The Importance of Field School & Volunteer Opportunities
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Written by: Nikki Simon
June 7th 2022
Something I've noticed in my undergrad experience is that many archaeology bachelor students graduate without any practical experience in the field. This lack of experience is partially because public archeological sites are uncommon in Canada, unlike in Europe. It's also partially because, for many, the cost of participating in a field school, particularly overseas, is prohibitive, something I'll discuss in tomorrow's post.
I have been very fortunate to participate in several field school and volunteer opportunities in the last few years. That being said, the concept that many other students don't have the opportunity or choose to pass it by because of cost has bothered me for quite a long time. To me, experience in the field as an undergraduate, particularly as an archaeologist, is vital. So, throughout this series, let me share what I've learned and why these opportunities have been indispensable to me.
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Like any other experience in life, archaeological fieldwork provides a plethora of transferable skills that are useful both within the general job market and in everyday life. Though I'll be listing only a few here, keep in mind that there are many!
Time Management & Attention to Detail
The work at many sites is often limited to a certain, sometimes small, time frame, whether by politics, weather, funding or other factors. Archaeology is, however, a particularly detail-oriented and precise field. Combining these two elements allows individuals to significantly improve their efficiency and the accuracy and reliability of their work.
Archaeological fieldwork is inherently a team sport. Sometimes you will work in pairs or small groups within that team, but no matter what, each person has their own role. If all the players have worked cohesively, their individual tasks will interweave to help form the bigger picture that underlies the basic understanding of a site.
Can stamina be considered a skill? I think so! Archaeological fieldwork is extremely physical; an archaeological site is very much like an archaeologist's personal gym but exposed to all the outside elements. You carry heavy buckets, sift, trowel and dig for hours, sometimes in DEEP pits; you'll move rocks and other heavy objects and almost always get your steps in, all in the glorious sun, wind and rain.
This is an essential perk of the field school and volunteer experience that is often not considered. Of course, throughout our undergrad, we are required to take courses in archaeological theory. Even in the classes that we take that are not strictly theory-based, we learn about archaeological concepts, techniques, and methods that are part and parcel to *BEING ARCHAEOLOGISTS.*
What field school and volunteering do is that they allow for a better understanding of these theories, concepts, techniques and methods that had previously only merely been read about. This understanding will give you confidence, confidence in what you are learning beyond an abstract notion and confidence when you make your way out into the workforce as an archaeologist for the first time.
Much of the archaeology work in Canada is Cultural/Heritage Resource Management (CRM/HRM); that being the case, many archaeology students out of their undergrads apply to
work at archaeology firms specializing in CRM/HRM.
CRM/HRM is a heavily field-based type of archaeology, and archaeology firms are often willing to train newbies; experience is not necessarily required. However, I think we can all agree that, like any other company, archaeology firms would prefer someone with experience. For an employer, experience means less money spent to train people in the basics.
If you are a student who perhaps has a lower GPA than you would like, using field school and volunteer work to pad your resume is an excellent option if you are worried about your future prospects. Additions to your resume, particularly in your field of choice, show to an employer or potential post-graduate supervisor that you understand and are capable of the work. Additionally, if the field school is directed through a/your university, that can help boost your GPA in itself. Many students work better in a physical/practical environment than an academic one; that's just a fact of life. However, even if your GPA is already impressive, having experience NEVER looks bad!
Field schools and volunteer work allow you to form connections within the Archaeological community. Like with your resume, these connections can potentially help you in the future with attaining a job in the field. Additionally, suppose you choose to pursue a Masters or PhD. In that case, the connections you've made might consider you as a student they would be willing to supervise. Alternatively, they might be inclined to write a recommendation to the program/supervisor of your choice or put you in contact with someone more appropriate.
Perhaps one of the most critical takeaways from experiencing fieldwork is understanding if it's the type of work for you. Of course, not all archaeology is field-based; there are lab-based positions and pathways, particularly if you delve further into academia. However, for those who wish to work in CRM/HRM or do field-based work in general, understanding the type of work you'll be expected to do and its physicality is essential.
Even if you have read about fieldwork, individuals often have little to no understanding of the actual archaeological field experience until they undertake it themselves. As I mentioned earlier, fieldwork can expose archaeologists to harsh conditions. This can include hours in the hot sun or wet mud. Bugs, hiking several kilometres just to get in and out of the site, no toilets, no close water source. Buckets of heavy dirt, mud and sand need to be sieved; local wildlife sometimes wander through and are dangerous. These are only some examples of what an archaeologist might experience in the field.
Taking part in an archaeological field school or volunteer experience can allow you to decide if field-based archaeology is the type of work you want to do and are capable of doing long-term. In the same vein, if pursuing a Masters or PhD, it can help you gain an idea of the direction you'd like to go in your research or allow you to discover an area of passion.
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I've undoubtedly missed some benefits here; still, I hope I've passed on to you why I think it is SO VERY IMPORTANT for students to have field school or volunteer experiences. Of course, this does not necessarily apply only to archaeology students! There are many areas of study where fieldwork is an integral part of the job, and I hope this post has been just as enlightening to students in those fields.
Stay tuned for tomorrow's post with tips about how to fund your field school and volunteer experiences!