Recap of My First year of an Archaeology PhD 2

Recap of my first year of archaeology PhD studiesSchool has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age.” Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971)

I’ve decided to take some time to write a short summary of my PhD at the University of Arizona. Sometime in 2012, my wife and I decided I should go back to school for my PhD. Since 2003, I’d been working as a CRM archaeology crew chief, project manager, historian, project director, and field tech. The field lifestyle was making our lives difficult since the arrival of our first child in 2010. It was the heart of the recession and I’m thankful that I was able to keep an archaeology job through that time. Nevertheless, I kept getting sent out on projects at the drop of a hat, which made it hard to be there for my wife and our baby. At the time we were also thinking about having a second child, which came to fruition in 2013. CRM was making me miss my children’s lives.

In addition to wanting to stay home while my children are young, I decided that going back to school would address three other personal goals:
1) There are few black archeologists. There are even fewer black CRM company owners or CRM PIs. A PhD qualifies you to be the principal on almost any CRM project in the United States. I want to inspire other black people to take charge of our heritage by leading, designing, and executing heritage conservation projects that help expand what we know about ourselves.
2) Cultural resource management isn’t practiced in most countries of the world. I’ve always wanted to do CRM internationally and have realized that many of the World Bank and IMF loans that sponsor CRM compliance require the PIs to have a PhD.
3) And, I was getting sick of simple compliance archaeology. Most companies simply wanted me to do the absolute bare minimum, eschewing any theoretical or nuanced analysis of our results. CRM was starting to get intellectually bland and I knew a PhD would spark my brain again.

So with a wife, two children, and a sister I take care of, I decided to go back to school. I live in Tucson and wanted to go to the University of Arizona, so I lobbied the faculty to take me under their wings. I only applied to one school and got accepted. Last week was the end of my first year.

In all honesty, going to school wasn’t that bad. In fact, most of the time, my PhD studies were less rigorous than doing CRM archaeology full-time. Also, I realized the University of Arizona is an excellent school with exemplary professors. Some of the stuff the UAZ professors are working on has blown my mind. My cohort includes some of the smartest individuals I’ve ever worked with. Every day, I feel like its challenging just to live up to the expectations of my teachers and the students around me. I’m not just saying that because I go there. I say it because its true.

I learned a lot this year. Here’s just a bit of what I learned/remembered after the first year of my PhD:

— Dads and moms can do it. I never knew how parents could do grad school. Now I do. Day by day, hour by hour, and breath by breath. And, by using their kids as motivation.

— A PhD is not a panacea. It’s also not job training. Finishing my MA studies truly prepared me for a career as an archaeologist. The studies were rigorous. I worked as a CRM crew chief on the weekends and a TA during the week, which exposed me to both teaching and leading crews in the field. My PhD studies at Arizona are equally as rigorous, but I do not feel like they supercede my real-world, CRM experience.

If you’re a CRMer with an MA that thinks the PhD will catapult you to a PI position, think again. You will get the degree, which is invaluable if you ask me, but it’s not going to be a cure for your stalled career.

— Universities are even bigger business than they used to be. I just finished 20th Grade and my eighth year of college education. I have truly seen a disturbing change in the way colleges around the country operate. I worked my way through my undergraduate education and didn’t owe anything when I graduated in 2001. I took loans to survive in graduate school and had some modest loan debt when I completed my MA in 2004. When I started at UAZ, I’d taken a huge chunk of this MA debt down and could have paid it off if I wanted to dip into our family savings. I’ve pretty much had to take loans to cover daycare this time around, which will get me some more debt, but I have a tuition waiver and some grants that should keep this debt to a minimum.

But, I really feel sorry for undergraduates that are starting school now. It seems like the whole university experience is dedicated to figuring ways to vacuum money out of student’s pockets. New stadiums, new rec centers, luxury dorms/apartment towers, and CEO administrators are all adding to the price of a college degree much faster than state-of-the-art research equipment. And, colleges seem to be using itinerant adjuncts to teach a huge portion of undergraduate course. There is currently a bubble growing in higher education that will burst some day.

It’s so bad that my wife and I started an investment account for our children rather than a college fund. I also spent considerable time explaining to my brilliant, honor roll sister that just graduated this week that she doesn’t have to go to college. Her parents, her siblings, her aunts and uncles, and most of her cousins have all gone to college, but I just wanted her to know that she has no expectations to live up to and should feel no obligation to go. Here are two highly educated individuals (my wife and I) telling our kids not to go to school. (FYI: Despite those deep conversations, my sister’s decided to go to the University of Idaho because she wants to be an English teacher just like her mother and favorite high school teacher. I know she’ll be a good one.)

— CRM archaeology will make your PhD studies much, much easier. Getting a “B” on a paper is a lot less haunting than having your CRM report ground to a bloody pulp and having your boss issue a threat to take the project away from you if you don’t write better. Ever skimmed over 70 books, articles, and archival resources in a week in order to write a 50-page historic context that will guide your company on a multi-year CRM project? CRMers have. Disappointing a teacher is a lot less intimidating than having a client scream in your face at the top of his lungs that he’s going to call your boss, sue your company, and get you fired. Or, having a yokel point a shotgun at you while you’re just doing your job. Being afraid to comment in class because you’re intimidated by your classmates ismuch better than having one of the people on your crew say they’re going to jump you after work one day while you’re walking to your car.

Those are all things I had to deal with as a CRM historical archaeologist. CRM teaches you how to write, perform at a high level in difficult situations, and how to be a leader even when you don’t want to be. I’m so glad I did CRM before heading back for my PhD.

— CRM needs to learn a lesson from academia. I have been so impressed with the community-building aspect to most academic archaeology. Professors are reaching out to communities and building enduring relationships for mutual benefit. I can’t say this is how all academic archaeology projects go down, but the best ones result in long-term gains for descendant communities, professors, and students. As a group, professors also do an inordinate amount of public education and outreach that help teach Americans about what archaeology means and how it’s practiced.

I can’t recall a single CRM project I’ve worked on that has resulted in huge benefits for the local community. I only know of two CRM companies that spend a decent amount of time reaching out to communities and conducting public education. If CRM wants to exist for another 50 years, it’s going to have to educate both publics and clients about the reasons why it’s important.

— Academia needs to learn a lesson from CRM. As tution increases and fewer graduates get jobs in their fields (or a job at all), students are starting to ask, “Why should I go to college? How is this going to help me get a job in the future?” Colleges need to start teaching the types of things that are necessary in the job market. A degree isn’t enough anymore. Experience trumps a degree anywhere, any time.

Archaeology and anthropology programs are going to be in deep trouble if they can’t find a way to attract high-quality students. This conundrum can be extrapolated to the whole higher education system.Students are the lifeblood of universities. If a university education loses its luster, you can bet degrees like anthropology will be among the first to feel the backlash of school administrators.

— School lives to keep itself alive.Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1971).

I didn’t learn this fact. I’ve known it since I was in middle school. School only exists to perpetuate itself. That doesn’t mean a formal education is worthless. It just means that, like everything in the United States, formal educations make awesome citizens that maintain the existing society. Just thought I’d mention that.
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2 thoughts on “Recap of My First year of an Archaeology PhD

  • Carly

    Congrats on making it through the first year! I’m also an ex-CRMer who has returned to grad school… I agree wholeheartedly that my working experience made me a little more ‘ready’ to tackle PhD-land. However, the corresponding pay cut (I’m now on 1/4 of my working wage) was incredibly difficult to adjust to!
    I’m not sure if you’ve found this to be the same, but I think two things I’ve learned in my first year is that:
    1. academic networking is much harder than I ever noticed during CRM work. Yes, in your own Dept it’s easy enough, but reaching out to other academic types is a lot more complicated… particularly given the heirarchical structure of academia!
    2. It has taken me a solid 6 months to recognise that my opinions are valid on their own merit, and don’t necessarily have to be in agreement with my supervisors. Try acting that way around a CRM boss and see how long you hold onto those opinions!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Kudos to you for going back, Carly. Hope everything is going well. The wage cut has been bad at my house too. I have a wife who brings home the bacon and got some grants and an RA, but I still had to take loans to cover daycare. I’m going to have to scramble to get grants/scholarships for next year too.

      Networking can be hard, but I haven’t found it much more different than in CRM except the profs are way more overworked which makes them harder to reach. You’ve pretty much got to pitch stuff to them as if it were a marketing email and stress collaboration to get their attention. Co-authoring is a pretty good way to go.

      Keep in touch and email me if you have any questions or comments. Good luck!

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