Thursday, 1 January 2015

Should you do an Archaeology degree in Britain?

Since tuition fees rose a couple of years ago from a flat rate of just over £3,000/year (I was one of the lucky ones, having graduated last year) to £6,000-£9,000 a year, meaning that a 3 year degree will set you back a minimum of £20,000 before including accomodation etc., and often over £40-50,000 with all expenses thrown in, should a student who is looking to do Archaeology study a degree in Archaeology in Britain?

Let's clarify that a bit more. This post is meant for British students. As many foreign students know (looking over the Atlantic here), sometimes it can be a much better deal for students to come to the UK to get a degree, even if they have been paying the full nine thousand simoleons for quite some time. Also Scottish and Welsh students pay less in their respective countries so I guess this really applies to students born south of Berwick and Carlisle and east of Chepstow and Offa's Dyke (but also west of Dogger Bank and north of Land's End, just to make sure). Also not forgetting the Isles of Wight and Man who laugh at the English pain, since they've been on international fee rates since the tuition fee business began too. 

One of the most pressing issues to many people is whether a degree in Archaeology will get you enough money to pay back the loans. It is important to make the distinction between a degree in archaeology and a job in archaeology, as one does not necessarily lead to the other. While the former gives you a huge range of transferable skills, so does a job in archaeology. These transferable skills however are very different. The former however is very expensive, while the latter may not be quite so expensive! An archaeology career is often poorly paid (but don't let that put you off if you enjoy the subject!), with most starting salaries at the £17,000 mark, and professionals/specialists only a few thousand pounds better off, if they're lucky. So it's going to be a while before you pay off your degree, if at all!

But this is a bit of a moot point as after 30 years, your student loan is written off, so don't panic about it. Just don't go into your overdraft if you can help it! Many archaeology graduates end up in all sorts of varied and interesting professions (I have a friend who is doing a law conversion course, for example), and people do archaeology without looking to archaeology, history or heritage as a first career, so do what you want to do at University, Archaeology is a beautiful and diverse subject that can open many doors.
The potential rewards of archaeology! This is a villa in Tuscany (see my other blog posts).

The next question is what sort of courses are there? A lot of undergraduate courses are available, and at the last count a few months ago it was 46 Universities doing some form of degree, plus an extra 2 doing postgraduate only courses. However, if you aren't convinced by any of the courses, or don't feel that Universities are the way forward, fear not. Now there are MOOCs (massive open online courses) which are free but require time and an internet connection. They currently focus on aspects on archaeology, but see below for a few example MOOCs you can have a look at yourself.

On the other side of the coin, I've spoken to people who've gone straight into the world of work but now have hit a ceiling whereby they require a degree to continue progressing up the ladder, even though they have the vocational experience to progress their careers by themselves. This can be infuriating but sometimes I do feel envious towards these guys and dolls who have made that decision, not least because they don't have the financial burden and they have a head start in their career in terms of real world experience. However, archaeology is now an extremely well qualified profession, and some jobs will want both the experience and the degree, trying to get the best out of both worlds. A qualification is also much easier to use as evidence of having skills in an interview.

So if you don't want to spend all that money but want to do archaeology, what can you do? Many years ago, there used to be a body called the Manpower Services Commission (MSC, not to be confused with the postgraduate qualification postscript for Master of Science), who often particiapted in excavating things. and that means EVERYTHING; for roads, buildings, major public works, archaeology etc. If the government needed it being done, the MSC were their go-to guys. Essentially a government-run body to get unemployed people into work, many archaeologists (who are far older than this author!) have forged sucessful careers from starting out in the MSC. 

Nothing wrong with a bit of Manpower
Sadly there is no direct equivalent in modern times, although whether a similar body would be able to pass on the same skill set in today's commercial world is in the realm of the hypothetical. My point is that the best way to get a job in archaeology is to volunteer.  Unfortunately, opportunities for people between the ages of 16-18 to get into archaeology are rarely advertised, if at all. I was lucky that my local city council advertised in my school about a survey project, and that ultimately got me offers from Universities. Even if you do a degree, employers will look for experience in the field, particularly commercial experience. There are some online courses that can teach you archaeology, but nothing beats standing next to a castle with some tape, string, some 2H pencils and some permitrace. Sadly, no two Universities seem capable of agreeing on what constitutes a good length of fieldwork experience for an archaeology graduate, and this is one of the reasons why some archaeologists will not consider training excavations as "experience". Some training excavations are barely a few weeks long, others can last months, and some courses can offer up to a year's worth of practical experience! So what is the best "compromise" of studying the subject and actually practising what you preach, especially as most archaeology firms don't have a budget that can allow for student travelling expenses?

This is where an internship comes in handy. Some of these are paid, and I am fortunate in that I have just completed a paid one that paid above minimum wage in a museum. Again these are difficult to find, but can be found in the strangest of places; my internship was advertised through the University's careers job service! It was a thoroughly excellent experience, updating the museum's database and helping to update their collection, while getting involved in the museum's day to day activities. Some other internships are available, but ones relating to archaeology (especially digging in the field) are about as rare as hen's teeth.

Of course, archaeology firms are willing to take on volunteers (who isn't?). This is how I got into Archaeology, with a week in an office and in the field with a regional firm when I was 16, as my school made us do work experience, although that said my parents did far more than the school ever did in making the opportunity happen! 

If your heart is truly set in archaeology, then ask around for the best courses in archaeology, sources of funding, etc. because they do exist. I was lucky, and unfortunately you do need some to get you into archaeology, but once you're there, and you enjoy it, you won't care for the poor pay and the prospect of a massive loan over your head. Experience can be found, so long as you are willing to search high and low. Find popular archaeologists and see if they're giving talks at local places. Much of what I have stated is also applicable to a number of other careers as well, so don't feel pressured into doing something you don't want to do.

Some good websites for students looking to do archaeology are: - The Council for British Archaeology's information for prospective students. - placements in European archaeological digs. You have to apply for these! - free sources of information for excavation skills (makes more sense when you're doing an archaeology degree) and employment opportunities. - a list of MOOCs that you can have a look at.