The SAA archaeological record — September 2010
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Student Affairs Committee: Advice For Prospective Graduate Students
Cerisa R. Reynolds And John C. Willman

Cerisa Reynolds is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Iowa. John Willman is a graduate student in the Department of
Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Both are members of the Student Affairs Committee.

If you plan on going to graduate school, you will likely need to spend much of your undergraduate career preparing for it. While there is no definitive checklist of experiences that will automatically get you in to a graduate program or make you a successful graduate student, what follows is a list of things that will (1) teach you invaluable information and/or skills essential to various careers in archaeology, (2) prepare you for the exciting challenge that is graduate school, and (3) help you become a more competitive applicant when applying for graduate programs.

Utilize Your Professor’s Office Hours

Office hours are generally underutilized and underappreciated by undergraduates, and paradoxically they are among the most useful resources available to students that wish to pursue graduate studies. Office hours not only allow you to clarify issues and topics discussed in lecture, but they also provide a chance to ask your professors for more information on a particular subject that interests you. Try asking them to tell you more about their research and how they became interested in archaeology, and ask them for advice on beginning your own archaeological career.

Get Experience

Professors often have several projects for students to work on— ranging from fieldwork to cleaning and processing artifacts and data. Opportunities are not equally available in every department, which makes contact with your professors all the more important since they often know how you can get involved with projects in cooperating departments or universities, find positions with cultural resource management (CRM) firms, or discover a field school that suits your interests. In addition, many study abroad programs and international field schools are available to anthropology majors. Check with your professors or your school’s study abroad coordinator and you will probably be surprised at the variety of projects and locations to choose from.

Fieldwork. Taking a field school is one of the best things you can do as an undergraduate. Everything you have read about and heard about in your classes comes to life in the field, and having a chance to learn it all in a field- school setting can be an incredibly rewarding experience (see Piscitelli and Duwe 2007).Most archaeological jobs require you to have successfully completed a field school prior to being hired, and it is recommended by many that you complete a field school before graduate school (see Neusius 2009). In addition, as a student at a field school, you will likely make many professional connections with people you may be working with for years to come. Perhaps, most importantly, taking a field school will allow you to make sure that archaeology is really what you want to do; this is an excellent thing to figure out before signing several years of your life away to a graduate program. After taking your first field school, you should try to get additional field experience. Since most jobs in archaeology today are CRM positions, getting CRM experience as early as possible is a good idea.

Laboratory Experience. Getting some experience in a laboratory setting prior to graduate school will allow you to become familiar with a variety of analytical methods and material types early in your archaeological career. Taking a course that teaches you the basics of processing and analyzing archaeological remains is an excellent way to begin this process, and a class that requires you to complete an artifact analysis of your own could be particularly beneficial. Volunteering for lab positions is another wonderful way to make connections and get laboratory experience.Entering graduate school with a hands- on familiarity of laboratory basics will make your graduate experience much more comfortable. In addition, you just might find your calling— and a collection to study for your M.A. and/or Ph.D.—while working in a lab prior to graduate school.


As an aspiring archaeologist you should start joining professional organizations, be thinking about publishing your research (see Frame and Duwe 2009; Gifford and Bigelow 2002) and start trying to meet people you hope to someday work with.Perhaps your school has courses geared toward teaching students how to be successful interviewees, give an effective publicPresentation, network, or develop a resume. If so, take these and make the most of them— they really can help you become a better, more attractive applicant to graduate programs.

Attend Archaeological Meetings. Presenting your research at archaeological meetings is a fundamental part of being a professional archaeologist and provides you with immediate feedback from colleagues. As an undergraduate, nothing holds you back from participating in most meetings and attendance is often encouraged. Talk with your department’s professors and graduate students to see how you might put a presentation together for a meeting based on work you have done or would like to do. You could also check with the conference organization to see if there are any volunteer positions available, as this is a great way to meet people and become familiar with the structure of an archaeological conference.

The Curriculum Vita. The curriculum vita (CV) (your professional resume) is an incredibly important component of the professionalization process and you should begin making yours as soon as possible. If a course addressing the formation of a CV is not offered in your department, several options are available: talk with people in your department for advice on how to construct a good CV, look online at how your professors or other archaeological professionals have formatted their Cvs, or go to your school’s career center. A CV should include any fieldwork you have done, your lab or volunteer experiences, any scholarships or awards you have received, any conferences you have volunteered for and/or presented at, and any academic positions you have held. It is important to make sure that your CV presents your history and your experiences— or, why you are a good candidate for a position or program— in an attractive and coherent manner.

Choosing Undergraduate Course Work

Challenge Yourself. Graduate school is no easy feat for most people, and making sure that you are up to the challenge will make life easier on you in the future. Do this by taking large course loads, upper- level courses, and advanced lab and/or research and writing classes. If you are in a department that has a graduate program, enrolling in graduate- level courses is one of the best ways to prepare for graduate school. Having a job while also being a student is one excellent— if often stressful and unavoidable— way to learn how to manage your time, so think of this too as preparation for your future career as a graduate student. Ensuring that you are able to cope with a difficult schedule and many course requirements will help you overcome the shock of graduate school. (This is a difficult line to walk, though, as you do not want to overwork yourself and wind up exhausted— rather than rested, excited, and prepared— when you begin graduate school.)

Take a Variety of Courses. In graduate school, you will likely only have time to take a rather small and streamlined list of required courses, so taking a large variety of courses while you can is a good idea. This will be beneficial not only for your personal happiness and development but also for increasing your academic breadth. For starters, remember that anthropology is a four- field discipline, and even if— depending upon your department and program— you may not be required to take sociocultural, linguistic, or biological anthropology courses, taking classes in these anthropological subfields will help you gain a holistic appreciation of the human past and present. In addition to taking various classes within the anthropology department, now is also the time to take classes from any other discipline that interests you. Many geology, history, and writing- based classes, for instance, are not only interesting but also quite useful in an archaeological career. In fact, archaeology is a discipline well known for borrowing techniques developed in other fields and has an ever- increasing focus on interdisciplinary work. Developing an interdisciplinary appreciation as an undergraduate can open doors for collaborative work in the future.

Writing, Writing, Writing. One of the most valuable things you can do before applying to graduate school is to master the art of writing a good paper. Take courses designed to teach you how to write a research paper, meet with your instructors to talk about how to improve your writing style, and make sure that you learn how to write both technical and less technical reports. Of course, paying attention to how articles, books, and other reports are written will help you in your quest to improve your own writing, as will reading various guides to critical thinking, synthesizing data, and presenting your argument (see Kintigh2005) . Being able to write effectively will help you succeed in undergraduate courses, be a valuable employee in many academic or non- academic archaeological settings, and be a very competitive applicant for graduate school.

Time Off

Taking some time off from school after finishing a bachelor’s degree can be very important to some students and has many advantages. First, most graduate programs require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Taking coursework while studying for the GRE may not be possible for everyone, and many students choose to take the test more than once to improve their scores. Having a free semester or two before graduate school could provide you with adequate time to prepare for and potentially retake the GRE. Second, not all of us know that we want to pursue archaeology from the moment we start college.If you only became serious about a career in archaeology in the last year or two of your short time as an undergraduate, some extra time to gain more experience or explore your specific interests is particularly significant. Time away from school to make a bit of extra money for the application process and mov-Ing expenses once accepted is also a necessity for many transitioning students. Finally, some students are worried that once out of school they will not want to return. If this is the case, it may very well be that graduate school is not the right choice to begin with and finding this out earlier rather than later is very useful.

Closing Note

Each person’s journey to graduate school will be different, but if you really want to become a graduate student, you have to work hard at it, you have to seek out various opportunities, mentors, and projects, and you need to push yourself to do more (often much more) than is required or even expected of you as an undergraduate. Graduate school is not easy, and neither is the professionalization process that often gets you to graduate school, but the experiences along the way are amazing, the people you meet are incredible, and each difficult task you complete is likely to further fuel your passion for archaeology. The quality that often sets one applicant apart from another is experience— so meet with professors, talk with graduate students, volunteer, or create your own way to get more involved in archaeology. Put your best self forward, approach each situation with drive and vigor, pay attention to what other people have done to succeed, and most importantly, never be afraid to ask for help or advice. Those around you want nothing but good things for you and the field of archaeology, and we wish you the best of luck in your graduate career.

References Cited

Frame, Lesley, and Sam Duwe 2009 The Where’s, Why’s, and How’s of Student Publishing. The SAA Archaeological Record 9(4):36–37.

Gifford, Chad, and Lauren Bigelow 2002 Students, Make your Mark: Strategies for Journal Publishing.

The SAA Archaeological Record 2(5):9–10.

Kintigh, Keith W. 2005 Analyses and Archaeological Argumentation. The SAA Archaeological Record 5(4):33–35.

Neusius, Sarah W. 2009 Changing the Curriculum: Preparing Archaeologists for Careers in Applied Archaeology. The SAA Archaeological Record 9(1):18–22.

Piscitelli, Matthew, and Samuel Duwe 2007 Choosing an Archaeological Field School. The SAA Archaeological Record 7(1):9–11.