How the sausage gets made

I’ve had several people contact me with an interest in doing archaeological research in Cambodia and questions about becoming an archaeologist.  Although I’ve discussed this a bit in this post, I realized that not a lot of people know what it’s like to be an archaeologist.  So, I thought I’d take some time to detail my experiences and explain what it is I actually do. Your regularly scheduled news and insights into Cambodian archaeology will return after this post.


Working with Royal University of Fine Arts students in Cambodia

Becoming an “archaeologist” almost always means attending graduate school to get a PhD. This is especially true if one wants to eventually run ones own project.*  In the United States, with very few exceptions, an archaeology PhD is undertaken in an anthropology department, as archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology. Getting a PhD in the United States can be expensive and is definitely time-consuming.  The average time to complete a PhD in Anthropology is about eight years.  A wise person would not undertake this process without guaranteed funding.  I was not wise. I started my PhD in 2004, before it seemed clear that the job market was tanking and with the idea that my drive and passion would lead me straight into a job that would allow me to pay off my loans. I did end up get quite a bit of funding for my education, but the majority of my early years were not funded.** 

As a graduate student in archaeology, you probably really want to be doing archaeological fieldwork. And certainly, you need training in how to do fieldwork and undertake various specializations within the field.  You frequently get this experience by working with your PhD supervisor on their project, or finding your way onto someone else’s project.***  In my experience, your room and board are usually covered in these circumstances, in exchange for your labor and (growing) expertise. Sometimes your airfare might be covered (mine sometimes was and sometimes wasn’t).  You are never, ever, paid a salary. You are frequently expected to contribute to the project in someway, by writing up your excavation report, doing analysis of some kind and writing it up, or working on a particular facet of the project for your dissertation.

Once you’ve received your PhD, you are now in a position to be a P.I. (Principal Investigator) on your own archaeological project.  This means you apply for (and hopefully receive) funding to undertake archaeological research on your own research question (all archaeological research is question or hypothesis driven). Your name is at the top of the masthead, so to speak, and you get all the associated prestige and headaches that come from running one’s own project.  You want to do this for a few reasons. Firstly, this is probably the reason you went into archaeology in the first place, so you could be an archaeologist and do archaeology.  Secondly, you need to show that you are doing active, exciting, fundable research in order to get a tenure-track job at a university.

Most of my fieldwork as a graduate student was with the brilliant Miriam Stark, and in working on her projects I took on more and more responsibility until I felt comfortable running my own project. It is my sincere belief that one should not run one’s own project without such an apprenticeship. There is a lot to manage in running a fieldwork project and you should really know what you’re doing before taking it on.

I applied for a National Geographic grant two times to be a P.I. on my own run my own archaeological project [edit – I said “run my own” but of course doing archaeology is intensely collaborative and could not be done without many supportive and smart colleagues] studying household archaeology at Angkor Wat and received it the second time I applied. This was a wonderful experience. The grant I applied for was, I think fairly typical. It funded about 6 weeks of fieldwork including equipment, supplies, the hiring of local workmen to assist with excavation, lunch in the field, airfare for myself, a few students, and three research collaborators, room and board for myself, a few students, and my research collaborators.  Larger grants fund longer field seasons, larger excavations and staff, and multi-year projects.  Now that my fieldwork is done, my collaborators and I are doing lab work and starting to write-up our results. Before I do fieldwork again, I’ll need to apply for another grant to fund my project.

I want to be clear, again, that I did not receive a salary and salaries are typically not part of grants for archaeological research. In theory, if one has a tenure-track job at a university, one is receiving a salary for that work.  At the time I undertook my fieldwork last year, I was unemployed.  I taught one course at my alma mater for a couple semesters, but that spring semester there were no courses available and I ended up taking a couple temp positions. While I was in the field, I was offered a Visiting Assistant Professor position at my current institution. If that hadn’t come through, I would’ve returned home having successfully completed an excavation within the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat funded by National Geographic, but been unemployed.  This is the state of the academic job market in archaeology.

My case is perhaps atypical from how things have normally run, but is I think, becoming increasingly common.  Running a fieldwork project only covers  about 2-3 months of the year and normally archaeologists then return to their universities where they are a professor for the remaining 9 months.

Being a professor is the other side of the coin. This past year I taught two classes a semester, with classes ranging from 6 students to 400 students. It is hard to describe how much work it takes to prepare for a class, especially as a new professor. Although I hear it gets better each semester, I was totally overwhelmed by preparing for new courses. I work pretty much non-stop from about 8am until 11pm, with only an hour or two here and there to zone out in front of the TV, cook dinner, or try to exercise. I give myself a few hours on the weekends to relax, but am mostly working then too. I had/have little time for my own research and writing.****


I actually don’t mind this schedule that much because I really love what I do and I feel immensely lucky to be doing it. I like teaching, I like learning new things to tell my students, I love doing research and writing. I do fantasize about what it would be like to have a 9-5 job where you shut your computer in the evening and don’t think about work on the weekends. I do occasionally get burned out and want to do nothing but watch Netflix for a couple of days. But I also get antsy being on vacation for more than a few days in a row. I don’t have kids, so I don’t mind throwing myself into this work. But it’s not for everyone. You should definitely not become an archaeologist for money, as the experience may end up costing you more than it makes you. You also should think carefully about becoming an archaeologist for love, because it’s easy to exploit your labor when you love doing something. I get approached fairly regularly to supply my expertise to projects for free or cheap.^  I usually turn them down because a) I know my education and expertise are worth something now, I can’t just be nice or take on a project because it sounds interesting and b) I need to be selfish about doing things that will get me a more permanent job.^^

When I started this blog I was in Cambodia for almost a year doing my dissertation research. Now that I’m done, my time in Cambodia is limited to 2-3 months a year (although my heart and mind are frequently there in spirit).  With the spring semester coming to a close, I hope to write here more frequently.  However you can also keep up with me on Twitter and my new Alison in Cambodia Facebook page.

If you have more questions about how the sausage is made or would like to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments below!


*Secret fact: The more responsibility you get on a project the less actual digging you get to do (the fun part) and the more management, accounting, and paperwork you are responsible for. It’s way more fun to stay low on the totem pole.

** If you can, marry someone wealthy or find a rich benefactor to sponsor your research (joking, mostly).  I did not marry someone wealthy, but I did marry someone who is gainfully employed not in academia. That has allowed us some flexibility.

***I feel compelled to mention here, recent studies about sexual harassment in the field.  I was sexually harassed by a male supervisor in a fieldwork situation. I am glad this dialogue is taking place and anyone participating in fieldwork should make sure that the project has a clear sexual harassment policy.

**** Or writing blog posts. Another fun fact –  despite many universities/colleges declaring their dedication to teaching, being a dynamo teacher will rarely get you a tenure-track job. Tenure-track jobs are gotten by having a strong research and publishing record, with teaching excellence being fairly minor. I spend perhaps too much time on my teaching and I’ve been told to be careful that it doesn’t get in the way of my research and publication schedule.

^ I’m open to people approaching me about these kinds of interesting projects. I might say yes! But please don’t be offended if I say no.

^^There are non-academic jobs in archaeology, but you don’t usually need a PhD to get these jobs.


3 responses to “How the sausage gets made

  1. Great post Alison. I have recently met some biological anthropologists who work 4/4. How on earth they do that is beyond me (they are pretty much research inactive). I also have a high teaching load, and it seems to take me a long time to prepare, even when I have taught the material before. However it does get easier … until you have to develop a new course or step in for others! Cheers, Sian

    • I think I would fall over dead from exhaustion teaching a 4/4 load. Hearing that it does get easier over time makes me feel better though!

  2. philipcoggan

    Thank you Alison. My daughter is doing a Doctorate in zoology/ecology, same story caqreer-wise except the object of study has legs and can bite.