. And after all the bravados in the field, when it came to writing a basic CRM report or even field notes, none of them could spell, not to mention put together viable sentences. But you don’t see academics trashing them in articles…

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      I’m sorry that you thought the post and subsequent comments sound like bullying. I know the kind of techs you’re talking about– swift to tell you how much better they are than the “soft-handed PhD” over there. Always ready to tell a story about some bad ass site they dug or misadventure they had. But also quick to make excuses whenever they make mistakes or pass the paperwork off to somebody else because they don’t know how to write. Those techs may know a lot of field skills, but they’re probably never going to rise above their current position or be able to make significant contributions to the major sites they’ve been lucky enough to dig. There’s probably far too many of those types in CRM archaeology.

  • J. Collis

    How many field techs know how to draft an MOU? An MOA? A PA? How many know what they are? How many know how to execute a proper NAGPRA repatriation? How many can write a 300-page report that’ll pass muster with the SHPO? How many can build a cultural management department at a National Park? How about a proper Native American consultation that will get past a court review? How many EAs and EISs have been written by field techs? Ever built a field school from scratch? How many can separate the science from the BS in a consultant’s report? Ever investigated and evaluated an ARPA violation? Apples and oranges, pal.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      I’m glad you took the time to read the article. Thanks. Many of those are very specific things that even someone like me (10+ years CRM experience and a MA) would still want some help with. But, how many field techs are capable of teaching their bosses how to do those things? You’re right it is comparing apples to oranges, but, I’d strongly wager that a newly minted PhD doesn’t know how to do any of those things either. Those are definitely the kind of tasks that only experience could make you better at doing.

  • Jason H

    I only have a few things to say so this won’t be long.
    1) If a person is getting a higher degree in archaeology then chances are they have a bachelor’s in the same field. Shouldn’t they have attended a field school at some point to learn at the very least the basics?
    2) If it was not required to take a field school why wouldn’t you question the department head and/or the school about not having to take one.
    3) If the school wouldn’t offer one then why wouldn’t common sense kick in and go to a school that did require it?
    Even as an undergrad I knew (and had the common sense) that archaeology is a hands on profession and field school was needed to learn things that just cannot be learned in the classroom. It’s like taking your car to a mechanic who had no hands on experience but had studied it in a classroom. I believe I’d be finding another mechanic in a hurry.

  • S Doyle

    J. Collis

    I was a field tech and ended up doing a lot of those things under the supervision of someone holding a higher degree. And anything regarding project management can be done by a BA in business/administration, a specialized PhD in the percussion cones evident in late archaic elk kills is in no way applicable to writing a budget. Nevertheless, I am not here for a pissing match.

    I think it is simply a matter of how academics view their career potential and how technicians see theirs. Academia tracks demand a high level of specialization while CRM tracks require precisely the opposite. A PhD is the height of specialization and I think the flaw is the fetishizing of advanced degrees by permitting agencies. I often find those with MA, MS or higher have as much desire to be learning how to use a Trimble to shoot in manhole covers as much as you have teaching them. But the CRM firm hires them to hold onto permits and sends the BAs to do the work anyhow. They end up as placeholders to hold a permit too expensive for field work and budgeted maybe 10 hours in a project life cycle as a “PI”.

  • David

    Most of the comments seem to miss the point. Obviously PhDs with limited field experience have skills and knowledge that BAs with a lot of experience don’t. But if you are going to supervise someone, you should know what you are asking them to do. The problem is that if you get a PhD and still have limited field experience then you are going to be a shitty supervisor. Make the PhD work a year as a field tech, see if they are an asshole, then keep or fire as needed. And you don’t always need to know how to use every tool in the archaeologists’ toolbox, but the more you can use the better you are.

  • Z Jinks-Fredrick

    This is not going to be a very long post but having worked in CRM, as its called in the states, or CHM as its called here in the UK, I can add some more insight. I did my undergraduate programme in the US, it was completely oriented to commercial archaeology not academic. I did not want to work CRM but I got sucked in while trying to get my life in order for grad school. I am now applying to doctoral programmes and in hindsight I am thankful for the the experience I received working in the commercial sector. Back to the article, I have had to teach supervisors and people meant to be superior by education simple and basic tasks. In the US I have recorded over 100 sites that met SHPO standards by the bare minimum; in most states that is 3 (sometimes 5) or more artefacts either historic or prehistoric. A rough guess is 80% of those sites were no more than 3 pieces of potenitally historic glass in plow zone or worse yet three-five Lucky brand beer cans from 1930-1950. As the supervisor on the surveys were green, professional judgment was not used and they were called sites. This lead to a crew chief losing there job on one project because they recorded literally everything as a site or isolated find, the owner of the CRM firm was livid at the amount of man hours wasted and what he had to tell the pipeline. Professional judgement goes a long way in commercial arch, which we lovenly refer to as Meatball Arch (MASH reference there). Stop an ask yourself, will one, three, or five rusty cans, non-diagnostic glass fragments, nails, or non-descript rusty tractor or etc part going to significally alter our understanding of the past? These things can only be learned by experience in field, not from wonderful rich academic excavations of incredible sites. I urge anyone out there who has not undertook commercial field archaeology and is looking at doing so after a doctoral or other grad degree to talk to some who has so you don’t look like a wanker out there.

  • JAndrews

    As a PhD student who took 7 years off to live in the real world, including a few years on the road as a field tech, I actually have the same thoughts about others in my program! How did you get to this position in life with such limited, if any, field experience? I don’t understand that mentality- going straight through from kindergarten to PhD, without a beat. They’re so sheltered, it’s hard to take them seriously. Everyone should take time off before going back (though straight through the MA is understandable). But once you get to the PhD level, you can never go back to learn these skills (without shame), to see what else you might be interested in, to experience a life outside of academia even. There’s no jobs in academia and it’s grueling work, so you better be in love with it. That said, my CRM experience meant very little when I applied, nor has it actually helped me much since I’ve been here. It was the academic project i stayed connected to- and published on- that got me a nice funding package.

  • M

    You hit the nail on the head. At one point I had my crew leader ask me, “What is a feature?”. Some academics have a tendency to not place and emphasis on field work in general. One case in point, a graduate student with less than one month of fieldwork and lacks the physical capability to do so, was given a full ride scholarship for a PhD program because he was good at theory. At the same time, they chastised students such as myself for doing CRM to pay for graduate school. The old academia vs. CRM bit.

    Academics could remedy the situation by 1) running survey lines in a field somewhere; 2) having their students take a map and compass class at REI; 3) running a fake excavation somewhere and advising students to read books such as The archeological survey manual or the like.

  • Paul

    It is not only an academic issue. This issue also derives from hiring practices of CRM firms (and many others). To hire a person to place into a leadership role based on academic rating alone is a very bad idea. This can lend itself to managerial nightmares. Graduate work, obviously, does not make a person a good leader or manager,or even a good archaeologist. Experience is the only way to show these traits. To hire a PhD (or MS) to do the field tech job like any other person starting out in a professional field would be the more intelligent way to determine potential. Let people rise through the ranks (so to speak). This way their academic advancements should give them the advantage in proving themselves when a promotion is sought. This theory of hiring seems to have worked well throughout history and should be helpful to employers trying to find good leaders and happy employees.

  • Bob Roberts

    This article is really a backhanded comment, a gripe against academic archaeologists. Yes I hold a Ph.D., yes I can draw a plan map, and yes I can dig more shovel tests in a day than the average field technician, I know how to set the declination on my compass thank you very much. In fact most, of us who hold a Ph.D. in anthropological archaeology and have had training in North American archaeology, have done what you do in CRM. There are incompetent individuals in all fields, so don’t go setting-up a straw man to blow down.

    Finally, don’t blame the educational system. True, sometimes students leave poorly trained and anyone can pass a class, but to put the learning into the real world is an entirely different thing. That’s what we teach at the Master’s level dude! At the Ph.D. level, we expect the student to show us that they can do it on their own– and the usually do!

    So go back to your Munsell books, and your cultural inventory forms. Go on believing that you are doing THE REAL archaeology, and that you are a scientist because you use the metric system.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Bob, thanks for taking the time to read the article. I’m sorry you think it was a gripe against academic archaeologists because that was not my intent. I am also glad to know that you are one of the MANY PhD archaeologists in the U.S. that have sound field skills. I am well aware of the fact that many PhDs and professors actually know what they’re doing in the field. I know because I worked under some of them.

      I do not believe this blog post contains a straw man argument. It’s a fact that an embarrassingly large number of PhD anthro grads in the United States do not have a firm grasp on field archaeology or archaeology in the cultural resource management context. Read the comments below. I’m not the first one to notice this. It’s also a fact that the majority of universities do not prioritize sound field methods and a firm grasp of CRM as part of their teaching mission. You can read the 50 years worth of articles mentioned in my follow-up post that lament this fact http://www.succinctresearch.com/why-arent-archaeologists-receiving-better-training-in-college/ It is not fallacious to acknowledge that better field training received in college (via field schools, internships, work studies, actual work in CRM) would do much to help prevent situations where PhD graduates do not know how to draw a plan map.

      Do some PhDs have what it takes to lead crews or be a CRM principal investigator after graduation? Yes. Did those individuals learn the essential skills that have allowed them to perform in these capacities in a university? Most likely not. University training conducted in cooperation with CRM firms is one way we can better prepare graduates for the field. Putting “learning into the real world” context is not taught in graduate school. We learn about the real world by working in the real world. Working in the real world is not a priority of colleges. How could it be with all the coursework required for each class? There’s not much time for real world immersion while working on a graduate degree. I know because I already have a Masters and am currently a PhD student. The emphasis in grad school for archaeologists is primarily on theoretical constructs and methodological concepts, although there are A FEW opportunities to apply things learned in class to real world situations (for instance, research assistanceships and dissertation projects).

      You are correct in asserting that “At the PhD level, we expect the student to show us that they can do it on their own- and they usually do!” At the PhD level, professors do expect students to be able to produce high quality class work, design and execute some sort of “project”, and write a dissertation or article series. That is what we should expect from the most skilled students produced by the western world’s educational systems. However, the ability to perform in graduate school is not the same as what is required in cultural resource management. That’s what my post was all about.

      For archaeologists, college is BOTH an intellectual endeavor AND technical training. The technical training includes field schools, research assistanceships, and volunteer opportunities. These training opportunities are chances to teach skills that are relevant to later work in CRM, which is important because that’s where most of us end up working. It is insincere to not prepare students for the reality that most archaeos work in CRM after graduation.

      Rather than “telling me where to go” I’d rather you tell me how I can better improve this situation. The fact that colleges are not preparing students for a career after graduation is a real phenomenon across all majors. In these days of ever-increasing tuition costs, schools had better come up with a reason for young people to drop tens of thousands of dollars on more school. I don’t know you personally, Bob, but if you’re a professor, please provide constructive criticism on how we can change the system. Think of ways you can get your grad students some experience and help them network their way into gainful employment after graduation. Professors are a huge part of the solution. Bob, if you’re a CRMer, think about the ways you can help inform today’s graduate students and mentor them through the transition from school to work. I feel like it is our duty to help grad students get a sober assessment of their prospects after graduation.

      Finally, Munsells, inventory forms, and the metric system don’t make one an archaeologist. A sincere interest in using scientific methods to learn about the past in order to help inform our decisions today is at the heart of archaeology and is deeply ingrained in the mind of every practicing archaeologist (avocational, volunteer, academic, CRM and otherwise). That’s what makes one a REAL archaeologist. But, you probably already know that, huh?

  • Kelly E

    I was very happy to read your post! I am currently a PhD student, but I received my MA from a university with an “applied” focus and worked in federal CRM for about 6 years. For the last year I have been trying to convince the faculty at my new (R1) institution that we need to offer a CRM-specific undergraduate course… currently the only time our students get a whiff of CRM is for a lecture or two during the introductory archaeology class. Considering that most of the available jobs for a newly-graduated Anthropology BA/BS are in CRM, I have a hard time understanding how such a class would not be relevant and useful. Unfortunately the faculty (and some of the graduate students) are convinced that it would be a “boring class” that “no student would want to take” and “no professor would want to teach.” It frustrates me that our undergrads end up with so little real-world knowledge. Yes, I’m sure the newly-minted BA/BSs could eventually figure the whole thing out “in the trenches” like so many of us have had to, but why should they? We could give them the chance to learn the laws, regulations, and methods that would improve their ability to find work after graduation! Unfortunately it is not just PhDs that can end up deficient in basic archaeological methods – but I agree, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. As one of my friends (another PhD student) likes to say, one of the prerequisites for graduate school really should be the ability to read a topo map.

  • Dover

    Bill. After reading the long string of posts below, the famous quote by Rodney King came to mind: “Why can’t we all just get along?” This issue about inadequate field training and skills is not an issue in and of itself nearly so much as it is a symptom of a larger disease

    There is a very basic reason academic and CRM archaeologists cannot get along in American archaeology. Two words: Social Status. Go to any beginner textbook in cultural anthropology, and you will see “social status” identified as a basic need of all human beings. I have often wondered how many freshman anthropology students on a professional archaeology track have read that and said to themselves, “Wow!!! I never thought of it like that. So, this means my DNA made me for a life of grabbing position and power whereby I identify people lesser than me so I can treat them like shit for the rest of my life.” Being unconventional from the day I was born and also being a classic Myers-Briggs INTJ personality type, I tend to view this so-called “human need” and a great deal of human culture in general to be bullshit that has been retained by tradition but is no longer adaptive or particularly useful. I could probably get a number of clinical psychologists to agree with me on that too.

    From my earliest days, it was drummed into me that academic archaeology in the United States consists of a formalized caste system. Starting at the top and going to the bottom, it looks something like this:

    Ph. D.
    Doctoral Student/Candidate
    M.A. Graduate Student
    B.A. Undergraduate Student
    Avocational Archaeologist
    American Taxpayer/Citizen
    Amateur Archaeologist
    Artifact Collector
    Artifact Dealer
    Site Looter

    Generally speaking, while the American public is fascinated with archaeology, I do not think it is all that fascinated with archaeologists, which is well reflected in an absence of general public support and funding. Therefore, to feel some sense of meaningful status and position, American archaeologists long ago had to draw a line to mark their intellectual territory (pee on some trees) and create a caste system so they could “Lord Something” over someone else and in so doing feel comparatively good about themselves. This system reminds me of the old TV miniseries “Shogun” (based on James Clavell’s famous novel). In particular, I recall a scene in that movie where 10 low status men were standing at the edge of the water on a beach and a man of higher rank in the social system walked over to them. Immediately, all of the men averted their eyes downward toward the sand. However, one man sort of raised one eyeball a little toward the man of higher rank and quickly lowered it, sort of like a person that quickly peeps one eye open and closed during a prayer at church. The man of high rank glimpsed that split second lifting and lowering of the eyeball and cried out, “Watoramatsu!! Kotasai!! Faster than a flash, the man of high rank whirled his entire body in a circle, ripped out his samurai sword in the process, and lopped off the head off of the B.A. in archaeology because he had not shown proper deference to the M.A. or Ph.D. archaeologist. The problem with a caste system like this is that status is magically conferred by a piece of parchment and people are expected to give automatic and unthinking deference simply because a person has (or does not have) certain letters after their name.

    Going back to the basic problem, M.A. and Ph.D. holders are indoctrinated with this caste system (consciously or subconsciously) from the moment they take their first anthropology course. They are led to believe that they are the Lords of the Realm in American archaeology, and many of them do not hope for, but rather expect and require, that persons in the system give them proper deference—and some with a real “big head” expect that of the average man and woman on the American street corner. (Good luck with that one Bozo). So naturally, if you send a Ph.D. with inadequate field skills out to an archaeological site, she is going to feel like she knows everything or at least sense that she needs to act like it. Furthermore, they have been indoctrinated into the notion that all of the B.A. Field Technicians should and will give them eye-averting deference. Needless to say, those Ph.D. people with any real self-sensitivity (which I think is rare in archaeologists overall) are going to feel a great deal of shame when their field skills are shown to be inadequate, and this is going to be accompanied by a great deal of inner tension/conflict and anger.

    On the flip side, as we know from world history and ethnography, people of low rank (Field Technicians in this case) in a social or caste system tend to feel dehumanized and oppressed, which breeds deep and abiding resentment. The Field Technicians know that “the caste system” in American archaeology has unfairly categorized them as little better than pond scum that just happens to have a college degree. The low pay and lack of benefits merely serves to reinforce their undeserved “scumliness” label. Naturally, when the lowly people encounter a person of high caste (and high pay) on their site, they are going to resent having to teach the gods lessons they feel the gods should already know. Just as naturally, some Field Technicians will rub the god’s nose in her own poop if she feels that she can get away with it. Deep resentment sometimes plays out like this.

    In summary, I do not really think that this is an issue about inadequate field knowledge. In my opinion, in this current day and age and for our own good, I think American archaeology needs to ditch, jettison, and flush down the toilet all vestiges of this antiquated academic caste system and the silly social expectations associated with it. It really is getting in the way and undermining the overall profession. I have a graduate degree, and I respect Field Technicians for what they know. If I had two graduate degrees, I would feel the same way. Many of them know more than I do about certain subjects, and I probably know more than they do about other subjects That being the case, we should all be simple brothers and sisters and willingly and lovingly teach each other, without being hindered by an antiquated caste system passed down to us by some old 19th century fart at the Peabody Museum. As Jesus says in the New Testament, those who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all.” Archaeology with a good dose of humility and love would be refreshing. Moreover, all of us should unite and work together to put an end to not just to these social status disparities but also the low pay that reinforces them in the lives of Field Technicians. Mind you, I am not advocating for a total egalitarianism that would make the efficient organization and completion of work impossible. Leadership is always needed to achieve those ends. What I am advocating for is an end to the antiquated and deleterious academic caste system that has been “piggy backing” on the need for basic leadership in completing an archaeological project.

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