Want to be a digger?

3 mins read

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, Head of Communications, Wessex Archaeology tells CA what do you need to do to get that first job.

Most entry-level jobs are in professional practice, usually as fixed-term contracts doing fieldwork, so you need to be aware of the changes you will encounter as you move away from full-time education. The good news is that by following a few tips while you are a student, you can build up the skills and experience that will help you on the way to getting a job.

Overall the two most important things you can do are to:

  • Understand what goes on across archaeology as a whole
  • Use some of your time at university training in the field, as well as in the lecture theatre and library

At university, the archaeology curriculum will be focussed on delivering knowledge about the past, how it is interpreted, methods, and theory. Although practical experience is recognised to be important, universities only have limited time and resources to devote to this. If you are certain you want to be a field archaeologist, consider choosing a university that has a good field school, which will provide digging experience to put on your CV.

Employers are keen on practical experience, because it means new graduates are better equipped to work for them. This old debate about education versus training is familiar to most disciplines, but the last 20 years have seen dramatic changes in the volume of archaeological work and the ways in which it is done.

How can you be more prepared?

You can bridge this gap while you are still at university by keeping up to date on the profession and new discoveries in publications like Current Archaeology, that feature new discoveries and short pieces on what is going on across archaeology as a whole, from issues facing museums to government policies on how archaeology is dealt with in planning applications. If you are in touch with how archaeology is organised and the current issues facing employers, you will be better prepared for getting your first job.

A graduate job in archaeology is likely to be a fixed-term contract doing archaeological fieldwork. These get you into archaeological employment; from there, it is much easier to get a permanent job. The number of these jobs is directly related to how well the economy is doing. As most archaeological work is done in relation to building developments, employment dropped off sharply early on in the current recession — but the profession will be amongst the first to benefit when the economy finally improves.

Although your first job may well be doing fieldwork, it is important to recognise there are many other types of jobs in commercial archaeology. The larger practices, sometimes called ‘Units’, also do historical studies, building recording, and have a wide range of experts in finds, environmental archaeology, graphics, and computing. There are also specialist companies dealing with geophysical surveys, marine archaeology, and consultancy. Some of the largest practices also provide these services, which means that it is now easier to work in a specialist area or move into management. Having all-round skills is a good starting point.

Essentially, universities and commercial units use the same techniques and produce similar fieldwork reports. However, the aims of the projects are different, as is the way they are done. Universities will balance fieldwork that relates to their own research interests, with providing training for students. In professional practice, clients contract the projects and the work is bid for in a tender; therefore, conditions are stricter.

Unlike a university project, where time is already paid for (staff have a salary and the students have a debt!), professional practice is run as a business, even where the practice is a charity and not-for-profit. Some of the biggest challenges new graduates face in practice is the speed at which they are expected to work and the pressure that comes with it — and thus some of the reasons why employers ask for experience from applicants for fieldwork posts: it shows commitment but also people with experience should be able to work more quickly and require less supervision from other staff.

Therefore, regard some of your time at university as training time, particularly when doing fieldwork. Fieldwork should be sociable and enjoyable, but you can also think of it as a stepping stone to building up the skills and experience necessary to help you stand out enough to secure that first job.

Click here for my five top tips for getting a foot in the door. They are aimed particularly at professional practice but will still be useful if you want to go into other areas, such as museums and academia. Good luck!

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