Archaeology is Not a Good Career

Björn in Helsingborg wrote me with a few questions regarding archaeology as a career.

Where did you study, for how long, what exactly?

University of Stockholm. Three years crammed into two years at 150% speed, that is, a BA / fil.kand. Four terms of Scandinavian archaeology, one term of history, one term of social anthropology. Later I did a PhD as well, but that’s not needed to work as an archaeologist.

What’s the labour market like? Is it true that there are no jobs?

The labour market is crap and there are no jobs. All Scandinavian countries produce new archaeologists at a vastly higher rate than the old ones retire. If you do get a job against all odds, then that will be through contacts, and the job will be poorly paid and last only a few months in the summer.

Who is the biggest employer in the business?

The National Heritage Board’s regional excavation units, Raä-UV. There are many other excavation units, most of which are linked to a county museum.

What kind of jobs can you do except archaeological fieldwork if you have archaeological training? Museums maybe?

Yes, there’s a small labour market in the museums. It is even more crowded than the fieldwork business. Other than that, I’d say that 90% of people who do a BA or MA in archaeology re-train later to do something else or go into non-academic professions such as bus driver, subway ticket seller or security guard.

What’s a standard day’s work like?

For the few who have archaeological jobs, a standard day is either spent digging or in front of a computer. The Field-Archaeological Paradox ensures that few of the sites that get excavated are interesting.

What has your professional career been like?

After my BA at age 20, I immediately got a fieldwork job because a) I had flirted with a charming employee of the National Heritage Board during a training dig, b) I was computer literate. I spent two years in the fieldwork business before tiring of nasty weather, hostile land developers and non-intellectual tasks. Instead I went into grad school to do a PhD. This took most of nine years though I did a number of other things too during the period, such as taking parental leave and working for an excavation unit for half a year. Since my viva in 2003 I have been an independent scholar, working one day a week as a journal editor and the other four on research projects of my own, funded by small grants mainly from private foundations. I am waiting for a university job to become available, and I am not optimistic.

To sum up, my advice to young people who want to study archaeology is this. Become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, work four days a week at this well-paid and fulfilling job, and devote the fifth day to amateur archaeology. Because archaeology makes a really bad main career.

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Comments

  1. #1 paddy
    April 8, 2009

    It would be great if the universities gave similar advice, instead of offering courses in every ridiculous subject just because there might exist a few people who want to study it. I almost became an astronomer, and I’m very happy I didn’t.

    Like that kid in the “Dead Poets Society” – if somebody had explained to him that he could be a doctor AS WELL AS be an actor in the evenings, he may not have topped himself.

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    Scandy universities are funded in relation to how many asses they can get into lecture-hall seats. They may employ any means necessary to attract asses. Unfortunately, the owners of the asses are 19 and, basically, well, asses.

  3. #3 christina
    April 8, 2009

    … pessimist…
    But yes.
    And they DO actually teach students about these prospects in Copenhagen. And yet a few of us – naive or simply reckless – people hang on.

  4. #4 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    But Danish archaeology training is like, what, five years long? So a much smaller proportion of starting students complete it. And I believe Denmark offers fewer places in archaeology courses per capita than Sweden, to start with? We produce hundreds of archaeology MAs every year.

  5. #5 Magnus Reuterdahl
    April 8, 2009

    Regarding “What kind of jobs can you do except archaeological fieldwork if you have archaeological training? Museums maybe?”

    There are also a few of us that work at the county administrative boards and at other authorities though it as hard to cram your self in there as at the museums etc.

  6. #6 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    One might also add that in order to keep basic jobs that you once needed a BA for, people are now getting PhDs.

  7. #7 Esben
    April 8, 2009

    Hello Martin

    I was given the same piece of advice as you just gave Björn when I started studying archaeology in 2002. However it turned out otherwise. When I graduated in 2007 I got a job at a research project. In 2008 I got a steady job as curator at an archaeological museum in a rural part of Denmark, where I work with excavations, beauracracy and actually quite a bit of research of my own.

    My advice would be that if you want to study archaeology, you will have to use your time as a student to position yourself for job after graduation. Pretty obvious one might say, but rarely the case. And when you graduate, be prepared to move away from the university cities (where all the settled unemployed archaeologists are fighting over the same job).

    I don’t know if it is the same in Sweden, but in Denmark I would estimate that 80-90% of all man-hours spend on archaeological excavations, are carried out by archaeology students who are skipping their studies at university. As you say, a lot of these students will never graduate. My estimate is that less than 20% of my 2002 mates at Aarhus University will graduate. So far only 2 or 3 (including me) out the 44 persons who started has done so. This means that a vast amount of working hours which could have a large number steady jobs for MAs or the like, are “wasted” on students, who will end up doing something completely else than archaeology.

    If archaeology students only participated in excavations a limited period, within their education, Danish archaeological museums would be screaming for MA or PhD’s. Maybe there would even be work for the poor unemployed Swedish archaeologists too…

  8. #8 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    Congrats, Esben, I’m happy for you!

    Swedish archaeology training is short and produces people who do not yet know how to dig. Our system is actually kind of similar to yours: after two years, those Swedish archaeology students who will ever get excavation jobs go out to dig. The main differences are that a) Swedish students aren’t expected to return to university after they’ve started digging, b) we produce huge numbers of them and most never get to dig at all.

  9. #9 Kris Hirst
    April 8, 2009

    I’m no longer working in the field, but seven years or so ago when we were looking to hire MAs with experience at the Project Archaeologist level (in the midwestern US), we had a hell of a time finding qualified people. We did get a few people with MAs who had no more experience than a single field school. We stuck a trowel in their back pocket and told them to practice their backfilling skills. It took us a really long time to find anybody to even start out as a PA.

    But I just don’t know what the working life is like today even in my own neighborhood, so I’m hoping that between your post and mine we can generate some discussion. Thanks so much, Martin, for bringing this up!

    Kris

  10. #10 ArchAsa
    April 8, 2009

    Yes – it’s a crappy situation. But this goes for most of the humanities, and indeed social sciences. For a sure career, educate yourself to become an administrator because they make sure they never, ever get fired – even if they are incapable of using Open Office (true story).

    The point is I believe, to not necessarily think of “archaeology” as the be-all, end-all of one’s education. First of all you always need to combine with other subjects and the great thing abour archaeology is that it can be combined with almost anything (though I wouldn’t recommend that approach). Cultural geography, agronomy, evolutionary biology, librarian (a career path on the rise), zoologist etc.

    Read archaeology if you feel you really want to know more about the human past, then think about ways in which that can be an asset in other fields as well. When young and free, working on thankless digs nationally or abroad is rewarding. It is not always as rewarding later on.

    I don’t really regret choosing archaeology as a career path, I just regret not combining it with more computer training and programming. BTW, post-graduate studies in any subject, even the natural sciences, can be utterly soul-crushing unless you have a deep burning passion for the subject. And even then it is…soul crushing.

  11. #11 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    In Sweden, you’ll have PhDs begging to do your backfilling. Remember, it’s a tiny place: Sweden’s the most populous country in Scandyland, and we only have nine million citizens. Still we produce hundreds of archaeology MAs annually.

  12. #12 Martin R
    April 8, 2009

    A lame argument that tends to come up in discussions like these is “OK, archaeological skills may be unmarketable, but you learn a lot of subsidiary skills that are really useful!”.

    My reply is “If I’m an employer choosing between a person whose only useful skills are subsidiary ones, and another person whose primary and subsidiary skills are useful — who am I likely to choose?”.

  13. #13 David P
    April 8, 2009

    I’ve been giving broadly the same pessimistic information to my students. However, I’ve been wondering whether I’ve actually been too negative sometimes. Yes, archaeology (and museums) is a very difficult profession to make it in. Nonetheless, there are jobs and they have to be filled. A recent report on the archaeological labour market in the UK suggested that there are currently nearly 7000 jobs in archaeology. Of 6865 archaeologists working in the UK, 667 (10%) worked for national government agencies, 1151 (17%) worked in local government, 1014 (15%)worked for universities, 3497 (51%) worked in the private sector and 535 (8%)worked for other types of organisations. 3890 (57%) of these people worked for organisations that provide field investigation and research services, 1816 (27%) for organisations that provide historic environment advice, 310 (5%) provide museum and visitor services and 836 (12 %) work for organisations that provide education and academic research. I’d assumed the vast majority would have been in fieldwork; whereas in fact its only a relatively small majority. Even within commercial fieldwork, many of the jobs are not simply short-term trench fodder posts (though many are).

    Obviously British universities produce many more archaeological students than there are archaeology jobs. However, many of those who do an archaeology degree are never planning to make a career of it. It is not primarily a vocational subjects; it’s more of a general humanities degree. Looking back at my contemporaries from university (I graduated in 1994)- out of about 25 of us, I reckon around seven of us are still in archaeology with another couple working in broadly connected jobs (cultural heritage management etc). Not many perhaps, but as far as I’m aware we were the only ones who wanted to work in archaeology in the first place, so not a bad success rate.

    The key things I say to my students are i) Give yourself skills (advanced IT; GIS; finds specialisms; surveying; geophysics). (ii) If you want to work in the field try and get an MA which allows you take these skills to a more advanced level (iii) Only do a PhD if you want to be in academia- otherwise you’re better off gaining three/four years experience in the field. (iv) Be keen; volunteer for stuff; gain experiences and skills in any way you can (e.g. community archaeology projects etc)
    Will this guarantee you a job in archaeology? Of course not. Like any competitive profession you need to be good and, yes, you need some luck. Looking back at my own career, I’m painfully aware of occasional when I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I also know good people who left the profession because they were always in the wrong place. Nonetheless you can equip yourself to be able to grab the chances when they come along. At the end of the day though, yes, archaeology is a very very competitive profession- but someone has to get the jobs! In the current financial situation it is even harder than normal- but that’s true of any profession. Certainly in the town where I live(where there are lots of archaeologists) the lay offs have been in the financial industries- none of us archaeologists have ended up on the dole (yet!)

  14. #14 Charlotte
    April 8, 2009

    Did you really have to post this the week after I settled on a postgrad archaeology course? Between your comments and David P’s figures I’m wondering if that was a wise decision now.

    Still, my first degree’s in maths, so I have other options if it doesn’t work out. I’d definitely recommend going into archaeology as a postgrad for anyone who’s science-oriented, that way you have a nice marketable BSc in reserve in case you find archaeology’s not right for you.

  15. #15 MikeB
    April 8, 2009

    I think we are all in agreement that the phrase ‘archaeology job’ is largely an oxymoron, but looking at the posts, there is a lot of excellent advice, not all of it gloomy.

    We have to be realistic, there are a lot more graduates arriving on the market than there are jobs. Most of those posts are low skill, short-term digging jobs, which you can do for only a short time before surviving on little more than chips, roll-ups and cheap cider begins to pale. The ones who will go on to a long term career are those who have a great deal of experience, skills and possibly additional qualifications. They will also have to be able to make contacts and be lucky!

    David P. – I graduated in 1993, and looking at my group of friends who graduated the same year, I suspect that the figure is about the same as yours. Some are county based, with one or two with commercial outfits. There are a couple in heritage & education as well. Most of them had fair amounts of fieldwork experience even before they started their degree, which bears out the importance of experience. Of the two of us who did a PhD, one now works for Wessex, while I ended up not working in archaeology at all – which reinforces the point that a PhD is nice to have, but guarantees nothing.

    The reality is that archaeology is reliant on many external factors – the state of the construction industry, government finances, educational priorities and the whims of funders, and a career has never been certain. On the other hand, none of us went into archaeology for the money, we do it because we love it. I can think of worse reasons to enter a profession.

  16. #16 john mocsary
    April 8, 2009

    I find this hideous…I am a Forensic sculptor…I cannot believe that someone would tell someone not to seek their ‘dreams’…money is not always what drives someone’s ambitions’

  17. #17 Martin R
    April 9, 2009

    David, thanks for the interesting information! Maybe archaeology is a somewhat better career in the UK, though your outlook seems pretty pessimistic too. As to the students who go into archaeology without any intention of making it their career, we have them too — but in my experience, every single really young student hopes to work as an archaeologist. This means that the Swedish university system is tricking inexperienced kids into investing years of their life and large parts of their study loans into something they will have no use for. “They’re offering the courses, so I’m sure there must be jobs”, the kids seem to think.

    Charlotte, you recommend anyone who’s science-oriented to do an MA in archaeology, because then they’ll at least have a useful BSc? Come on, that’s the “useful subsidiary skills” argument!

    Mike, indeed, nobody goes into archaeology for the money. But my point is that most of the people who go into archaeology end up neither having any money nor doing archaeology professionally.

    John, a lot of people seek their dreams at Swedish universitites and end up driving buses for a living. What’s so great about that?

  18. #18 RG
    April 9, 2009

    Just a quick two-cents from the US side of the pond – Martin’s thoughts could easily be applied here as well. Too many new PhDs, not enough retiring profs. No need for PhD in contract world and MAs (not to mention BAs) aren’t typically trained for a career in cultural resource management… which are the only jobs to be had.
    “Money is not what drives someone’s ambitions” says John. That sounds like a very empty sentiment after you’ve spent years chasing that “dream” only to find you’ve been sold a bill of goods. That academic job you were trained for? It doesn’t exist.

  19. #19 Bruce K Paulson
    April 9, 2009

    Thank you for the very interesting biography. I was always interested in the field and I’m too old now to start, but you have answered many questions I had and I appreciate the information.

  20. #20 Charlotte
    April 9, 2009

    @Martin: not sure I really get your point. If you have a first degree in science and further qualifications in archaeology, is an employer outside archaeology going to mark you down for having done the postgrad years? Alright, they could have been spent doing something more marketable, but I thought the point was to find a way into archaeology (or archaeological science) which won’t leave you broke and unemployable if it doesn’t work out (I believe science graduates bring useful things to archaeology, as well). Despite the glut of graduates in the UK, ‘hard’ science degrees are still pretty valuable. It’s depressing to talk about education as a commodity, but that’s the reality and we all have to eat.

    Besides, I always quite fancied being a bus driver.

  21. #21 Gavin
    April 10, 2009

    Just coming to the end of an archaeology PhD and employment prospects don’t look good. I have two ideas:

    1. Poison the punch-bowl at a major international conference, and thus open up the job market, or:

    2. Marry a millionaire.

    Unfortunately the first is an ethical grey area, and my girlfriend vetoed the second. Anyone got any better ideas?

  22. #22 Martin R
    April 10, 2009

    Insist on living ascetically with low expenses, leaving you free to spend several days a week on archaeology. Girlfriend will soon tire of this, and then you can marry a millionaire.

  23. #23 Martin R
    April 10, 2009

    Charlotte, sorry, I thought you were explaining why it’s a good idea to study archaeology. You were in fact explaining how to survive despite studying archaeology, which we all agree is a bad idea.

  24. #24 Bee
    April 10, 2009

    Good to hear it’s not only theoretical physics where the labor market is crap and there are no jobs.

    Btw, I’ll be moving to Sweden in fall :-)

  25. #25 Martin R
    April 10, 2009

    Cool Bee, where you gonna live?

  26. #26 Álvaro R,
    August 5, 2009

    Hi from Spain. All this looks very familiar to me. I´m archaeologist, too, with a PhD., and feeling what someone here describes very accurately as soul crushed about all this crap (posdoc, jobs, etc). All the same in Spain (mixed, of course, with our south european burocracy and foolish labour market). But let me say you something: life is still worthy and there a plenty of things you can do. Just keep on it!!.

  27. #27 Martin R
    August 6, 2009

    Oh yes, I’m not giving up before my funding dries up. But I think quite a lot about how unwanted I am as an archaeology PhD. Sad feeling.

  28. #28 Jac Warland
    December 9, 2009

    I too am disheartened about the possibilities, although in Oz it isnt so much they dont have enough to go round, it is just every opportunity requires at least three five of experience, and unless you either have the Hons or PhD. they wont look at you…sadly this stops many gifted community minded individuals who have vision and capacity from following their dreams. So my next adventure is finding a post grad degree that offers some form of creative and fun inspiring way to improve my situation.
    So maybe geology to complement my archaeology?

  29. #29 Martin R
    December 9, 2009

    Geology won’t help you much in archaeology, but petroleum / mining / construction geology would be a good career-way out of archaeology.

  30. #30 Dorothy Hsieh
    December 9, 2009

    I always wanted to be a psychologist and now all of a sudden i want to pursue archaeology. I am very confused, many people have told me that archaeology has no future.

  31. #31 Martin R
    December 9, 2009

    Archaeology certainly has a future, but to a great majority of the people who study the subject it offers no professional future.

  32. #32 Monique
    April 12, 2010

    So, Ive been reading and it seems that the general feeling is that Archeology isn’t worth it. I really want to be and archeologist however I am now reconsidering. Do you have any career suggestions for people who love history and want learn things about the past? Anthropology perhaps?

  33. #33 Martin R
    April 12, 2010

    There is a huge labour market for school teachers of history.

    Anthropology is about the present if you don’t choose archaeology as sub-discipline.

  34. #34 undecided
    October 16, 2010

    I am in year 11 and thinking of pursing a career in archaeology. I researched the career and have come to understand there are still a lot of jobs in the field. i have no interest in becoming a teacher. Should I reconsider and choose something more practical???

  35. #35 Martin R
    October 17, 2010

    My advice to young people who want to study archaeology is this. Become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer, work four days a week at this well-paid and fulfilling job, and devote the fifth day to amateur archaeology. Because archaeology makes a really bad main career.

    A full-time scholar has no money and publishes maybe four papers a year. A 20% scholar like the one I suggest can publish at least one paper a year and live comfortably.

  36. #36 Clare
    April 2, 2012

    I may be three years late coming to the blog party but there’s plenty of work all year with respectable wage for archaeologists in Australia and not enough archaeologists to do it (especially archaeologists with 3+ years of experience). Mind you, you’ll always be more well-off being a part time doctor/lawyer/skilled tradesperson/mine truck driver.

  37. #37 Martin R
    April 2, 2012

    That’s interesting to learn! But correct me if I’m wrong: Australian archaeology consists of a very long Paleolithic and some Late Modern European?

  38. #38 Eric O
    May 11, 2012

    I know this is a bit of a late response, but I see I’m not the only one.

    This post sums up my experience in Canada. I managed to get hired on as an archaeologist’s assistant for a three month contract shortly after I got my BA. The contract ended in late December. It’s now May and I still can’t find any jobs in my field unless I’m willing to move across the country for a job that pays little more than minimum wage.

    I’m considering going for a master’s degree because it just seems like something I ought to do, but I don’t really see it as a means to an end. I don’t know what I’d do with an MA, or if it will really help me in the long run.

    I’m torn between following a genuine interest and paying the bills. I really wish these two things weren’t mutually exclusive.

  39. #39 Martin R
    May 11, 2012

    Archaeology is an excellent hobby but a dead-end career.

  40. #40 Amanda
    Australia
    December 20, 2012

    Im 18 and going to uni nxt year. I have always had an interest in archaeology as a career path but am concerned about the lack of sustainable/well-paid employment so I am thinking of studying a double degree-BA in archaeology and a BA in general science. Will this help boost potential employment offers in archaeology in the future???

  41. #41 Martin R
    December 20, 2012

    My guess is that general science will do little good on the archaeology job market. Specialised science such as bones or plant remains or geophys may be more useful. But really, it’s a bad, bad job market. Good luck! Update us as your plans unfold!

  42. #42 ali fauziyatu
    accra ghana
    January 25, 2013

    i love this course i think it broadens ones capabilities

  43. #43 fatma younes
    Egypt
    February 21, 2013

    i graduated from archeology departement in Cairo Universty and i would like to stady more in Sweeden

  44. #44 Michael Williams
    Australia
    March 24, 2013

    In reply to your “a lot of people seek their dreams at Swedish universities and end up driving buses for a living” comment; at least those bus drivers are driving while knowing they actually gave it their best shot at doing what they love. You should feel the same rather than putting doubt into fragile people’s minds by posting these threads.

  45. #45 Martin R
    March 24, 2013

    Fragile people need good realistic advice. If I drove a bus after all my studies I would not feel proud that I had given my best shot. I would feel like a failure.

  46. #46 Michel
    Belgium
    April 19, 2013

    Yes archaeology makes a really bad main career but young people should be allowed to follow their dreams instead of being frightened off.
    My daughter is graduating this year as MA in archaeology and allthough she realises she will propably not find a job as an archaeologist she is still happy she did study archaeology. This study will give her the opportunity to exercise volunteer archaeolgy while earning money somwhere else. More over, het volonteering in archaeology will ensure that excavations are performed at a professional level and not by amateur archaeology who did study something completly different.
    I don’t think we would consider being looked after when we are ill by an amateur doctor of medecine or having or pet being cared for by an amateur vet. So why should we settle for an amateur archaeologist.

  47. #47 Martin R
    April 19, 2013

    Michel: who is happier? An uneducated bus driver with no debts, or a bus driver with an MA in archaeology, study debt, and a sense that he is not really a bus driver, but a failed archaeologist?

  48. #48 Michel
    April 19, 2013

    I would say the bus driver with an MA in archaeology, lucky enough without study debt and certainly without the sense not to be a bus driver.
    An archaeologist not working as an archaeologist is not a failed archaeologist but an archaeologist with brains and not the luck to be in the right place at the right time.
    There are , certainly in Belgium, enough careers that can be started with a degree in archaeology. Yes, these careers are often within the civil service but archaeology in Belgium often is situated there as well.

  49. #49 Martin R
    April 19, 2013

    In Scandinavia, you cannot get a highly qualified job without the correct specialised qualifications. You must re-train after your archaeology MA.

    And as I have often said, useful secondary skills cannot beat useful primary skills.