How is US Archaeology Organised?

Here’s a really good primer on the institutional landscape of US archaeology by Michael Dietler. Some of the perspectives he offers are just mind-boggling.

“There are at least 450 colleges and universities in the United States that offer a B.A degree in anthropology … . Of those institutions, 98 universities offer PhD programs in Anthropology” [which includes archaeology].

Imagine a country where an archaeology PhD has hundreds of potential academic employers, all of them speaking the same language… If I looked at the nearest 450 undergrad programs measured radially from my home, I’d find them being taught in about 20 different languages all over northern Europe, of which I understand six and speak only two reasonably well.

In the US, there are about 1.5 undergrad programs and 0.3 PhD programs in archaeology for every one million inhabitants. In Sweden there are eight undergrad programs and five PhD programs, translating to 0.9 and 0.6 per one million inhabitants. The US and Swedish figures aren’t necessarily commensurable, since we don’t know if an average US archaeology subdepartment has a similar level of student throughput and teacher involvment per student as an average Swedish one. But we can probably assume that the Swedish figures are very high seen in the global perspective. Thus it looks like the US has a strangely high output per capita of anthropology BAs. What on Earth can they be using them all for!?

Sweden, meanwhile, seems to have twice the US output per capita of archaeology PhDs. Here, we know what they are used for: they’re re-trained as archivists and librarians or sent back to their old digger jobs on the highway projects.

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9 thoughts on “How is US Archaeology Organised?

  1. The comparison of number of undergraduate and Ph.D. programs in the US and Sweden does not necessarily imply a similar comparison in number of degrees awarded. Here in the US there are, for historical reasons, a large number of small undergraduate-only universities (including most but not all of the ones using “College” in their name), and the universities that offer Ph.D. programs are on average much larger than the ones that don’t. There are more than 3000 universities throughout the US, of which only a few hundred offer Ph.D. programs in any field.

    I’m not familiar with the Swedish system, and of course the Swedish universities I have heard of would be the larger ones with Ph.D. programs (at least in my field). But my understanding is that in Sweden, and Europe generally, small undergraduate-only universities are rare to nonexistent.

    That doesn’t mean that the US is not overproducing anthropology BAs, but you cannot demonstrate this from comparing the number of programs.


  2. A couple of points. One is that I think a lot of the undergrad anthropology degrees here are in cultural/social anthropology, sometimes leading to graduate work in areas like urban planning, etc.

    Also, there are many jobs here that require a BA but don’t necessarily require a specific degree. People choose a major based on general interest, but don’t necessarily plan on a career in the field. Many anthropology (and history) majors wind up selling insurance or real estate or teaching “social studies” at the secondary level.


  3. Eric: I see, you mean that small US colleges will produce far smaller numbers of BAs that a typical university.

    Chezjake said, “People choose a major based on general interest, but don’t necessarily plan on a career in the field.” I’m sure you’re right, though I find that kind of thinking really hard to understand. Particularly when the tuition isn’t paid for by the state!

    In Sweden, to my knowledge no jobs are ever offered to anyone with an unspecific BA.


  4. In the US an undergraduate degree is a social marker as much as a level of education. If you don’t have a BA or BS, you are out of the running for certain classes of jobs. It isn’t as restrictive as the old English public school system; the American system offers all sorts of alternate routes and second chances.
    A lot of Americans go to college with no particular field in mind, and often wind up working outside of their field. It often works out well. Physics majors, even those with PhD’s are notorious for founding innovative companies. (I think the Cuisinart food processor was introduced, though not invented, by a physics PhD). An anthropology degree could help you in marketing, sales, education and in any job involving work overseas.

    The next step up is the law degree. Many Americans who graduate from college and aren’t sure of what they want to do apply to law school. This is three years of legal training followed by a few months of cramming to pass the bar exam. Law school teaches theory, but you have to pass state qualifications to practice law. A huge number of people with legal training find that they do not like doing legal work. There’s a whole book on it written by a successful author who followed the law school track.

    From an economic point of view all of this seems wasteful, but it makes sense if you look at the big picture. Right now, 5% of the population can feed everyone. Another 5% could produce all the manufactured goods. If you count outsourcing, the number would be even lower. So, what do the other 90% do? One answer is to have lots of students and teachers. If you finance it right, a society could soak up all sorts of excess labor in its educational sector. (Economists recognized this back during the Great Depression, but World War II soaked up a lot of excess labor).


  5. You note that a PhD in the US has 450 potential employers – maybe. But only if the Old Guard finally retires and frees up a spot. You are then competing with several decades of their students. I once applied for a 1-year temporary position (someone was going on a sabbatical) and was one of 160+ applicants, the “majority” of whom had PhD in hand. The rest were ABD.
    Thankfully we have a robust CRM industry in this country that can always use new brains and talents. Not that many people with PhDs necessarily have the skills it takes to be a CRM archaeologist right out of their degree program! It’s not uncommon to find a newly minted PhD doing their first shovel test only after they have the degree in hand. Shameful, really. Give me a well-rounded MA or dedicated BA or BS any day of the week over the PhD with no field experience and a heftier pricetag.
    I could go on and on about 1) the glut of people with PhDs in the US relative to 2) the absolute lack of academic positions they’ve been trained for and 3) the impacts on a CRM industry reviled by many academics yet used as a safety net for each successive wave of unemployed PhDs.


  6. These folks are right about jobs like fast-food manager that just want you to have a BA, any BA. Like wise, there are folks that get an anthro BA that are in military or planning other social service (ha!) type work, because it is easy. Also, that many of the anthro BA, MA, and PhD are not in archy, but other subfields-liquistics, soc-cult, biomed-physical. But there is still a surplus of archaeologists. Just like yr situation, Martin, many will try for years to get an academic position, before giving up and going to something they can get a job in. Likewise, lots of folks will digbug for a decade or 2 or 3 before they get tired of poverty, homelessness, and backache and wind up in some low-paid other work. The CRM firms have become so centralized and corporate in the last decade, that they use largely temporary hires, who can be sent away when that job is over.

    Yeah, and about the worst is when I get a new PhD to break in and he doesn’t know how to dig a shovel test or read dirt or id and artifact or see topography or damn near anything he should know because all he has is book learning. That really ought not be allowed to happen. The proffs do the students no favor to push them thru so fast, because archy is something you learn at least as much from doing as reading. And of course it pisses me off that they are getting paid more than me, want to lord it over me because I am a nobody MA and they are an all-holy PhD, when I have to do my work and theirs, while I am training them

    The few academic jobs will go to a small subset, mostly from the old big anthro programs, to felows that have played the game right– hint, man. They don’t really give a damn how much you have published or how many lectures and presentations given, espec. if it is in state journals and grey literature.

    okey, I could go on w/this for days…but i have to get to class–civil engineering classes–because it is hard as hell to find a steady and paying archaeology job.


  7. Kaleberg said, “If you finance it right, a society could soak up all sorts of excess labor in its educational sector.”

    Yes, though I personally count that sort of thing with the entertainment industry. The reason that we have academic departments in e.g. archaeology and astronomy is that many people think those subjects are fun. Though in Sweden, the system is unbalanced, so that we produce people who can make this kind of entertainment at a much higher rate than the public wishes to consume it. This, of course, wastes a lot of tax money and leads to unemployment.


  8. RG and Mary E: The Cultural Resource Management (or “contract archaeology”) sector does soak up a lot of PhDs in Sweden too. But this is really not a good way to organise things as a) a PhD does not make you a better contract archaeologist, b) most sites touched by land development are not very interesting to a trained scientist. Archaeologists are paid to help the road engineers avoid interesting sites. For this reason, I really don’t want a CRM job. I’m a spoiled archaeologist: I go for the goodies or I don’t want to play at all.


  9. Martin – You’re right – a PhD doesn’t make one a better contract archaeologist. It doesn’t make one a better ANYTHING. I can only agree with Mary E that many docs get out of their programs unprepared to do anything other than write papers. I got my PhD while also shovelbumming through undergrad and grad school. Read the applicant’s CV and if they have no experience, pay accordingly. A well-run CRM outfit pays for experience, not degrees. In my office there is no ceiling for the MA relative to the PhD. I’ll promote the one who can do the job. I’m in a bit of a bind with BA holders unless I can grandfather them in – State regs require they be RPA… hard to get with just a BA.
    As for contract archaeology being somehow less interesting for the dirt archaeologist… maybe. I do spend very little time digging for the “goodies” as you say, but I also have found helping developers avoid our cultural resources, negotiating the myriad of Federal and State laws and regulations, and generally guiding development in a positive direction in the only way I can to be very rewarding professionally. I mean, I can’t stop a Wal-Mart from going up, but I can at least keep one from creaming some nice Paleoindian site.


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