No Career Available in Scandinavian Archaeology

A recurring theme in my blogging of the past year (e.g. here: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4) has been that a degree in Scandinavian archaeology (BA, MA or PhD) is almost entirely useless from a career perspective. The reason is that our labour market is over-populated at all levels, from the lowly shovel-wielder to the august professor. In my past posts, I've documented this in various ways.

Since getting my degree in 2003, I've applied for twelve academic jobs in Scandinavia, all requiring a PhD in archaeology. A number of temporary jobs have also been given discreetely to people already within departments, which is the standard way to get teaching experience, but the twelve listed below are almost all that have been offered publicly (and one of them was never given to anyone, as funding turned out to be wanting). I have thus amassed a little dataset that should be representative.

Job Age of
Visby 2003, lecturer 43
Lund 2003, post-doc 36
Copenhagen 2004, lecturer 46
Gothenburg 2004, post-doc (Job
Uppsala 2004, lecturer 43
Oslo 2004, lecturer 41
Kiel 2005, researcher ?
Stockholm 2006, post-doc 41
Uppsala 2006, researcher 39
Kalmar 2006, lecturer 41
Aarhus 2006, lecturer 33
Median 41

Usually between 15 and 20 people have applied for each of these jobs, but they have not largely been the same people every time. So, for eleven jobs in four years, over one hundred individual scholars have applied.

The median age of the eleven highly qualified people who got the jobs was 41. As qualifications tend to grow in proportion to one's age, it is very hard for someone below that age to compete. And here comes the beautiful bit: Swedish post-doc jobs (forskarassistenttjänster) are only open to people who have completed their PhD less than five years ago. This means that it is perfectly useless to do your PhD at an early age in Swedish archaeology. By the time you're 41 and competitive, you are no longer eligible for post-doc jobs.

So, why does the machine keep churning out archaeologists when nobody wants them? I can see a number of reasons.

  • Most importantly, hundreds of kids who like archaeology apply for MA programs every year without any thought of whether it will lead to a job.
  • University teachers are highly motivated to keep the kids coming, because otherwise they would lose their jobs.
  • Senior scholars need to recruit and supervise PhD students to qualify for full professorship.
  • Full professors need PhD students who publish papers, because this is part of the basis for a department's funding.
This all simply leads to unemployment and to over-qualification in bus drivers and mall security guards. In my opinion, it would be much better for society to close the greater part of this machine down.

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If the only work is in academia you're completely right. And that is the situation in many fields, with vastly higher numbers of qualified people churned out every year than there's any actual positions for them to fill. And the cliché about bus or taxi drivers can be all too true in some cases.

But of course this really is not the case. We don't have historians lined up playing guitar in the subway, or hordes of analytical philosophers reduced to begging in parks for breadcrumbs. Getting a job you're qualified for can mean one of two things: getting a job matching your field of study (which is often very hard, and not only in the arts either) or it can mean getting a job matching your general competency level after a number of years at university, meaning your ability for analytical reasoning, organizing and running a project, researching a new subject and so on.

The reality is that many people start careers only tangentially connected to what they studied, and even more change to something else after some years - voluntarily. And if the important things you learn at university isn't so much the actual subject, then it's hard to say that studying archeology is any worse a choice than literature, freshwater zoology or bicycle traffic planning, say.

There are non-academic seasonal jobs in contract archaeology, but you don't need a PhD to qualify, and there are 50 applicants to each of them.

I don't buy the general skills argument. Let's say I want an administrator for my electrical engineering firm, and I get to choose between an archaeologist, a lit-crit person, a freshwater zoologist, a bicycle traffic planner and an electrical engineer. They're all equally good generalists, all nice people. But one of them also has specialised skills useful at my company. Which one do you think I'll employ?

I think the availability of higher education in various subjects should be subject to feedback from the unemployment rates. Educational programs leading to unemployment should be down-scaled.

Built into item one of your list are also those who study the subject just because they think it is fun but have no intention of ever working with it. Remember that University education is free in Sweden. These people still fill up the course plan and give academics someone to teach, but they don't compete for the jobs.

That's true up through the second term. But in the third tirm, it's BA thesis time, and the students who complete that tend to hope for a job in archaeology.

I think you need to distinguish yourself from the pack by running in a different direction. They are probably all doing archaelogy on Scandinavian artefacts in Scandinavia, or at least going no further than such routine pillaging grounds as Britain. Perhaps you could start a research program looking for Viking artefacts on South Pacific islands.

By Mustafa Mond, FCD (not verified) on 17 Jan 2007 #permalink

Perhaps Scandinavian archaeologists just need to get enough layers of dirt laid down before they get a job.

Which doesn't bode well for PhD palaeontologists.