I didn’t want to believe it but maybe Doug Rocks-MacQueen is right; maybe your degree is worth less, and less as each year passes by.
The other day I saw a job posting for a temporary archaeological field technician position that stated in the educational requirements section “minimum BA, MA preferred.” My immediate thought was, “They’ve got to be joking. It doesn’t take a Masters to dig shovel probes. That’s an entry-level job that needs to do to someone with their undergraduate degree so they can learn the tricks of the trade before going back to school for their MA, if they ever decide to.”
I’ve written before about the rampant degree inflation in archaeology, acknowledging that a graduate degree is pretty much mandatory for anyone who wants to last in this field after their spinal column refuses to let them go out into the field. I still believe college degrees are important for cultural resource management, especially a Bachelor’s, because it’s the major difference between what we do and the site looters treasure hunters searching for some “nectar” with a metal detector in their hands.
The scary part about this degree inflation is the fact that it does not come with a concomitant increase in wages. College degrees are also financial widow-makers because there is an education bubble that is moving degrees further and further out of our reach.
Does a field tech position pay enough to cover the costs of the loans required for the Master’s that gets you this job? Will you make that much more than a tech with a BA? The answer is…
Charlie Peliska’s survey on the state of field archaeologists in cultural resource management archaeology shows us that: A) a graduate degree can lead to higher wages, but 2) a PhD does not result in wages higher than what would have been received with a Master’s. Furthermore, it does not look like these higher wages are significantly enough to justify the massive loans most people take out in order to pay for their MA.
Are we living in a world where an MA simply gets you a job that can’t help you pay off your student loans? My friends on Facebook archaeology groups are telling me that is exactly the kind of world we’re living in. In the near future it’s going to take an MA to get a field tech position, but you and I both know a temporary tech position isn’t going to pay back the $40,000 in loans you took out to cover your MA—not to mention the loans you took out to get your BA. What are we going to do if entry-level positions in CRM archaeology can’t even pay back the loans it costs to get the education necessary to land them?
Universities are expensive and getting even more expensiver
I love sports, especially college sports. Basketball is okay but college football is even better. My dad and brother used football scholarships to pay for their educations so I’ve experienced what those scholarships can do for a family. My dad’s dad grew up in a sharecropping family picking cotton in rural North Carolina. He didn’t even finish high school let alone college. My father, on the other hand, got a Bachelor’s degree that was covered by the hours he put in as a student athlete at Boise State University. As a result, he never picked a bag of cotton in his life. He worked in an office every day for over 40 years.
My brother got half of his education paid for because of his service as a football player. Unfortunately, he got injured and chose not to live a life of yearly shoulder surgeries. He quit playing football and finished his History degree by taking out loans, but the loans were comparably small and he’s long since paid them off. Now, he works in an office too.
Student athletes get a bad rap for being a waste of money. Some say college would be so much better off if universities didn’t spend all that money on stadiums, bowl games, and multimillionaire coaches. Others believe college sports actually bring in more than enough money to justify the costs. All those advertising deals, bowl games, and Sweet 16 appearances are worth more than enough to cover the spread on lavish sports facilities and athletes’ tuition.
It is true that colleges spend a lot more on student athletes than they do on the rest of the student body, which is ultimately left footing the bill. Despite the arguments to the contrary, universities lose money on their athletics programs. Here’s a taste of what I’m talking about:
There are also a lot of college athletes who are bad students and lie, cheat, and squabble their way towards graduation (Cam Newton, anybody?). These bad guys stigmatize all student athletes as ignorant, lazy, leeches that take money away from “academics”. However, the majority of student athletes aren’t Blue Chip, pro-ball prospects. They’re going to school on a shot-put or gymnastics scholarship. Forty-three percent of college athletes (over 400,000 people) are women, most of whom have no professional leagues to aspire toward after graduation. In fact, most athletic scholarships are given to folks who play sports that do not have professional leagues. College IS the big time for these people.
Sports scholarships can change family generations. The careers enabled by a college degree can help raise families out of poverty. The free shot at an education that comes with a sports scholarship has been transformative for millions of American families. But, what about students who aren’t on scholarship? Do they receive the same benefits from a college degree? Are they getting their money’s worth?
Big Sports isn’t the reason why college costs so much
Athletes and lavish stadiums aren’t the reasons why college costs so much. Universities, even public institutions, are basically turning into corporate entities, complete with all the bad habits of the worst corporate offenders in our society. States are slashing university funding. In response, schools are hiring corporate toolsheds to transform our land grant institutions into branded organizations that treat students like “customers” and degrees like “products”. College endowments are basically part of a huge Wall Street speculative scheme where public and private dollars are transferred from the public domain in the form of student loans into corporate coffers. University trusts are now getting deeper and deeper into the hedge fund waters that almost sunk our Titanic economy. This education bubble has caused a lot of smaller schools to fold.
The result is Americans overpaying for degrees that will not bring a corresponding financial benefit. We now owe one trillion dollars in student loan debt:
I’ve got some beachfront property in Arizona I can sell you
It would be amazing if that one trillion dollars led to high paid college instructors, world-changing courses, and a vastly superior education than anything ever seen in human history. But, the sad truth is it isn’t.
Students are paying more for classes taught by a caste of underpaid grad students, adjuncts, and contract instructors who also aren’t making enough to pay off their own student loans (FULL DISCLOSURE: As a PhD student who works as a teaching assistant, I am part of this system. My labor undercuts instructors’ pay and helps keep the high price/low wage higher education carousel going around. Sorry, but that’s how I pay my bills right now). Students aren’t the only ones going broke. Professors are also living in poverty:
It’s unpopular to say this out loud but universities are not teaching anthropology students what they need to thrive in cultural resource management. Field techs with a bachelors and a couple years’ experience under their belt are routinely expected to train PhDs fresh out of college. My Facebook archaeology friends continually attest to this reality. CRM companies expect to spend at least 2 years training each recent graduate in how the industry works. By this time, that new-hire has probably already been laid off and is starting the process over at another company. All that time, effort, and money invested in that new hire is lost when they leave for another job. The cycle starts again. More time and more money is wasted.
There is a destructive meme in our society regarding education that goes something like this:
- The only jobs worth having require a college degree.
- All students have a right to a college degree.
- Everybody under the age of 25 should go to college.
- Upon graduation, society should create a plethora of quality jobs for everybody who has a degree.
- If your Bachelors doesn’t get you a job, you should get a grad degree (MBA is one of the most popular ones advertised as a “cure-all”. In archaeology, a MA in anthro is our preferred elixir).
- If you can’t get a job with two college degrees there’s something wrong with you. You are a failure.
- If you don’t get a management position paying $70k a year within 5 years of getting your MA, society failed you. It’s the corporation’s fault. It’s your university’s fault. The world is a wasteland of disappointment. You are justified in feeling bitter and resentful.
The reality is insanely different than this simplistic meme. It’s hard damn work to get a worthwhile job no matter what industry you work in. A college degree can’t change that fact. Also, none of us should expect somebody else to pay us $70 grand to do most jobs. Capitalism doesn’t work by paying your employees extravagant salaries (unless you work for this company [NOTE: It isn’t a CRM firm]).
Education is touted as the great equalizer and, to a certain point, this is true. I am living proof of the benefit of a college degree. If my parent’s hadn’t gotten degrees there is a strong chance I would be laboring somewhere in rural North Carolina for minimum wage. But, there is a limit to what young people should trade for their education. Do we really want to burden each future generation with an unpayable amount of student loan debt and the depression that comes with knowing society thinks there’s something wrong with you because you aren’t pulling down six-figures with your Master’s degree?
Do fulfilling work
We should all strive to do fulfilling work that adds to our quality of life. For some of us, that will be digging shovel probes in a jungle in Louisiana in hopes we’ll hit that early Archaic horizon we’ve been searching for since we studied it in grad school. Others get giddy when we find an African American farmstead in rural Nevada. Still others love processing GIS data and creating maps that truly add to archaeological interpretations. Based on the way our society works, most Americans love spending 90 minutes each day driving in rush hour traffic to a job they hate, to work alongside co-workers they hate, doing tasks they hate only to wake up and do it day after day after day until they turn 68 years old.
In the United States, we trade our lives for money. How much money we trade that life for is what we all need to figure out. Student loans are a mortgage on your future. You borrow money in order to do a job that will make your life more fulfilling and enjoyable. The problem with archaeology is a lot of people think they’re borrowing money to be like Indiana Jones or their professors or the guys you see on NatGeo instead of being an underpaid, itinerant archaeological technician digging shovel probes in blistering heat for less than what Bernie Sanders considers an acceptable minimum wage. These are the people who get disheartened, depressed, and get out of archaeology.
I think it’s better for you to learn what CRM is all about as soon as possible. Archaeological field school should be a 200-level course for undergrads and they should take it after their first year in college. Honors theses and capstone courses should be an internship with a local CRM company that includes at least 20 days of fieldwork. If you spend a summer doing #freearchaeology when you’re 19 years old and another month of hard labor right before graduation and you STILL want to do archaeology then you’ve made the right career choice. You will be fulfilled being a field tech. Your student loans were not a waste.
Those diehards are also the ones who should be going back to college for a Master’s once they hit the glass ceiling called the Secretary of Interior’s Standard for Archaeology. Archaeology fulfills these individuals’ lives and they’re willing to live the difficult life of a CRM archaeologist. Taking loans for grad school is worth it for these people because they’re doing what they love and a graduate degree will help them do more of it.
The real victims in CRM archaeology are the undergrads and graduate students who believe CRM is like the archaeology they see on television. I am saddened when I think of the disappointment they’re going to experience after they graduate and learn the truth that few of their professors could have warned them about.
Grad students who finish school with a chip on their shoulder and feel entitled to a supervisory position just because they have a Master’s are another group of victims. Nobody owes you anything. In this field you have to prove yourself, which means you have to dig the probes, walk the desert, learn how to use a compass, and drink the same gas station coffee you refused to drink as a college student simply out of principle. Not every town has a grocery store with vegetables, you can’t get cell reception everywhere in the world, and you aren’t going to get to lead a crew before you show us what you’re made of. You get to hang your diploma on the wall of your office only after you’ve been in the trenches for a few years.
There’s nothing wrong with being a field tech with a PhD. There is something wrong with believing you shouldn’t be a field tech because you have a PhD.
Why I’ll never tell my kids they have to go to college
College changed the course of my family’s life. A couple generations ago we were sharecroppers and wage slave immigrants (my mother’s side of the family are Finnish immigrants who worked as lumbermen and farmers in Idaho). It was sports that enabled my dad and brother to get the degree that supports their families with a measure of comfort a lot of American families do not enjoy. Conversely, I worked my way through my Bachelor’s (Yes, I’m old enough that you could still do that when I started college). After 4 years of delivering laundry, cooking pizzas, and pushing shopping carts, I also finished my bachelor’s with no student loan debt.
It wasn’t until I went back to college for my Master’s that I started racking up student loan debt. Even then, I never took out the maximum and had paid off over half of those loans before going back for my PhD. I have always been realistic about how much money I was borrowing, what I expect to make after graduation, and how I plan on paying back these loans.
I am fully prepared to be a field tech again after I finish my PhD, even though I have a decade of experience, because I know a lot of companies want to see what an employee can do when they first get hired. They want to know what kind of field archaeologist they hired because that’s what CRMers do. I wouldn’t put up with being a tech for long because I’m always trying to network into positions that further my career, but I understand techs are the foundation of CRM. They are what make this industry tick. If you can make it for a few years as a tech, you can definitely make it as a crew chief, field director, or project manager. Those positions simply build upon what you learn as a field tech.
The problem is the cost-benefit trade-off associated with the education required to become a field tech. Will your college degree be so expensive you can’t make it as an archaeological field technician after you graduate? Since it won’t be long before all entry level positions in CRM require a graduate degree, will you be able to cover the additional costs of getting a Master’s or PhD just to become a field tech? Finally, after getting that graduate degree, are you willing to admit that you probably still do not know enough about CRM to get hired for a supervisory position right off the bat? Are you willing to check your ego and work your way up from the bottom?
I have two very bright and gifted children but I will never tell them that they must go to college in order to have a good life. I will tell them the truth: College is fun and will expand your intellect but it will not guarantee you a high-paying job. It’s what you can do rather than what you know that gets you the high paying job. Projects are the new resume.
If you just want to make money, start selling real estate or stocks or go into international banking. If you want to be financially free, you can do almost any job you want as long as you live a frugal lifestyle and invest a significant portion of what you make. In less than 20 years, you won’t ever need to work for money again. (A frugal archaeological technician that is able to find work year-round and knows how to invest can be financially free in about a decade. Don’t believe me? Start reading the Mr. Money Moustache Blog).
It doesn’t matter what my kids do for money as long as it helps them live a fulfilling life. I like archaeology enough to trade my life to get paid to do that for a job. My kids are still too young to know what they want to do for a living, but I will support them in whatever they do as long as it’s legal (or borderline legal like political fundraising). Since life is literally money, it is my duty to teach my kids the value of work and the benefit of making good investments. I’ll also show them that they can live the good life while also being frugal. None of us need much money to live the life of our dreams.
Most importantly, my wife and I want to teach our kids the Art of the Hustle. We’re all hustlers but some are better than others. Hustlin’ is what makes the world go round. Learning what to do with the money you hustle up, however, is the difference between those who get to retire and those who do not.
It is important for my kids to learn that a college degree does not confer any special status. We all need to prove ourselves before we should expect to get paid for any service. My kids are smart and they do not need a college degree unless it enables them to work in a career field with an education requirement, something like archaeology. And, if they choose a career that requires a degree, my wife and I will judiciously help them weigh their options and evaluate the cost-benefit ratio associated with getting a degree in that field. This is the kind of counseling I never got but it’s more important than ever because we’re living in an education bubble that shows no sign of popping.
Should we expect archaeological technicians to get a graduate degree? Probably not, but that’s the world we live in. Companies have incentives to hire folks with a grad degree as technicians because, hypothetically, these employees could eventually fulfill the Secretary of Interior’s Standards. But, it is far more likely that these techs with a grad degree will get bitter, resentful, and disillusioned with the industry before they get the experience requirement that goes along with the SOI standards. These are the people who probably should have been counseled on the realities of the CRM industry before they took out five figures in loans to get a degree for a career in an unfulfilling industry.
Did I miss something? Should cultural resource management archaeological field technicians need a graduate degree to get hired? Send me a message. Write a comment below or send me an email.
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