The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Degrees and Career

I used to think that I would get a PhD. I wanted a career in academics, and that requires a PhD*. Then I went to graduate school. I had entered UC Santa Barbara's MA program intending to switch over to the PhD program if I thought I could handle it after the first year (the first two years for the MA and PhD students were essentially identical, except that the PhD students generally had more funding opportunities). At the end of the first year, I knew I could handle the PhD program, but I no Longer wanted a PhD. I saw how the faculty had to structure their lives because of their work demands, and decided that I didn't want to be an academic. Generally, if one is an archaeologist and one is not an academic, then one works in cultural resource management, and here I am today.

In order to be successful in academics, you have to live, breathe, eat, and drink your subject. Especially early in the career, when you're seeking tenure and trying to establish yourself as a researcher and a teacher, you can expect to take low-paying, lousy jobs and work to the exclusion of other parts of your life. There are people who thrive in this sort of setting, who do truly brilliant work and love the research enough to make the sacrifices. I'm not one of them. I like a steady paycheck, I like having numerous hobbies outside of work. I like having a personal life in which I get to spend significant amounts of time with my partner. In short, I like having the sort of life that an academic career would make difficult, at least until I was well into my career and had a tenured position.

What's more, there are damn few academic jobs. The last time I bothered to look up the statistics, some time around 2005, there was something in the neighborhood of 10 PhDs granted per job opening per years. And you weren't just competing for that job with the other nine people who had earned a degree that year, you were also competing with the nine people who hadn't gotten a job the year before, the nine the year before that, the nine before that, etc. By contrast, in the year before I had finished my MA, I had received an average of one unsolicited job offer per month, and I could expect to work an average of 40-50 hours per week at most of these jobs.

Now, you can certainly get a CRM job with a PhD, and many successful and excellent CRM archaeologists have such degrees, I have had the good fortune to work with many of them. But there are few, if any, CRM jobs that require that the job holder have a PhD. The reason for this is simple - the CRM industry was created by law and regulation, and while those regulations vary a bit from government agency to government agency, none of them require a Principle Investigator (the head-honcho archaeologist) to have a degree higher than an MA, which means that no other position within the hierarchy is required to have anything higher than an MA. In fact, it is usually assumed by CRM firms (rather unjustly, I might add) that if someone has a PhD, then it means that they want to be an academic but couldn't find a job, and so many hiring managers will pass up someone with a PhD in favor of someone with an MA.

Yeah, CRM was the career path for me, and an MA was the degree for me.

Strangely, not everyone saw it this way. My advisor, knowing the academic and CRM job markets, certainly was supportive of my decision. Brian Fagan, who's last year teaching was my first year as a grad student, was encouraging of both myself and the other fellow in the grad program looking at a CRM career. The people I knew who worked in CRM were all extremely encouraging, including those who were themselves working towards PhDs. However, a few other grad students and faculty members had a different attitude.

I have spoken with other people who have attended grad schools with both MA and PhD programs, and they have told me stories of just how obnoxious the PhD students could be towards the MA students. This was not my experience. While there were a small number of snobbish PhD students who treated us MA folks badly, the majority considered us colleagues and treated us no different from the other grad students, which was appropriate seeing as how the only real difference between the MA and PhD programs were that PhD students wrote a dissertation that was potentially longer and more complex than the standard MA thesis (I say potentially because several MA students, myself included, wrote MA theses that were longer and more complex than was required of the PhD dissertations).

No, the attitude that we encountered was one that was intended to be encouraging, and this good intention was appreciated, but which grew tiresome. Most of the PhD students wanted careers in academia, and were willing to put up with all that such a career entailed. Like many people who are passionate about something, they assume that other interested people are just as passionate as they are. In truth, us MA students differed from the PhD students not in terms of our merit but we were simply less passionate than them about our topic - we were not willing or interested in making the necessary sacrifices to have an academic career, but this was something that most of the nascent academics had a hard time understanding (though, again, there were a few who did get it). Of course, it didn't help that my department had a large number of people who were interested in Peruvian temples, and as such had a hard time grasping that there are, in fact, people who are genuinely interested in hunter-gatherer archaeology and not interested in massive temples.

But, again, this was at least usually an encouraging attitude. Stranger were the sorts of things that I got from family members, primarily my mother. My father granted that I had a pretty good idea of what my career required and expected that I knew what I was doing. My sisters generally got that, but occasionally would get confused and pester me about my "stopping with just a Masters degree**." My mother seems to have now accepted that I am in a line of work where an MA is the ideal degree, but from the time I started graduate school until about a year after I finished, she would routinely express her dissapointment that I wasn't earning a PhD, and kept insisting that I would be better off with a PhD than an MA even though this was demonstrably false. Her basic logic being that a PhD would open up academic jobs, and therefore give me a wider career field. Of course, as already stated, the academic job market is so terrible that opening it up only marginally widens the job search field and having a PhD often limits the willingness of CRM firms to hire a person, so having a PhD may actually reduce employment opportunities overall. It took six years of explaining this to my mother before she finally got it.

Ultimately, this seemd to be the basic pattern: people assume that a PhD is more prestigious (arguably true) and therefore will lead to greater career success (demonstrably false), and most laypeople assume that all or most archaeologists work in a research/academic setting (about as far from true as you can get and still be in the same galaxy). As a result, when people hear what I do for a living, they start addressing me as "Dr." and when I point out that I hold an MA and not a PhD, they become confused and tend to ask why I dropped out of my PhD program, never thinking that someone in my line would actually seek an MA.

So it goes.

*With the exception of teaching at community colleges, which is actually a pretty sweet gig, but for which full-time jobs are increasingly rare.

**I always found the "you only have a Masters degree" attitude to be bizarre. It's a difficult degree to get, and only a small portion of the population has it, but because people expect someone in my line of work to have a PhD (even though most of us don't), there's this weird tendency for people outside of my profession to try to shame archaeologists who have Masters degrees.


Diana said...

Once again you post about a topic that applies to other science fields. I have an MS in biochemistry and molecular biology. I was in a PhD program but after exposure to ACADEMIA I knew that wasn't the route for me. That made it easier for me to leave with "just a Master's" when I had a major fight with my PI over things like how long I was going to be in the program, how much work I needed to get done and my twice a month volunteering (which was sooo much more rewarding than the graduate work).

I'm now full time at a community college, teaching biology to adults, and in my spare time I garden, do volunteer work, make pottery, read, renovate out older home... All those things I couldn't do in ACADEMIA because I would still be working toward tenure.

Given the choice between an MS with a life and a PhD I think I made the right choice!

Now if I could just convince my dream self that I didn't quit or fail.... That PhD snobbery did get a toe hold in the irrational parts of my brain.

Anthroslug said...

There's a part of me that still sometimes thinks I should go back and get a PhD. It's irrational, but there's an element of satisfaction that I think I would get for it. That being said, I don't consider myself a failure for not having one...but I also entered a program with the intention of getting the MA, which may be part of what helps there.