It doesn’t have to be that way. Field techs don’t have to teach archaeology PhDs 1

Cash_For_Work_IconathonThe response to my blog post earlier this week about field techs teaching PhDs how to do archaeology was amazing. Most of the comments I received were either self-reflexive acknowledgements by PhDs revealing that they really didn’t know how to do cultural resource management or commercial archaeology after they finished their degree, but they persevered through on-the-job training. CRMers primarily said it was the industry’s job to teach cultural resource management newbies how to work in the industry.

For instance, Drew Cozby said, “…I see CRM field work as a skill set. Something you learn 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.

The differences between the way archaeology is practiced in universities and CRM was cited as a major reason why graduate students do not have the skills necessary to perform at a supervisory (or, in many cases, entry-level) capacity. Many readers felt like universities do not value field skills and do not have a grasp of what is needed to forge a fruitful career in CRM. Collaboration between the industry and field schools is one possible solution that was noted by some of the folks that read the post. Colleen Morgan remarked, “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.

More than one reader disagreed with my post. I heard several comments on Twitter that reiterated the idea that universities should emphasize exactly what they are (i.e. theory) and CRM companies should take charge of teaching their employees how to do CRM. Lindsey noted that this is a systemic problem that isn’t limited to archaeology. She said, “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.” She went on to say that graduates have command of a different, yet still very valuable, set of skills and that, as long as a new hire has a good head on their shoulders, they’ll do fine in CRM.

This week, Doug Rocks-MacQueen at Doug’s Archaeology has written a couple insightful posts on this topic. He asked whether or not a college degree was just another form of #freearchaeology (which, I’d actually say its a form of #boughtarchaeology because you are paying somebody else for the chance to work for free). Doug also addressed the divide between CRM and academic archaeology, asking, “does it even matter?

The divide between academic training and CRM archaeology can be bridged

I am well aware that universities cannot teach every single aspect of CRM archaeology in the few short years they have with their students. Working in CRM is a constant learning process. There is no way to learn all that there is to know because the laws and application of those laws is situational and constantly changing. CRM is a craft; practicing it is an art that must be learned on the job.

However, there is much universities can do to help their students along that path. How do I know? Because I went to two different schools that did exactly that.

My undergraduate education at Boise State University (BSU) didn’t give me much of an opportunity to do archaeology or CRM. But, we were given several chances to apply the anthropological concepts we were learning in real-world situations. For example, for two semesters, I worked with Dr. Robert McCarl on an oral history project that was dedicated to chronicling the lives of Hispanic migrant workers as part of a campaign to get them covered under minimum wage franchisement in the State of Idaho Idaho’s farmworkers remained exempt from minimum wage requirements until after I’d graduated in 2001. Eventually, the efforts of people like Dr. McCarl and his students helped farmworkers get included in the State’s minimum wage laws.

Our class projects included collecting interviews with farmworkers near Boise, translating and transcribing the audio recordings, and synthesizing the data in order to lobby the state legislature to extend wage coverage to farmworkers. We learned action anthropology— how to apply ethnographic method and theory in a manner that empowered ordinary people to advocate for issues they think are important. This was significant because I saw, first-hand, how anthropology can be used to change people’s lives for the better. Rather than reading Malinowski’s suggestions to “live and work among the people” we were actually doing it. And, I was only 20 years old. Later, I used some of these methods as a CRM archaeologist to collect information from locals that I used in cultural resource evaluations.

My undergraduate archaeology field school focused on a Native American farmstead in Oklahoma and was taught by Dr. Mark Warner of the University of Idaho. We were invited by the tribe to use archaeology to help tribal members learn more about their past. There was also a contemporaneous cultural anthropology field school that year being taught by the University of Miami, Ohio that focused on learning more about how the tribe’s public health services could be improved. In my field school, I learned how to do almost all the basics of an excavation project including mapping, theodolite use, paperwork, data management, artifact processing, and excavation photography. This was in addition to readings in historical archaeological method and theory that helped us put our work in a larger perspective. The UIdaho field school reaffirmed my interest in archaeology and gave me many of the basic skills I used later in my CRM career.

I took some time off after getting my BA before I thought about going back to graduate school. Actually, I spent a year looking for jobs as a field tech in the western U.S. with no success. Because I had no CRM experience and no connections (and I didn’t know how to get them), I couldn’t find anyone willing to hire me on a permanent basis. I was unable to convince any company to “take a chance on me” and the best offers I got were 1­–3 week field projects 1,000 miles away with no transportation to the job site, no lodging, no per diem, and not much promise of future employment (With hindsight, I probably could have taken some of those jobs and tried to make it work if it had not been the huge credit card debts I racked up in college and the fact that I was used to making much more money at Costco Wholesale). After 10 months of looking for a CRM job, one of my undergraduate advisors suggested I should go back for my Master’s. I called Dr. Warner, applied to the UIdaho’s MA program, and started school in the fall of 2002. Basically, I struck out with my BA (as so many other anthro majors in the U.S.) and decided that since the schooling I already had wasn’t working for me, it couldn’t hurt to get even more education. I now realize this was a gamble and an approach I wouldn’t suggest for anyone else. At the time, however, I didn’t know what else to do and wasn’t ready to give up on archaeology.

UIdaho’s anthro program is unique because the professors do an awesome job of landing CRM projects and having their graduate students run them. For almost a calendar year in grad school, I was a crew chief on a joint UIdaho/Nez Perce Tribe CRM project that was being conducted for the Idaho Transportation Department. Our PI was Dr. Robert Lee Sappington. Every weekend for almost a year, I worked with other grad students, undergraduates, and tribal archaeologists doing data recovery excavations along State Highway 12. It was across the river from a known Lewis and Clark campsite and we revealed a prehistoric site with a Cascade Phase (9,000–5,500B.C.) component. As one of the oldest sites along the Clearwater River, this project generated a number of conference presentations, a few articles, some MA theses, and a technical report.

UIdaho also uses CRM-generated artifact assemblages to train students in historical archaeology and historical artifact analysis. Our class projects usually involved analyzing and cataloging these assemblages and writing artifact analysis summaries that were included in the resulting technical reports and presentations at professional conferences. While attending UIdaho, I gave a couple presentations on artifacts collected during archaeological monitoring that provided information on the lives of Euroamericans and overseas Chinese in Hope, Idaho. Since my graduation in 2005, the anthro department has played a huge role in a massive historical archaeology CRM data recovery project in Sandpoint, Idaho and found another major Cascade Phase site at Kelly Creek along the Clearwater River. UIdaho grad students gained work experience and thesis materials from both of these major projects.

During grad school at UIdaho I also took a couple positions as a field school crew chief and worked at a living museum that had a couple field schools come through that summer. In order to teach others, I was forced to really learn my shit. It also gave me a chance to work in other parts of the country and interact with other aspiring archaeologists.

The University of Idaho also maintains close connections with the nearby Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce Tribes, the Idaho Transportation Department, the Forest Service, the BLM, and other local governments. They are always well-positioned to land CRM projects and these projects are always passed on to be executed by graduate and undergraduate students under advisement and supervision of department professors. The school also has a joint campus with Washington State University, so grad students between the two schools frequently take classes together. It’s like being able to attend two grad schools for the price of one. Almost all graduate students at UIdaho have a chance to work in CRM or for a government agency while still enrolled in school. Many of us even got the chance to work in a supervisory capacity.

The best thing about Idaho is its faculty and the fact that the program has a terminal MA. I hope I’m not putting words in their mouths, but the professors there are dedicated to helping students graduate and find gainful employment. Because it’s a terminal MA, the whole department pours its efforts into their MA students (unlike other larger universities where there are huge benefits for PhDs and almost nothing for the undergrads and MAs). Also, the professors use their local relationships and reputation to get CRM projects as a means of furthering both their own and their students’ research interests. Rather than spend 200+ hours working on a multi-million-dollar NSF grant, the department puts the same effort into scoring three, $200,000 CRM contracts that come with funds to pay students AND gather data that can be used in academic publications. These projects serve the foundation for student theses, conference presentations, and articles. They also help their grads get real-world experience (UIdaho mentors: if you’re reading this and I’ve said something wrong, please call me ASAP and I’ll amend this paragraph).

UIdaho isn’t the only university that tries to provide grad students with CRM experiences

Given my educational background at BSU and UIdaho, it’s easier to understand why I was so flippant about the PhD that needed to be taught how to draw a plan map by their field tech co-worker. By the time I’d finished grad school, I’d literally taught dozens of other field techs, students, and volunteers how to draw a plan map and a host of other field skills. So, it seemed ridiculous that if a guy like me who went to schools that don’t even have PhD programs learned how to do that basic stuff, how the hell could someone that actually has a PhD not know the same things and more?

Upon reflection, I realized the fact that I was ready to run CRM crews the day I got my diploma was because of the unique faculty at the schools I attended and the ample opportunities I was given to apply archaeological method and theory. It’s taken me a couple days of watching the unfolding social media conversation about my post to realize that most other anthro students do not get the same opportunities I had. In fact, many of my cohort at BSU and UIdaho didn’t take advantage of these opportunities. Most other faculty at research-oriented institutions don’t have time to get CRM projects because they’re perpetually working on landing their next grant so they can continue their research, keep writing articles, keep their job, and keep their students employed.

This situation is unfortunate because it fails to prepare students for the job market. While I was capable when I finished my MA, I still had a whole lot to learn. However, my learning curve was less steep because of all the chances I’d had to apply what I was learning in school. The divide between archaeology as its practiced in CRM and how it’s learned in college is truly a serious issue; Perhaps the most important issue in archaeology today.

Fortunately, there are ripples in the water that give me reason to hope universities are willing to step up the plate and work towards remedying the situation. Here’s what I’m talking about:

— Schools like the University of South Florida and Sonoma State University are consistently able to place their students in CRM after graduation because of the way real-world CRM experience is integrated into graduate curriculum.

— Other universities around the country are starting “Applied Anthropology” MAs (which, oftentimes, are thinly veiled programs intended to prepare students for work in CRM or government archaeology). My alma mater BSU just created a Master of Applied Anthropology in the last couple years that features an “Intro to Cultural Resource Management” core class.

As I blogged about before, the Society for Historical Archaeology had several discussions on how to teach CRM in universities.

— Finally, students are realizing that they aren’t prepared for the industry after graduating. Hundreds of anthro students do not find jobs in their field each year. This is due to a number of factors, but students that come from programs with a strong CRM component have a comparatively easier time landing a job. I think this is prompting many of us to urge universities to teach more of the things that matter for a career in CRM or government service.

The fact that a field tech is teaching basic field skills to a PhD is sad. But, the fact that it’s been happening for the entire decade I’ve been working in CRM is absolutely appalling. We need to begin a discussion on how we can work together to remedy this disconnect. I am always interested in your comments. Please send me an email or write a comment below.


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One thought on “It doesn’t have to be that way. Field techs don’t have to teach archaeology PhDs

  • J Webster

    In reply to the article above, I believe that a commercially viable skill set can and should be taught at universities. Firstly I don’t believe anyone can have a true grasp of archaeology and the potential issues with a primary site archive unless they understand the processes and choices involved. Secondly, I think that a systematic lesson structure can be achieved quite easily. Spending term time looking at things such as surveying, matricies, the difference between stratigraphical and physical relationships, digging strategies such as single context. All that before you even get to the recording stages, looking at planning, sections, different depisitional processes, interpretations etc…
    I have been a proffesional archaeologist for 13 years and a project officer for some of the UK’s biggest companies for almost half that time, there is a HUGE indemic issue with people not understanding or valuing the power of a primary record, rather focusing on the smash and grab approach and pretty finds. Stressing and teaching these important aspects at entry level undergrad is in my mind the perfect solution.
    Ps. Any universities wishing to give it a go, I would love to put this theory into practice

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