What March Madness taught me about the archaeology job market 2

What can March Madness teach you about finding a job in archaeology?In the beginning, there are 64 teams. The NCAA selection committee ranks each team and creates four groups loosely based on regions of the country. Then, they play each other until only one remains.

The NCAA mens basketball tournament, March Madness, begins with a spectacular flurry. Half of the teams are sent packing in the first 48 hours.

Only sixteen remain after the first week. Three weeks later, only four teams remain.

A winner emerges from the group of 64 in less than a month.

Following the NCAA basketball tournament is a religion in the United States. Millions of Americans fill out tournament brackets in hopes of being the one who correctly predicts the outcome of each match-up before it happens.

The odds of predicting the Final Four or the national champion before the tournament begins are low. The odds of correctly guessing every game winner are infinitesimally remote; however, filling out a bracket makes us feel invested in the tournament. We gamble, even if only symbolically, that we can use what we know about these teams’ past performance to predict how they will do in the tournament. Of course, only the unfolding of time can prove us wrong.

Each year, thousands of college graduates make the same gamble on building a career in their college major. Archaeology is no different. Earning the degree is the end-game for thousands of graduates, but a large proportion still clings to their dreams of working in the field they studied. These people are the ones who want to enter the career Round of 64 and test their mettle in the marketplace.

Every team thinks it has a shot to win the championship, but not all teams are equal. Some have better talent; better coaching. Others have synergy and a proven track record of victory. We all love to see the Cinderella Story— the underdog team that, somehow, knocks off a giant and goes on to the tournament’s next round. That’s what we really want to see.

You can never predict who is going to make it to the Final Four. Giants kill and get killed in every round. Just like in the NCAA tournament, you need to embrace the short-term goal to survive to the next round and the long-term goal to win the tournament and realize your dream career. The path is difficult, but, every year, four teams make it to the Final Four. That could be you.

In the beginning, there are many

We all know colleges graduate more students in each major than there are jobs in those fields. Universities are in the education business. Creating graduates is one of their main goals. Creating jobs is not (except, for expanding administrative jobs within the university itself).

About 8,300 anthropology Bachelors, 1,100 Masters, and 440 PhDs graduate from U.S. colleges. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts about 1,400 more jobs in anthropology and archaeology will open up between 2012 and 2022. That means the 98,000 anthropology degree-holders that will graduate in that decade will have to fight for the same 1,400 jobs!!?!

Some archaeologists have been discrediting the Department of Labor statistics for the last couple years. Doug Rocks-MacQueen has done a great job of calculating the number of archaeologists and the number of anthro degree-holders in the United States. His statistics are better than the Department of Labor, but they still aren’t promising. According to Doug, there are about 11,000 archaeologists in the U.S. and over 367,000 Americans with anthro degrees. Less than 3 percent of those with anthro degrees actually work in archaeology.

The situation of creating more graduates than jobs has gotten so bad that even anthro professors complain about perpetuating the chimera of getting an anthro degree and making it in archaeology. Anthropology professor Dr. Janice Harper said Florida Governor Rick Perry was justified in slamming anthropology as a viable college major. She cited the fact that colleges continue graduating anthro students even though they know their odds of working in the field are abysmal.

Just like in the NCAA tournament, thousands of anthro students will graduate and many will be out of the job market in the first few months. They will have difficulties finding stable work. They’ll realize being an archaeologist includes manual labor. They won’t build a professional network and, quickly, they’ll be out of the game.

Within a few years, there are fewer

I don’t believe the Bureau of Labor statistics. I know there are more than 11,000 archaeologists in the United States and I know more anthro majors find jobs doing tasks similar to those that they studied. These success stories just don’t show up in the statistics.

Major companies are looking for employees with the analytical ability to study human behavior. Companies are desperate to hire anthropologists, including archaeologists, because your average MBA doesn’t know how to conduct an ethnographic interview or interpret how customers use their products. Anthro graduates who studied archaeology find ways to use anthropological method and theory in human resources, product development, or consulting companies and use their education to help increase profits.


Check out this video interview with Genevieve Bell, anthropologist at Intel Labs

These folks aren’t classified as archaeologists, but they are still putting their degrees to use. Life can twist and turn in strange ways. Within a few years of graduation, many young archaeologists find themselves walking down different career paths than the CRMer even while they make use of their degrees.

A smaller number of aspiring archaeologists make it through the Round of 64 and Round of 32 to the Sweet Sixteen. Fewer still will continue to pursue archaeology after more than a few years of work experience.

Five years later, you’re down to the Elite Eight

“Applicant must have five years supervisory archaeology experience and a graduate degree in anthropology, history, historic preservation or a related field.”

How many times have you read that line on a job application? How many people can fill those requirements? How many anthro grads are still doing archaeology five years after graduation? I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t anywhere near the 9,800 students that earn an anthropology degree each year.

A lot of things have to go right for an anthropology graduate to survive five years as a full-time archaeologist.

First, they have to actually try to get the job. Many anthro degree holders make no attempt to find a job in their field.

Second, they have to network. You have to know the right people to get your career off the ground. Hiring managers have to know you exist, that you’re looking for work, and can do the job.

Third, they have to be the kind of person other archaeologists want to work with. We all know that field tech that was an as*hole on every project. He doesn’t usually last too long.

Finally, you have to hone your craft. Anyone that has made it five years as a CRMer has taken the time to learn from their mistakes, stay current with archaeological findings, and want to get better at their job.

The 11,400 archaeologists noted by Doug represent the folks that have made it to the Elite Eight. They’re in it for the long haul.

And, then there’s the Final Four

I figure if you’ve been able to maintain full-time employment as an archaeologist for 10+ years, you can be considered somebody that has won the tournament. There is no such thing as the best archaeologist in the United States, so, unlike March Madness, there is no winner of the archaeology career tournament.

Archaeologists with a decade of experience under their belt can be considered success stories because they’ve achieved the near impossible—paid their bills doing archaeology for at least a decade. I’ve met a number of field techs with over 10 years’ experience who constantly lament their career prospects. They complain about the fact that they’re not a supervisor. They’re resentful when younger people with a graduate degree get promoted to management positions. But these veterans forget all the experiences they’ve had, the discoveries they’ve made, and the things they’ve seen that no human being has witnessed in thousands of years.

Long-time field techs are not lucky. They’re scrappy, flexible professionals who have buggered on through difficulty and have continued doing the job they love.

I’ve also got to respect old time CRM principal investigators and professors. The stories they tell are unreal. They’ve been there, done it all, and, somehow, they know everyone in the field. They can teach you a lot as long as you’re willing to listen and learn.

Archaeologists do archaeology because we love it. Altruism is the heart of our craft. Veterans that have made it for more than a decade are just like the teams that make it to the Final Four. Congratulations.

How can you make it to the Final Four?

No one can predict which team is going to go the distance just like nobody knows which anthro graduate is going to still be doing archaeology ten years later. Thirteen people earned their B.A. in anthropology alongside me in 2001. Only two of us are still doing archaeology. Six people in my department completed their Master’s with me in 2004 and, again, only two of us are still doing archaeology.

As an undergraduate, my adviser wrote me off because I didn’t take his field school. He laughed at me in class when I told him I was going to be an archaeologist. That was in 2000. He had no idea how serious I was.

My last 20+ years of watching March Madness has shown me what the teams that make it to the Final Four have in common with archaeology careerists. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed about Final Four teams:

The #1 seed doesn’t always win—Some people are so gifted it makes me sick. I’ve met completely genius archaeologists who had smart parents, lived in upper middle-class homes, and went to the best high schools. They land major grants as graduate students, dig in exotic locations, and get their dissertations published.

Success seems automatic for these folks. Then, ten years later, you find out they’re the regional manager of a bank somewhere. Why didn’t these prodigies go on to become archaeology professors or CRM PIs?

Nothing is fated in archaeology. These stellar graduates all entered the capricious academic job market with gusto. Standing upon a track record of success, they thought, surely, they’ll be one of the lucky ones and land a tenure track position.

The only problem is there were 30 other newly minted PhDs with similar credentials that were also vying for the same position.

Academia is not a meritocracy. Much of the hiring process depends on personality, the interview process, and “fit”. It isn’t enough to have an amazing scholastic career. Universities are looking for the perfect person— a woman with red hair that did a dissertation on the ballistics of the Ludlow Massacre, or an African American who wrote the seminal work on Archaic Greek columns at Corinthian sanctuaries, or a 32-year-old, 5’6” Civil War recreationist that did geomorphology work on the dark side of the moon.

The job market is tough even for the perfect ones. Nobody knows what hiring committees are looking for in the perfect candidate.

After failing to land a teaching job for a couple years (and refusing to “adjunct” or “do CRM”), these all-stars choose a different career.

Or, they may have had aspirations of working in CRM but got disillusioned when nobody supported their intellectual pursuits. Or, they hated being away from their wife and kids for months on end. Perhaps they wanted to be a mother and their company wouldn’t let them do fieldwork anymore. Or, they disliked being unemployed every winter. There are dozens of reasons why even the best among us would give up on the goal of being an archaeologist.

Once you give up, it’s game over.

Have a great defense— Final Four teams almost always have excellent defenses. You shouldn’t try to thwart your peers in their career advancement but you should be actively working to improve your own. In archaeology, having a great offense is synonymous with having a good defense.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities. Focus on connecting with other archaeologists in a real way. Offer your skills, knowledge, and abilities freely so you can build up obligations with other people.

Every time I’ve relented on growing my network and looking for opportunities, I’ve found myself in the unemployment line.

Offense=career defense in archaeology.

Experienced coaches help— A grizzled coach that has more than 15 years of experience is another characteristic of Final Four teams. The experience and resolve of an experienced coach is a major contribution to team success.

I’ve never been laid off from a company where at least one of the bosses had my back. Finding a mentor in cultural resource management is difficult, but that shouldn’t keep us from looking. Archaeology only exists because of experiential learning. Only those of us who learn from each project have a chance of surviving to the Final Four.

Mentors and coaches are central to the experiential learning process because they help guide us to and through projects. Mentors shorten the learning curve. One experienced crew chief, project director, or principal investigator can help improve your knowledge and acumen by leaps and bounds.

Most of the 10+-year veterans in archaeology spent a few of those years working for an experienced archaeologist who took the time to teach them the tools of the trade.

Opponents are dominated— I do not mean you should physically dominate other job seekers or co-workers. I mean obstacles to your success need to be dominated. Final Four teams have a track record of winning games by comfortable margins (10 points or more) throughout the season, including the conference championship. Final Four teams are good—ranked #8 or higher—and they consistently overcome obstacles.

Budget deficits, workplace injuries, making mistakes, poorly scoped projects, and finding more than you bargained for are all commonplace in archaeology. The best archaeologists find a way to finish the project or come damn close.

Overcoming obstacles is essential to progressing as an archaeologist. Those of us that make it to the Final Four have found a way to survive today in order to win the tournament tomorrow.

Play locally— A team that plays within one time zone of its home turf is much more likely to make it to the Final Four than one that has to cross the country just to play in the tournament. In March Madness, travel can end championship dreams.

Most archaeologists got into this field because we’ve read about amazing finds in exotic locations and wanted to be part of that process. We are all attracted to Mayan digs, projects at Pompeii, and working at Angkor Wat. Few of us dream of spending our youth digging teepee rings in rural North Dakota for an international petroleum conglomerate.

Working in exotic locations or getting your graduate degree in a foreign country can make your archaeology career that much harder. Writing your dissertation on a Mayan settlement in Belize can typecast you as a “Mayanist”, which makes it hard when you apply for a job in upstate New York. Hiring managers want people who live locally and know the local archaeological chronologies because they’re not in the business of teaching you about the protohistoric Iroquois. They’re in the business of consulting and want employees that already know the local history and prehistory.

It’s also harder to find work locally when most of your professional network is in another state or country. You have to rebuild much of your network whenever you move. That’s not easy. Staying local allows you to amass a wealth of knowledge and a robust professional network that places your resume at the top of the stack.

You can still do Mayan digs as long as this work does not prevent you from building a local network and learning about the archaeology near where you live right now.

Archaeology is not for everyone

I’ve been doing this for a long time and I still ask myself, “Do you still want to be an archaeologist?” Sometimes I think it might be easier to just manage a Starbucks somewhere or learn how to be an electrician.

Then, I think about the balmy days where I’m finding arrowheads and Hohokam ceramics hand-over-fist and the evenings when I come home and have an amazing story to tell my kids about the adventure I had earlier that day. Or, when I can easily tell visiting family members all about the history of a certain neighborhood and the role it played in local history.

When I think about the things I’ve found, the stuff I’ve learned, and the fact that people paid me to do archaeology I realize I wouldn’t trade this job for anything in the world. On a good day, I feel like I’ve made it to the Final Four.

Can you think of any similarities between the Final Four and cultural resource management archaeology? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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2 thoughts on “What March Madness taught me about the archaeology job market

  • Joe Archaeologist

    This is great and all, but the people who majored in archaeology with you left the field because the pay sucks. Why would anyone with a Master’s degree do archaeology while only making ~$17/hour? They can make more money by going into a different field.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for reading Joe. I totally agree with you. Many CRMers do leave because of the pay. But those that stay are usually the ones that really want to do the job. Pay isn’t as important as career fulfillment, exploration, and learning about human pasts.

      I’ve worked a lot of jobs in the past, many of which had a clear pathway to higher wages or paid me more than I make now. But all of these jobs sucked. I hated working in retail even though, by putting in enough time and kissing enough ass, I could have risen to a well paid district manager position. The supervisors even told me that I was a prime candidate. But I didn’t like anything about the job. Who cares if I make more money doing something I don’t like? I quit, went to grad school, and became an archaeologist. In a few years, I was making as much as a store manager and loved my job.

      I could use my skills and education to do all sorts of things– marketing, social media strategy campaigns, property management, human resources– but I’m pretty sure that I’d be unsatisfied with those jobs in a few months and would be looking for an archaeology or historic preservation job.

      $17/hr is like the average entry level for a crew chief/field director in the west. PIs routinely make $60-70k and they usually have at least a decade of experience. Even experienced field directors bring in $50-60k– a wage I that is livable everywhere outside big cities (in the cities you make way more than that). Company owners, contract specialists, and university professors/department heads can easily bring in six figures.

      You can make substantial money doing CRM archaeology, but the money usually isn’t the main motivator for CRMers to go to work.

      If you just want to make money: don’t go to college, read all the Kiyosaki, Robert Allen, Tim Ferriss, Chris Guilebeau, Ramit Sethi, and Tony Robbins books you can find, connect with some successful entrepreneurs to be your mentor, and do what they tell you to do. There are tons of ways to make a lot of money. There aren’t a lot of different ways to get paid to do archaeology.

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