With each passing year your degree means less and less and less and less…….

Posted on November 18, 2013


‘A Bachelors is the new high school degree. Soon you will need one to get a job at McDonalds’ – unknown

I remember several years ago that someone told me that. Unfortunately, it has come to pass for archaeology that this is true. Continuing on my examination of the Profiling the Profession data, the last few times I looked at race and sex and this time I want to take a moment to look at the education attainment levels of archaeologists. In the last ten years the number of working Archaeologists with a PhD has nearly doubled. Masters degrees have increased by about 150%. Those with only a school qualification have roughly halved. This is of course of only for the UK but if your bear with me for a moment you will see that it will apply to other countries too.

2002-03 2007-08 2012-2013
Post-doctoral qualification Not Asked 0% 1%
Doctorate (PhD) 10% 11% 19%
Postgraduate (Masters) 21% 29% 27%
First Degree 58% 53% 47%
Foundation degree or HND Not Asked 2% 2%
School qualifications 10% 4% 6%

We are looking at some serious degree inflation in archaeology.

Highest Degree of Archaeologists in UK

Highest Degree of Archaeologists in UK

Unfortunately, it has now become almost mandatory to have a university degree to be a professional archaeologists. Those who don’t have degrees have, for the most part, been grandfathered in to the profession. Almost no one now starting in archaeology has anything less than a BA/BS or if you go to one of the Ancient Scottish Universities a MA (which is really the same thing just different letters, Oxbridge does something similar for a BA/BS to MA without more work but you need to upgrade later). This has some serious ramifications for future archaeologists and non-archaeologists as well. The first is that you will need a university degree to gain an entry level job in archaeology. Jobs that, let’s face it, have almost nothing to do with what you will learn at most universities. In fact, other than the basic concepts the stratigraphy you will probably use very little of what you were taught. Knowledge of 16th century BC Creatan pottery will not get you a job in archaeology with a BA, maybe ten years later once you have a PhD.

NVQ is Dead

A few years ago there was a push to create a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) for archaeologists. For those unaware, it is similar to an associates degree in the states or a certificate of vocational qualification.  It is meant to be a practical, as in hands on and relevant to professional archaeology, route into employment. Actually, it is meant for those already employed to be able to obtain qualifications showing that they are in fact skilled even though they don’t have a degree. Of course because 90% of archaeologists already have at least a BA there is very little market for such a qualification. Moreover, because most of those who don’t have a degree are older and have decades of archaeological experience there is very little incentive to spend money on a qualification when their 20 years of experience will get them a job.

This is not to belittle all the hard work people put into creating such a qualification. In theory it is a great idea- people can earn qualifications for the work they already do and the skills they already have. However, there are some serious generational forces at play that are going to seriously harm both archaeologists and non-archaeologists, degree inflation.

Remember the quote, ‘A Bachelors is the new high school degree. Soon you will need one to get a job at McDonalds’. For those of you reading this of a certain age you will remember when a University degree meant something. For most, is was the entrance to a well paying job and the Middle Class (at least in the US). For, my parents it meant they were the first ones in their family to go to University. For those of you graduating now it means you can now work at Starbucks. Here is a break down of people with a HE degree in the UK by age.

% of UK labour force with an HE qualification 1998 2003 2008
Age Total Total Total
16-19 1.1 1.3 2.1
20-24 23.8 23.9 25.6
25-29 30.9 40.5 42.4
30-34 28.8 35.4 44.6
35-39 28 31.6 37.5
40-44 29.4 30.9 34.9
45-49 28.1 30.8 33.4
50-54 23.7 29.7 33.4
55-59 19.8 24.7 31.2

I could not get the most recent data because it is behind a pay wall but in 2008 about 45% of 30-34 year olds had a degree. This is of course out the labour (labor) force so it is a bit skewed towards those working. However, looking at the dramatic increase in percentages it would not be out of line to assume that around 50% of 25-35 year olds have a degree now, at least the ones working or trying to find work. Remember that time when you were the only person in your family to have a degree? We are quickly approaching the point were you will be special if you are the only without a degree in your family.

Worldwide Problem

This is not just the UK either. Check out this graph from the US (US gov. public domian)-

It shows several interesting trends. One is that since about the 1970s we, the US, have effectively plateaued with high-school gradation, only increasing a few percentage points in the last few years. At the same time the number of people with a Bachelors degree have continued to increase. The scariest part of this is that a BA now is what a high school diploma was to my grandparents. The same percentage of people have a Bachelors in the US now as had a High School Diploma when my grandparents graduated highs school. Could the same amount of people have PhDs as we now have BA/BS when my grand children graduate, presumably that is their PhD graduation.

Implications for Archaeology and the World

Everyone having a BA means that it becomes the defacto minimum standard of qualification needed to obtain any job. Essentially, ‘must have a high school diploma to clean floors’ now becomes must have a degree. So why would anyone obtain a lesser qualification? Why get an NVQ when you can’t use it to get a job inside archaeology and it won’t help you get a job outside the profession either. We are quickly killing off any qualification that is less than a BA. Considering almost half of archaeologists have an MA we are pretty quickly killing off the BA as well.

Does a BA or MA make you a better archaeologists? Maybe? However, studies show that a scary amount of University Students learn jacksh#% after 4+ years of university work. I have constantly heard complaints from employers about the quality of new graduates. That the newest graduates are not as good as when they came out of University. I always chucked that up to the whole, “back in my day men were men and women were women, we used to walk five miles to school uphill and in the snow, we woke up at the crack of dawn to feed the chickens, and so on” sort of talk. That is every generation complains about the next. However, if universities are becoming the defacto high school,were everyone attends and graduates regardless of ability or aptitude, then maybe they are on to something.

Are we rubber stamping our students with BAs?

Is what use to be an indication of quality now losing its ability to be used as a way to sift through CVs?

Are degrees losing all meaning?

If so, then it means we are condemning our youth to years of busy work, that will not improve their skills, costs an increasing about of money and that will not help them obtain a job any more than a high school diploma. Not only that but we are requiring more and more and more of their time to do this. It might be time to rethink how we are doing things.

A Penny for your thoughts on the subject? Or should I say a degree for your thoughts because like the penny, inflation are making them useless. Serious though, if you have any thoughts on this I would like to hear them.