Year Four—The last year of my archaeology PhD

Here's what i learned in my final year as a PhD studentI am currently in the final stage of the final lap of my final year of my anthropology PhD, which will be the final degree I will get (hopefully). As I enter this stage of my education, I’ve been thinking a lot about how this will change the way I view cultural resource management archaeology, historic preservation, and heritage conservation. I’ve also been thinking about how dramatically my experience has shaped the way I view higher education and how college relates to cultural resource management archaeology.

I’ve also been thinking about all those who told me NOT to go back to school. It reminds me of this verse from the Pink Floyd song “Fearless” (1971).

“You say the hill’s too steep to climb, Chiding!

You say you’d like to see me try, Climbing!

You pick the place and I’ll choose the time.

And, I’ll climb the hill in my own way.

Just wait a while for the right day.

And, as I rise above the tree line and the clouds,

I look down hear the sound of the things you said today”

Here’s what I learned in the final year of my PhD studies:

Seminars rule. Lectures drool.

By the time you make it to grad school, you’ve learned the formula for college success by heart:

(Attend lecture + do your readings + write essays/take finals) occasional insightful comments in class = an ‘A’

This is how you finished high school. It’s how you got your undergrad. Unfortunately, it’s how a lot of graduate-level courses are still taught. There are three major problems with this strategy:

1) Today’ students are different. People today have very, very, very………short attention spans. Most of you aren’t even reading this whole post. You’re just skimming it at best.

Our brains are wired to sift the wheat from the chaff in less than half a second and move on to the next task. We want everything to just get to the point so we can move on because we are constantly bombarded with more—more projects, more expenses, more gadgets, more obligations, more restrictions, more of everything.

The interesting parts of school (i.e., conversations, focused projects, things we care about for our major) are the only thing that can break through this ADD.

2) College is also a business transaction for a huge number of students, even at the graduate level, so we feel like this degree should be preparing us for something after graduation. Most of us are attending college because we want to get a “good job.” Expanding our intellectual horizons is second to getting the degree we (wrongly) believe will get us a certain job.

Now, I’ve been ripped for saying these kinds of things before in the past but it is true. Most professors do not want to think that their students care little about expanding their minds. Opponents say my characterization of students only caring about transferrable skills and knowledge incorrect and goes against the philosophies that are at the heart of higher education. And, they’re right….sort of.

Students do care about learning. That’s why they’re in college. It’s just that they care more about getting a degree than pushing intellectual horizons just for the mental exercise. And, at the average low, low price of nearly $10,000 per year for in-state tuition at a public university, I don’t blame them for valuing skills that help them prepare for careers more than learning for learning’s sake.

Additionally, individuals who want to learn have more tools to increase their knowledge than any population that has ever lived. I respect the pursuit of knowledge but have never needed school to learn. From the time I was a child, knowledge has been freely accessible through libraries, (now) the internet, and by doing things (experiential knowledge). Like others who are interested in learning, most of what I know has been gleaned from books, articles, videos, or experiences—not the classroom.

There is no shortage of ways to learn, but most of these learning vehicles don’t come with the social proof that a college degree does. That’s why Americans go to college.

3) There is no way to teach real-world skills using that equation. The only thing you learn from “Read-and-Regurgitate” is how to “Read-and-Regurgitate.” In a world where more than half of the students are just taking classes so they can move on to the next thing, it behooves us to use the old “Read-and-Regurg” Method anymore. Very little of what I know has come from a classroom which is why the Read-and-Regurg Method has no place in graduate school.

Regurgitation of knowledge on command is not what the world needs to tackle the mounting problems we all face. We need creative solutions and thinkers who can problem solve, work in teams, and discover logical, intellectual, and doable projects that culminate in real-world results. Students need to be challenged and know that rising to these challenges adds value to the world.

Many would say this cannot be done in the university setting. I say anthropology is particularly well-suited to this kind of classroom. In fact, we’ve been doing this at the undergraduate and graduate level for decades. The best example of this kind of course is called Field School.

I’ve tackled field school more than once on this blog. I have my own opinions of what should be taught. Others have stated theirs (Picking a field school, CRM Arch Podcast on Field Schools, Register of Professional Archaeologists-approved field schools). The debate is likely to rage on for as long as archaeology is taught in universities. While all field schools are not created equal, they all attempt to be a representation of field archaeology and anthropology. It’s not a simulation. Students are actually digging sites, recovering artifacts, conducting interviews, and documenting their work.

But, digging is not the only thing you should learn in college

Field school is a mainstay of an archaeologist’s education, but the best grad programs also have classes that simulate what it’s like to be an archaeological intellectual. They’re called seminars.

There are basically three types of in-person university class formats:

Lecture (i.e. “you don’t really have to attend and when you’re there all you do is sit there and listen; totally boring; can be soul-ripping if you don’t have a good instructor”). This is the way school is usually taught from first grade until your last days as an undergraduate.

Discussion groups (i.e. “Pretty much have to attend and it’s good if you comment but you don’t really have to; however, at least you have the chance to contribute and, if the instructor can get the ball rolling, you will enjoy the class and learn a lot”). This is like the transition from lecture to seminar.

Seminar (i.e. “The class centers around the students talking about course material and you’d better figure out a way to talk and contribute otherwise you’re going to get a bad grade; fortunately, you’re engaged on multiple levels so you actually learn something”). Ideally, this would comprise the bulk of a graduate education in anthropology.

In anthropology, graduate school primarily uses lectures and seminars to convey information (In grad school, “Discussion Group” is named “Happy Hour.” It takes place at a bar and is way better than the old undergrad discussion groups [see my post series on “Alcohol Culture among Archaeologists” if you want to learn more]). I’ve attended some excellent lectures in grad school. Too bad that’s not why I went back to college.

I embarked upon my PhD because I wanted to contribute to archaeological intellectualism at the highest levels. Listening to a professor who has already achieved that level tell me what she knows isn’t why I went back for a PhD. I’ve read your books and articles, now I want to know what didn’t make it into the article. I want to know your thoughts. I want to have a chance to learn something I couldn’t have read somewhere else.

Seminars are excellent anthro grad classes because we get the chance to intellectually engage with the material AND the instructors. You don’t get to grad school without being able to extract information from readings. All of us are the best of the best at that. We’re masters of “Read-and-Regurg” as well, so having grad-level classes that are in the same format we’ve known since first grade extinguishes our intellectual fire and actually prevents us from learning.

The very best anthro grad classes are seminars that also include projects that give you skills you can apply after graduation, contribute to your thesis/dissertation, and/or can be used to get grant money. This is the best in-class simulation of what it is like to do archaeology at the highest levels.

The best anthropology graduate classes I took as a PhD student

Since 2013, I have taken a lot of classes at the University of Arizona. I took about the same number as a Master’s student at the University of Idaho. The following are the best classes I took at Arizona. They have the same things in common as the best ones I took at Idaho: 1) they all were seminars, 2) class projects applied to my thesis/dissertation or ability to earn grant money and, 3) both the instructor and students always launched into insightful, dynamic discussions.

*The best anthro classes I took at U of A:

ANTH 595f Professional Skills and Ethics in Archaeology—This class helps students navigate the U of A’s administration as well as what is expected and accepted among professional archaeologists. I remember several of the discussions on archaeology ethics that were later applied in my dissertation project and will guide my future conduct as a professional. Class projects are diverse and timely—fill out your path to graduation, write a blog post, craft a resume, make a conference paper abstract, write a grant proposal. All useful.

ANTH 608B History of Anthropological Theory— Talking about anthro theory is one of my least favorite parts of college, but this class’ instructor kept me awake, engaged, and interested. She had an extreme wealth of knowledge that helped contextualize each theoretical school in a way that made it more accessible. Even though I’d read some of these authors numerous times, she found ways to see each perspective in a new light. Pieces of the final project for this class were included in my dissertation, a peer-reviewed journal article, and several grant proposals.

ANTH601 Conservation and Community—Cross-listed for a number of different degrees, this class was composed of students from a breadth of different fields so the classroom discussions provided insight from outside anthropology. Ecology and forestry students have completely different understandings of humans, landscapes, and nature than archaeologists do. Each discussion shed new light on the course material we all had to read. I learned a lot from the other students and the instructor.

ANTH540A Cultural Resource Management—This is the most useful anthropology class I ever took. I think it’s THE example of how CRM can and should be taught in the university setting. All of our graded projects centered upon completing an RFP for a hypothetical cultural resources project. This meant everybody had to create a scope of work, research design, budget, and statement of qualifications. Additionally, the class was instructed by two skilled CRMers/professors who invited other specialists to lecture in class ranging from local historic preservation administrators and Native American CRMers who work with THPOs. If I learned a lot in this class even though I’d already been doing CRM for years, then I know the other students learned even more.

PLG 564 Preservation Planning Issues—Who could look back on reading about 20+ books in a single semester and say this was a good class? I don’t mean chapters or articles. We had to read entire 200—300-page books each week, several journal articles, AND write weekly, one-page reading summaries!

To cap it off, our final grade was heavily dependent upon a single group project. Our class project was to create a historic preservation plan for a local town. Not a neighborhood. A whole town!

This class was intense but the final result was amazing. I spent about $300 on USED books for this class and read them all. Three years later, I haven’t given any of them away. Reading all those books and articles on histpres gave me an excellent understanding of how heritage conservation has been conducted around the world. Our class’ final project won an Arizona student preservation award and was well-received by the community for which it was written. They’re currently using our plan to manage properties as this community continues to grow. This was a class I walked away proud of what I’d accomplished.

*(NOTE: My experience does not reflect the same experience of all U of A anthro grad students. It also does not reflect the skill and ability of the faculty. I didn’t take all of the anthro classes at U of A and my classes focused on archaeology, so I’m extremely biased. Also, I took the bare minimum number of classes needed to graduate. As I mentioned before, I didn’t go back to school so I could take classes. I went there because the faculty is excellent and I thought this would accelerate my ability to contribute to archaeology at the highest levels. Also, I wanted to graduate as quickly and cheaply as possible.)

The Heritage Conservation Certificate Classes are the most useful for UArizona anthro students interested in cultural resource management

Challenging, engaging, thoughtful, emphasizing Networked Heritage—those are among the accolades I have for the Heritage Conservation Certificate classes I took. I loved all of the classes I took for the Heritage Conservation Certificate program at the University of Arizona. They were very demanding and required a lot of work, but the end results for each class was phenomenal.

It is an absolute shame I didn’t finish the certificate while at U of A. It’s an even bigger shame that this isn’t a stand-alone graduate degree program.

What about the other classes?

The classes I highlighted above were the very best I took at UAZ. That doesn’t mean the other ones I took weren’t good as well (Actually, some of them sucked but I’m not going to tell you which ones). Most of the others I didn’t highlight were lectures where we had to write some mindless 20-page papers and had to read some articles where the instructor simply regurged what we’d just read that week for three hours. Other classes were seminars but the instructor rigidly guided discussion, which basically turns the class into a lecture, or the students simply didn’t participate.

I’m not saying I didn’t learn from these classes. I’m just saying they weren’t nearly as good as the ones highlighted above.

What else did I learn from my PhD?

In addition to learning what type of class best prepares grad students for real-life, I learned more things than I could ever put in a blog post. Nevertheless, I will still try:

It’s worth the time, effort, and money: When I started my PhD, my son was a toddler, my daughter was an infant, and I had a pretty good job as a CRM field supervisor. Four years later, my son is finishing first grade, my daughter is learning how to read, and I haven’t made more than $30,000/year in almost half a decade. (My wife is as intelligent, beautiful and wonderful as ever. That never changed.)

I made sacrifices to go back to school and they were all worth it because I got a chance to do the kind of work I’d always wanted to do: Historic Preservation that gives back to a community. For a few years, I got to actually practice what I preached, something that might never have happened had I stayed in CRM. I also got to grow intellectually by constantly being around some of the top minds in archaeology. It felt wonderful. I have no regrets.

If you don’t experience a little tiny bit of Imposter Syndrome, you’re not in the right program: Researchers are realizing mental illness is rampant in academia and graduate school. Imposter Syndrome is one of the conditions academicians and grad students face. This is not good

However, you are in the wrong school if you’re in a graduate program and don’t sometimes feel like the others around you are smarter than you. Something’s not right if you don’t occasionally get the feeling what you’re doing isn’t amazing, even though it is, whenever you tell others what you’re doing. If you think you’re the best student in the program, either you’re a delusional egomaniac or you’re in the wrong program.

Don’t get me wrong. Imposter Syndrome isn’t something that we should embrace. It’s a very negative phenomenon I’ve had to wrestle with throughout my collegiate and professional career. The whole thing can be stymie productivity and forward momentum. It can also give way to other mental illnesses like depression and anxiety which can destroy lives.

But, a little bit of this can make you work harder to raise your standards to what you perceive others are doing, which raises the bar throughout your whole program. It can also be humbling to realize you’re not the smartest person in the world. Finally, it can help you recognize that you are functioning at the highest level in your field. You are among the best. Be proud of that.

It’s a lot of hard work: I’ve never known anyone with a PhD say it was easy. I can’t explain. You will never know what it’s like until you do it. Your life will never be the same: Something happens to a person when they enter a PhD program. Many never finish. Those that do have been changed by the whole process.

I can’t exactly describe it in words, but imagine this: You’re driving an obstacle course in a Toyota Camry and have to take the car over a series of small jumps. It’s not a race, but, rather, a test of your driving skill. The ramps aren’t really that high but you have to redline your car’s engine for each jump so you can get enough speed to make it over the small ditch on the other side of the ramp. Now, imagine that every ditch you jump only leads to another slightly higher jump over a slightly wider ditch. Imagine that every time you redline the car’s engine it can redline a little bit faster (rev it up to 5,000 RPMs and you can rev it up to 5,100 RPMs next time). Every time you take your engine to those levels it almost blows up but, like a true Camry, somehow the car finds a way to keep driving to the next obstacle. The course is long so you have to keep driving the course in this same fashion for about six years.

By the time you’re done, your car can handle thousands of more RPMs than when you first started driving the course; unless it breaks down and you never finish the course. That’s what it’s like to complete a PhD.

Coursework, grant proposals, fieldwork, public talks, teaching classes, writing articles and reports, mentoring students, participating in other extracurricular talks, applying to jobs, going on interviews… the list of obligations and requirements is very long. Each one of these activities is an obstacle that takes place against the backdrop of your real life outside the classroom. Each one has the potential for failure.

At the end of the course, all you get is a certificate that shows you made it. But, everything has changed. Your Camry can handle more than ever before. And, you’re used to redlining it all the time for every challenge so you have the ability to take on projects others think are impossible.

I did the kind of things I never thought could be done: Before I went back to school, I thought CRM was getting boxes checked. I had no idea it could be more than that.

My work as a grad student sought to use the best of CRM (i.e., efficient identification and recordation of historic properties) to conduct local heritage conservation (i.e., a project that contributed to a community for its own benefit). I never thought this could be done in CRM. Now, I realize it’s how CRM should be all the time.

A PhD is only for those maniacs that want to excel: A PhD is only for those that want to reach the highest levels. It’s not necessary for a job in CRM. Society does not need PhDs. A PhD is overkill.

In archaeology, you don’t do a PhD for practical reasons. You do it because you’re crazy and take it on as a personal challenge. You want the prestige that comes from others realizing you went above and beyond what 97% of other Americans’ educational attainment. You also want to show the world you can do it. It’s the kind of gloating that only somebody with the right mix of access to education, socioeconomic standing, intellectual ability and borderline-superhuman capacity to endure emotional and psychological pain can do.

Getting a PhD is like running an ultramarathon because you think doing marathons is too easy. At that point, you’re just fu*king rubbing it in.

Don’t try it unless you’ve done CRM for a while: This is my one word of advice that I want everybody to internalize. Do not attempt a PhD in archaeology until you’ve done CRM for a few years (preferably 5 to 10 years). CRM is an excellent training ground for anyone who wants to become an archaeologist. Since the majority of us work in CRM after graduation, doing some CRM before going on to your PhD will give you an understanding of the plight of field techs, how the industry works, and exposure to doing archaeology at a for-profit organization. Working in CRM gives you experience and perspective but it also builds your network so you don’t have to start at the bottom when you complete your PhD. All of these things will be invaluable after completing your degree.

I know saying this always makes the students who didn’t do CRM before going back to grad school feel bad. Not having CRM experience is not the end of the world; it just means you’ll have to start at the bottom when you graduate which will make the start of your career a little bit harder. It will also be more difficult to transition from academia to a private corporate environment.

Please, please try it out before you buy the whole enchilada. I encourage you to email or message me on Twitter if you have any questions about this.

Now that I’m done, what’s next?

That’s the “$70,000/ year with annual Cost of Living adjustments and periodic performance-based raises” question. I’ve given it some thought and here’s what I want to do in no particular order:

  • Maintain my marriage and never get divorced
  • Raise my kids into creative, well-adjusted, adaptable adults so they can eventually move away (not to prison) and I can have my wife back again
  • Support my wife as she advances in her own stellar career
  • Help my in-laws and mother as they get older
  • Teach CRM archaeology
  • Do community-based heritage conservation projects
  • Keep blogging, podcasting, vlogging, and self-publishing books
  • Buy a Toyota Tacoma Prerunner
  • Climb the high points of all 50 states before I turn 50
  • Learn to accept my shortcomings as simply being part of who I am
  • Start doing underwater archaeology
  • Participate in an archaeology project on all continents except Antarctica (too cold…..for now)
  • Pay off my mortgage and buy some investment properties
  • Once they’re old enough, help my children raise their own children (my grandkids) if they have any
  • Visit my ancestral origins in western Nigeria and northern Europe
  • Further my meditation practice
  • Raise as high as possible in capoeira before my body starts giving out. Learn as much capoeira music as I can so I can keep playing in old age
  • Do more heritage conservation consulting
  • Become a multi-millionaire
  • Grow old with my wife, kids, and the rest of my family nearby
  • Stay grateful for everything I’ve experienced, will experience, and have saved for my next lives

The list could go on forever. This is just a start

Feel free to contact me if you want to know anything else about getting a PhD in anthropology. I would love to hear from you. Write a comment below or send me an email.


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