At Large  March 23, 2022  Danielle Vander Horst

Want to Become an Archaeologist? A PhD Student Offers Insight

Danielle Vander Horst.

Excavation of certain physical features often requires archaeologists to get creative with digging methodologies. Wells, cisterns, and other subterranean features can be particularly challenging.

So, you want to be an archaeologist. Great! Welcome to the field! But before we begin, a few questions. What kind of archaeologist do you want to be? Classical? Anthropological? Historical? Do you want to work with ceramics? Metal tools? Urban structures? Domestic spaces? Human remains? Do you want to excavate? Teach? Work in restoration? 

Suffice it to say, there is no one kind of archaeologist to be and the directions that your studies can take you are too numerous to count. Archaeology is a diverse field with countless sub-disciplines and research specialties, and yes, there is always something new to find. 

Now, for the sake of perspective, it bears stating that I am a PhD student of classical archaeology, meaning I study the ancient Mediterranean past—particularly the portion involving the Romans. I am by no means an expert on the educational or career paths of, for example, a zooarchaeologist or a paleoethnobotanist, or even any other classical archaeologist. Everyone’s educational journey is unique and will not and should not follow the exact same paths. I am also not a professor nor am I a university official.

This article is not admissions advice, and it is not even necessarily academic advice. Rather, it offers a general view of different aspects of the field and what it’s like to be in graduate school for archaeology. In that regard, much of what I write here will be geared towards classical archaeology specifically. 

Courtesy of Danielle Vander Horst.

Dani Vander Horst (PhD student, Duke University) holding a fully intact vessel from excavations at Vulci, Italy.

If your own archaeological interests lie outside the classical world, I urge you to do some digging (pun intended) on current research in the area you are most interested in. Poking around on university faculty pages is great way to do this and most scholars are happy to answer questions about their work.  

Within the American university system, there are very few ‘Departments of Archaeology’ that operate as independent units—these are much more common in European universities. More often, archaeology degree tracks exist within other departments (Classics, Anthropology, History, Near Eastern studies, etc.) or collaborative institutes that draw upon the course offerings and faculty rosters of multiple departments.

Such institutions tend to cater more to graduate students than undergraduates. For undergraduates, it can be difficult to advise how best to approach a career in archaeology simply because the field is so inherently interdisciplinary and so few dedicated undergraduate archaeology programs exist. In general, my advice would be to think about what interests you. What time period? What cultures? What types of materials or topics do you find interesting? Not a single graduate program in archaeology expects any student to enter as an expert and they remain well aware that prospective students will come in with a diverse array of educational backgrounds.

For classical archaeology specifically, however, there are patterns. Many of these students enter graduate school with some undergraduate background in classics or ancient history. The biggest reason for this is the need for ancient language skills.

Classical archaeologists straddle the roles of archaeologist and classicist. On the one hand, we must have solid foundations in both Greek and Roman archaeology (yes, they are different). On the other hand, we must be proficient enough in Ancient Greek and/or Latin to teach them at the undergraduate level—a standard requirement within Classics departments across the country.

Many doctoral students thus find ways to gain their language expertise prior to entry into their programs as PhD requirements do not allow you the time to learn even one of the languages from scratch. If your undergraduate institution has a classics department, taking Latin and Greek as early as possible will save you loads of time and the potential need for either intensive self-study or the costs of a post-bac or Master’s degree. That said, should you have the means to make it work, master's level study can be a fruitful and eye-opening prelude to doctoral work, allowing you to be sure that the field you chose is one you can commit another half a decade or more to. 

Danielle Vander Horst.

The Vulci 3000 Project 2021 Field Season excavation team. Left to right: Alessandro Conti, Enrico Sartini, Antonio LoPiano, Anne-Lise Baylé, Laura Sagripanti, Nevio Danelon, Margarida Rodrigues, Fabio Fiori, Dani Vander Horst, Maurizio Forte, Elisa Biancifiori, Fabio Fiocchi, Sonia Tomczak.

For instance, Duke University PhD student Tara Wells decided to hone her ancient language skills at the Master’s level before applying to PhD programs so that she could decide confidently if she wanted to study “just the languages or if [she] wanted to shift and look more towards material culture.” At the end of the day, she chose material culture and history over philology. Still, she says that the MA was “helpful either way since most programs still require ancient languages” and it created space for her to “focus on the archaeological and material topics.”

Within doctoral programs, the general shape of things is typically 2-2.5 years of coursework and preliminary exams in modern languages and ancient languages (for classical archaeologists), followed by a year or so of special topic exams and the early stages of dissertation planning, and then the dissertation itself.

Scattered throughout this time are various teaching duties required by your department and it is usually expected that you will spend your summers doing something to further your professional or academic goals. Many PhD candidates will indeed excavate, but so too will many take topic intensive programs, intern at museums, or spend time working on their language skills both modern and ancient. 

For those of us who do excavate, very often the image is what one might expect: cargo pant-clad, trowel-wielding, possibly sunburnt, definitely dusty people scraping away dirt layer by layer. The work is hard and physically demanding. Excavations can also be remote and often have tricky terrain, thus making it a challenge for some students to participate in fieldwork equally. The costs of attending a project can also be quite high. 

Much excavating is still done the traditional way with wheelbarrows and pickaxes, however, advances in modern excavation technologies such as LiDAR, GPR, and photogrammetry make the physical challenges of fieldwork easier to overcome, sometimes circumventing the need to dig at all. There are also many projects with dedicated lab staff who work only with certain classes of materials or cataloging finds. These individuals will not necessarily engage in active digging. Summer programs that offer material-specific training are also prevalent and provide the opportunity to work with genuine materials outside of the excavation setting. 

Geophysical sensory testing such as the kind done at the Vulci 3000 Project
Danielle Vander Horst.

Geophysical sensory testing such as the kind done at the Vulci 3000 Project.

Some archaeological digging can become quite deep and difficult to maneauver in such as this area at the Vulci 3000 Project which measured well over 3 meters deep by the end of the 2021 season.
Danielle Vander Horst.

Some archaeological digging can become quite deep and difficult to maneauver in such as this area at the Vulci 3000 Project which measured well over 3 meters deep by the end of the 2021 season.

Archaeologists hard at work uncovering architectural and materials remains at Vulci, Italy.
Danielle Vander Horst.

Archaeologists hard at work uncovering architectural and materials remains at Vulci, Italy.

There is much, much more to being a graduate student in archaeology, but so much of what goes into this experience are your professors, your department, your peers, and your institution as a whole. 

Funding is a large part of how one’s experience plays out and not every program is funded equally. Some schools guarantee a full stipend and tuition coverage for 5-6 years while others have a limited pool of competitive funding that is not guaranteed. Additionally, not every school offers degrees at the doctoral level. 

The Archaeological Institute of America keeps a list of all American universities that offer degrees in archaeology and at what degree level. It is worth a look if you’re considering graduate school.

After graduate school, the traditional assumption has been that PhD students would aim to stay within the academy and become professors themselves. While this is certainly the goal for many, the realities of the job market are such that strict career pigeonholing can be detrimental. Academic careers are increasingly difficult to come by, especially the ever-coveted tenure-track positions. Thus, it is lately more common for graduate schools to help train their doctoral students for careers outside of academia and to aid them in making their academic skills transferrable to any number of fields. Today, there are many archaeology PhDs and MAs who seek employment in museums or secondary education, but also in areas further afield—such as publishing or consulting. 

As I said before, there are a number of ways to be an archaeologist or study archaeological topics. At the end of the day, I believe it’s just like any other field and the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing what you love. If you can say that, then you’re on the right track. 

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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