Is archaeology really the career for you? 1

Trowel_Ronald_VermeijsThis is a question I ask myself a lot. Am I supposed to be an archaeologist? Is this the best career for me? How can I know that?

I’ve recently started listening to The New Man podcast hosted by Tripp Lanier. (FYI: It’s not just for men. My wife is also a fan). Lanier is a career coach that has a very interesting podcast. In Episode 150, Lanier interviewed Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive about his lifestyle and how he came to be a leading health and nutrition blogger. The Asprey interview is great and shouldn’t be missed (Asprey recommends drinking organic coffee with butter in it as a means of getting a more holistic pick-me-up in the morning. You’ve gotta listen to the show). But, the first few minutes of this podcast episode were more impactful for me.

In the introduction of Episode 150, Lanier gives a short description of a career coaching tool he uses in his professional services. He explains that most of the coaching clients he has are looking for something that is missing in their lives. They may be successful, but their lives and careers seem empty. Or, they may have no idea what direction they should be going. One of the first things Lanier does is make each client describe the things they are most interested in: What experiences and feelings do they want most in their lives? He says figuring out what we want most in life is essential because it gives you something to focus on– a goal you’d like to achieve.

Goals are important because, in the words of Lanier, “When we don’t know what’s important, everything’s important.” When we don’t know what we want out of life, time and energy is wasted on activities that do little to make us feel good inside. Not knowing what we want also makes us work more from a reactionary, desperate, fear-based position rather than a controlled, proactive place.


Lanier makes each of his clients answer several questions that help them think about their lives in a wider view. Questions like: What kind of life experiences do you want to have?, How do you want to feel?, and, What kinds of things do you say “hell yes” to?

These are huge things to consider that can have an enormous impact on our lives and careers, but very few of us think about this kind of stuff. We just move through life following the rules or acting without giving much thought to what the ultimate result may be or how these actions may add to or detract from our quality of life.

Archaeology, career goals, and following your dreams

Knowing what we want to do and having clear career goals is extremely important for anyone who is thinking about becoming an archaeologist. The job does have prestige. It’s interesting, can be exciting at times, and is totally out of the ordinary. As any archaeologist knows, other people are immediately interested in knowing what you do at work whenever you tell somebody you’re an archaeologist.

Being a party favor is definitely one perk of being an archaeologist. However, there are also many negative aspects that aspiring and career-oriented archaeologists must consider. The job can be grueling, both physically and mentally. It can be financially insecure for a number of reasons. The pay can be low. Job competition is fierce.

That stuff can be said about a number of jobs, but the folks that pursue archaeology as a career are usually aware of these negatives and typically feel compelled to continue onward for some unexplained reason. In some ways, it’s similar to someone that wants to become a professional athlete. They know the odds are never in their favor, but athletes and archaeologists that really want to become a professional will still continue moving toward their goals– undaunted by the reality of the world we all live in.

The problem, for both professional athletes and archaeologists, is many of us haven’t spent much time thinking if achieving this difficult career goal is in alignment with your personal ethos. A recent article by NFL Running Back Rashard Mendenhall explains what can happen when actually achieving your goal doesn’t provide the fulfillment you’d expected. Mendenhall was a badass running back for the Arizona Cardinals that had been pursuing his goal since childhood. Despite achieving his dream and having some phenomenal success, he quit the NFL at age 26 for myriad reasons.

In his own words, “I feel like I’ve done it all. I’ve been to two Super Bowls; made a bunch of money; had a lot of success; traveled all over the country and overseas; met some really cool people; made lasting relationships; had the opportunity to give back to causes close to my heart; and have been able to share my experiences and wisdom with friends, family and people all over the world. Not to mention all the fun I had goofing around at work day after day with my teammates! I’m thankful that I can walk away at this time and smile over my six years in the NFL, and 17 total seasons of football — dating back to when I started pee-wee ball at Niles West in 1997, when I was 10. These experiences are all a part of me, and will remain in my heart no matter what I do, or where I go.” (

Elsewhere in this article, Mendenhall explains there were many aspects of being an NFL running back that made his life less fulfilling. Constant media surveillance. Injuries. Haters. Branding. He felt like he was a corporate product that had no privacy and couldn’t really say anything about it. Mendenhall achieved his dream and, with that task done, he will move on to bigger and better things. Hopefully, he chooses a career path that is more in alignment with his personal ethos. Good luck, Rashard.

I know quite a few archaeologists that feel like Rashard Mendenhall. Most of us are environmentalists and historic preservation proponents. It can be really disappointing to think about the fact that most of CRM archaeology provides “clearance” for a wide range of construction projects that actually damage the environment. I shudder when I think about how many road widenings, open pit mine expansions, condo towers, and subdivisions I’ve helped come to fruition simply by doing my job.

I also know quite a few women that feel like their lives have been or will be stunted by becoming CRM archaeologists. Sexism isn’t supposed to exist in the workplace, but it is a fact that women with children are regularly discriminated against in CRM archaeology. They are passed up for field projects because of the childcare hassles it may create. Young women regularly avoid pregnancy because they might not get hired for fieldwork, which stunts family development among the demographic of women this country needs most to have children. The work not given to women typically goes to men, providing them ample opportunities to prove themselves, gain valuable experience, and provide for career advancement.

Becoming an archaeology professor isn’t all peaches and cream either. Stressful associate professor jobs that are overloaded with student obligations, committee meetings, and never-ending grant writing. Rolling the dice on an adjunct position, hoping it will turn into a more permanent gig. The ever-present pressure to publish. You can literally be fired for not getting your stuff in high profile journals. This keeps both male and female professors from starting families and setting down roots in a local community until they reach tenure, which may never happen.

Of course there are many positives to landing archaeology jobs in academia or CRM. Intellectual stimulation. Travel and exploration. Learning about things that have long been forgotten. The thrill of discovery. Being the first person in hundreds of years to see amazing artifacts. As an archaeologist, you get to be the one that collects information about the past and present it to the rest of the world. History is literally written based on what we find. Archaeology is the only job I never wanted to quit.

That being said, it’s absolutely imperative that anyone who wants to be an archaeologist needs to do some self-exploration and ask the kind of questions posited by Tripp Lanier. Why do you want to become an archaeologist? Is archaeology (academic and consulting) in alignment with your own personal philosophy of life? How will being an archaeologist give you opportunities to have the life experiences you crave?

It takes a lot of effort to become a professional archaeologist and the path toward that career goal is long. Not only do you have to be ready to follow the career path of an archaeologist, you need to be able to forge a fulfilling life by following that path. Summarizing Lanier’s words: “The path is not the purpose. The purpose is the path”. The experiences you have along the way are what makes following that path worthwhile. In following your career path, you should be doing things that create opportunities to have the life experiences you’ve always wanted. This is what every archaeologist, archaeology student, and aspiring archaeologist needs to think about.

Have you taken the time to think about how a career in cultural resource management archaeology or historic preservation fits within your personal ethos?

How will working in this field help you live a more meaningful life?

I’m always interested in hearing feedback. Have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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One thought on “Is archaeology really the career for you?

  • Victoria Clayton

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article. When I embarked on my doctoral studies in archaeology I was actively discouraged from thinking about a career in archaeology by my eventual supervisor, which didn’t really bode well for our future relationship! In fact, I think he was trying to do me a favour. The only option for pursuing a career in Near Eastern archaeology was to relocate to Europe or America and seek employment there in a museum or university. Departments of classical and Near Eastern archaeology have closed around Australia leaving little option but to carve out a career in Australian archaeology. Now, I have no issue with that, it just wasn’t for me, while large numbers of my fellow university students have gone onto successful careers in CRM. All I really wanted to do was excavate and there isn’t that much to dig up in Australia. Even if I had gone overseas, I’m not sure that the world of lecturing, supervising, administration and ‘publish or perish’ would have suited me; not to mention all the departmental politics! Excavating in Turkey in 1998 I was jealous of the dig photographer who had skills needed on site and thus was employable in the field. I even went back to uni and studied chemistry with a view to becoming a conservator; but science was never my strong suit. In the end I abandoned the idea of archaeology as a career, a decision which I have somewhat regretted, but am now returning to the discipline via reading and blogging. I agree with the many positives you note in your article and believe that even if one is unable to find employment in archaeology, one can always remain in touch with the discipline via freelance research and voluntary work.

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