Tips For Undergraduates Interested in Archaeology

One of the most frequent questions that I get from undergraduate archaeology majors is some variant of ‘How did you get to where you are now?’ This is a valid question as every archaeologist has a different story and career trajectory. That being said, I think what most undergraduates are really asking is ‘What can I do now, as an undergraduate, to become an archaeologist?’  That’s a bit tricky because there is not a ‘one-fits-all’ approach in charting out a career path in archaeology. Still, there are things you can do to create a solid foundation for a career in archaeology. If you’re an undergraduate student who is excited about archaeology, this post is for you.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself

Before we dive in, there are three questions you should ask yourself and keep asking yourself throughout your career.

Question 1. Why am I interested in archaeology?

Archaeology is a field with many potential draws. What might interest me about the field could be very different than what interests my colleague or you. It’s important to reflect on this and remind yourself what makes you interested in pursuing a career in this field. This will help you when you have to make decisions on what research projects to develop, skills to cultivate, geographic regions to explore, etc.

Question 2. How do I want to do archaeology?

There is no one way to be an archaeologist. Some of the typical routes include pursuing careers in academia or cultural resource management; however, archaeologists can also pursue careers in various government bodies, museums, non-governmental organizations, and more. It’s important to consider what kinds of career trajectories you’re open to and what piques your interest.

 Question 3. How do I get there?

Once you have an idea about the first two questions, you need to figure out how to get there. Usually, this entails building a combination of functional knowledge and practical experience, which will be detailed later. For example, if you decide that you want to be an archaeologist that focuses on GIS (geographic information systems) then you probably should start by building your knowledge through taking classes in GIS and you could build your practical experience by participating on an excavation as a GIS technician.

4 Steps To Follow If You Get Stuck

You are probably thinking that the three questions above are loaded questions and you’re right. You’re also probably thinking, ‘How the heck do I figure out the answers?’

Spoiler alert: The answers will change and that’s okay. It’s actually completely normal. The key is to make sure you’re doing things to better inform the answers to the above questions.

So the next question you might have is ‘What should I do?’ 

That’s a good question! I promise I will give you some answers, but first there is something you should know.

While I am going to tell what things you can do in your undergraduate years, I won’t always be able to give you answers on how to execute each tip. Why? Each university, program, and group of people are different.

That being said, I’m going to start you off with 4 steps if you are stumped on how to follow any of the tips in the next section.

Step 1: Know the rules and requirements of your major/minor, program, and university

This is basic, but so important. Knowing the rules will make your life easier (and everyone else’s).  For example, undergraduates usually can’t take upper-level courses without finishing the introductory courses required for a major. Sometimes certain introductory courses are not offered every semester so you need to plan accordingly and planning requires understanding the rules and requirements. It would be a shame to miss out a great upper-level course because you didn’t fulfill an introductory requirement!

Step 2: Do your own research first

Anytime you have a question, start by researching it yourself first. This includes checking any documents that were given to you, looking at official websites, conducting a general search on the topics, etc. This is a good life skill for becoming a self-sufficient adult. Upon researching your question, you might find the answer yourself. If so, great! If you’re able to answer parts of the question, but other parts remain unclear, proceed to Step 3.

Step 3: Ask Someone

After you have researched a question and if some or all parts remain unanswered, ask someone. Make sure to tell them what research you have done and what you have already found. This helps avoid redundancy in answers and shows that you have already taken an initiative in searching for an answer. Who you ask for answers depends on the question. For example, if it’s unclear whether a course will count towards your major, you could ask the department secretary (some departments have secretaries specifically for undergraduates) and/or the designated undergraduate advisor of the department. You should mention the research you have done and explain why the answer is unclear to you. If your question requires more of an opinionated response, go to Step 4.

Step 4: Build Your Network

When it comes down to more qualitative questions, “Is archaeobotany worth taking?” , “Which professor should I ask to be my advisor?”, “Which field school offers the best training for my career goals?”, etc., having a strong and diverse network is crucial. Initially, this network should include professors, undergraduate students (all years), and graduate students (if your program has them). Building a network does not mean you have to be best friends with everyone, but it does mean you should build a rapport with these people. You will tap into this network when you are faced with questions that would benefit from an alternative perspective.

12 Tips for Undergraduate Archaeology Sucess

So now we have come to the heart of this post. Below are 12 tips to make the most out of your undergraduate archaeology pursuits. As I mentioned before, there are a number of ways one can do archaeology so the following tips are meant to be general.

Tip 1: Increase functional knowledge

There is so much to learn about archaeology. SO MUCH! It’s crucial to keep building your knowledge about the field.  Here are 3 things you can do to increase your knowledge about archaeology:

  1. Take Courses: Take all the worthwhile courses you can about the subject. Also, if a great instructor is offering a course and it’s not an archaeological subject that interests you, still take the course. Why? You will definitely learn something AND you will learn a key lesson in how to make material engaging and digestible to broader audiences. This is an invaluable skill.
  2. Attend Guest Lectures: Guest lectures provide an in-depth look at a specific topic in archaeology and often an expert on the topic is delivering the talk. Just like courses, some lectures are better than others. Great lectures can provide valuable insight and interpretations on archaeological topics that may not be discussed in such detail in an archaeology class. Initially, guest lectures can be a bit daunting. You can be hit with a lot of jargon, charts, and chronologies. This should not deter you. As you continue to increase your functional knowledge about archaeology, you will be able to take away more information from these lectures.
  3. Read: Courses and lectures are great, but you need to read. Do your reading for class, especially primary sources. Textbooks are a great way to get an overview of a subject, but if you really want to understand the debates, nuances, and all the good stuff, you have to read the primary sources. Yes, they are hard to dissect at times, but it gets better with practice (Check out my post on organizing sources). In addition to primary sources, there are increasingly good popular books about archaeology, which are written by archaeologists. These are good starting points in which to increase your functional knowledge outside the classroom.

Tip 2: Learn languages

Many archaeologists work in regions where our native language is not the operating language of the country or research project. The sooner you start to build your foreign language skill set, the better. It might hard to determine which language to learn if you’re not sure where or what you want to specialize in. Here are some safe bets if you already have a good grasp of English:

  1. Interested in the Old World? Try out German and/or French. Why? Many early archaeologists wrote in French and German and some key early texts for many areas of the Old World are in these languages. Italian would also be useful in a lot of areas too.
  2. Interested in the New World?: Try out SpanishWhy? As you head south in the New World, Spanish is the dominant spoken language and having some knowledge of this language will help you when you are conducting in-country fieldwork or reading some of the modern texts in those areas.
  3. Interested in the Classical World?: Try out Latin or Ancient GreekWhy? Having a grasp of one (or both) of these languages is usually a requirement for most programs that focus on the classical Mediterranean World so it’s good to start early.
  4. Interested in the Ancient Near East?: Try out Arabic. Why? Arabic is spoken in many modern Middle Eastern countries. Arabic is also offered more readily than many ancient languages from this region so there’s definitely a practical element here too. Furthermore, it’s the most widely spoken Semitic language. This is important because many ancient languages in the area are also Semitic languages (e.g. Akkadian, Hebrew, Ge’ez, etc.) and if you have an idea of how one Semitic language works, this will give you a better frame of reference when trying to learn a second one.
  5. Interested in another area?: If you have a general idea of where and/or what you want to study, ask an archaeologist working in the area or on a similar topic regarding language recommendations.

Tip 3: Keep your grades high

Archaeology can be quite competitive. When it comes to landing scholarships, funded opportunities, and positions, your grades matter, especially early on in your career. Think about it: there are a lot of enthusiastic applicants and committees need a way to weed out people. Grades are an easy way to do that. If you have a bad grade in one course, don’t panic, but be sure to work hard to make sure your overall grades are high.

Tip 4: Locate a good advisor/mentor

Locating a good advisor/mentor is one of the best things you can do for yourself during your undergraduate years. While having a mediocre advisor/mentor won’t kill your career, a good mentor can provide you worthwhile opportunities (e.g., excavation experience, independent research projects, internships, etc.) and support (e.g. advice about graduate school, strong recommendation letters,  putting in a good word for you, etc.) that will significantly help your career. Here are 3 steps that will help you find a good advisor/mentor:

  1. Take a course with a potential advisor/mentor: This will help you get to know the person and how you could work with them. Make sure to go to their office hours so you can build a better rapport and get more insight on what they work on.
  2. Ask other students: Other students, especially upperclassmen and graduate students probably had more time to get to know faculty members so getting their advice would be smart. They will also be really honest.
  3. Ask the department undergraduate advisor: Many programs and departments have a designated faculty member who serves as a general undergraduate advisor. Set up a meeting with them to discuss your interests and goals and they might be able to help you locate a pool of potential advisors/mentors.

Tips 5: Improve your writing

Writing is a critical skill in archaeology. Unfortunately, many of us are not taught how to write well before entering college. This is a growing issue in many undergraduate classrooms as many students don’t have the basic writing skills that are needed for even introductory courses. This issue still permeates in graduate school as well. I definitely struggled with my writing, especially grammar. The good news is that writing is a skill that you can cultivate and improve. If you know you need to improve your writing, be proactive and consider the following:

  1. Locate your Writing Center: Many colleges and universities have a writing center. Write drafts of your papers early and go get feedback on them. I understand writing centers can be hit or miss. You can always ask around and see who are the good editors and book appointments with them in advance.
  2. Take a Writing Course: Some schools will offer writing-intensive courses that are aimed to improve your writing. Do your homework on these courses (e.g., research, ask around, etc.) and if it seems like a good fit for your needs, take the course.
  3. Participate in Editing Exchanges: Exchanging papers with friends or in a group for editing purposes can greatly improve your writing. You also can help your friends out. Even if you don’t think you’re the greatest writer, you will still have insights that can help a friend out and vice versa.
  4. Hire a Writing Tutor: Editing papers takes time. Sometimes it is worth hiring a professional, i.e., a writing tutor, for a finite period of time (e.g. semester) or on a per-paper basis to get individualized and detailed help. In addition to editing assistance, writing tutors can provide exercises to increase your comprehension of grammar, organization, and clarity.

Check out my posts on writing for more tips and suggestions to improve your writing.

Tip 6: Apply for funding

What’s better than experiencing something? Getting someone else to pay for it. While funding serves practical purposes (many of us couldn’t afford some experiences otherwise), it also displays a key skill: you were able to convince someone else that you/your project/your ideas were worth spending money on. Crafting a successful funding application is an attractive skill, no matter how you choose to do archaeology. So the next time you want to take a summer language course, go to a field school, conduct a research project, etc., see if you can get any or all of it funded.

Check out my post on tips for finding grants and a list of grants for archaeologists.

Tip 7: Get field experience

Gaining field experience, specifically excavation experience, is crucial if you want to be an archaeologist. While your career trajectory might not require you to go on excavations, it’s an important experience to have under your belt. Many universities offer programs during the school year and/or summer that allows students to gain field experience while earning credits. There are a number of funded opportunities for undergraduates who are seeking archaeological field experience like the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduate’s Program (click here).

Tip 8: Get further practical experience

In addition to excavation experience, it’s important to gain experience in other areas of archaeology. There are a lot of specialties that you could focus on in archaeology (e.g. ceramic analysis, artifact conservation, cultural heritage practices, etc.) and by gaining practical experience in these areas increases your overall functional knowledge, while giving you a deeper understanding of how various disciplines within archaeology work. Some ways to get further practical experience include:

  • Taking a course with a strong lab or project component
  • Take a short course (from a few days to two weeks in length) Check out my experience with short courses 
  • Find a work-study placement, internship, or volunteer opportunity with a professor or project with a strong practical component

Tip 9: Conduct an independent research project

Whether or not you want to be a researcher, the process of designing and executing an independent research project is a valuable skill that will show future employers and committees aspects of your creativity, intellect, drive, and commitment. Independent research requires taking initiative and following through. Who doesn’t like that?  See if your program offers courses with a research component. Some universities offer a research design and methods course specifically for archaeology. Sometimes these courses are specifically for graduate students, but you can inquire if you can take the course or, at least, see the syllabus. If you’re at a complete loss for where to start, try these 3 very basic steps:

  1. Figure out what topics interest you. It’s good to be open and flexible.
  2. Do a bit of background research yourself on these topics.
  3. Discuss the feasibility of conducting a focused research project with your faculty advisor/mentor.

Tip 10: Disseminate your results

Once you conduct your project, make sure to share the results. This could be in the form of a paper, poster, or talk. Check out the following:

  1. Undergraduate research conferences/meeting at your University
  2. Archaeology conferences (e.g. Society for American Archaeology)
  3. Peer-reviewed publications (e.g. Journal of Archaeological Science)

Check out my post containing tips for students presenting at conferences

Tip 11: Pick up another major, minor, or concentration

A career in archaeology can be further strengthened by having a focused understanding of another field. For example, if you’re interested in archaeobotany, having an additional major, minor, or concentration in Biology or Botany will significantly add to your functional knowledge. If you are interested in the role of feminist perspectives in archaeology, Women’s Studies can serve as a powerful foundation for understanding and contributing to such discourse. Honestly, almost any additional major, minor, or concentration can strengthen your archaeological degree. While you can and should take courses in other areas, formalizing another area of study into a major, minor, or concentration will highlight the fact that you know the field better than a person who might have taken a course or two on the subject. It’s a smart strategy.

Tip 12: Develop digital expertise

Increasingly, archaeological projects incorporate a digital component. While the concept of ‘digital’ in archaeology extends beyond software, developing expert IT knowledge can help you be an attractive candidate for a wide range of positions. I recommend browsing job postings (of jobs you would eventually be interested in) and surveying what IT skills are being sought after.

There is a wide range of digital technology that is applied in archaeology. I recommend getting exposure and basic working knowledge of as many types of digital programs as you can. In terms of expert knowledge, I suggest focusing your energy on one type of digital technology as an undergraduate. Within that technology group, I suggest learning how to navigate at least one proprietary and one open source software version. For example:

  • Computer mapping via GIS (Geographic Information Systems): ESRI ArcGIS (proprietary) + QGIS or GRASS GIS (open source)
  • Photo-editing: Adobe Photoshop (proprietary) + GIMP (open source)
  • Statistical analysis: SPSS (proprietary) + R (open source)

For certain technology groups, there might be a program that is dominantly used among archaeologists. In that case, I suggest focusing your energy on learning the software that is the current industry standard. Nonetheless, I highly recommend learning at least one alternative. Why? You’re developing digital expertise for a purpose that might not be covered in one computer program. While there are powerful programs out there, they might not cover or fit a project’s needs. In addition to expertly using software, knowing the technological options for a task and being able to decide what’s the best technological fit for a project, is a very desirable skill.

If you find yourself really enjoying digital applications in archaeology, I would then recommend learning a coding language (e.g., Python, Javascript, Swift, etc.). This will help you to tailor programs or create digital applications that better fit you or your project’s needs.

Closing Thoughts: A Brief Reality Check

This post is meant to provide you with a starting point for creating a solid foundation for a career in archaeology. That being said, I feel compelled to be absolutely upfront about the job market in archaeology. It’s not great. You probably already know this because most archaeologists are quite upfront about this fact. Archaeology can be quite competitive and even if you land a position, it doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from then on. Also, the pay isn’t great. Again, you probably already know this. That being said, an archaeology major, especially when you employ the aforementioned tips, can be a rewarding field of study that can set you up with numerous skills that can be translated into careers outside the discipline. Translating your skills to other fields can be challenging and many of us still struggle with doing this; however, it’s important. Future posts will be devoted to this topic, but in the meantime, remember it’s possible and it’s something that you should be actively thinking about as you pursue your undergraduate degree.

If you are an undergraduate interested in archaeology and would like more tips, check out my posts that contain undergraduate advice.

Have more questions? Let me know if the comments section below.

This post was updated in March 2018

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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