Archaeology PhD students: Prepare for a non-academic career

PhD archaeology students need to prepare for careers in CRMIt’s hard to get a job in archaeology. Cultural resource management is where most of us land and, increasingly, this is a fact of life for those with a PhD in anthropology. No matter which degree you earn, if you want to become an archaeologist in the United States, you had better plan on working in cultural resource management consulting.

Finding a job with a PhD is hard and it’s getting harder

Job search difficulties for archaeology PhDs are partially a side-effect of the overall bad job market for PhDs in the United States. It takes about 8 years to finish a PhD in the social sciences, but recent research indicates 40 percent of PhD graduates have not lined up a job by graduation. A 2014 National Science Foundation research project summarized in The Atlantic explained,

“Ph.D. graduates who reported that they had accepted positions found work in the private industry, academia, or as post-docs. Most Ph.D.s in the humanities, education, and social sciences who have secured plans will work in academia—but the report does not indicate whether they are employed in tenure-track positions, in non-tenure track jobs, or as temporary adjunct jobs, which have grown in popularity in recent years.” (

This suggests social science PhDs tend to work in academia but it may not be in a tenure-track position. Less than half of doctorate recipients with employment commitments at graduation will work in academia (NSF 2014:8).

The number of jobs in academia are not growing as fast as the number of PhDs. The Atlantic continues to explain that the United States produced over 54,000 PhDs in 2014— 12,000 more than 2004. Conditions may not be as bad for archaeology as the NSF report states, “Despite a 23% increase in the absolute number of social sciences doctorates awarded from 2004 to 2014, the relative share of these doctorates declined over the period” (NSF 2014:4). While this NSF data may suggest the total number of PhDs in the social sciences are increasing, they’re decreasing as a proportion of the overall U.S. workforce with a PhD. This does not seem to be true for archaeology. “Word on the street” from the CRM archaeologists I know are telling me the number of PhDs in CRM is increasing.

PhDs in anthropology are actually fortunate that their degree is applicable to a career path that allows them to use what they took out $70,000 in student loans to learn. Cultural resource management benefits from educated professionals; however, it’s not easy getting into the industry. In fact, a PhD may hold back some folks from being gainfully employed in CRM.

The recession seems to be over for professionals in the United States and construction is happening again. You know what that means: CRM is back, baby! Regardless of economy-wide trends, it is difficult to get a “good” job (i.e. one with decent pay, health care, and a retirement plan). For archaeologists, including those with a PhD, there are added difficulties. It’s not just that that the PhD job market is bad, too few PhD students are learning what they need to get a job after their PhD. When they finish their degree, they don’t have the skillset that will allow them to work in CRM.

Lack of preparedness for work outside academia is a widespread malady throughout the country. In fact, Nature recently urged universities to start preparing PhDs to work outside academia ( The Nature article cites a survey of over 5,700 scholars worldwide who are working on their PhDs ( Fifty percent of those surveyed said they would most like to work in academia after graduation whereas only 22 percent said they would like to work in “industry” (which I take to mean business). Other data indicates only three or four out of every hundred PhDs in the United Kingdom will find a permanent staff position in academia. These statistics are not much better for the United States.

I want to say that once again: 4 of every 100 PhDs will work in academia after graduation. Not land a tenure-track job. Only 4 of every 100 PhDs will work in academia in any capacity after graduation. And, based on the Nature article, this is a high estimate. Despite those horrific numbers, very few PhD advisers have this conversation with their students. Honestly, I don’t know why this isn’t the very first thing advisers acknowledge to their students.

The message should be clear for archaeology PhDs. If you want to be an archaeologist after graduation, you need to learn what it takes to do cultural resource management.

What does it take to get a Tenure Track position?

That’s what every PhD wants to know. And, there is no way to address this question. Karen Kelsky’s book “The Professor is In” does the best job I’ve ever seen when it comes to clearly describing the pathway from PhD student to TT faculty. (DISCLOSURE: I followed her advice as a PhD student and ended up getting a TT position. [Now all I have to do is keep it] Coincidence? Not really. I did much more than she recommends, so much I almost had a nervous breakdown. I can’t recommend anyone follow my lead on this one, but I highly recommend Dr. Kelsky’s book).

Kelsky’s strategy isn’t the only way to get a tenure-track job. You can also fill out tons of applications and know what universities are looking for. Jeremy Yoder reveals his strategy for landing a TT job on ChronicleVitae. It shows the intense, dedicated, relentless effort that goes into getting a tenure-track job. Once again, Yoder’s is but one of many strategies to land a TT job, but the reality is most PhD students are not going to follow either of these strategies. They’ll have to do something else to land a job in academia.

It also matters where you get your PhD if you want to land a tenure track position. Recent research indicates a quarter of universities in the U.S. and Canada accounted for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure track positions. “The top schools generate far more professors than even just slightly less prestigious schools. For example, in history, the top 10 schools produce three times as many future professors as those ranked 11 through 20.” Research done by Clauset et al. (2015) shows disparate fields have similarities when it comes to preferring to hire tenure track professors from the top schools in each industry. Other research corroborates this reality. Oprisko reported in 2012 that, 50 percent of the 3,709 political science professors he surveyed came from just 11 schools; 239 professors got their PhD from Harvard while just 10 got a PhD from Purdue.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade but this is the conversation that most PhD students are not having with their professors. Preparing for a career in business, government, or consulting (anything outside of academia) is not heresy, its pragmatism. How are you going to pay your bills after graduating? By working, of course. Well what if you could still use that anthropology degree your parents warned you against to pay your bills? CRM provides an opportunity to do exactly that.

Archaeology PhDs: You probably will not get a tenure-track job. Get ready to work in CRM.

This is the conversation most of us aren’t having as PhD students. Your adviser probably isn’t telling you to get ready to work in CRM. Your peers most definitely aren’t telling you that. But, this is your reality. Face the facts so you can work through your emotions sooner rather than later.

You probably will not get a job at a university after finishing your PhD. If you want to do archaeology, you will have to learn what it takes to survive in cultural resource management. This is where over 80% of all archaeologists in the United States work. Archaeology PhDs are fortunate to have the option of working in a research-oriented industry where they can still keep doing what they love and using what they learned in college.

Unfortunately, it’s likely you don’t have any CRM training resources at your degree-granting institution. Fortunately, every major metro area and state has CRM companies that you can connect with. Here’s what I suggest:

  • Get real. Think realistically about your chances of getting a job in academia. This will help prepare you for what happens after graduating.
  • Don’t plan for having an “alternative” career. Plan on living a life where you have more than one career. Plan on incorporating work into your overall lifestyle dream (i.e. family, marriage, home ownership, relationship to parents, ect.) What kind of life do you want to live? Because your job will help you make that a reality.
  • Reevaluate how you measure success. There is more than one way to win in at the game of life. Landing a TT job is great, I consider myself extremely lucky to have my current job. It’s the first time I’ve been happy being an archaeologist in years. But, my job is just one aspect of my life. Getting a PhD and this position is one of several successes I’ve had as an adult.


Do not get depressed if you don’t end up working in academia, especially if you become a principal investigator or project manager at a CRM company. You’ll probably handle more money, projects, and do more archaeology in a decade as a CRM PI than a TT professor will in their entire career. CRM is not settling. It is a viable, worthwhile career.

  • Find information. If there are no CRM-oriented professors at your institution, find somebody in your area and reach out. Most PhDs are making career decisions based on internet research anyway, so you won’t be any different. By any means necessary: you need to start learning how the industry works. Today.
  • Start educating yourself. Start reading archaeology blogs, podcasts, and publications. Do what you can to learn about the industry.
  • Push your department to start teaching CRM basics. Tell your department about this deficiency. Ask them how they’re going to remedy it. Don’t stop until your coursework includes things that will help you get hired in CRM.

Do what it takes to prepare yourself for work in a non-academic field like cultural resource management after graduation. For archaeologists, this means learning about cultural resource management archaeology. If you are a PhD, it is even more important to put in the work to learn about CRM because you have more invested in your education and will be entering an extremely tight job market after graduation.

Psychologically and emotionally prepare yourself. Get educated. Reevaluate your goals. Build a network. Connect with others in your “tribe.” Live to dig another day.

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


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