Another Career Whine

Here's another whine about academic employment in Scandy archaeology.

Yesterday my PhD diploma turned five years old. This means that I have now, at age 36, ascended to heights where I am automatically considered over-qualified (or simply failed) for a forskarassistent entry-level assistant professor's position at Swedish universities. Having done research full-time for the past 14 years and published about 120 pieces of archaeological work, I allow myself to believe that I am not an entirely failed scholar. It's an over-populated labour market.

In the past five years I have applied for almost every entry-level and lecturer job advertised in academic Scandy archaeology. In sixteen cases I know the age of the person who got the job. The median is 42 years. The first and third quartiles are at 40.5 and 43.75 years. In everyday terms, this means that to get one of these jobs, you have to be 40-44 years old and you must have completed your PhD recently.

In practice, it's probably also wise to not piss a whole generation of older colleagues off by telling them in print that a) their humanities/sociology-based perspective on the discipline is a load of pretentious verbiage, b) the MA-level teaching of archaeology at universities should be severely curtailed as it sends graduates into unemployment. (Free advice, kids!)

So, careerwise I've painted myself into a reasonably well-funded gentleman-scholar corner. I'm like Charles Darwin without the ancestral money and The Origin of Species. My wife is the only person in the world who cares whether I get out of bed in the mornings. Small grants from private research foundations and a one-day-a-week gig as a journal editor pay my bills and my costs of research. I don't want to go into contract archaeology because of the Field-Archaeological Paradox. I don't want to be a museum administrator. I can't hope to get into academic archaeology before age 40 (that is, 2012). And I can't give up before age 44.

I enjoy what I do and I have inexpensive habits, so I have no real incentive to leave the discipline for greener pastures (translation work, language teaching, science journalism, the computer gaming industry). But I have high enough an opinion of myself that it really irks me to find the road to positions where I could do some good work barred.

But I guess that the really sad thing is that compared to my contemporaries in Scandy archaeology, mine is a success story.

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My wife is the only person in the world who cares whether I get out of bed in the mornings.

That would only be true if you blog in bed.

Dude, get your hands out of your pants. Release the kuk. And get on with it. ;-)

Actually, some of my colleagues would probably argue that my situation jobwise would have been better now had I kept a lower profile and brandished said kuk less proudly in the debate arena. Having cojones isn't always an asset either.

Hmmm, yes, but it is the balls that makes what you say memorable. When you speak, you don't just fetch things out of thin air, even if it is not in agreement with whatever some mainstream archy professor has said at some point. If I make reference to something you've written in something I write myself, then I know that not only will I know that the reference is well researched, but also, whoever reads my work will know that I am quoting a reliable source. The gold standard for me is "to write a paper that won't make Martin puke". If I can do that, then I know it's good.
I bet you'd be a real bastard to have for a teacher, since you'd be so frigging tough to argue against. And I argue, because I don't want to take someone's word for "thats' how it was" just like that. Much of that attitude comes from reading your critique of others. One of the legacies you've left behind -so far- is that it's OK to question so-called authorities. That's a good legacy, Martin. You give me the courage to stick by what my research shows me and trust my instincts, even if the result is not necessarily something that's fashionable atm. You remind me of the simple fact that sound methods give sound results. Hell, sometimes I don't even agreee with you, but that's OK, because at least I know your point is valid. Arguing in a vacuum sucks shit. I'll leave that to the pomo dudes who seem to feel they excel t it. I take more pleasure from banging my head against a wall than arguing against someone who hasn't done their work or uses a crappy method.
You've taught me that I will not die if I stick my chin out and take a punch as a result, as long as my research is thorough. If no one sticks their chin out ever, then archaeology will go stale and become irrelevant (see , there's one thing we don't agree on). If people have no balls, then we might all just stick to classic archaeology for the rest of eternity, and stand around an stomp in the same spot without making any headway whatsoever. Don't expect to becme any more relevant doing that, though.
So although I understand exactly where you're coming from with your gripes as outlined in your post, I would like to remind you that it's the things that you don't get paid for - i.e. the things that don't feed your kids, unfortunately - that some of us like your for. It's been my pleasure to have a rolemodel in you, and so I can honestly say that you are wrong in your assessment of who cares if you get out of bed in the morning.
Oh, and btw, I like teachers who are bastards. They're the ones you learn the most from.

By Christina (not verified) on 27 Sep 2008 #permalink

I, for one, am pleased as punch that you got out of bed long enough to do this blog. Out here in the boonies of Texas it's terribly difficult to discover anything approaching real archeology except via the internet, you see. Too many people don't think the field is worthwhile enough even to have course offerings in the colleges and universities. You might think I'm joking. I'm not. Cowboy mentality is alive and well here. Take a good look at my president (shiver).

Stop feeling sorry for yourself and really get with it if you like it so much. I Do!!

Well, Martin is not really only feeling sorry for himself, he is feeling sorry for what is generations of younger swedish archaeologist, me among them, who get pushed forward by eager professors to study as much archaeology as possible so the institiutions gets more money.
Meanwhile, the students burns money on his or her side, but since many are too young to really worry about the future, they rush forward eagerly, and no one among their teacher would ever dream of telling them to think things over before they waste their years student support on an education that will most likely leave them kneedeep in debts and with no work to give them money to pay of the debt, meaning many ends up on social welfare.

And as Martin said, the sad fact is that he IS considered a success story among other archaeologists and that all the thousands archaeologists like me with MA:s see his career and a great one! For they are usually unemployed or have managed to get some other kind of job, like turning hamburgers at Burger King.

But tell that to young students and they just tell you to shut up and not being such a grumpy old man that just failed, for they are confident they will succeed. And then the next year of students rush forward into the russian guns, to use a comparision to the Battle of Balaclava.

Like the french general shockingly uttered afterward:
"It is magnificent, but is that teaching archaeology?"

By Mattias Niord (not verified) on 28 Sep 2008 #permalink

Diana, the question of fieldwork training in university courses is under constant discussion. Excavation units complain that the graduates can't dig. The basic courses cover a lot of exciting Tut-ankh-amun style empirical matter, a lot of theory and little else.

I think there's a pretty good argument for not aligning the courses with the professional reality. You see, 95% of the students will never get a job in archaeology either way. And the professional reality is very far removed from Tut-ankh-amun's tomb. I believe that a course that concentrated on what professional archaeologists actually do would be too drab and earthy to attract many students.

But it would be a more honest approach.

Hi Dr. R. I found your comments very interesting. I too am a "failed" Ph.D. just not in archaeology. I have a question for you. Why are those who get jobs so old? Is that the situation in archaeology in general or just in Scandinavia? I got kicked out of my job aged 35 so someone younger (cheaper) could have it even though I already had my doctorate. I look forward to your reply. Mo.

Why are those who get jobs so old?

In Scandy archaeology, there are two reasons. Most importantly, our production rate of archaeology PhDs was cranked up dramatically 20 years ago without any corresponding rise in the demand for such PhDs. This means that a large number of (aging) people started to line up for a small number of jobs.

Secondly, many entry-level jobs are only open for a set number of years after PhD graduation. A 42-y-o scholar generally has much better qualifications than a 30-y-o one. Therefore, the PhDs who get the entry-level academic jobs are almost exclusively such who have graduated at an advanced age. It is a very bad career move to enter grad school before age 35. (I was 21.)

That sounds remarkably similar to the situation in other areas of academic research. I'm a molecular geneticist working in cancer research and the same basic problems can be found to my line of work. There's probably a lot more money available for cancer research compared to archaeology but there's also a lot more workers. I've worked in this field for over 15 years now in the UK and Sweden and have always been funded through charities rather than government funding. There is a catch 22 situation in academic research at the moment. In order for continuation of projects the group needs to have enough workers doing the research. At the same time they do not get adequate funding for this work
(Swedish grants are about a third the equivalent amount in other European countries). The result is that groups use PhD students as a form of cheap (and inefficient) labor. The end result has been the build-up of huge numbers of PhDs with almost zero chance of a permanent position.
Most reseachers I know went into this line of work with the realization that they would not become rich. That was the sacrifice we made to pursue this line of work. It is generally only after qualification that you actually learn the horrifying truth that, not only will you receive relatively little salary for the time and investment you have made but you have only perhaps a one in 20 chance of getting a permanent post. Not only that but without choosing the correct PhD supervisor at the very beginning of your graduate training you will reduce your chances of being the one in twenty to practically zero.
There is an extreme dilemma for me in the idea of getting young people interested in science and knowledge and the downside of it - me being responsible for ruining their lives if they actually decide to do it for a career!

I hear ya, Martin! My old supervisor is a dear friend of mine, but he was most emphatically not the right guy to give me access to the inside track at the universities. Still, there wasn't really anybody at the department who would have worked better for me, since they were all pomo evangelists at the time.

Actually, one of my dear old teachers is famous for always having photographs of scantily clad women in and on his archaeology books. One of his basic textbooks from the 80s has such a smutty cover students to this day are embarrassed to be seen reading it on the subway.

The problem in Texas is not just no courses beyond the basics. There are people fascinated enough to do the digging, actually. They buy magazines about Biblical archeology, for example, and actually PAY to go dig in Israel. We'd give our eyeteeth (canines, that is) to dig in Texas and learn about the Native Americans, but no, that's just not done, apparently. Better to just put up a parking lot or another mall, dynamite the rock shelters with the paintings that may have been done before the Clovis Culture (pre-10 thousand years ago). Or even better, build another football stadium! I better stop -- my hair is starting to stand on end again...

By DianaGainer (not verified) on 29 Sep 2008 #permalink

We're very lucky in Sweden to have strong protective legislation for archaeological sites. If somebody wants to remove one, then they have to pay for a dig. But land development projects are largely steered away from really interesting sites, and so we rarely get to dig any. They're preserved for the grandkids.

Martin R:
The teacher with the smutty covers, was it Ted Borg, the egyptologist?

"No, this guy specialises in Scandy archaeology."

I think you mean Scanty archaeology.

Scanty archaeology! :D
Yeah, much can probably be labelled as such! I think I will write a long porn novel about the insides of swedish archaeology and get filthy rich instead.
But then, I am crap at writing such stuff, better stick with my popular history stuff. But that will certainly seal my final fate in the future, because I will never get any academic job if I becomes known for writing popular science that the average Joe can understand and finds interesting.

But maybe if I did it in metrics? Doing a homeric long poem about it! What do you say Martin, would that not vastly improve my chances of getting a PhD on the spot at the right archaeological institution?
Imagine, an entire PhD written in metric verse! And then label it like, inspiriative poetric archaeology or something.
Damn, I feel I got the idea of a lifetime, I feel the route to professorship is wideopen!

By Mattias Niord (not verified) on 30 Sep 2008 #permalink

When you become head of the Department of Poetic Archaeology, Matti, please remember your old buddy Martin when it's time to hire a janitor!