Academic Labour Market in Swedish Archaeology Stinks

Two pieces of news to illustrate the state of the academic labour market in Swedish archaeology.

The good news is that an old coursemate of mine has secured a teaching job. He’s 46, he completed his PhD in 1999, he’s got a decent publication record, he has solid teaching experience and he has unusually ample formal training in university pedagogics.

The bad news is that the job he has been given is 30% of full time … limited to a period of four months … in a city located 580 km from where he lives with his wife.

Dear Reader, are you by any chance a professional academic? Would somebody with this kind of qualifications in your field need to apply for a job like that?

Another symptom of the same thing is a 41-y-o colleague who completed her PhD in 2001. She’s currently studying to become an archivist.

The system is broken, churning out tens of new archaeology PhDs every year despite the fact that none of them can be employed. Just Say No, kids!

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25 thoughts on “Academic Labour Market in Swedish Archaeology Stinks

  1. Well, another good reason why I should not get a PHD, I guess. Hey, I get better jobs as seasonal museums teacher! And probably more fun jobs aswell.


  2. The whole academic research system is of the “up or out” kind, where at each step you advance in sometimes harsh competition, or fall out. The situation you describe above is noteworthy because it is extreme, but still, it’s the same problem shared by people in other research fields.

    And the main problem isn’t the system itself, but that the early steps don’t prepare people for careers outside the academic ladder – and we don’t ask for such preparation, or even take the time to find out beforehand where most people with our training tend to end up. Frankly, the PhD training should be amended to allow for wider career choices (why isn’t archivist training offered as an optional side course for instance) and the perceived stigma of leaving academic work needs to go.


  3. Jan, we’ve had this conversation before. I’ll just repeat my opinion that the solution to the problem is not to make those useless career tracks a little less useless, but to minimise access to them. It is neither good for society nor for individuals that public funding is spent in giving people unmarketable skills.


  4. Yeah. The whole system is pretty screwed in many ways, and we’ve known about it for a long time.

    The thing is, even though professors give lip service to changing, they have incentive not to change it. One of the ways in which a professor is judged is by the number and “quality” of grad students he or she advices. Here, “quality” means “goes on in the field to achieve recognition and spread the name of the University.”

    This means that departments have incentive to keep trying to expand the size of their graduate program, and that they have a strong incentive to try and encourage all of their students to go on in the field. Some of this is just natural enthusiasm; I’ve been there, and know that it’s easy to forget realism when thinking about how a student could go on to be really good in the field. But some of it is also self-fear, the recognition that you’re going to be considered unworthy at every level if you don’t have an increasing list of grad students you advised who went on to do great things.

    The reward system for professors is set up to propagate the unpleasantness for graduate students and post-docs. No matter how much lip service we give it, it will never change until Universities wake up to the fact that their policies are based in an age a few decades past, and that their uber-competitiveness is extracting a human cost at odds with their stated missions.

    I, for one, am not optimistic. Because, see, the oversupply of people willing to go and get these PhDs and to go on and try a career in academia means that the Universities aren’t hurting. They’ve got plenty of great people looking to do the things they want, so why should they change the rate of their PhD production? Yes, it screws over people who spend a big fraction of their life making sacrifices to work towards something, but the Universities aren’t feeling the pain.


  5. Rationing doesn’t work; Sweden does it for medical personnel still and the end result is large swings between oversupply and lack. And lately, motivated students simply sidestep the system by studying in Denmark or Poland instead.

    And as Rob points out above (and I did in my previous comment), the academic system beyond PhD level assumes lots of people at the bottom level, and heavy attrition at steps along the way. Changing access to PhD studies won’t alter the fact that most of us will end up outside academia at some point. And since most PhD students will do a non-academic career eventually, wouldn’t it make sense to give them some level of preparation for that?


  6. Your Polish MD scenario is not a good analogy. Medicine is global. Archaeology is regional. A motivated student who went to Warsaw to do an archaeology PhD would have to stay in Poland to find a market for their skills.

    The academic system in small subjects does not assume lots of people at the bottom level when looking at the concrete case of Sweden. The system has changed through time. Up until the mid 80s, jobs were few on all levels of Swedish archaeology and students were equally few. Since then, we have had a situation where jobs are still almost as few as before, but where student numbers on all levels have ballooned. Because 19-y-os are allowed to make irrational or insufficiently informed choices.

    If you remove the useless bits from an archaeology PhD and replace them with useful ones, you get an MD, an MBA or a law degree.


  7. Martin, perhaps your post is following up another that I haven’t read, but I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to suggest. It sounds as if you’re in favor only teaching the number of students as there are academic positions, which would be only one student (your replacement), maybe two if a school expands its program. Can you elaborate on what you’re proposing as a solution? Thanks.

    I’m not an academic archaeologist (though I do work for an academic institution). Even here, there aren’t enough positions for aspiring students. Many of them find that they really don’t like doing archaeology and drop out to pursue other interests. Those that do like it find a way to do it. All that education isn’t training you for a position, it’s training you to be able to know and do archaeology.

    Are there other avenues to do archaeology in Sweden?


  8. User, the one who currently provides the opportunity for people to do archaeology PhDs is your Nanny State. I’m suggesting that Nanny State should limit this opportunity.

    M-drifter, Sweden produces far too many archaeologists on all degree levels from BA upward. What little employment there is, exists in contract archaeology on the highway construction projects. Here you only need an MA. A PhD is useful at seven university departments, a few museums and three or four central offices of contract archaeology units.

    The solution I’m suggesting is to limit sharply the availability of degree courses in archaeology. Sure, let’s continue to allow students to study two terms of the subject, in order, as you say, “to be able to know and do archaeology”. But it is neither in society’s nor the individuals’ best interest to keep producing overeducated bus drivers.


  9. Fair enough. I’d rather be an overeducated bus driver. There’s a lot of archaeological work that needs to get done that isn’t covered by a job position. It’d be a good way to spend my weekend and evenings and, being overeducated, I could still bust out professional-quality results.

    CRM jobs here also only require an MA, although I’ve started to notice a little qualification creep towards the doctorate for higher-level positions. I often wonder, though. If an MA is good enough to do the job, what does a PhD give you above that? I only have an MA, so I can’t really tell. OTOH, I see a lot of BAs running around who don’t see what an MA has to offer, beyond the extra job qualification. Is the difference between a PhD and a MA only job qualifications? I would hope not.


  10. You are of course right that it’s great for archaeology that there are loads of people in all walks of life who understand it. But I’m more concerned about the well-being of people than that of academic subjects. And I’d like to be able to contribute something to society that people actually want.

    In my opinion, there is little reason to employ PhDs in CRM (“Cultural Resource Management” or “Heritage Management”, Sw. kulturmiljövård). Spending those years in the field instead of in grad school gives you more useful knowledge as a contract archaeologist.


  11. My dear boy, I think you’ll find that there isn’t a single private university in the world that offers a degree in Swedish archaeology. You see, there are no private universities in Sweden.


  12. When I was an archaeology undergraduate, one of the biggest jokes was that the book on careers advice for qualified archaeologists was very thin and all the pages were blank.

    In fact there was actually a book on careers in archaeology in the Institute of Archaeology Library, and while the pages weren’t blank, the whole ‘book’ was only four pages long.

    Getting a job in archaeology at all is difficult enough, and earning any real money (or at least enough to pay mortagages, buy shoes for the kids, etc) is even more difficult. Which is why I’m happy I got my PhD, but have no illusions about the chances of getting paid to actually use it.

    Swedish archaeology career prospects suck? All archaeology career prospects suck.

    The only good thing is at least we are not Egyptologists..with them it’s dead mens shoes.


  13. I’m happy I got my PhD

    Please explain — why?

    Am I happy for my PhD? Yes, because it allows me to get those grants that keep me as a full-time private scholar, which I enjoy. But it only works because I have really cheap habits and nobody else is attempting to live the way I do. And I certainly don’t recommend anyone else to paint themselves into the same corner.


  14. User, the one who currently provides the opportunity for people to do archaeology PhDs is your Nanny State. I’m suggesting that Nanny State should limit this opportunity.

    Surely the Nanny State doesn’t force anyone to choose that career path. Are you suggesting that students be protected from themselves?


  15. Yes, exactly. 19-y-os don’t have the necessary information to make wise career choices that will come to fruition later when they are in a vastly different life situation. And regardless of their wishes, it is not in the common interest to produce expensive academics with useless specialisations. There should be a negative feedback loop from specialised unemployment rates to university degree availability.


  16. Dear Reader, are you by any chance a professional academic? Would somebody with this kind of qualifications in your field need to apply for a job like that?

    Basically, yes. I’m a medieval historian in the UK, and although some people do have dream career progressions still–B. A., M. Phil., Ph. D., research fellowship, temporary lectureship, permanent lectureship, sometimes even all through the same University (though really only Oxford and Cambridge can still manage that), it’s not very many. Most of us come in somewhere between that and your contact’s scenario, but certainly their situation sounds familiar to me. I’ve been lucky enough to acquire some IT skills that keep me going on the fringe that is `computing in the humanities’, but without those I would have had to apply for many jobs along those lines, and there would have been stiff competition for them. Most of my friends in the field have done better however.

    One thing you said that puzzles me: is Swedish archaeology really so defensively parochial as to be inaccessible to outsiders? My impression of archaeology in the UK is that skills are portable; so with the right training you could be expected to be a reasonable archaeologist anywhere once you’d read up a bit. People from the UK go on to be archaeologists of many different areas, ancient, medieval and modern. Certainly your example of someone doing a Ph.D. in Warsaw and then being stuck with Polish archaeology seems odd to me. Is the UK a special case?


  17. The UK is a special case: you guys act as if you still had an empire.

    In Scandinavia, hardly any academic archaeology jobs are given to foreigners (even from neighbouring countries) these days. Basically, the “once you’ve read up a bit” aspect means that a foreign scholar has a very hard time competing with the many highly qualified domestic applicants. Generally, an academic job here entails at least some teaching of Scandy archaeology, and departments tend to want someone who knows more than the textbook when they start.

    The situation would be different if our labour market weren’t so over-saturated.


  18. The UK is a special case: you guys act as if you still had an empire.

    I guess linguistically we still sort of do – here you are blogging in English, after all, for which I’m very grateful. That probably makes more difference than I remember to bear in mind. But I have to admit that it’s depressing to find other places have it tougher than my lot.

    Well, may the New Year bring better success for us all whatever part of the past we like and however we like to get at it, eh.


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