& Even More Thoughts on Getting a Job in the Cultural Heritage Sector


I have reviewed and posted before about The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career by Carol Ellick and Joe Watkins.  I am pleased this week to post an interview with one of the authors, Carol Ellick.  In addition to the work she describes in her interview, Carol is a strong advocate for public outreach in archaeology.  She is one of the driving forces behind the creation of Archaeologyland featured prominently on the Society for American Archaeology’s web page and at their annual conferences.

In the interview below, Carol talks about why she and Joe decided to write the Graduate Guide and provides some insights on how to get that first job in the cultural heritage sector.

To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself. 

My interest in archaeology stems from a family cross-country trip.  One of the places we stopped was Mesa Verde where, in the museum, there was an Ancestral Puebloan pot and all the corn that had been stored in it.  That display held me captive and caused me to ask, “How did they do that?”  Over the course of the past 30+ years, I have held just about every job an archaeologist could have, from field to lab, transit to drawing table, computer to classroom.  I’ve worked within for-profit firms, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and universities.

Why did you decide to write The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From a Student to a Career?

I decided to write The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From a Student to a Career (with Joe Watkins) while working at a non-profit historic preservation organization and as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico.  Joe and I attended a graduate symposium during which we found that no one had prepared the students for how to give a professional presentation.  After discussing the shortcomings of this event and complaining about how the academy does a poor job of preparing students for the realities of entering the workforce, we decided to stop complaining and be part of the solution.  We started with an outline (written on a plane ride) for a course which we hoped would eventually become a book.  Turned out that the book contract came before teaching the class. At dinner following the flight, our friend and publisher Mitch Allen, handed us a book contract.  We taught “Avenues to Professionalism” at the University of New Mexico, tested the exercises, received feedback from students, and used the information as the base for the book.

You write about the importance of internships and volunteering as preparation for applying for jobs. What steps do you suggest that someone take to maximize the value of an internship or volunteer experience?

I always recommend that students volunteer or do an internship.  How do you know you really want to work in this field, if you never try it?  To me, financial compensation is the bonus, what the internship provides as the base pay is the experience itself, exposure to working professionals, expansion of one’s network, something for the résumé, and a reference for future employers.  Whether it’s a paid position–internship or job–or a volunteer position, it is up to the individual to put the limit on the amount of time they can put in.  I suggest that students write a contract that clearly states what they can commit and what they would like out of the internship.  The contract writing experience helps clarify the expectation not only for the student, but also for the sponsor.  My other suggestion is that the intern take full advantage of the experience.  Ask questions.  Offer to help.  Also, be happy to do small chores like answering the phone or filling envelopes.  If you make yourself indispensable, it may even lead to a real paid position.

Why do you recommend maintaining a career portfolio?

A career portfolio serves several purposes.  First, we are a transient society and anthropology can be a seasonal, transient profession. If you create a career portfolio when you begin assembling the materials for applying to jobs you establish an organizational structure and the habit to maintain it.  Second, the portfolio provides one location for all job related information.  You will never wonder where you put your résumé or CV.  It becomes your backup to your computer records–a safeguard for the potential computer crash.  And third, as you accumulate materials, the portfolio becomes your professional archive, which after years, can be looked through.  It is the measure of your career.  Five, ten, twenty, thirty years after you start, you can look back through the things you’ve written, the jobs you’ve held, the references that have been written on your behalf, and the places you’ve been–and you will be amazed at what you’ve accomplished.

What is the most important thing that students overlook in preparing for a career in the cultural heritage field?

Students have spent their entire lives in educational settings that are geared to getting the student to the next educational level.  The natural progression is to continue from student to educator.  I feel that our educational system does a poor job of preparing students to think outside of the classroom or a standardized exam.  Open your mind to options!  Learn to question.  Learn to communicate.  Learn to write.

What are the biggest shifts in employment in the cultural heritage fields and anthropology over the past 10 years?

There seems to be a broader range of job opportunities for individuals with anthropology or related degrees.  Employers see the utility of hiring individuals whose with a degree has to do with an understanding of people.  According to statistics, this trend is going to continue to be a positive one with, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, a 21% increase in anthropology related jobs between 2010 and 2020.

Many job ads require 2-3 years of experience as a base qualification.  How does someone with no experience acquire the minimum level to even apply for a job? 

It’s not as bad of a Catch-22 as you might think.  My first suggestion, of course, is to get introductory experience through internships and volunteering.  Experience is something you build.  Develop a plan. Use the job ads to identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for the job and work toward accumulating them.  Correlate work performed in other jobs outside of anthropology or cultural heritage to duties and responsibilities within the desired jobs.  Maybe you haven’t supervised lab analysts before, but you have supervised employees in a retail business.  Highlight the duties and responsibilities that relate to the desired job.  Be realistic.  Starting at the bottom and working your way up will give you a better perspective than jumping into a job with no experience other than a college degree.

Any final advice to those who are looking for that first job in the cultural heritage sector?

Everyone who applies for that job should have roughly the same qualifications–a college degree and the required experience.  Figure out what qualities and special abilities you possess that makes you a better potential employee than everyone else.  And, more than anything, be positive and enthusiastic.

  2 comments for “& Even More Thoughts on Getting a Job in the Cultural Heritage Sector

  1. October 8, 2013 at 7:33 am

    That catch-22 of needing experience to get a job but not being able to get a job without experience is one of the reasons we started Adventures in Preservation (then Heritage Conservation Network) way back when: a means to provide affordable, practical building conservation skills training and an opportunity to get real-life experience with building conservation projects. We have had lots of students at our projects, some looking to figure out which aspect of historic preservation to focus on, others looking to try out a career, and others looking to build their resume. We are pleased to have played a role in launching a number of cultural heritage careers!

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