(This is part of a new and ongoing series called Thor’s Day Cultural Resource Management Archaeology Hacks. Quick as lightning, these tips are designed to help you make the impact of Mjölnir on your next project.)
Today’s hack isn’t as lightning quick as I thought it would be, but I’ve had something on my mind for the last few years–advice I’ve given others based on my own personal experiences. As a PhD student candidate, I always get a little queasy whenever I see articles like these:
The school year has hardly started and news outlets are already lamenting the way our higher education institutions are failing their students. We haven’t even graded any assignments yet and you’re telling us we’re failing? C’mon.
It’s no secret how I feel about how well universities are preparing cultural resource management archaeologists. Basically, they aren’t. And, I’ve also been truthful about the value of undergraduate degrees when it comes to working in CRM—they’re not necessary unless you want to get paid to do archaeology. With degree inflation spreading across CRM archaeology, college degrees are even more important for those who want to make a career out of this. This is the paradox: you need experience to get a job and a degree to get experience but most people do not have the money to pay for the degree that you need to make money doing archaeology, so the only way to get the degree is to borrow money. But, how much to borrow? When should you do it?
Here’s my advice:
Only get the degree(s) you need as soon and fast as you can for as cheap as possible.
Undergrad degree: Get it cheap and fast
Americans owe over $1.26 trillion in student loan debt. More than credit cards. More than car loans. Only home loans are a bigger share of our debt load.
Adding insult to injury, college tuition continues to rise. This is no secret. According to the College Board, tuition at four-year private colleges increased 11% in the last five years and it rose 13% at four-year public schools. This is shocking but that rate of increase is less than half of what tuition rose during the recession (talk about kicking us when we were down). The worst thing is college costs are raising faster than the income of middle class families. The biggest ticket out of poverty and assurance of a middle class life—a college education—continues to slip out of our grasp.
The best thing about the rapid rate of tuition increase is the fact that it’s not happening at the same rate at every school in the country. Some universities are jacking up their rates way faster than others. Another benefit is the sheer number of accredited schools in the United States. There are more than 3,000 four-year institutions in the country, so you can be sure to find some affordable gems in a gem store that big.
The easiest way to get an undergraduate degree that will help you land a job in cultural resource management is to get the cheapest degree from a quality, accredited institution located in a town where you can get a job.
The best, yet more difficult, way to get an undergraduate anthropology, history, historic preservation, or heritage conservation degree is to get enough scholarship and grant money to lower the cost of your investment.
The worst thing you can do is attend one of the “Best Colleges” for an anthropology undergraduate degree unless you get a big grip of scholarship money or scholarships in conjunction with in-state tuition. In case you were wondering what I mean by “Best Colleges,” here’s a list of pretty much every college you don’t want to attend for your anthropology undergrad degree (Unless you get scholarships).
There are a lot of excellent schools on the U.S. News and World Report’s 2016 list. These schools are also filled with some of the best archaeology professors in the nation. I hope I’m not hurting anyone’s feelings, especially the folks currently attending these schools (Hell, I’ve attended/am attending some of these schools). However, we all need to be real— your undergrad is not where you learn how to do CRM. You learn the trade by doing it (either as an undergrad or after graduating). College just gets you a piece of paper that makes it easier for you to get a job where you can get paid to do cultural resource management.
I believe it doesn’t matter as much where you go as it does what you do as an undergraduate. If you’re planning on going further, graduate schools want to accept the best students but they are more interested in accepting students who are most likely to finish the program. A capstone/senior undergrad thesis is a good way to show you mean business. No matter how hard you network, it’s difficult for professors to argue in favor of accepting students that have bad grades without a MENSA-level GRE score so it’s also imperative you get as good of grades as you can. Networking with the professors at the schools where you’re interested in attending for grad school is another great way to get accepted. Profs are more likely to help students they know, so they have to know who you are before you apply.
Okay, so how much should you spend on an undergraduate degree? That’s a hard question to answer. If you have a great high school transcript and can land scholarship money, the sky is the limit. Go to the best college you can get into as long as you don’t have to take out student loans. If you’re like me, a non-stellar high school student, it’s prudent for you to attend the most affordable college you can get into. Again, affordability is a relative term. Those with a college fund from their parents can afford more tuition than low-income students like I was.
The key is to get the best deal on your degree or pay as little as possible. Free is my favorite price for college.
For most CRMers, the undergrad degree gets you in the door but a Master’s keeps you there. So, you have to be a value shopper when it comes to college because you’ll probably have to go back to grad school one day.
(NOTE: I strongly advise against any aspiring archaeologist going straight from undergrad to graduate school because you need to know if you’re even going to like doing archaeology for a living. For most people, archaeology is better left a dream rather than a vocation. Also, it makes sense to do some CRM after getting your Bachelors because most archaeos work in cultural resources so you need to know what to expect as a CRMer. It would be a shame to spend two years and $50,000 on a graduate degree for an occupation you hate. Do some CRM sooner rather than later.)
Regardless of where you go, you have to get out of college as fast as possible. This should be your mantra for all levels of school from undergrad to PhD. Take as many classes at a time that you can handle without a mental breakdown. No matter where you go, college costs you more the longer you attend so get out ASAP.
Your Master’s: Get it from a terminal MA program
The one tip I want to share with you about Master’s programs is you’re better off getting your Master’s from an institution with a terminal MA program.
Your Master’s degree is what will give you a chance to break through CRM’s glass ceiling. The Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Archaeology are a widely accepted definition of who is and who is not a professional archaeologist in the United States. Only CRMers that meet the SOI standards can make recommendations on federally regulated projects, so there is huge impetus for companies to hire employees that fulfill these standards because they are the most promotable. If you’re like the majority of CRMers, you most likely went back to college in order to get a Master’s so you can compete in this degree-inflated industry. The same adage about getting a cheap degree as fast as possible from an accredited institution also applies to those going to school for their Master’s.
The biggest problem with Master’s programs is the fact that you pay graduate tuition but have much less access to funding aside from student loans. This is especially true for MAs at institutions that have a PhD program because the PhD students are favored over MA students. Tuition waivers, scholarships, research grants, and a range of other benefits are given to PhD students at these schools that aren’t always open to Master’s students.
Your solution is to attend a university with a terminal Master’s program because more of their grants and scholarships are open to their MA students. This advice doesn’t take into account the quality of your education. It is a strictly financially based recommendation. Unless you get a scholarship, grant, or some other kind of funding, you should only seriously think about attending universities with a terminal Master’s.
Other ways to save $ on your Master’s include:
- Get in-state tuition.
- Getting your employer to pay for (part of) your tuition.
- Having a dataset for your degree BEFORE you start.
- Working your way through college (WARNING: This is very, very difficult. Working 30+ hours a week does not leave much time for study and lecture. I’ve taken this path and it is not for the faint of heart.)
- Attending a one-year program.
The only way you should not listen to this advice is if you have the opportunity of a lifetime to work with a professor, researcher, adviser, ect. with whom you’ve always wanted to work or doing a project you’ve always wanted to do. (Opportunity of a Lifetime = Tuition waiver or scholarship or grant + amazing project that only comes around once per generation x rad co-workers or advisers or organization that will look AMAZING on a resume). If this isn’t your situation, you should take my advice and go for the “Best Value,” accredited program that you can finish in the shortest amount of time. Following your dream of doing underwater archaeology in Bali is no reason to saddle yourself with $70,000+ in student loan debt.
If you get your Master’s and become an archaeologist, I guarantee you can save enough money to volunteer on that “Dream Dig” in Belize, Bali, or Bactria. I am confident that you can talk your way into almost any academic Dream Dig as a volunteer, especially if you’re willing to pay for the opportunity.
If you’re pondering MA versus PhD programs, just know PhD departments love people who already have their Master’s in-hand because it demonstrates you can finish something. In the event of a tie, folks with their MA already tend to get priority in the selection process over applicants with a Bachelors only because PhD programs don’t have time to waste on 22-year-olds who still have to figure out what they want to do. Doctorates are an elite product. Universities want to crank them out and let them colonize the earth with their pedagogy, praxis, and other $10-word-concepts. Why accept a straight-outta-undergrad applicant that will take seven years to finish her dissertation when you could have graduated two MA-to-PhDs in that same amount of time? It doesn’t make sense not to take the MA-in-hand, all things being equal.
Also, it may be tempting to apply to PhD programs thinking, “I can just bail with my Master’s if I finish my comps and don’t like it.” I would like to dissuade you against this approach. Many PhD programs require their students without MA’s to finish their Master’s first before they can be considered a PhD candidate. This means you pretty much do everything expected of a terminal Master’s student—independent research, upper division classes, and a thesis—THEN you have to do comps and write a dissertation to finish the PhD. And, going from BA/BS to PhD is roughly 5—6 years. It’s not unheard of for people without a Master’s already to spend a decade working on their PhD. Most MA programs are 2—3 years long. Graduate and start making money sooner.
Once again, it’s up to you to decide how much torture you want to take. If you’re a glutton, try taking on a PhD.
PhD: Make sure you get funding
Some say a Doctorate in anthropology is overkill for cultural resource management, but I argue that there will be a time when every field tech has a Master’s and all the project directors, agency supervisors, and principal investigators will have a PhD. Someday, there will be a PhD glass ceiling where having your Doctorate will be the only way of securing a steady position.
Whether or not my prediction comes true, getting a PhD is about going above and beyond. It’s about going after the kind of research you have always wanted to pursue and moving your intellectual horizons to another level. An undergrad and Master’s is a necessity in CRM. Right now, the PhD is still icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, there is little financial advice I can give you when it comes to getting your PhD. Getting into a PhD program is very competitive and you won’t simply be able to network your way in as easily as you can for your Master’s. Doctoral programs are full of very smart people with excellent credentials (of course, not every person is a genius). You will be applying against a lot of excellent candidates so there is no guarantee you’ll get in. You also have little control over where you get accepted.
The only thing I can say is the former recommendations still apply: get out as fast as possible and control your costs. The best way to control your doctorate expenses is by getting funding.
At some schools, scrounging up funding is a fact of life for PhD students. We are constantly, constantly encouraged to write for grants and scholarships. Writing mock grants is a common final class project and the departmental newsletter is like a list of kudos for students, past and present, who have landed funding or published something. The best thing about PhD programs is you have a lot more control over how much tuition you pay because you can offset your expenses through a melange of tuition waivers, grants, scholarships, research assistance positions, teaching assistantships, part-time work, paid projects…the list is long. Much longer than it is for Master’s students.
A Doctorate IS overkill right now. It is also not a path for the faint of heart. It’s as much about pushing yourself as it is about earning bragging rights and expanding your horizons. If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to enter the ring like Mike Tyson and go for the knockout from the minute the bell rings. This means landing grant money, getting scholarships, publishing articles, teaching classes, and a host of other stuff nobody expects from an undergrad or MA student. We’re not talking about doing the stuff they think will help you land a tenure-track position. That’s simply the minimum of what is expected at the PhD level.
(Yes, your anthropology department expects PhD students and candidates to publish stuff even if they’re not going for tenure-track positions. They like that sort of behavior and encourage it. It makes them feel good. Those students that publish are the teacher’s pets whereas your department head doesn’t even know the name of the PhD candidates/students who don’t publish. Your department is training scholars who will get the U’s name out there. not creampuffs that slurp up travel grant money and wax philosophically while sipping microbrews at the departmental “Date Night” but never publish any of these high-minded ideas. They want soldjahs not civilians, so get in the war.)
There’s a reason why less than 2% of Americans over 25-years-old have a PhD. Because it ain’t easy or necessary.
NOTE: Schools will try to trick you
As you might have noticed, universities are doing everything they can to recruit students. From bad ass rec centers to gourmet restaurants to dorms with a free Xbox 360 to free child care to BCS-bowl-winning football teams to high rankings on flim-flam school reports, every college is doing whatever it can to convince students to drop five-figures on an education there. Remember those college brochures when you were in high school? Exactly.
And, it doesn’t stop with the undergrads. Grad schools also advertise how many scholars they have and how many articles those scholars have written and all the good works they’ve done in developing companies or how many apps/businesses/non-profits the school has spawned or how many graduates have employment after completing the program… The list is endless.
Here’s most of what you need to know to cut through the jibber-jabber:
- How much is tuition?
- If you’re not already a resident, how hard is it to get in-state tuition? How long will it take to establish residency?
- How long does it take to complete the program?
- How many students are in the department?
- How many of those students receive full funding or full tuition waivers?
- What kind of funding opportunities exist right now? How long will those last?
- Is the state/local government cutting funding for universities? If so, how bad is it?
- What is the university president’s background? Are they an academician or a former corporate CEO?
- How many undergraduate classes are taught by tenure-track faculty?
- What’s the departmental graduation rate? What is your adviser’s graduation rate?
- Does the department prioritize cultural resource management or academic archaeology?
- Are there ongoing research partnerships you can use to get thesis/dissertation data? If so, who’s in charge of these projects?
- What is the surrounding town like? Will I be able to get a part-time job that pays $15–$20/hr.?
- How much does it cost to buy a house in this town? Are there jobs in this community that pay enough for me to buy a home? (House prices and wages are part of a livability score that you should be keeping in your mind wherever you live. Livable communities are places where you can cultivate career opportunities after graduation and live the American Dream [i.e. family, house, car, job, ect].)
- How many CRM companies are within a 20 mile radius? How big are those companies? What kind of work do they do?
Basically, undergrads shouldn’t care about attending schools full of Nobel Prize winners because most of their classes will be taught by adjuncts or grad students. Likewise, grad students shouldn’t care about that either because they probably won’t work with those scholars either. Only PhDs should care about working with Nobel Prize winners. Nobody should care about winning bowl games, but that should be taken as an indicator of how much money the school is investing in their sports teams that could be going to academics.
You’re trying to get in and out in record time, so you just need to find a school that isn’t going to cost you an arm-and-a-leg in a community where you can start your adult life. This goal relies on different metrics than the ones U.S. News and World Report uses to compile their Best Colleges list. You will have to do your own homework to figure out what is best for you.
There’s no better time than the present
Now is the best time to go to college in the United States for several reasons:
1) We live in a country that uses fiat currency so our money today is literally worth more than it will be tomorrow.
2) Tuition keeps rising. This is unlikely to end during our lifetimes.
3) Every year a cadre of freshly minted college graduates hits the job market ready to do almost whatever it takes to land a job in archaeology.
4) Every year your life picks up obligations that will make it more difficult to prioritize college. Take it from me—a guy who already had a mortgage, wife, and two kids in daycare that went back to grad school. It gets much harder to start or return to school as you get older.
5) Despite the rosy recent description of middle class earnings, we are losing ground financially. The prices of everything, including college, are steadily increasing whereas our purchasing power and wealth remain stagnant.
6) A college degree will not always have the same prestige or value as it does now. Its value is constantly getting watered down by the ever-increasing number of American adults that have a degree.
In 2014, 31% of adults over 25 had a college degree which was up from 27% of adults in 2003. In 2014, 34% of adults between the ages of 25 and 29 had a degree, which tells me more of today’s young adults are better educated than they were when I was 25—29. Today’s high school graduate is pretty much forced to get a degree or start their own business if they want to stay/get into the middle class. Degree inflation is likely to continue as long as Americans are willing to do what it takes to afford college.
While you do not need a college degree to become an archaeologist, you pretty much need one if you’d like to get paid to do archaeology or keep a job in the industry. So, now is the best time to go back to school because there will never be a better time than the present.
Remember: Degrees do not mean you know how to do cultural resource management archaeology
Cultural resource management cannot be learned in a classroom; however, most schools can do much better than they are currently. You can read case studies, do ethics bowls, take field school, discuss the regs, and participate in academic projects that simulate the conditions found in the industry, but none of this can prepare you for actually working in the industry. College is about earning degrees. Working in CRM is about getting the experience necessary to make valuable contributions to heritage conservation. Eventually, you will need a degree if you want to stay employed in CRM. There is no better time than now to go for it.
Never forget the importance of networking with other cultural resource management archaeologists and getting experience in the industry. You should be doing your best to intern, volunteer, or work at a CRM company as soon as possible (preferably in high school). You should definitely be doing this if you’re enrolled in college because it will jump start your career tremendously.
Pundits are starting to see the cracks in our higher education system. Universities have been lacking for some time now, so I find it ironic that it has taken so long to talk about these shortcomings. I have two young children and have no plans on making them attend college. My wife and I have an investment plan for their future that isn’t related to college in any way. In fact, I would recommend my kids start a business and get it to cash before they even think about going to college. There are simply too many variables at play for us to put our hard earned cash into a college savings plan for a degree that might not even help them pay their bills.
A college degree is still one of the biggest deciding factor in earnings, employment, and social class in the United States. It will remain that way for decades into the future. For aspiring cultural resource management archaeologists, it is important to save as much money on college as possible. It is also crucial to get out of school as soon as possible so you can make money and start getting experience. This should be a rule for both undergrads and grad students. Eventually, you need a degree to do cultural resource management archaeology. Just make sure you don’t pay too much for it.
What do you think about my advice? Got anything more to add? Write a comment below or send me an email.
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