Do archaeologists have an alternative to a college degree?

Do you need a degree to do archaeology?Full Disclosure: I now teach at a R1, state university. It is in my best interest for university enrollments to continue growing. Therefore, its controversial for me to second guess the university system because its literally taking food from my kids’ mouth. The following blog post is heresy. However, this is a conversation that we need to have.

How many of you have heard any/all of the following statements?

  • You can be whatever you want when you grow up.
  • You’ve got to get good grades if you want to get a good job.
  • Success comes to those who are willing to work hard for it.
  • Follow your dreams.
  • You’re going to college. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.
  • Don’t waste your time on a liberal arts degree. You’ll never be able to get a job with that.
  • You should go to law school/ med school/ get an MBA because you can get a good job after graduation.

Each of these statements are part of two prevailing paradigms in American society:

  • The idea that you can do whatever you want if you work hard enough, and;
  • The idea that a college degree = a “good” job (i.e. one with security, benefits, and a retirement).

The wisest among us knows these paradigms are only partially true. Yes, hard work is required but those who work intelligently and strategically rule the day. And, in a wider sense, college does translate to better job opportunities but there are no guarantees. Together, these syllogisms combine to create a better pathway to success than simply working hard or going to college: Work strategically towards career goals and only obtain a college degree if you need one.

Education and Archaeology: This blog’s perennial topic

This post came from recent ruminations about an article I read called “The Value of the College Degree is Crashing. Here’s How to Fix It.” The author, Zak Slayback, appears to be an anti-college, pro-self—directed learning advocate. His blog looks like its dedicated to self-learning, self-improvement, and motivational strategies that can help anyone who desires to improve her/his professional life. Slayback believes so deeply in entrepreneurship that he’s created his own grant—the Slayback Grant—that gives up to $2,000 to further the business of an entrepreneur aged 16—22 years old. The idea is to provide an alternative to college for those who want to go into business.

Work like Slayback’s is excellent for those who just want to make money or want to build a business. Anyone can start a business but it takes an entrepreneur to launch a successful start-up. The world needs people like this. And, the world rewards “doers.” Those who act on their ideas, dreams, or hunches stand a better chance of success than those who idly sit back and speculate about what they wish would happen. Or, hate on others who are moving towards their goals.

You don’t need a college degree to start a business or be an employee. Slayback is right when he says degree inflation is turning jobs that don’t need a college degree into ones that do because employers are familiar with what a degree symbolizes (i.e. intelligence, perseverance, better than average work ethic, ect). Slayback argues that this is no longer true.

I’ve talked about this situation on this blog before: A college degree doesn’t actually mean the same thing in a world where so many people have them. It definitely doesn’t mean you know how to do archaeology. Nevertheless, in our field, a degree is the baseline qualification that many employers seek because it indicates the candidate is at least familiar with archaeological method and theory. They are something the company can work with. Employers in many fields, archaeology included, are now starting to ask for graduate degrees for positions that did not need them until the recent surge in Americans with graduate degrees made this possible. Field techs and crew chiefs with Masters are now common.

Degrees are expensive and it behooves an aspiring archaeologist to spend more time than necessary accruing debt for a degree that may not pay for itself. For archaeologists, degree inflation and increasingly stringent job requirements raises several other queries: Do you need a college degree to become an archaeologist? Are there alternatives to getting the experience required to be an archaeologist without a degree? How can one work smartly towards the goal of becoming an archaeologist—with or without college?

There are no clear answers to those questions.

You don’t need a college degree to become an archaeologist.

You need a degree to keep being an archaeologist.

Employers have a lot of incentive to hire and keep archaeologists with degrees because we live in a world where so many archaeology job applicants have college degrees and a society that has become accustomed to the prestige conferred by the college degree. Is this good? No but it doesn’t really hurt.

Archaeology is not like starting a food truck or building an app. You do need to know what you’re doing in the field because you only get to dig a site once. Major problems arise with job applicants who haven’t actually done archaeology; they’ve only read, talked, and written (poorly) about it.

It’s even worse if an applicant misrepresents how much experience they have. Don’t stretch the truth because, sooner or later, someone is going to find out that you really don’t know what you’re doing. If you’re inexperienced, just say so. Even if you’re heavily experienced, maintain a beginner’s mindset. Keep your eyes open to learning more about this craft.

If you’re going to college because you want to become an archaeologist, you need to take a field school. Why? Because that’s the only on-the-job—style training you’re ever going to get in the university setting. Also, 90% of CRM archaeologists took a field school so they believe strongly in hiring others who have at least dabbled in fieldwork as a college student. Cultural resource management archaeologists like working with other skilled archaeologists. Even someone with minimal experience is better than someone with no experience.

Can you get the field school experience without college? Yes. Find a local public archaeology project and start volunteering ASAP. Begin in high school if you can. The Passport in Time program is an excellent example. So is the Urban Archaeology Corps. If you can’t connect with those programs, do your research and see if you can participate in some other sort of public project in your area.

In addition to learning archaeology field methods, field schools are also about networking. You will be working with other archaeologists who may one day help you get into graduate school or find work. You can get many of the same experiences by volunteering at several public archaeology events in such a way that it mimics what happens in field school.

Alternatives to becoming an archaeologist without a degree.

I have worked with archaeological field techs that did not have a college degree, but these individuals’ upward mobility in the industry is seriously limited because: 1) archaeologists are accustomed to working with those who have degrees, 2) you cannot qualify for the Secretary of Interior’s Standards in Archaeology if you don’t have a graduate degree (it’s pretty hard to get a Master’s without an undergrad degree), 3) permitting requirements, and 4) degree inflation.

In sum, there are very few alternatives to remaining a professional archaeologist without a college degree. But, there are opportunities for doing archaeology without a degree. And, as mentioned before, you can be a field tech without a college degree which means you can get paid (kinda) to do archaeology without having a degree under your belt.

Most avocational archaeologists do not have an anthropology degree; however, many of these folks did finish college for some other career. If you’re not getting paid to do archaeology, it all boils down to how much time you have to pursue a hobby, how dedicated you are to adhering to archaeological ethics, methods and theory (FYI: Antique Archaeology is not archaeology. Neither is American Diggers.), and; whether or not you can find an opportunity to participate in a dig, lab work, or another aspect of proper archaeology. If you’ve got the time and dedication, you just need to do the legwork of finding a project that accepts volunteers near your home.

Most CRM companies do not take volunteers because they are hired as professionals to provide skilled advice to their clients. As professionals, they shouldn’t be in the business of doing work for free. Universities, museums, and historic preservation organizations are your best bet for volunteering. Start your search there.

Put more effort into actually doing archaeology than getting degrees.

School is nice but getting your hands dirty in the field or in the lab is almost more productive than doing book learnin’. Companies and universities value research and that’s hard to do if you spend all your time learning about the research of others. I understand that you will need to do research if you want to be an archaeologist, especially if you’re going after a degree, but time spent actually digging or doing unique research by analyzing artifacts/data is critical for the continuance of your career.

Archaeology is a hands-on field. Experiential learning is what its all about. “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.” Indiana Jones.

Showcase your achievements.

How is anyone going to know what you’ve done? That’s simple. You’re going to tell them on the internet.

The only way for Slayback’s “No-Degree Success Story” to be fruitful is if you harness the power of the internet to showcase your achievements.

Around the time Slayback wrote the article I just read (2015), I authored a series on this blog about building an online persona. This was later turned into an eBook (PDF) that is still available for free on the SHA blog ( The internet is like an accelerator for anyone looking to advertise their skills and abilities. You could get the word out about your accomplishments by writing several books, going on Oprah, and working on the Lost City of Atlantis. Or, you could create a keyword optimized LinkedIn page, start writing your term papers as if they were going out for peer review (your professors would knight you if you did that), and start making YouTube videos about the projects on which you volunteer (most public archaeology organizations would love for you to do that as well). You could also select a social media platform where you can connect with other archaeologists and optimize your content to showcase your archaeologocity (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are pretty easy to use in this respect). Use LinkedIn to coordinate all these forms of digital assets.

The goal is to “game” Google into making it look like you’re a connected, vibrant, and active archaeologist. When somebody “Googles” your name, they need to see how woke you are when it comes to archaeology. Political rants, drunken photos, and anything else on there detracts from your personal persona (FYI: If you’re insane, you can try and create what I call a media cell that combines traditional media like news media and journal articles with the digital media content you produce. It’s a lot of work but, if you follow through, the internet will only know you as an archaeologist.)

It’s very important that you start using the internet to make a name for yourself because we all search the internet whenever we meet somebody new. Increasingly, archaeologists are using the internet more than resumes to screen job applicants and this is actually a good thing. You can do a much better demonstration of your skills and experience on a platform like LinkedIn than you ever could do with a resume. Three references? Hell, on LI I can showcase referrals from 10—20 people who know me best. And, I can edit what they say about me.

The internet can also do a better job of showcasing your talents than a college degree. Archaeology hasn’t gotten to the place where we prioritize LinkedIn profiles over a college degree, but we can definitely make better hiring selections when combining LinkedIn with the degree. Degrees these days are turning into more of a formality. Online profiles come second only to word-of-mouth recommendations (in the case of LinkedIn, they are one-in-the-same).

I do not think there is an alternative to a college degree for archaeologists. It’s simply too easy to hire whole crews of college-educated CRMers. However, I do agree with Slayback when it comes to pairing the degree with a well-honed online persona. The companies and organizations that hire archaeologists want capable employees. You can better demonstrate that you’re capable via the internet, which is something you really can’t do with a degree or resume.

Write a comment below or send me an email.


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