Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.
So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.
One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.
And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.
Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).
To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.
Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).
So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.
I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…
Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.
Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/
Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists
Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/
Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/
Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465
Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/
Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6
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