When You Are More Likely to Die of Cancer Than Become an Academic in Archaeology!

Posted on June 13, 2016


‘When You are more Likely to Die of Cancer than Become an Academic: What is the Role of PhD students?’ is the title of a paper of mine that was published about two months ago. It is Open Access i.e. free to read and to reproduce and really to do what ever you want with it. Which is why I have not republished it here, you can read it there- http://www.pia-journal.co.uk/articles/10.5334/pia.513/

The paper is part of the PIA forum- a position paper, followed by responses from others, with a further response to the responses by myself. For this year’s forum I was asked to write about some statistics on postgraduate students in archaeology and it took a bit of a dark turn. Looking at the data I found that the UK graduates roughly 200+ PhDs in archaeology a year and that there are only roughly 15 permanent academic positions which gives odds of less than 10% of getting a permanent academic job, 3x worse than your odds of dying of cancer. 90% of PhD students want a job in academia but 90% of them will not have one, at least not one that is permanent(1).

New Numbers but Results the Same

Due to different datasets I had to estimate the number of permanent positions after the early 1990s, based on previous trends. I had put in a request to the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) for the numbers before publishing but they have just now come in. In case anyone might quibble about my estimates in the paper here is the HESA data- unfortunately the results are the same.

First, HESA have rounded the data to the nearest 5 for data protection reasons which means that none of the data lines up exactly. From HESA- according to the 2013/14-2014/15 HESA Staff Record, the numbers of academic staff on an open-ended/permanent contract in cost centre (126) Archaeology by academic starter marker were:

Academic starter marker
Academic starter
Not an academic starter

Starter- those who have started a new position in archaeology at a University. Academic- does not include the few remaining commercial archaeology units at Universities.

At first glance this looks promising- 20-30 new permanent positions, more than my estimated 15 per years. Still not great odds but not as bleak, only 2x better chance of dying by cancer. Except, when we look at the people who left- the number of academic staff on open-ended/permanent contracts in cost centre (126) Archaeology 2013/14-2014/15 by academic leaver marker and leaving destination marker were:

Leaving destination
Other HEP*
Not known

 *HEP includes Other UK Higher Education Providers as well as Other Overseas HE Providers.

Same People Get the Same Jobs
A good portion of those leaving academic permanent academic jobs where taking up jobs at other Universities. So new people were not gaining the positions but they were being filled by those who already have permanent positions. Confirms many archaeologists suspicions that jobs are being filled by those that already have them.

Furthermore, open-ended contracts does not mean full employment. It could be a zero-hour contract. Also, in the UK, according to the law, employees on fixed term contracts for more than four years, automatically become open-ended contracts AND before that they get redundancy pay after two years of work. Because of that many Universities will put project staff on open-ended contracts for projects that last more than three or four years, they have to pay redundancy any ways. However, staff will still be let go at the end of the project. So these numbers will not reflect what I constituted as a permanent employee i.e. one who is expected to work until they quite… or are fired for gross misconduct … or company collapses and everyone loses their jobs. If you are expecting to be out of a job after a few years than redundancy pay is nice but it is not a permanent position.

Basically, my estimation of 10-20 new permanent positions opening up each year was correct.

Silver Lining???

It is not all depressing, well the numbers are but suggestions of how we deal with this were very inspiring to read. I recommend you read the whole thing, especially Andy’s and Hana’s responses.

‘…perhaps it is worth seeing the PhD as a rigorous learning process involving specialised scholarship rather than as something that caters for a specific career path – particularly if that specialised scholarship is investigating the symbolism of a tiny artefact from the remotest place on earth from a 9,000 year old site (this example is not based on a true story – but could be).’

(1)- Roughly 1/3 of all academic jobs ~200 are postdoctoral and researcher positions so some will get temporary positions in academy.


Rocks-Macqueen, D., (2016). When You are more Likely to Die of Cancer than Become an Academic: What is the Role of PhD students?. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology. 25(2), p.1. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/pia.513

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