Monday, July 8, 2013

For some of my former students; The Current Possibilities in Archaeology From a Lowly Tech.

Locale Update!! I am now working in northwest Arkansas, just outside the beautiful Fayetteville. Its lovely here, though hotter than one would think possible for being the middle of the mountains.
Quite recently I have had several of my former students ask me my opinion on their options upon graduation next spring. I feel like I’m really not super qualified to give direction. But I can share my experiences, and those of the people I’ve worked with over the last seven years and hope that that will be helpful.

Timbucto, NY. Unreal beauty
I feel like a brief description of my experiences is appropriate. I took my first field school in 2007, at James Madison’s Montpelier. I spent the next summer working there as a teaching assistant. The summer of 2009 I was in Timbucto, NY working in a field school there. While in college I worked in the SUNY Potsdam lab for several classes, and was a teaching assistant for several Into to Arch sessions. I graduated in 2011, and began work at Montpelier as a field tech. About a year later I was working as the Lab Manager. At the end of 2012’s summer I began working for a CRM firm in central Mississippi, Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research Inc. I spent about 8 months working for them, and am now working for another firm (Panamerican Consultants Inc. outa Memphis, TN).
In every experience I gained more understanding of how this field works. After years of watching co-workers burn out, never make it back to grad school, going to conferences, and hacking through soil there are a few serious tidbits I wish I could have been told from the beginning.

-First off, do not be afraid of applying to jobs. I think I have literally (wait,…just counted) applied to over 200 job ads over the years. Every time you look they are all going to say 1-5 years experience required, or some other such nonsense you don’t have. Whatever. They have to say that. Do Not let that stop you from applying. Everyone has a first job. Apply to anything and everything that you think you can do. If it says 1 year experience, they mean fresh out. Plus, if they say no to you, or more likely never get back in touch with you, don’t get discouraged, or take it personally.  Of those 200 jobs, how many do you think I actually got hired onto?

First Job! I met SO MANYYYY awesome people like this!
-Do tailor every cover letter (always send one) for each job. I have a basic one that I change the names/dates/locales for. They want people that give enough craps to do a little research. Earn your CV a look over. Also, have a good CV. This is important, but seriously not the end all be all (get there later).

-Do not expect a full time position/job. You need to read this one carefully. Many new grads don’t really understand this point. The majority (over 80%) of jobs out there are not full time, but rather hire techs for the amount of time they need them for. Working project to project generally the way most of us roll. Plus, the more jobs/projects you have under your belt the BETTER the archaeologist you will be. Think about it. The more experiences, the more context, the more you know right? Apply for the 6 week, 12 week, 18 week project. Go there and prove yourself. Also, the more connections you make in the summer, means more work for you in the winter. GO out there, travel around to different states, meet all sorta crazy new people, work like a dog, make your mark. You will have work if you prove to a company you are worth having around. We are adventurers! Enjoy your ability to roam while you can, and get paid doing it. This leads me to my next important point.

Find pretty places like this on your adventures! 
Or this!
-Do CRM. I know, frowny face. CRM is the real face of American Archaeology. Probably about 90% of all our archaeology is done through cultural resource management; academia is TINY. And especially (seriously) if you have only done historic stuff. I cannot tell you how many people I have seen that are clueless about one or the other; archaeology is about how much you have seen, its about continuously expanding your comparative knowledge basis. If most of our archaeology is prehistoric, CRM sites, than you should probably spend at least a little bit of time trying to understand that part of it. Pigeon holing yourself into one small area of knowledge is not a good tactic for archaeology. The more you know, the better you’ll be. That’s great for you if you only want to do mid 19th cent Diaspora Archaeology. What happens when you accidently hit a Early Woodland site underneath it? Prehistoric archaeology is executed completely differently than historic. You better know your stuff if you wanna run anything. Also, every tech should be able to rip out 20-30 cm of soil in a 2x2 a day. CRM will teach you how to get shit done. I mean for real; I am currently breaking out about 20 cm a day out of a 2 meter x 2 meter square with my partner, and we have to pick ax through most of that. And we are doing the expected. I have seen so many different techniques, sites, and artifacts in all these projects. The people I look up to the most are the ones who are seasoned vets with every kind of project under their belt. They can tell you anything/everything about archaeology. And they didn’t learn almost any of that in a book. Also, once you break into one company, if you do well word will spread. (It’s really that small.) If they can, they will keep you on for another project. If they can’t then there is a good chance another company that knows your last boss, crew chief, PI, will hire you on.

My first CRM crew. I will always be in love with these people.

Small bird point, shaped from a tiny flake.
I would have had no idea what this was a year ago. So Cute
-To Straight Through or Not to Straight Through? I am SO grateful I did not go straight to grad school. This is a controversial one, and you know me, I don’t dance around touchy stuff. Lotsss of archies choose to go straight through; it makes sense financially if you want to avoid starting to pay off loans, if you want to just get it over with, bunches of reasons. And I am definitely NOT at all saying that straight-throughs are not good archaeologist. I've met a lot of brilliant archaeologist that went straight through. But as a tech who has seen a bunch of straight-throughs in the field for the first time, I’m saying it ends up being harder on them most of the time. Archaeology isn’t for the faint of heart, and field school is like getting your training wheels. Once you get out there and are doing it every day it’s a WHOLE different story. Do you want to have your masters in an area that you suddenly realize you don’t give a rats ass about? Do you want to be 24 with a masters and legally allowed to run the site, but in actuality have no idea how to do that at all because you’ve only been to field school? Do you want to risk not being hired because a company probably is required to pay you more, yet you don’t have near enough experience to justify it? I’m telling you, it might sound great, but you really can’t just leap from the books and into the field and be in charge of things. They only way to understand how to run a site is to work on one. One that you aren’t paying to be at. Also, fun fact – most of the students I know who got into grad school on a full ride (paid assistantship) were out for 1-3 years. They want to accept people who have real world experience.

-It’s about who you know. I realize this applies to almost every aspect of life, but I wish I could have understood the depths this went in my field earlier on. Most grads I’ve met who can’t find steady work, or any at all, don’t know anyone. Think about the logic. It’s a small field; most jobs outside academia (again a tiny percentage of this equation) don’t post on shovel bums. They are spread word to mouth. The best way to look for jobs is troll your college friends, your old co-workers, your old bosses. Almost every job I've ever had I heard of from another tech. Keep in touch with all your archie acquaintances, because that can keep you employed. Go to conferences, email people you meet about jobs, contact older people you know are out on projects. I know when my company is hiring, if you contact me, and I have faith in you there is a good chance I’ll get your CV into the bosses. There is a greater chance of you getting hired. It happens all the time (I mean it happened last week at my current project.)

Example: not easy. Camping all winter. Freezing. 
-Don’t expect this life to be easy. This sounds so dramatic, I realize. But I am very serious. (Another reason it sucks to go straight through and realize this too late.) This is simultaneously the most AWESOME JOB EVER and one of the hardest. Since I graduated two years ago I have moved 6 times, lived in 5 states, worked with countless students/volunteers/techs. I’ve schlepped my belongings from the New York/Canadian border clear to the Gulf Coast. I’ve missed almost every birthday for most of my family members, I haven’t seen my best friends in years, every time I bond with people on a project, I have to leave them again and I feel loss each time. My body is at once in fantastic shape and also sore constantly. I work long hours (usually between 9-11 hrs), have no guarantee of steady work, and bust my ass to find small pieces of chert all day long. But shit if there isn’t a bright side. I have gotten to meet some one the most earth shattering people, I lived in a wigwam for 6 months, I camped for 8. I’ve gotten to gorge amazing food from New York to Louisiana. I know people in almost every single grad program I could ever hope to attend. I got to teach hundreds of awesome students and volunteers, work with native populations, see some of the most beautiful places in this country. And I would never thinking of leaving this career. 

Again. Freezing. Loved it. 
In the end, most archies upon graduating have a field school, some lab work, a few summer jobs working in academia. That is a great start (really). But that does not an archaeologist make. Archaeologist are made from years of digging sites all over the nation, experiences that expand ones knowledge base throughout time and culture. If you want to really know what you’re doing, you have to learn on the ground. Books can’t teach you how to handle a sharp shooter, how depending upon region people have different trowels, different names for tools, different ways of digging. Books can’t teach you how to bust out soil no matter the conditions, they can’t tell you how to identify lithics, native pottery, European ceramics, archaic burn pits, nutting stones, tipi scatters, refit sites, rock shelters, ect. They can’t teach you how to survive 110-degree heat, 90% humidity, and 90% granite cobble strats, transect through corn fields/brier patches/ swamps, transects for miles without a positive hit. They can’t show you anything but the outline. You have to fill the rest in yourself with experience. We have a absolutely fantastical job! Since 2008, things have slowly been getter better. If you work hard, put yourself out there, make contacts, you will make it. CRM is looking for people all the time. Work doesn’t even stop during the winter in the south. Apply everywhere! I am serious about hunting for jobs via people you know, so many of the sweeeet jobs aren’t advertised. If you want it, you can do it. You just have to be willing to go on some adventures to get there.