Topic ID #10122 - posted 4/1/2011 7:35 AM

Need help deciding whether to go to Graduate School


Hi everyone,

I have a BA in Anthropology, and just got accepted into a MA program specializing in Bioarchaeology.
However, given the costs of the program and the debt I am likely to accrue, I am thinking very seriously about what potential careers I could get with this degree.  The program itself seems very focused on PhD programs and teaching, but I don't think that I want to teach. 

I have been reading up about CRM here am not sure it is for me: I am concerned about all of the time away from home. I love to travel, but am concerned about the effect on relationships and pets (I have cats).
Also, this is probably a weird question, but seeing as CRM is linked to construction work, are the
bulldozers right there all the time?  (I love nature and not sure I could live with seeing it torn up all the

Are there any other fields open to someone with a MA in Archaeology?   One professor I spoke with basically told me that I can get all kinds of jobs with an MA so I "might as well get one in something I am interested in".  I am not so sure this is true anymore....and I really do love Archaeology, working with artifacts, and writing.  I think my ideal career might be something like relocating burials, working in a lab, or artifact illustration as I have artistic ability.   

I feel really stuck right now still working the retail job that got me through undergrad.  I would like to start working towards a career in something fulfulling, but just not sure that grad school is the right choice. 

Any advice / insight is very appreciated!

Post ID#18624 - replied 4/1/2011 10:59 AM


CRM is alot of time away from home.  Bioarchs, even with an MA, don't really get to ply their trade all that much in the CRM trade as our clients tend to avoid complications with dead humans.  Though, from time to time you do get to work on burials.

There have been times that I have been working on a site while the bulldozers are revving their engines behind me.  It is somewhat rare.  Though, clients to push and push hard.

It sounds like you have no CRM experinence at all.  If you go through the MA and come out with just academic experience, you are likely going to spend 1 or 2 years as a field technician, even with the MA.  This Low Pay and High Travel.  Some companies will work around you having pets, but your personal relationships will suffer.  I have been doing this for 10 years and I have no friends that aren't CRMers because they are the only ones I ever see.  I have more time with my crew than I do with my wife more often than not.

The federal system offers are little more opportunity if you get in on the ground floor and pay your dues.  I really wish someone had told me about that before I got started.  Now, with a wife I rarely see breaking into the Fed system is much tougher as I can't take those out of the way seaonsal appointments.

Lab jobs like you are describing are somewhat hard to come by... seems easier if you are female, but that is observational on my part rather than hard facts.  Again, you will likely have to cut your teeth in the field as a tech for a few years unless you are happen to be in the right place at the right time.  Through your MA program (if that is the route you go) start cultivating contacts right away at the school and at conferences.

I usually advise everyone to get out of this business (CRM) make your money some other way and get your archaeology fix by volunteering.  I know guys in this business as full time crew chiefs that are on food stamps.  Again, fed system is usually the way to go if you want a salary that reflects your education, experience and talent.  Private side treats you like dirt.... in my experience.

Post ID#18625 - replied 4/1/2011 1:16 PM

amie de la mer

Hi Erin,  I'm sure you will get some more responses here, but I wanted to give you my two cents worth.  First, if at all possible, think about contacting the MA program to which you've been accepted (BTW, congrats!) and see if you can defer attending for a year.  And then, if so, try to spend much of that year getting (preferably paid) field experience.  If you weren't offered funding with your grad school admission, they are likely to say sure to taking a year before you start.

As for some of your specific concerns/questions: I have been employed in CRM for, well, longer than I care to admit (okay: since 1991).  I started as an undergrad, took some time off to do my MA, then returned to the same university-based CRM group where I worked full time while getting my PhD.  In all my years working, I rarely had to travel far from home until my archaeologist husband took a job in another part of the state and we chose to buy a house (and move the kitties) there, so now I have a long commute to my original job (but still worth it to me... in my case, sometimes I think a bit of time apart helps form a stronger marriage!).  And in all my years working, we always had a steady list of jobs until last year, when the bad economy finally and thoroughly caught up with us.  As an aside, the job market is really, really bleak right now, though I think that's true for most fields and not just archaeology.  And no, if you are working in CRM, you are typically enjoying the great outdoors far in advance of the bulldozers, though construction site monitoring is one aspect of the work.

On one hand, I agree to a point with the advice from your prof, that if you love it, you might as well get a MA in archaeology.  The MA is basically the baseline degree to be a professional in this field; you will need it if you do plan on staying in archaeology.  PhDs are great, but they are not as essential to a long happy career as a professional archaeologist, unless you want to teach (and it sounds like that's not an exciting prospect for you at this point).  On the other hand, there is some truth to what the previous poster said about the state of the archaeology job market right now.  It's bad; very bad.  But, up to this point, I and many friends and colleagues have had decent-paying careers with the opportunity to work in some really wonderful places on some really exciting sites.

Bottom line, your concerns about entering grad school- debt, potential job opportunities, etc.- are valid.  I do think taking some time to get your feet wet in the field might be a way for you to determine if the costs outweigh the benefits.  Hope that helps!

Post ID#18626 - replied 4/1/2011 4:10 PM


Just to give you an idea:  I am a 10 year vet in CRM with an MA and probably 40 or more technical reports to my name (I stopped counting years ago, so that's just a guess).

Last year from January 2010 to January 2011 I spent approximately 274 (give or take a week)  days away from my wife (and that was on the high side for time at home for me).  I spend 65% of my paycheck on an apartment I never live in.  And I have it WAY better than most field technicians.

Typical CRM is a tough life.  If you can get those jobs that are state specific, site specific, or lab then your travel time will be a lot less.  But, the vast majority in private side CRM lead quite the vagabond lifestyle... which gets really old by the time you are in your mid-30s.

But, if you have no spouse, no apartment, and in your 20's it can be a lot of fun.

Getting out there and trying it for yourself is really the only way you will be able to tell if you like it enough to make it a career.

Post ID#18627 - replied 4/2/2011 5:58 AM


i understand what your thinking about.  I decided to go back to get my masters with a wife and small child and have taken out loans to help us get by.  I would say even though this is extremely stressful, it is also very fulfilling.  I worked a couple of years in CRM and hated it at first but after taking a "normal" job and going back to school I relish anytime i have the opportunity.  

As for your concerns with CRM, why not have a focus on Museum Studies while your in school. I think that can broaden your opportunities when you get out and might help you land a stationary position.  Just rack up on the internships and volunteer opportunities while you are in school.

Post ID#18628 - replied 4/2/2011 1:30 PM


Hi Erin,

Most everyone else has answered the CRM question for you. I would echo them and say give it a try before you do your MA. If you don't like academics and you don't like CRM there are not many options for you in archaeology job-wise.

Also, that prof. might be a bit out of touch in the value of a MA and your job prospects. With a BA you can get pretty much any job because a BA does not train you in anything specific. Really, its a checked box on most applications. A MA is more specialized and trains you (in theory and most places in practice) to be more specific. Sure, you can get jobs outside of archaeology with an MA but it will be treated as a glorified BA because the specific training is not applicable. Unless you choice a job that is directly related to bioanthroplogy and the specific training you receive. There will be no financial advantage for a MA in archaeology if you are going to work in another job. Probably your going to spend lots of money and 2-3 years of your life and it will not help your job prospects unless you go into archaeology. Also, be careful of student loans as they are nearly impossible to get out of even if the payments bankrupt you.

My wife is reading over my shoulder and says never go straight from a BA to an MA. Its best to wait a year or two.

Post ID#18629 - replied 4/4/2011 5:29 AM


My two cents...

Based on the places I've worked, it's been my experience that those who are highly specialized (e-bot, skeletal analysis, etc.) are typically upper level Staff Archaeologists or PIs who rarely get to perform their specialization.  They are usually paid more than most of the archaeologists on staff and to justify the extra salary, they're typically assigned to more complex projects until their specialization is needed.  Our clients tend to go out of their way to buffer and avoid cemeteries, so when one has to be mitigated, it's usually a part of a major undertaking.

I don't recall the actual requirements but in addition to a graduate degree, I believe a year or two of supervisory-level fieldwork is required to meet SOI standards to run an archaeological project.  I think a lot of people have mixed feelings on whether its better to get this experience before or after going to graduate school.  My gut feeling is that its better to take off as little time as possible between your BA and MA -- I've just known too many people who planned on taking a year off but got trapped in the field tech malaise. 

The longer you wait to go back to school, the harder it is to do so.  Once you get into your 30s, the idea of living in squalor, with roommates, going deeper into debt, and the usual college stuff begins to lose its appeal.  At the same time, being a field tech, living on the road in crappy motels, getting drunk every night, slopping around in mud all day, really begins to take its toll; by the time I was 30, I had two herniated discs and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands and wrists.  If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone straight to grad school and then sowed my wild oats on the road.  I think I waited about 8 years to go back and if it wasn't for my wife pushing me, I never would have done it.  In all honesty, for every interesting project, where I felt I was actually learning something, I had several months of tedious labor at "the dirt factory" or digging negative STPs along pipelines or Army bases.

As a field tech, expect to be on the road the entire year.  If you can land a supervisory BA-level position, things will be a little better with a combination of field work and report writing.  As a Staff Archaeologist with an MA, things are typically more routine, with larger, more complex projects followed by very long stretches of analysis and report writing.  A major highway project, with a year of field work may lead to 3+ years of writing.

As much as I hate to say it, I'd also recommend either getting your MA in a related field or finding a program and designing your research/coursework around something that has applications outside of archaeology.  It's always good to have a way out in case there are major changes to 106 or 404 or you get sick of thinking that $45k/year is a very good wage.

Post ID#18630 - replied 4/4/2011 5:50 AM


I took one year off between undergrad and grad school and didn't work in archaeology for that year.

>>>Once you get into your 30s, the idea of living in squalor, with roommates, going deeper into debt, and the usual college stuff begins to lose its appeal.  At the same time, being a field tech, living on the road in crappy motels, getting drunk every night, slopping around in mud all day, really begins to take its toll; by the time I was 30, I had two herniated discs and the beginnings of arthritis in my hands and wrists. <<<<

This.  I am now 32 with arthritis in both knees, a piece of loose bone in my wrist, an ankle that doesn't work right, and a really bad back.  And don't have any savings, a house, or anything to show for it except school debt from 10 years ago.  Now, down from 100% in the field to about 80% at the Project Archaeologist/Field Director level

45k?!?!  Is that company currently hiring?  :)

KB gave the best advice.  If you get an MA, get it in a field that has marketablility outside of CRM archaeology.  Don't go straight Anthropology.  Even within CRM you are far more marketable with a specialization (Geomorph, Bio/Skeletal (from Bio department), GIS).  You will still do the same stuff, as KB mentioned, as your non-specialized colleagues but companies like to list your specialization in the rare case they need it to win a bid.

In the end, it is up to you to decide if the sacrifice is worth it.  To me; it hasn't been.

Post ID#18631 - replied 4/4/2011 7:18 AM


Seraph -

  You are getting a lot of advice about CRM work, but keep in mind that your MA (or MS) in bioarch can be used in a lot of other fields as well - which may be what your prof was referring too.  I have been at this a long time and college friends of mine that ended up with bioarch or physical anthro degrees are now doing things like: Cancer Research,  working for CDC, Heading up programs at at least 2 different colleges, working with the US milirary body recovery team - still identifying remains from old wars and modern atrocities) - and those are just the ones I have kept track of.   Ever watch the TV show "Bones" - she is a bio anthropologist, as are many  forensic folks.  Besides asking your question here, you may want to broaden you understanding of what that type of degree can lead to.  I suggest you look into the American Academy of Forensic Sciences ( and the American Academy of Physical Anthropology ( before making any decisions. 

Good Luck with whatever you choose to do.

Post ID#18632 - replied 4/4/2011 7:46 AM


Dmack, that's what I kind of alluded too.  In terms of bioarchaeology, I know two people who took the physical anthropology or forensic tracks and have done what you mentioned.  There's definitely more career flexibility, than being a lithics or ceramic specialist and more opportunity for graduate funding.  From my understanding, the jobs typically pay better and are in-theory, more prestigious, than their CRM equivalents.

Though, I can definitely see the appeal of being a bio-archaeologist, who runs major projects and then jumps on the cemetery evaluations/mitigations as they pop up.  A woman I went to grad school with is a forensic specialist at a crime lab and she routinely complains about spending her days scraping semen samples out of rape victims underwear or out of the orifices of the dead.  I guess every job has its downsides.

McBain, my comment regarding a $45k salary is more the fact that it really isn't all that much for somebody with a graduate degree and decades of experience.  I definitely feel bad for those who are trapped in the quasi-full time, with no benefits, but with a MA and loads of experience cycle.  Once you have a graduate degree and loans, it's a lot harder to escape a dead end job because there is so much time and money invested in it.

I'm happy with my job but am looking to get out of it.  The pay is OK but the health insurance is terrible.  It was one thing when I was single but having terrible health insurance with two kids and a wife whose employer got rid of their health plan, is completely different.

Post ID#18635 - replied 4/5/2011 5:19 PM


Hi everyone,
Thanks for the responses and advice.

I will look into the forensic field, and see if I possibly could defer the MA program for a year while I try to get some experience with CRM and explore other possibilities.  

I think CRM is important work, but it does sound like a tough life.  It is too bad Archaeology is not more valued as a science in this country.

Thanks again!


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