Let biology guide your archaeology job search strategy

Learn how to conduct your archaeology job search like a lionLiving organisms have evolved two basic reproduction strategies. Interestingly, these reproductive strategies closely resemble the way people look for a job:

r-selection strategy—Produce a large number of offspring, understanding they have a low probability of surviving to adulthood. The goal is to reproduce quickly. Useful in unpredictable or unstable environmental niches. Examples include fish, sea turtles, plants, mice, and insects.

K-selection strategy—Invest heavily in your offspring in order to ensure their survival to maturation. Useful in crowded environmental niches that are close to the carrying capacity. Examples include lions, tigers, bears, and humans.

Basically, most Americans looking for a job are employing one of these two strategies. Either they’re spamming out resumes like madmen/madwomen in hopes of getting a break (the method I initially chose). Or, they are cultivating professional networks, building relationships with potential employers, and cultivating each job lead to increase their odds of getting hired.

Since the cultural resource management industry is pretty much close (or above) the carrying capacity for archaeologists, which job search strategy do you think will be the most productive?

The Fallacy of Simply Applying for Every Job You’re Qualified For

As I wrote previously, I used to spend an inordinate amount of time writing resumes and cover letters for every single job I had the remote chance of landing. I surfed job boards, built USAJobs profiles, and dedicated myself to landing an archaeology job like a man obsessed.

This strategy made me feel good because I was being productive. It made it easy to tell my mom that I was looking for a job. The suspense of waiting for “The Call” was thrilling.

The only problem was: I wasn’t getting very many job offers. And, the few I did get were for positions I really didn’t want and places I didn’t want to live.

Why was I applying for stuff I didn’t want? That’s a simple question with a very complicated answer. I believed sending out resumes for ANYTHING under the sun was the way people landed jobs. You might know the feeling. Going to job fairs with 2,000 other undergrads probably makes you feel grown up. You look sharp. You feel excited. You’re on the hunt. Spending hours upon hours sending out resumes gives you something to do.

Not only does it pass the time in a way that seems “productive”, it also gives you an excuse for not having a job. “I’ve been doing EVERYTHING I can.” “Something’s wrong with these companies if they can’t see what a catch I am.” “It’s a tough market. Nobody’s getting jobs these days.

These excuses make the medicine go down easier, but the main problem is you’re looking for work the same way a sea turtle creates a family—burying a bunch of eggs in the sand and hoping some of the hatchlings will make it to the ocean before the seagulls eat your offspring.

Most jobs are offered in “the Hidden Job Market”—that behind-the-scenes space where deals are made based on familiarity, friendship, and salesmanship. I’ve talked about this before (http://www.succinctresearch.com/cracking-the-hidden-archaeology-job-market/). Conducting your job search like a sea turtle means most of your efforts are wasted. You are doing work but most of it will never help you out because your resume is going into a folder in some CRM hiring manager’s office where it will never see the light of day.

The Solution is to Search like a Lion

Mama lions also invest time and effort in their offspring in order for them to be successful adults that will further the species. Once they’re old enough, they teach their kids how to find food, how to organize cooperative hunts, and how to scan the savannah looking for the right animal to kill. While male lions use surprise hunting techniques (i.e. sitting in a tree by the waterhole and waiting for a thirsty wildebeest to come by), female lions use stealth, cooperative hunting strategies where a group of individuals will sneak through the grass before pouncing on the right animal.

Either way, lions teach their children how to be lions. They invest time and effort into a small number of offspring in order to help them be successful hunters.

You need to conduct your job search like a lion. Each job application, resume, and cover letter needs to be treated like it was your baby lion. You need to cultivate leads from the hidden job market by networking—silently stalking down each lead, company, potential project before pouncing with a targeted resume and cover letter.

In order to find leads and land interviews, use either cooperative or surprise hunting strategies just like a lion does:

Cooperative Job Search Strategy—Make liberal use of your network to help you find companies looking to hire. Remember to ask your non-archaeology friends and acquaintances too. Spend time profiling companies and doing stealth networking to discover possible work before it’s revealed to the rest of the world. You need to know which companies have projects coming down their funnel, when they think the project will pop, and how you can add value to the success of that project.

Surprise Job Search Strategy—This is much harder but it’s the bread and butter of consultants and freelancers in other industries.

You can stake out an area (geographic or intellectual [ex. a part of the country, an aspect of CRM, ect]) and mold yourself into the ideal individual that all of the companies in your area would need. For example, being a good historical archaeologist in a part of the country where there are no historical archaeologists. Or, being really good at doing National Register nomination forms. Or, learning how to develop field recordation apps and manage the resulting databases.

Once you’ve developed these unique, widely applicable skills, you surprise CRM hiring managers by demonstrating what you know. You could either come into their office or create a YouTube video, online course, webinar, workshop or other event where you can showcase your talents.

The key is to develop a skill that everybody needs. Something that too many people do not already know. CRM companies don’t need more GIS people because there are already thousands of CRMers who can do GIS (NOTE: GIS is becoming a standard skill that every CRMer should have. Being GOOD at GIS is a skill everybody needs and many companies don’t have enough good GIS people. If you go GIS, you’re going to need to be very, very good at it). They don’t need lab techs because there aren’t always collections to manage. They don’t need field technicians because there aren’t always field projects to do.

CRM companies do need accountants, HR specialists, persons who are skilled in historic preservation laws or health and safety plans but many firms don’t need one of these specialists all of the time. In many parts of the East Coast, they need people who know a lot about conducting prehistoric archaeology in urban areas. You could keep a permanent job if you were an archaeological technician or crew chief who could also do accounting in the spring. Become a T-person—an employee that is very skilled at one thing but also knows a little about a lot of other things—if you want to use the surprise strategy.

This strategy is really hard if you don’t already have some experience under your belt. It also takes time, years even, before you land a job. I recommend focusing on the cooperative job search strategy while developing your surprise strategy that can be used as a backup in case something happens (i.e. you get laid off and have a mortgage, student loans, and daycare to pay for).

Any way you cut it, the lion’s reproductive and hunting strategy is the way to survive in competitive niches like cultural resource management archaeology.

When should you use the Sea Turtle Job Search Strategy?


The r-selection strategy is for organisms lower on the evolutionary scale than humans. Unless you are a sea turtle, don’t look for a job like one.

Focus on the coordinated job search strategy until you can pull off a surprise

If you’re responding to job applications, you’re probably too late. The ideal candidate has already walked in the door, had an interview, and is digging your shovel probe with your favorite shovel.

Sometimes you have to submit an application or resume for a position, but you should only be doing this after you’ve gathered more information about the position. You should already have called and talked to someone “in-the-know” so you can make your application package stand out from the crowd. Companies are always hiring people who can make them money. You just need to convince them that you’re that person.

Conduct your job search like a mother lioness. Cultivate relationships with people who may hire you someday. Scan the landscape with your friends and acquaintances looking for a score. Only send out resumes when you think you’ve got a real shot. Most of your effort should be spent networking and hearing about archaeology job opportunities before they are advertised. This is the best way you can spend your time.
Let’s keep the conversation going. How do you conduct your job searches? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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