Archaeology PhD Programs: Can We Do Them Better?

Posted on April 25, 2011


Recently, one of the people I did my MA with decided that she was going to quite her PhD program. There were a multitude of reasons for this but one specifically stood out to me, time. She was led to believe that her MA would transfer without any problems and that she was looking at 2 years at the university and another 3 years, wherever she please, of write up. That ended up not happen and she was looking at 7-8 yrs. of a PhD staying at the university the whole time. I can’t stress enough that this was not the only reason she left but 7-8yrs is to long, in my opinion. That is 10% of the average US males lifetime, 13.3% of our adult lives (after 18), and 17% of our working lives (18-65). Unfortunately, 8 years is the average time it takes to complete a Archaeology PhD or at least it was 15 years ago. If previous trends continue it is probably around 9 or 10 years now (every decade it extends about a year) (Zeder 1997).

I don’t think this is because PhD dissertations have improved enough in quality over the last several decades to warrant extra years of work. No, time is used as a weeding out tool to limit the number of people who obtain PhDs. I wish 8-10 years was the limit to but it is not. My mother has a friend who had to wait 20 years for one of the members of her PhD committee to die before she could get it. I wish that was an exaggeration.  This makes a PhD not a statement of one’s skills but a statement that they could eat crow for 20%+ of their working life for little pay, or actually in some cases costing them money.

This means that only people who can A, afford to spend 20% of their working life not making any income, or B, are too comfortable in school and do not want to leave, as the only people that will get PhD’s. Not that I have anything against these types of people, but that is a very limited range of candidates and reduces our potential to have really great archaeologists.

Of course if we cut down this time limit to the UK model of three years (my observations are that it’s usually around 3.5-4 years) then we will have hundreds of extra PhD’s and that will not be a statement of skill ether. All ready the UK, with a 1/5 of the population produces as many PhD’s as the US in archaeology.

What is my solution? I actually have two:

  1. Make a time limit 3 years but that people have to reach that goal in that allotted time period and meet certain quality conditions, if not they fail and must start over or stop. This means that people who get  PhD’s can meet deadlines for large and complex projects. This is something that every employer, even academics, wants to see in their future workers/professors. By having quality goals you also ensure that work is conducted to a standard of excellences.
  2. PhD’s should be based off of a portfolio of someone’s work experience. Some programs offer this sort of PhD were a person can submit a package of their best work for the last 5, 10, 15 years for a PhD. In this scenario people could be doing real work, and getting paid real wages, that counts towards their PhD. Many schools might not like this option as a replacement for the current system but it would benefit the students.

Ether way it happens the result will be that a PhD represents someone’s skills and not their ability to outlast. That is what I think a PhD should do.

Your thought?

Zeder, M. 1997: The American Archaeologists, Left Coast Press.