Year Three—What was it like to go for an archaeology PhD?

What does WWI have to do with cultural resource management archaeology?I’ve become addicted to studying World War I. As we are currently living through the centennial of this tragic mistake, I can’t help but compare doing cultural resource management archaeology to the kind of lessons the western world learned from the Great War. If CRM archaeology is like WWI, then getting a PhD in archaeology is like going to officer’s training. First, you learn exactly how fast you can get crushed if you run into the machine gun fire. Then, you realize digging in will only allow you to survive long enough for the next push into No Man’s Land and you realize you will have to completely change your strategy if you want to make it out of this alive. Finally, you understand that you are training to be the one who will have to lead others into these conditions. It will be your responsibility to do your duty and get your co-workers back intact.

World War I was the first time western countries had pursued total, global war during the industrial age. The direct result was over 22 million dead or wounded soldiers and civilians, the destruction of great swaths of Europe, the collapse of several ancient empires, and the bankruptcy of Europe. Indirectly, western culture was entirely changed. Art, politics, technology, finance, and transportation would never be the same again. Similarly, war would never be the same again; Nevertheless, human beings would not learn the folly of killing each other on an industrial scale until the 1940s.

In my first year of grad school, I was shocked at how completely corporatized the university system had become. Universities seemed only to exist for themselves and were willing to chew up any student foolish enough to believe this was the only way to learn.

By the second year, the constant shelling and machine gun fire from the governmental budget cuts, personal finance, and trying to be a good father and husband while studying forced me to dig in. I scrambled for funding to pay my mortgage and preschool for my kids while trying not to get blown to bits by the university-industrial complex.

This year, my third, I realized I would have to take a completely different path if I want this degree to pay off. The end was in sight but I realized school, work, family, finance, and everything else is part of a complete package called my life. In order to get what I want out of my degree, I will have to get what I want from life. In addition to getting out of this bloody school, somehow incorporating archaeology into a satisfying life is now my goal.

I also realized the CRM industry will have to completely change its tactics and strategies if it wants to remain relevant to today’s society. I want to help usher in that change.

Here’s what I learned during my third year as a PhD student (now candidate):

Comprehensive exams are like doing CRM— Studying for your comprehensive exams while working and taking care of a family is kind of like the 10-month Battle of Verdun. For 303 days in 1916, the French and German forces clashed in what was one of the longest and most costly battles in human history. Actually, Verdun wasn’t a battle. It was more like 303 days of daily battles strung together for almost an entire year.

This is very similar to pulling off a CRM project or completing your comprehensive PhD exams; it is a sustained application of knowledge for a long period of time. Writing in CRM is very much like industrial battle. You must write, on command, for 40+ hours a week about a range of topics, some of which you know nothing about. There are also distractions galore. Other projects, meetings, emails, clients, co-workers and a host of other sidebars will knock you out of flow or temporarily suspend your writing. At the same time, the clock is always ticking. You are billing to a finite budget, regardless of how much time you spend on distractions.

In order to survive, you have to learn how to still get stuff done through the distractions. The end goal is finishing the project on time and on budget. You will be forced to hone your skills—writing, researching, editing, and time management—if you ever want to make it out alive. You will also have to draw upon all your knowledge of archaeological method and theory, prehistory, history, and everything else in order to get it right the first time.

The same goes for your comps. Distractions will inevitably pop up and you will have to deal with it. Sick kids, teaching classes, giving presentations, writing articles. All of this stuff will distract you from your task of covering your comps readings list. In truth, you can’t really study for your comps because the exam is really the culmination of everything you have read, written, and done in your entire archaeology career. You will read a lot of stuff and try to remember it all. You are supposed to be tested on subject matter that pertains to your dissertation topic, but, in actuality, you are being forced to recall and recap a huge portion of your archaeology knowledge in a short, written and spoken format. That’s why it’s called a comprehensive exam.

Every good CRM report is the culmination of what you have learned about the prehistory and history as it applies to a very specific project area. You will amass, over time, a wealth of knowledge about archaeology and each report will ask you to concentrate it on a small area of the earth’s surface. In order to write a quality report, you will also have to call upon all your research, fieldwork, and writing skills. It’s your job.

Good reports are generated from the cumulative experience and knowledge of skilled CRMers who learn in the face of relentless fire. Comps can only be survived by doing the same thing. In the end, it’s brutal and not everybody makes it. However, you’re only going to make it if you are willing to fight through the distractions and put it all on the line.

Learn how to learn really, really fast— Imagine smashing your head against the wall dozens and dozens of times, for hours and hours, harder and harder until you learned you could simply open up a door and get into the building. That’s pretty much WWI in a nutshell.

The war was so tragic because army generals learned slowly from each battle. Millions of men died because their leaders continually forced them into a meat grinder of machine guns, artillery, and mustard gas for almost half a decade.

Fortunately, you don’t have to act like this. You have the potential to learn quickly. In fact, you can learn as fast as your mind is capable, which is pretty darn fast.

The key is speed reading. If you want to have any sort of chance of learning all the stuff you need to know for your PhD, you will have to be able to skim and comprehend hundreds of pages of text in a few hours. This is pretty much what you do when writing a CRM report because you will need to have read dozens of reports and site records before you can finish your report. You need to know what has been done in your project area and what others have said about that place. Speed reading is the only way you can accomplish this.

I learned the Evelyn Woods Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program almost 20 years ago as an undergraduate student. It helped then and it helped me now. Stop simply skimming books and actually read them in the same amount of time. Click here and download a free copy of this landmark book.

It’s hard to care about a single research project for years on end— By the end of WWI, most of the soldiers no longer cared about victory. They just wanted the whole thing over with.

World War I triggered a revolution in Russia. The ancient Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Empires collapsed. Bolshevik-inspired rebellions were commonplace among the French and German troops. Pretty much the only ones who wanted to fight by the end of the war were the Americans who entered the fray in 1917, after it had already been going for over 3 years.

Enthusiasm for a single archaeology project or aspect of archaeology is hard to maintain over multiple years. I’m not sick of my dissertation project, but I do have to admit that my desire to expand it to a wider scale has diminished a little bit. I just want my dissertation to be over. I love what I’ve done with the River Street Digital History Project, but I am ready to parlay this into a job and get paid to keep it going or move it into the background while I pursue other research interests.

I hope all the folks out there who helped me with this understand. It is not that I do not appreciate your cooperation and assistance. It’s just that I need a break after focusing on this for over 3 years. I’m only human. I beg your pardon.

There are boundless opportunities when you don’t have a 40-hour-a-week-job— The saddest thing about World War I is the loss of life. Imagine what all of those people could have done had they not died in the Great War. Imagine what Europe and the rest of the world would have been like had they not thrown their weight into the Octagon like MMA fighters going for the title. The world was irreversibly changed by the war and our current world would not be how it is had the Great War not happened. But, I always wonder what would have happened if 2.5% of the population of Europe at that time had not died in a war.

What could Europe have done had it not made World War I a full-time occupation?

The ability to think about wider career and research concepts is, perhaps, the biggest plus to going back to school for a PhD. You will routinely engage with top scholars and smart students, which pushes your intellectual and philosophical boundaries much further than if you were simply grinding it out at a 40-hour-a-week CRM archaeology job. I know I would not have my current perspective of archaeology, society, historic preservation, or cultural resource management had I not gone back to school for my PhD. My boundaries have truly been expanded in a manner that is not really possible in a CRM context.

This does not mean that CRM is not doing scholarly, insightful, and beneficial work. It just means the rigors of the industry slows intellectual growth. Conversely, the grind of being a professor—the meetings, the emails, the university administrations, budget cuts, the perpetual push to publish—also hinders their intellectual expansion. Doctoral students are in a unique position because we do not have the same pressures, workload, and are primarily here to learn. This freedom for intellectual growth is an opportunity I hadn’t realized until recently and it is definitely career-changing.

I like teaching and don’t need a university to do so— The belligerents of WWI realized there were other ways to fight in addition to directly shooting human beings with guns. The Germans learned that they could destroy the Russians by infecting its unhappy populace with Communism. They also learned U-boats could cut Britain off from the world, causing them to starve. Two could play that game. The British also learned that naval blockades could starve the German Empire to its knees. The Americans under Woodrow Wilson learned that they could sow the seeds of an international community in the wake of total, global war. The United States also learned that it’s best to be an arms dealer for the first few years of major wars because all those loans make you money and cause the belligerents to be indebted when the war is over. We honed our skills as economic hit men in WWI. It has served us well ever since.

My PhD studies have made it really clear that you do not need a university in order to learn. In fact, most of what will serve us in our professional lives will not be learned in a college classroom.

I also realized there are other ways to teach and, in fact, the massive lecture halls of boredom are among the worst ways to both teach and learn. This is why universities are investing heavily in changing the nature of learning.

I was a teaching assistant while pursuing my Master’s. At that time, I just treated it like a job. All I had to do is grade papers, answer student emails, and give an occasional lecture. I looked down on the undergrads because I felt like we graduate students were so much more advanced, intelligent, and responsible. I used to think the undergrads were simply the raw materials we used to pay for the university that gave grad students and professors a chance to do their research. I underestimated the desire and capacity for undergrads to learn and misjudged their resolve to be good students because there were so many who were ill-equipped for college and adult life. The whining and begging of the few caused me to judge the many.

A lot has changed since then. While there are many in my PhD cohort that still underestimate undergrads and overestimate their own capabilities, I realize both grad and undergrad students are in a terrible predicament. We all need degrees so we can show future employers our value, but many of us actually do not learn well in the college setting. Now, I try to keep this in mind as I help teach classes.

I am one of these folks. I find lectures without discussion and dialogue skull-shatterinlgy boring. My mind melts in about 20 minutes whenever I am forced to watch a stale PowerPoint on topics that come straight from the course readings. I have been trained to do very well on essays and reports, but still find multiple choice tests difficult. Actually, I think tests are a pathetic way of evaluating how well students have absorbed course content. Projects and essays are a much better way to determine how well a professor has taught the content and how well students have learned. It’s hard to prove you are smart when the evaluation system—tests, grades, quizzes—have nothing to do with your overall intelligence, problem solving capacity, or ability to convey complex thought.

Universities are not the only way you can demonstrate your intelligence and capabilities. Today, projects are the new resume. We all learn best by doing projects. Therefore, professors should focus on honing the skills and capabilities that will serve students in their lives outside the classroom.

While the best way to learn how to do archaeology is by doing archaeology, there are a host of other venues that can teach the skills that will be valued and needed in the cultural resource management archaeology industry. Podcasts and blogs are one way important topics in the industry can be brought out into the open for discussion. EBooks and online courses are another way. These digital learning vehicles should accompany traditional college courses and CRM company training systems. College classrooms can be reorganized in order to foster more engagement and help students better retain course content.

With so many different ways to teach cultural resource management archaeology, working at a university is no longer the only game in town. This is good since you are more likely to die of cancer than land a tenure track position in anthropology. If you really want to teach, you no longer have to depend on the university system. Since I do like teaching, I’m just going to keep on doing what I’ve been doing for the last 3 years regardless of whether or not I work at a university.


Please don’t misunderstand or think I don’t care about the very real human casualties of the Great War. I do not mean to disrespect their memory by comparing my silly PhD studies to the meat grinding, catastrophic, and cruel loss of life that happened across the Old World. Learning archaeology is nothing like fighting in the military or living in the homefront during the industrial-scale carnage of modern, total war. All I mean is, going back for a PhD has completely changed my outlook on my career and CRM archaeology.

When I went back for my Master’s, I was just doing what I had to in order to find gainful employment in the CRM industry. My PhD studies come from a desire to change the profession and help as many people as I can. After finishing my PhD, I will be forever changed.

Write a comment below or send me an email if you want to keep the conversation going.


Becoming an Archaeologist kindle bookHaving trouble finding work in cultural resource management archaeology? Still blindly mailing out resumes and waiting for a response? Has your archaeology career plateaued and you don’t know what to do about it? Download a copy of the new book “Becoming an Archaeologist: Crafting a Career in Cultural Resource ManagementClick here to learn more.






Blogging Archaeology eBook

Check out Succinct Research’s contribution to Blogging Archaeology. Full of amazing information about how blogging is revolutionizing archaeology publishing. For a limited time you can GRAB A COPY FOR FREE!!!! Click Here





Resume-Writing for Archaeologists” is now available on Click Here and get detailed instructions on how you can land a job in CRM archaeology today!





Small Archaeology Project Management is now on the Kindle Store. Over 300 copies were sold in the first month! Click Here and see what the buzz is all about.






Join the Succinct Research email list and receive additional information on the CRM and heritage conservation field.

Get killer information about the CRM archaeology industry and historic preservation.

Subscribe to the Succinct Research Newsletter

* indicates required

Email Format

Powered by MailChimp