Do archaeology graduates have unrealistic expectations? 6

I had unrealistic expectations about becoming a cultural resource management archaeologist after graduationI recently had a conversation with a college undergraduate who was at #SHA2016 looking for a job. He spoke with such intensity and stared me in the eye as he spoke. “I don’t care what job I get after graduation. I’ll do anything. Seriously.” Those same eyes flickered with enthusiasm, “I mean it. I’ve been in school so long, I’d take just about any job they offer me so long as it’s doing archaeology for a cultural resource management firm.

I could see the desperation mixed with desire on his face. He seemed sincere but I’ve heard the same story dozens of times, even when the speaker doesn’t really mean it.

All of us start off itching to get a start in the CRM industry. We can’t wait. We’ve been cooped up in a classroom somewhere learning what somebody else thinks we should learn for so long we act like a kenneled dog that’s just been released after being stowed beneath an airplane for a transatlantic flight. We dash out of the gates, trying to prove our everybody wrong: We can do this. You can actually BE an archaeologist. It is possible, no matter what other people say.

The only problem is: Most of the time, we don’t actually mean what we’re saying. Not all of us are willing to take temporary archaeological technician work. Most of us are not willing to accept a 10-day, entry-level position digging in some god-awful backwater for $15.00/hour. No benefits. No promise of permanent employment after that one session. Just a guarantee of sore muscles, hard drinking, and rethought dreams.

Most college graduates SAY they’ll do anything to break into the cultural resource management industry, but what they actually mean is, “I’m willing to risk the low pay and physical hardship as long as they guarantee me a job. At least a 6-month probationary period. And, health insurance. And, mileage. I mean, who’s going to drive their own car on those crappy roads every day. And, I don’t want to share a room…Er, a tent or whatever…

Basically, I’m willing to become a CRMer if it’s not too much pain. We all feel entitled to a “good job” after graduation, even if that job is working in cultural resource management. Believe me. I know because that’s how I used to be.

Unrealistic Expectations…?

Was I naïve to expect a full-time, 40-hour-a-week archaeological field technician job right after finishing my undergraduate degree? Was it unrealistic to think that, despite the fact that I had done no networking and only had a field school under my belt, a CRM company would hire me, sight-unseen, for a permanent position in a culture area where I’d never worked before? Was I crazy to think that my miniscule knowledge, skills, and experience were enough to beat out other connected field techs who actually lived in the state where I was applying for a job?

Yes. I had unrealistic expectations and I suffered greatly because of them.

I finished my Bachelor’s in 2001 and promptly started looking for work as a field tech as soon as somebody told me the cultural resource management industry existed. I’d done field school, had a 3.5 GPA, and had management experience at a pizza restaurant, so I thought I was set. My job search consisted of mailing copies an old resume I’d written in high school to CRM companies I looked up on the internet with a cover letter clearly stating how much I wanted to work in archaeology. It was my dream. I was a dreamer who was going to follow that dream. Same resume. Same exact letter.

I had no idea if these companies were hiring. I knew none of their employees, had any idea where many of these companies were located, or had even the slightest inkling what CRM truly was. All I knew was these were the businesses that did archaeology and that’s what I wanted to do for a living.

I kept at this strategy for about 9 months. I never called my old professors for help. I didn’t even think to call the companies to see if they even had work before I mailed them my resume. All I did was mail out my information and wait to hear back. That was my version of being on the job search.

The crazy thing is, some of these companies actually called me back. They must have been impressed (or embarrassed) by my complete naiveté or they simply needed bodies to dig holes. Nevertheless, I occasionally got job offers but they weren’t what I was expecting.

At the time I was living in Boise, Idaho. I heard a lot of; “Can you drive down to Sacramento for an interview? We’ve got a short project in Madera County and want to make an offer, but…we want to make sure you’re not a psycho we need to make sure you can do the job.

Or, “How soon can you be in Lexington, Kentucky? We’ve got 4 weeks of guaranteed work and, with luck, there could be more for the rest of the summer.

I also got the, “There’s a short project that might be starting up in Michigan in the next few days. How much notice do you need before you can be out in the field?

It was amazing that I was getting any offers at all considering my job search strategy, but I always found a way to decline them. In the end, it boiled down to my unrealistic expectations of how I thought my career should have started. I thought that, since I had a college degree, I should at least get a permanent, full-time offer. It seemed ludicrous that I should be getting any offer EXCEPT for that.

My expectations were not wholly unrealistic because those opportunities did not exist. In 2001, there were probably dozens of other recent graduates who did receive full-time job offers and happily accepted them. However, the difference between the lucky and I were they:

  • Probably had connections
  • Were accepting employment in a part of the country where they had already worked
  • Had some experience in addition to field school
  • Were honors students with a capstone undergraduate thesis that proved they knew the basics of technical writing
  • Were damn, damn lucky, or
  • A combination of the above.

I probably could have changed my luck had I taken some of these offers, but the mind-numbing job I had at the time paid enough money to dull the pain of the temporary tech positions I was offered. My lifestyle was not so uncomfortable that I felt like I needed to take the plunge. I wasn’t in dire pain so I just kept on pushing carts and boxing groceries.

I passed up all these offers even though they could have kick started my CRM career.

Entitlement led me to hold out for a management position in cultural resource managementA Graduate Student’s Sense of Entitlement

My CRM career took a turn for the better after I got accepted to graduate school. After nearly a year of passing on temporary CRM tech work, I decided that if a BA wouldn’t cut it, a Master’s would certainly show the world that I meant business. It was a blundering step that, fortunately, did not end in disaster.

I was hired on a short CRM project with the state highway department during the second half of my first semester in grad school. The project was a sort of make-work project for local university students, which was an excellent opportunity unexperienced greenhorns like me since the positions were not advertised to the general public. Since I was a grad student, had a field school under my belt, and was already a university employee (i.e. a teaching assistant), I was quickly trained to lead a crew of undergraduate excavators.

Because the fieldwork was being run by another grad student, I was able to work part-time over weekends (Friday through Sunday). This left the weekdays to TA, take classes, and study. It was grueling working two jobs (as a TA and as a crew chief) but this project got me about 6 months of CRM experience.

Now, it is likely that I would never have taken a spot on that project had it been offered to me before I started grad school. The site was in rural Idaho about 8 hours away from Boise. There was no per diem, lodging, or weekend stipend. In fact, the nearest town with a motel was about 2 hours away. The college kids were pretty much the only people who could have worked on it. Those are the kind of “opportunities” I had passed up in the past.

Unfortunately, this short stint in CRM inflated my unrealistic expectations to heretofore never been seen proportions. I was now a crew chief with “experience” and, with all this new experience, management positions were the only ones I could possibly be happy with. After that DOT project, I helped lead some field schools later on in grad school. By the time I graduated, I probably had about 12 solid months supervising excavation crews on what could be compared to data recovery, but had no survey, GIS, budgeting, report writing, or understanding of historic preservation laws.

Upon receiving my MA, I started the same “Paper-Letter-Spam-Game” I called being on the job market. It was now 2005 and the internet was playing an increasing role in my job search strategy. Now, I could find jobs through and This made it easier for me to spam companies with my resume and cover letter, but the results this time were actually worse.

I found a job as a janitor cleaning floors and bathrooms at the local university law library after finishing my Master’s. Each morning I did my custodial duties. Afternoons were spent writing resumes, cover letters, and applications to CRM jobs around the country. My goal was to apply to at least one job each week. Some weeks I applied to about a dozen.

This increased productivity only resulted in higher levels of defeat. I experienced whole months where I’d written about two dozen resumes and didn’t even receive a single call back. And, the calls I did receive were mostly for the same temporary field tech positions I’d been offered before I had a Master’s. It seemed like I’d gotten nowhere.

It was hard waking up at 3 AM every weekday, getting ready for a job I hated in silence, and walking to work in darkness only to polish the floors for law students who immediately soiled all of my good work. What took hours to clean was dirtied in minutes. The only thing I could expect was to do clean the exact same areas again the next day, day-after-day. Nevertheless, all that floor and toilet scrubbing was not so degrading that I would throw away that lowly but permanent position for a temporary stint in CRM. I was still too comfortable and entitled.

Fortunately, my job search strategy changed over the months. I learned how to work smarter instead of harder. I realized that networking, something I’d formerly been too shy to do, was key to getting a job in cultural resource management. I spent more time introducing myself to CRM company owners and other CRMers over the phone, email, and at conferences. Following each interaction with a prospective employer, I would tailor a resume and cover letter for that specific person and mail them a paper copy to them with a thank you note. I did a few other things too, like keeping a database of these contacts and my interactions with them. My job search skills were honed into a true strategy that I’ve maintained to this day.

After about 3 months of this revised strategy, I started getting offers for full-time work. Sometimes as a field tech. Other times, as a crew chief. All of these were offers for projects that had not yet been scheduled, so I was still waiting to see what would happen. Finally, on a rainy day in March, 2006, I was offered three full-time, permanent positions on the same day. All of them were field director or crew chief positions. It only took 7 years of college and 8 months of steadily applying for dozens of jobs, five days a week for at least 4 hours a day; or, about 640 hours, before I landed my first full-time job (NOTE: This is a very conservative estimate because sometimes on weekends I spent almost entire days crafting applications to USAJOBS.)

My Strategy Changed. My Expectations Changed

A lot happened through that whole time I spent looking for a job. There was the obvious feeling of rejection and unworthiness. For much of that time I felt like I’d made a huge mistake in following my dream. I was a janitor with a Master’s degree. I cleaned up toilets and spills, shoveled snow, mopped, dusted, vacuumed, and put up with demanding faculty, students, and building employees. Waking up at 3AM destroyed my social life and smelling like industrial cleansers didn’t do much for the budding relationship I was trying to maintain with my then girlfriend (now, wife). My former professors were too busy to help me because they had a new cohort of students to shepherd. All they could do is write letters of recommendation and pray.

There was a point where I remember saying the same sentences at the beginning of this blog post; “I don’t care where. I don’t care what the job is. I just want to become an archaeologist.”

But, that wasn’t the truth. I was not willing to take just any job, even after suffering dozens of rejections and sinking into despair. Part of this was my unreal expectation that my degree was worth more value in the industry that it truly was. A degree shows you have the capacity to learn, not that you have actually learned anything. Part of it was the fact that I wasn’t in enough pain yet. True, I was a janitor but I still had a girlfriend, a “life”, an identity and part of that identity was being a struggling college graduate. There is a certain pity others bestow on recent graduates that helps us find solace in our desperation and toil.

Mainly, I was not ready to risk it all on a roll of the dice for a temporary position. It seemed too risky to me. It wasn’t worth it. I didn’t mind leaving my comfortable situation to find work. In fact, I left that girlfriend for an archaeology job 3,000 miles away after we’d only been dating for a few months. But that was while I was still in grad school. After graduation, I wanted to find a “real” job; something worth packing up and moving for.

These jobs in CRM are extremely rare. It took me more than 600 hours of steady resume-writing, months of networking, and rejection upon rejection upon rejection before I landed my first permanent, full-time position. Looking back, I would have to say everything I went through was worth it because it helped me become the person I am today.

My sense of entitlement faded during that time period when I was looking for a job. I realized nobody owed me anything just because I had a graduate degree. My degree, my experience, even my ability to dig did not mean I should be “given” a job. Employers want: 1) people who have proven they can do the job, or; 2) people who have convinced them that they have the capacity to do the job. Folks with experience and a proven track-record of success are the best new hires. Everybody else has to swallow their pride and do some self-marketing. A degree is worth way less than accomplishments, networking, and marketing.

The most important thing that changed during that time was my perception of what I could expect from an employer. Landing a full-time, permanent position in the cultural resource management archaeology industry right out of college is difficult. Some say it’s almost impossible. Through all of those travails I learned that my education was simply one piece of the puzzle. Nobody was going to give me a job simply because I had a Bachelors or Master’s degree. Employers valued the education but what they were primarily looking for was an individual who was willing to put in work, learn from their mistakes, take the punches while still moving forward, and, through it all, remain modest about their accomplishments.

Do not let your sense of entitlement or unrealistic expectations ruin your cultural resource management archaeology job search. Tell us about your experience. What do you think? Are we unrealistic upon graduation? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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6 thoughts on “Do archaeology graduates have unrealistic expectations?

  • Jeff

    I had a very similar experience when I graduated with that anthro degree in 2009. There were distinct differences, though: had connections from a prior internship, willing to do that part time job, asked my archaeology prof for aid. So, I had some contract work. The biggest problem was the bottomed out economy in 2009, especially in New England, while archaeology grad programs were accepting far less. Another problem is that the realities of CRM contract work are never made clear, even during field school. We need digs and dirt under our belt. Yet, with the fewer contracts available given to the more experienced more often than not, how can that even be done? It was simply an unwelcoming experience, even though I was working for or with people I already knew and liked. There were even instances of the unwelcoming feeling personified in at least two people I met on digs: nut jobs we only pretended to tolerate because they could move dirt quickly (arguably making more a mess than the manager wanted to admit). I had a couple great managers, but the whole experience pushed me away. I found history museums, which was an unofficial employment backup, to be far more welcoming, even though the Great Recession hit them, too. Now in a public history masters program to push forward the museum career, but still consider the archaeology background to be useful for the resume and personal projects. I can do that exhibit research AND clean up that Native American collection.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      First, thanks for reading this post. That diversification of career opportunities you mention (museum + archaeology) is definitely something we all need to do. Expanding your toolkit is probably the second most important attribute to a successful career, a close second to having a robust, quality network.

      I’m glad you’re still hanging in there. Thanks for commenting on this post.

  • Alasdair Brooks

    It’s an excellent post, Bill, and one well worth reading by archaeology graduates; I hope it finds the wide audience it deserves. I’ll freely admit that my strategy for finding jobs after my BA back in 1990 wasn’t very different from yours – though I did take the temporary tech positions, and that provided me with those valuable networking opportunities that you rightly note are crucial (and funded my MA); but I think it’s fair to note that I stumbled blindly through the early years of career, and in retrospect was just exceptionally lucky to find work with CRM companies that left me with strong networking links once I moved on to academic and museum work. There was no real plan involved (which is a more than slightly worrying thought looking back with the benefit of hindsight).

    There’s a basic problem in archaeology, one almost universal in the Anglophone world (I’ve observed it in the US, UK, and Australia) that we’re producing far, far too many graduates – whether with BAs or MAs – and with far too few positions to fill, and with many of those graduates taking that ‘I don’t care what job I get so long as I get a job in archaeology’ attitude that you so accurately describe. That faint whiff of desperation combined with oversupply of willing young techs is likely having the impact of depressing wages for entry-level archaeologists internationally alongside making it much harder for entry-level colleagues to find a long-term secure position; no wonder so many people leave the discipline over time. I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to that; people tend to go into archaeology because they love it, after all, rather than out of a desire to earn riches and fame beyond mortal imagination – and who wants to be the person discouraging young men and women from doing something they love, and which has a generally positive image within public perception. You offer some excellent advice here that I would almost certainly share more widely if I wasn’t such a social media Luddite; but there are inherent structural issues within our discipline as well that offer challenges to anyone looking for employment.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Alasdair. Our industry definitely has some major structural issues that the oversupply of graduates is not going to fix. Perhaps having a diversified skill set/qualifications will help make things better. For example, I believe an archaeologist who is also a certified public accountant or has experience in business marketing would be easier to keep on the payroll than a prehistoric archaeologist with just a Masters. I also believe creating more well-capitalized, full-service environmental consulting company with a social conscious (i.e. out to make the world better rather than rake in $’s) would be another way we could keep more archaeologists employed. Each environmental engineer or architect brings in enough in contract dollars to support a couple archaeologists for a year, so working for a full-service provider isn’t all bad (as long as the owners/board care about improving the environment rather than harvesting cash off of it).

      What is happening across the board is a situation where you need to have a graduate degree to even qualify for the lowliest archaeological technician position. This is good in that only the folks who really, really, really want to be archaeologists end up doing it for a living. This is bad because it forces people to invest a lot of time and money into qualifying for a job that shouldn’t have such high educational requirements. Enrollment in anthropology programs is dropping at many universities because students dont want to pay $80,000 dollars to land a $15/hr job after 6 years of college.

      In the short term, however, I think we can prevent a lot of suffering by helping aspiring archaeologists conduct their job searches more intelligently. We dont need more archaeos begging for work like you and I did. We can teach some strategies that emphasize networking at the expense of spamming out resumes for every position under the sun. Folks have got to work in the hidden job market and that can only be done through networking.

      Again, thanks for reading the post. Feel free to share it widely.

  • Tom Ostrander

    This was me in 2008, we actually worked together then Bill. I came out of undergraduate expecting someone to give me a job. My career didn’t become stable and productive until I decided to make my own job. As you said, the key is networking. Through my network, mostly fellow field techs, I was able to bounce between three companies and keep myself employed. It was a big change realizing I was not going to get a traditional job. Something that was really difficult for my privileged white middle class brain to accept. However, once I worked within the industry on it’s terms, not expecting it to bend to mine, thigs became tenable.

    The most important thing, in my mind, for young techs to realize is you will not change crm. You can’t plan on being the exception to the rule. You need to work your network. Every job is an interview for the next job. Everyone you interact with May be the person that keeps you in the industry.

    What finally got me my current “real job” was treating each project as an opportunity and making sure I did everything to make that project a success. Even if it was monitoring a sonic core rig drilling 200 feet into glacial outwash. That attitude set me apart. Accepting that not everything we do in crm is going to be archaeology is imporant.

    With my current position I have my dream job two months out of the year. The big data recoveries and writing reports that utilize new methods and propose important findings. I love that job. The other 80% of the time is helping my clients get their projects done on time and on budget. I’m committed to both. You can’t have one without the other.

    They are different skill sets, but without both you don’t have a real job. It’s an important and difficult thing to realize yourself, and it’s even harder tocommunicate to young archaeologists. So many of whom are crippled by having the dream of using their amazing intellect and inborn luck to bounce from Phase three to research publication in a continuous cycle. I had the dream of doing that too. However, that doesn’t even exist for research fellows at R1 universities. They have to play poltic in the department, and secure funding in the same way that I have to help a client get a 404 permit on this dinky stream channel stabilization in order to have them trust me with more technical interesting work.

    Archaeology attracts dreamers and romantics. That’s a good thing. What’s bad is when people get so scarred of the reality that they refuse to work with it on it’s terms.

    Thanks for voiceing these thoughts Bill, you are doing a service for our community.

  • Janet

    How do I prove that u want to work hard, can learn from mistakes, take pinches and move forward?? With only a bachelors and the required field school?? If they want more // why don’t they list that on the list of qualifications? Because I have all of the supposed qualifications and have just recently graduated and would love to know this secret formula for getting a job in the field I spent four long years working to become qualified in.

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