The best degree?

In response to Mark Horton’s prediction of an ‘oncoming crisis’ for archaeology in universities (CA 268), John Schofield argues that archaeology degrees are among the best, the most enriching, and the most useful one can take. Dr John Schofield will take over as Head of the Archaeology Department at York University in October.

Mark Horton may be correct in predicting a future crisis for archaeology in universities… and the chances are that archaeology will not suffer alone. Now it is undergraduate recruitment that is taking a knock; in two or three years’ time it might be postgraduate studies, both taught and research. And certainly we need to respond. The ‘crisis’, it seems, is beginning already, given recent reports that the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity is set to close.

But there is a risk that the way this ‘crisis’ is presented will overshadow or mask the benefits of taking an archaeology degree, whether students make this choice for the vocational training it provides (and there are plenty of budding archaeologists and cultural-heritage practitioners out there) or for the unique combination of transferable skills that the discipline offers. I certainly had no intention of becoming an archaeologist when I chose archaeology as a degree subject in 1980. I wanted to spend three years studying something I enjoyed and was passionate about, realising even then how ‘archaeological skills’ would be transferable to other career choices: the analytical and interpretive skills, and the use of computers (then very new), for example. But there is a real concern (cutting to the chase) that some of the opinions expressed by Horton in CA 268 run the risk of furthering the crisis. How many parents or students will read his essay and (as the views of someone well known – a public face of archaeology) be ‘panicked’ into changing their choice to something more ‘vocational’?

So here I present an alternative view, not disagreeing with much of what Horton (quite correctly) states in his essay, but reinforcing the values and benefits of an archaeology degree to many prospective students whose ambitions range from teaching to journalism, law enforcement to management, marketing to the media… not to mention the heritage sector itself. In fact, at a time of job losses and crises, it pays to examine more closely the ‘heritage opportunities’ open to current and prospective students before returning to address the transferable skills that are characteristic of most archaeology degree programmes, and which attract most students.

Archaeology works

A recent survey by the Heritage Lottery Fund suggested that the UK heritage sector (which includes archaeology and conservation) supports a total of some 466,000 jobs, while another survey (by the IfA), completed just before the recession struck, recognised some 7,000 archaeologists working in the UK. While these numbers have taken a hit, as in nearly all areas of employment, archaeology and heritage will surely recover as the economy picks up. It is easy to be negative about the state of archaeology under recession and to moan about the lack of opportunities (and job losses): for sure, archaeologists have lost their jobs in the recession and some are suffering hardship as a result. But opportunities remain nonetheless. Of 22 students on my Heritage Masters programme this year, six have (good) jobs in the heritage sector, jobs they secured during their course, not after it. Of last year’s 12 MA students on my programme, eight either have ‘heritage’ jobs or funded PhD positions.

Archaeology degrees teach a wide range of transferable skills, producing graduates who are as comfortable working in teams as they are working independently.

It is self-evident that archaeology is the correct choice of degree for those wanting to become archaeologists and heritage practitioners. My concern is more for those who choose archaeology for the reasons I chose it: not necessarily to become an archaeologist, but because it is fun, socially strong (the old teamwork ‘excavation spirit’ remains), deeply engaging and interesting, and it addresses fundamental questions about the human condition. In covering so much interesting stuff, from the deep past to the contemporary world, archaeology embraces a very wide range of skills. These are, of course, skills essential to becoming an archaeologist or heritage practitioner, but they are also transferable, almost irrespective of career choice. It is arguable, but archaeology may be unique in this regard: combining the intellectual, analytical, and interpretive skills of a humanities degree; qualitative methods and social interaction (social sciences); computing, quantitative methods, and digital modelling (maths, IT); and scientific enquiry (biology, chemistry). The following is a list of the transferable skills that we have identified within our undergraduate programmes at York. Other archaeology departments may be able to offer others.

These are the messages we need to promote, and in promoting archaeology in this way, in an increasingly competitive environment, we should not underestimate the role of alumni. Former students are uniquely placed to promote archaeology as a degree-choice, but also to represent individual institutions. Some examples from York illustrate the point. One of our recent graduates (BA Archaeology 2009) has just been called to the Bar and is starting pupillage in Chambers as a Barrister. She noted how ‘the analytical approach to research and the logical approach to report writing were invaluable skills… [alongside] the opportunity to present reports and findings both in seminars and in lectures.’ She also addressed the thorny issue of why History is so much more popular than Archaeology when the transferable skills are arguably more limited. As she says, ‘I have always loved ancient and Medieval history but wanted to choose a subject that allowed greater flexibility of study both in approach, theoretical and practical, and subject matter.’

above left Archaeology degrees teach a wide range of transferable skills, producing graduates who are as comfortable working in teams as they are working independently. above A student enjoying excavations in Swaziland. Archaeology provides numerous career opportunities but it is fun, too.
A student enjoying excavations in Swaziland. Archaeology provides numerous career opportunities but it is fun, too.

Another alumnus, now working as a Finds Liaison Officer after completing her BA, noted how ‘being taught to work independently and to present myself positively has been a huge benefit’. Here is proof that students can progress to an archaeology/heritage career without necessarily continuing to postgraduate studies. A third alumnus, graduating with a BA in 2007, has also gone into law, and specifically commercial litigation. He said: ‘The mix of analytical science and anthropological and theoretical elements develop your ability to do everything from making sense of complex statistics to giving lectures to your peers and professors. The presentation, communication, teamwork, and essay skills I learnt I use every day and are key to my career. My other friends from the course work in areas as diverse as heritage, law, planning, and accountancy. This is testament to how well this degree equips you for professional life.’

Is there a greater truth than from those who have been there? An archaeology degree provides an ideal background for careers in the heritage sector, but critically also for many other career paths, and our alumni networks are best placed to convey this message. Archaeology and heritage are not subjects caught in the past. They are vitally of the future. Archaeology is, for many, the best degree choice. Our role in the higher education and heritage sectors is, as Horton says, to promote that message more effectively.

Skills for life

  • Work independently
  • Cultural awareness
  • Business skills
  • Write funding applications
  • Self-reflection
  • Professionalism
  • Leadership skills
  • Creative thinking
  • Management skills
  • Analyse information
  • Spatial awareness
  • Project management
  • Present to different audiences
  • Decision-making
  • Team-working
  • Flexibility
  • Transfer theory into practice
  • Adaptability
  • Information technology
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpret and manipulate data
  • Structure logical arguments
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Identifying problems