Career Choices

“I became an archaeologist because I wanted to drive around in a big Landrover, smoking, cursing, and finding treasure.” -Carmel Schrire

USC is a very driven school. It’s not any Dead Poet’s Society where students sit idly dreaming of Whitman, Thoreau & Co. Every week I am the recipient of the Intern Newsletter, a digest of available internships, paid and unpaid, for students all over the campus (but usually catering to business, comm, and cinema). At USC, it’s about the career, sometimes about the money, almost all the time about prestige. USC doesn’t hide this– their selling point is often the Trojan Family, an extensive network of diehard alumni who have been known to give a boost to young Trojans coming up. Funny, we basically threw that “money” thing out the window when we bcame archaeology majors.

Most of my friends (sans archaeology) expect to work at big companies upon graduation… or at least they did until the unemployment rate skyrocketed. The beauty of archaeology in these tough times is that we all expected to live in a cardboard box with our trowels and ground-penetrating radar anyway, so this economy stuff is just making funding that cardboard box just a bit harder. The competition for funding our dreams and research has become more competitive by a factor of however much NSF decides to cut. NSF is government-run, the same government who threw $80 million down a black hole to save some irresponsible banks. Now don’t get me wrong– There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of digs that are going on at any given time depending on the priority a government dishing out cash places on cultural heritage, and the money caps of private organizations… And the money is coming from somewhere.

Going off of our accepted fates to live in a cardboard box, we have also always been warned of our cultural irrelevance, how if every archaeologist on the planet died at once, the world wouldn’t change (other than an impact on the mortuary services industry– how ironic). The cool part about being an archaeology major (aside from everything) is that, despite our “irrelevance”, our major trumps all other majors by way of “interestingness”. If someone you don’t want to talk to asks you what your major is, you don’t say archaeology (that might start conversations alluding to leather stetson hats and guns… or worse, dinosaurs), you say accounting. No one wants to hear about accounting. But for some reason, everyone at some point has wanted to experience the life on a dig, to uncover Agamemnon’s tomb (or something). So, even though we are one of the least legit sciences in the category of “relevance”, we are also the most appealing. The History channel and National Geographic love us. And that’s why we get funding– because we’re cool. I would like to meet the person who didn’t think their 6th grade history report on Egyptian mummies and ritual wasn’t cool.

And so, did I become an archaeologist as a conversation piece? Did I do it for the opportunity to martyr myself for cultural heritage? Well, none of the above. However, unlike becoming a doctor to help people and play golf, of teach because of a love of children (ha!) and impacting someone’s life, there’s really no other explanation than love. I have always loved the past. Ever since a trip to Chichen Itza, a Mayan site on the Yucatan peninsula, when I was 6, I have loved it. And in the end, that should be enough. And so I, and my fellow archaeologists, break the USC norm of trying to get a good-paying career in something “relevant” with high-returns.

Howard Carter examines King Tut
Howard Carter examines King Tut

~Sarah Butler

4 thoughts on “Career Choices

  1. I like the “ha!” in the middle of the last paragraph. Fortunately with a PhD you don’t have to pretend your teaching career was motivated by a love of undergraduates.

  2. Sad, isn’t it, that our experience of that Carmel Schrire quotation is limited to just one thing: cursing. And lots of it.

  3. Loved the Schrire quotation. I am interested in your co-authored article presented at the ARARA May/09. Are you planning on publishing it any time soon?

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