Cultural resource management is the umbrella term for a range of archaeological research that is conducted to satisfy various federal, state, and local preservation laws that require the preservation and documentation of archaeological resources. The emergence of CRM since the mid-1960s has revolutionized archaeology in many ways, because it has provided a staggering range of archaeological sites that would otherwise have been destroyed, and it has of course provided many more jobs than the handful of positions once available in academia. Today almost all archaeology students in the US will enter jobs in CRM, which includes contract archaeology firms (i.e., businesses that conduct compliance archaeology for profit), museums, historical societies, and many federal, state, and local agencies (e.g., National Park Service, military, Forest Service, etc). Cultural resource management archaeologists study every conceivable time period from Pre-Clovis to the twentieth century, they work in every US state and territory, they conduct terrestrial and underwater research alike, and they study virtually any cultural or social group that has spent time in North America. It is extremely unlikely that any of us will ever become stinking rich doing archaeology in CRM or the academy, but the development of a wide range of preservation laws, increasing public awareness of historical, cultural, and archaeological preservation, and the rapid pace of development throughout the country has provided a fortuitous moment to be an archaeologist. There are some genuine drawbacks to CRM employment that are worth considering, but an appropriately sober and well-trained student can expect to find interesting and stable archaeology employment.
For those interested in what jobs are out there for archaeologists at every level of training, Archaeology Fieldwork.com maintains a list of many current jobs in various reaches of CRM (they have a very well-updated facebook page too). Shovel Bums' Yahoo group inventories many current job opportunities too. The American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA) is the official organization representing cultural resource management firms in the US, and they include listings of CRM firms looking for laborers. Cultural Resource Management is the National Park Service's review of CRM news throughout the US, which includes a wide range of historic preservation projects as well as archaeology.
If you have an undergrad degree and an archaeology field school, you likely can find at least temporary employment with a cultural resource management firm as a field excavator (sometimes these jobs are labeled "field technicians"). You will have almost no chance of securing work with most contractors or CRM archaeologists if you have not had an archaeology field school; virtually all will expect you to have completed a field school, and most will expect you to have completed your undergraduate degree. It is not particularly critical that you have a field school in some well-defined area of specialization, since basic field technique varies relatively little between most contexts. However, some contractors may require you to have worked on, for instance, historic period sites if this is their current focus, or Archaic if this is what they're preparing to dig for their coming project. In general, most CRM firms and agencies work with a very wide range of resources and will only expect you to have received fundamental skills training in a field school; if you have additional experience, of course, this will boost your case. Depending on the region, firm, and economic vagaries, you can expect to make something in the neighborhood of $10-$20 an hour (which may include a per diem for food and/or lodging in some firms but will not likely include any benefits and will in many cases run the length of a contracted project, after which you are again on the job market).
A. Like any contract labor, contract archaeology has serious downsides; you can be laid off sometimes, some firms don't pay you if the crew isn't in the field or the project is delayed for reasons outside the firm's control, and it is real work, regardless of romanticized notions of archaeology as a pure leisure--cultural resource management firms don't have the leisure to just let employees blow off a day; a life of digging test pits can change the shape of your spine; contract firms often must meet rigorous deadlines; and the collective burden of sunburns, poison ivy, occasionally boring sites, and weeks in dumpy motels far from home can significantly change how you feel about archaeology.
B. Your best chances to direct excavations, prepare reports, and secure a more significant income and challenging work depend on graduate level training.
This seems a ridiculous question, but a surprising number of folks simply go to grad school with no clear idea of what it will do for them. This is not like a trade school certificate that places a stamp of approval on a certain type of skilled laborer: different programs produce different kinds of students who are well-suited to some work situations and skills and not suited so well to others. In general, graduate programs in archaeology have tended to train students how to think and articulate but leave the burden of what you will do with those intellectual skills to you. This has been a bit of a dilemma in CRM archaeology in particular, where concrete skills--lithic analysis, understanding of Harris Matrix, GIS competence, research skills--are essential. On the other hand, some students leave grad school with very strong technical skills but demonstrate no substantial understanding of the most basic anthropological terms. You need to understand what it is that you need to know, what you already have pretty much in hand, and what graduate training at a particular school will add to both that will make you a better archaeologist.
There are plenty of very good reasons to NOT go to grad school:
A. "It will build my self-esteem": students in grad school now can help disabuse you of this notion, because graduate school is a challenging intellectual and social environment. Many programs are not particularly well-suited to making people feel better, and in fact they may have just the opposite effect. Sure, your family and friends will perhaps grant you some modest increase in status now that you're in graduate school, and they may even inflate that status when you graduate. Nevertheless, there are many far less tortuous ways to build ego and self-esteem. Despite this, a lot of people go to graduate school because they feel good going and contemplating a graduate degree.
B. "It will get me a job": don't count on it--competition can be fierce, particularly at the highest levels. Graduate degrees DO help enormously when you go off to secure archaeological employment, but they're not the be-all and end-all---you'll still be judged on your personal skills, experience, who you were trained by, where you trained, what sorts of sites you worked on, and so on. The diploma may open the door, but your skills will land you a job, not the degree.
C. "What else am I going to do?": grad school is a bad place to find yourself and figure out what you want to do. Normally if you can't figure out generally what you're interested in (e.g., historical archaeology, lithic analysis, etc) or why you feel graduate school will help you, CRM employment following your undergraduate training may be a better route to give yourself professional breathing time. You can dig with a firm and get to see the business and discipline from the perspective of a field archaeologist, which can help you understand exactly what it is you most want to do.
D. "I just like being in school": enjoying your undergraduate training is a very good starting point, but remember that graduate school can be the most selfish thing any human can ever do, so it tends to attract certain personality types---good grad students can be intensely self-centered egos who are utterly focused and able to maintain that for years. Graduate schools are a unique atmosphere in which certain sorts of personalities flourish and grow and others languish, even though they're all likely quite sharp. You should understand that some programs tend to produce competitiveness between students for a variety of reasons, so the personality brew in various programs can be quiet different and perhaps not to your personal liking. Being self-centered can be essential, because an archaeology project is labor-intensive and usually takes years to complete. The average length of time from bachelors to PhD in the US in Anthropology is 9.5 years---if you go the doctoral route, you better be utterly committed and know that your family, significant other, and pets are all ready for a long intense haul that could involve seasonal migration for many archaeologists, poverty for most, research periods and conferences away from home for all, and a whole new bunch of smart but neurotic peers. In many doctoral programs, probably one-third of incoming students will not last to a degree because of poverty, an inability to bring a project to an end, a good job offer along the way, or all sorts of life events. Attrition is less of an issue in a terminal Master's program (i.e., where you do not advance to doctorate study), but the personality dynamics and life-change issues still held even over a Master's course.
E. "I know exactly what I want to do": this is not always a good thing for folks entering a graduate program. Successful grad students don't always focus on a very well-defined topic from the outset; instead, they're relatively flexible thinkers who have a general way of thinking about archaeology, have a clear but broad area of interest (e.g., Adena mounds, African-American archaeology, etc), and find a project that accommodates their thinking and interests. Sometimes the most focused incoming students are the most tortured along the way because they have the most difficulty adapting. I think having a solid focus--"this is what my Master's thesis will be about"--is less important than flexibility, because you go to grad school to find ways to amplify your thinking, not to give a degree to what you basically already knew.
What are your degree options in graduate archaeological training? There are two basic degree options in the US, although many programs offer a range of specializations that can be tailored to your needs. Virtually all archaeologists in the US come out of Anthropology programs, but a handful graduate from American Studies or folklore programs that are sympathetic to material culture studies and archaeology. A few US schools, like their British and European counterparts, offer stand-alone Archaeology departments that are not part of an Anthropology department. British programs provide yet another range of options, though their approach to training can be quite different from that in the US. The vast majority of archaeologists, though, should expect to get their graduate degree from an Anthropology department.
Many grad programs offer both a PhD and Masters. Sometimes a student planning to advance to a doctorate has an option of bypassing some Masters requirements or the degree itself; other programs require a Masters along the way and then will test the student before allowing her to advance to PhD status. The logistics vary widely from one institution to another.
An increasing number of programs offer a terminal Master's degree; i.e., they offer only a Master's degree. Many such departments are oriented to producing archaeology students for CRM employment. These sorts of programs tend to stress practical skills and the details of conducting archaeology in the real world of deadlines, intellectual flexibility, CRM law, and byzantine bureaucracies. Programs like Maryland's have no Masters thesis but instead place students in an internship with an employer who gives student a work experience focused on a project constructed by the student. Others require a standard thesis, which typically runs from 50 to 100 pages.
What are the attractions of going the terminal Master's route?
1. In almost all cases, a Master's degree is a vastly more pragmatic job strategy than the long haul of going after a doctorate. A Master's will yield increased pay in CRM, and it avoids lengthy PhD training and subsequent tortured competition for jobs in academia.
2. It is more inexpensive to go to school for two years rather than four or more. Its not shallow to consider expense in this decision, because pursuing a doctorate for even the most driven student is a venture that should take several years and will likely demand student loans, liberal family borrowing, dipping into savings, and the benefits of Mastercard.
3. A Master's degree does produce more competitive students after graduation who can expect better pay than bachelor's students. Your degree won't in itself produce a job, because you will still be compelled to present field experience and skills to a CRM employer, but the degree will help secure a more stable and lucrative position.
4. A Master's degree is typically less demanding in a wide range of ways: there is less coursework and there are fewer requirements to fulfill the degree, so there is much lower attrition than in PhD programs, which makes for somewhat more complacent students.
5. In general, a Master's degree is completed quickly and is less likely to drag on because masters programs are more structured than PhD programs; this is not always the case, since some doctoral programs demand students leap through many hoops and a few Master's programs are quite fluidly structured. Because most Master's programs are trying to get students out in two years, though, they tend to have clear and systematic structure, and some students do better in a highly structured program where their courses are required and their progress is closely monitored. On the other hand, other students flourish when left to their own devices, so know your personality and the program's philosophy.
6. Master's programs exert less pressure to publish and present at conferences. In a doctoral program, you'll be compelled to begin assembling professional papers and presenting papers at meetings, especially if you entertain the notion of entering the academic job market.
7. In general, a Master's degree committee has a less onerous role than a doctoral committee because the Master's thesis and degree program is much shorter than a doctoral dissertation and PhD program. You may want a really intrusive committee or advisor during your Master's degree study if you need to have somebody occasionally light a fire under you over those two years. However, the relationship between an advisor and student over the course of a dissertation and PhD study is very long and can run the course of any human relationship that involves power. The work a PhD produces during their dissertation and their relationship with their advisor will shape all facets of their subsequent professional life, so it is not a normal relationship. Most grad students and faculty advisors alike are pretty smart people and have strong wills, too, so this is a relationship that can be infused with a very wide range of sentiments that are not normally unleashed over two years and a typical thesis.
8. Someday you will want a real life, in some sense of the term. Your significant other, disturbed cat, and family will likely rearrange their lives for you over a couple of years and even pack up a U-Haul and move off to distant College Town, but they may not be quite so eager to spend five to ten years immersed in your schooling. You should be very clear about the intensity of any graduate training with the people who are attached to you, and they may well be more receptive to the shorter commitment involved in a Master's degree.
D. What are the detractions of a terminal Master's degree program?
1. A resourceful student can challenge themselves by expanding on the basic requirements of a Masters program, but some Master's programs are very highly structured and offer little or no opportunity to take any classes beyond the standard 36 hours or thereabouts. This can be a dilemma in a highly structured doctoral program as well if you're keen to explore other subfields, perspectives, or disciplines, but even in a liberally structured two-year Master's degree program you can only take a few electives.
2. PhD programs often have archaeology faculties oriented to research projects that demand graduate student labor, so there are many opportunities to carve a niche on a project and produce original research. Lots of PhD programs have faculty who manage long-term excavation projects that are geared to producing numerous dissertations, and a few Master's programs have such projects geared to producing thesis research and fieldwork opportunities. In general, though, intensive and original research projects are somewhat more likely to occur in a PhD program.
3. As in many PhD programs, Masters programs often have considerable cultural anthropology credit course requirements taught by faculty who demonstrate no real interest in archaeology or material culture. This is not a problem unique to either Masters or doctoral programs; rather, it is a problem that tends to be found in certain departments where archaeology is not highly regarded. In programs where archaeologists and cultural anthropologists see themselves as true colleagues, cultural anthropology courses will be essential elements of your training. But if your ethnography professor thinks archaeology is stones and bones lacking any substantial cultural insights, then you'll only be unhappy with the program and robbed of key intellectual training. Consequently, understand the program's attitude toward what it is you want to do before you get there.
A PhD is a considerably longer and more intensive experience in even the shortest and easiest programs--archaeologists should really expect six years and reasonably know that more is possible. Archaeological research is a painstaking and demanding process, and the process of taking classes, finding a project for your dissertation, digging a site (should you choose to do original field research), analyzing it, and then writing it up to the satisfaction of yourself and other scholars can take a very long time. Those people who are self-driven, committed to a project, and enjoy the intense process of excavation, analysis, research, and writing can flourish in doctoral training. Doctoral programs vary widely in structure; some are very highly structured with well-detailed hoops, while others are much more liberally structured. Most give students considerable latitude to construct a program with a committee, the group of faculty that will guide your doctoral research. However, this still means that a potentially lengthy period of time will be spent between you and your advisor (a.k.a., chair) determining what it is you need to do to be prepared for your dissertation research. This may require a little bit of coursework or a lot, and the latter of course adds to the time you'll be submerged. Those programs that do grant their students a fair amount of latitude determining their program are not well-suited to students who need assertive direction, so attrition can be a pressing problem: once again, be honest with yourself and decide whether you need somebody to light a fire under you or just leave you alone to explore. Virtually all programs will require language competency (generally passing a reading proficiency test) and/or special skills tests, though some programs will waive this if the skills are superfluous to the student's interests. Even if you escape that, though, doctoral training will still demand a series of examinations: e.g., a written dissertation prospectus (i.e., what you propose to study); public presentation of the prospectus; oral and/or written exams defending research preparation and training prior to dissertation research (the stage at which grad students are called ABD, meaning "all but dissertation"); preparation of a dissertation; and the final defense of the dissertation and program training--be prepared for a long haul. If anyone tells you that you'll be two years on Masters and three years on your doctorate, they're naive or know nothing about archaeology, or both.
Paying for this length of training is a significant burden; teaching assistantships can significantly reduce cost, but they often increase the length of your education because the teaching workload cuts away at your personal research time. You may be fortunate to secure some grant or outside funding, but most folks are compelled to borrow money and live quite meagerly.
A PhD traditionally has prepared archaeologists for academic employment, but increasingly more PhDs turn to CRM today, in large part because the academic job market is quite bleak. The dilemma is that many PhDs went to school training themselves to teach and be an expert on a narrowly defined topic. Yet CRM demands a quite different set of skills in addition to that intellectual training. Great thinkers will always find work in CRM, but the best CRM scholarship comes from very bright folks who also have very good practical skills: they know their artifacts, are excellent field archaeologists in a wide range of settings, they are flexible generalists, and they understand CRM law and the business itself. If you're interested in doing CRM archaeology, you can tailor a PhD program to provide excellent preparation, but if you train thinking you'll be a theory-builder, your capacity to do much CRM will be significantly weakened.
Those future doctorates looking toward academic employment will find a very thin thread to hang on. There is keen competition for even the lowliest jobs, and pay is not particularly good. Many newly minted doctorates typically flock to part-time teaching positions and non-tenured full-time positions that have expanded as tenure stream jobs slowly disappear. Part-timers typically have little or no benefits, which is a big drag when you need a filling, have the flu, or feel compelled to feed your family, and many institutions treat their non-tenured faculty pretty poorly. Tenure stream positions provide enormous creative opportunities and research possibilities, but it is worth being sober about this job market.
Most archaeology students can secure challenging intellectual training in a Master's degree program, but some of us will always have minds that need a more lengthy, rigorous, and intensive educational experience that can only be found in a doctoral program. Know what you want out of graduate school and be honest with yourself about your own temperament and commitment before you decide on beginning a doctoral program. You can always keep this option open in a terminal Master's degree program anyway: if you decide at the end of two years you're ready for more, then you'll be able to go on and have a Master's degree to fall back on as well.
The process of choosing a graduate program can be an exciting but onerous task. You will be evaluated throughout the rest of your professional career by the program and its faculty, so you will have something serious invested in whatever place you decide to go. At the same time, you need to find a place that suits you intellectually, financially, and personally. In your junior year you should begin the hunt in earnest if you anticipate beginning grad school in the Fall immediately following your graduation. There are a number of things to think about as you shop graduate programs.
1. The most critical question you must answer is what do you want this degree to do for you in terms of long-term goals? As I've suggested, for many archaeologists, a Masters is an increasingly smart strategy in pursuit of CRM work, and an increasing number of programs are geared to training students for CRM research. If you have some complex and ambitious project, you may be compelled to take on the PhD route.
2. What are you interested in?: obviously you should choose to go to a school where people do the sort of research in which you're interested. This can be found out through your own reading of the archaeology literature: find out what scholars do work that is interesting and exciting, then find out where they teach. You can also find out who is doing interesting research right now, as opposed to a decade ago, by attending conferences and listening to students and faculty who are researching topics that interest you or have intellectual perspectives you are attracted to.
You should plan to troll the AAA Guide to Departments, which is a systematic listing of every anthropology department and faculty member in most US and many worldwide departments. We keep a current AAA Guide to Departments in Cavanaugh 413 just outside the department chair's office. A number of fine websites inventory graduate programs in archaeology including about.com (which includes links to every major US program) and the Society for Historical Archaeology (which inventories historical archaeology programs and includes links to web pages).
Virtually every department with a graduate program will have a web page, and this can give you some sense of the program's research strengths, intellectual philosophy, pedagogy, and basic self-image. Web sites can tell you as much about a program's personality as they can tell you about all the dry facts you need to know. The about.com inventory of archaeology grad programs is probably the most encyclopedic site with links to these program-maintained pages.
When you identify programs that interest you, write away (or email on their website) and get their graduate school information packet. In most cases, this will give you a mountain of information to wade through, and the more information you have to make this decision the better.
3. Assess the competitiveness and character of programs: understand how difficult it is to get in to a given program, the number of students in already, and the type of students and faculty already there. Be reasonable: the top-notch programs are very competitive and can afford to pick and choose; they will very strenuously assess your undergraduate program (i.e., where you went to school and who you trained with), GREs, GPA, and statement of purpose. Big programs are sometimes less likely to have money to spread around to their students; more people will be competing for the teaching assistantships, and this may create a more divisive atmosphere. Some programs will also be peopled by a lot of very smart people whose competitiveness can make for an unpleasant social experience, and graduate school should be challenging but not miserable. Smaller programs have more contact between students and faculty--this is really critical in grad school; it is annoying to not be able to meet with your undergrad advisor, but you can do nothing without your grad advisor and committee's permission.
4. Personality: do you like the people who you want to study with? You can only know this by seeing them speak, talking to their students, and meeting with them, all of which you can do at conferences. I suggest that folks send a brief email or call a professor prior to a meeting and ask if they might take a few moments at the upcoming meeting to talk about the department's graduate program; most faculty will do their best to meet with you or find some other way to accommodate you. You can simply walk up to a prospective faculty member at a meeting, but you should understand that these are busy times for them and they may not be able to talk with you without advanced warning. Email inquiries also work very well with some faculty. Some students are leery to approach a professor because they are concerned they might end up saying something goofy and endanger their application. My feeling is that you're likely to say several goofy things over the course of a couple years or more, so if you end up being modestly inarticulate or have a bad hair day most faculty will forgive you: if they don't, then this is the time to find out. You should share your concrete questions about the department with the faculty member, asking about their interest in doing whatever it is you do, their courses, funding, or whatever else is of interest. This is a critical time to find out key details about a program and a faculty member, but it also is a personality test: you really need to get along with this person if s/he will be your advisor. Finding somebody who is active intellectually is important, but I think it is generally far better to train with a lesser-known but personable and sympathetic advisor than a world-class luminary who gives you no time and is busy, grumpy, or focused on advanced doctoral students.
You want to know about the program from the faction most likely to offer up the unvarnished reality? Seek out some current students. Talking to current or recently graduated students can illuminate a lot about the program; they'll gripe openly if they're not pleased with something, and they'll also hail the program if they're happy with their experience. They'll also share facts of life things you need to know: e.g., how much rent is in College Town, the local social life, departmental activities, and so on.
Some programs suggest campus visits. Since this could be outrageously expensive, I'd suggest only considering this at a late stage. However, if you're close by your prospective school, by all means consider visiting.
5. Where's the cash?: At some point you want to know how much money they have to spread around to students and how it is spread. You don't want to spend the rest of your life paying back loans or recovering from credit card debt inflicted by graduate school living. You'll want to know how much teaching and research assistantship money is available, how many students are competing for it, and how it is distributed (e.g., merit, intellectual progress, taking turns--such as in second year but not first--, and so on). Teaching assistantships (a "TA") generally require you to do some teaching, often in discussion sections that break off a larger lecture taught by a professor. They can include grading papers and exams, developing exercises and section lectures, and various tasks to assist a faculty member. Generally they include a cash stipend and include a tuition waiver; in different programs, you can expect some modest benefits, and in others you can expect no benefits at all: ask a faculty member or student for details in a given program. Many programs today extend students a TA in their second year but not their first; you can only know a program's general policy by asking. A research assistantship (an "RA") usually assigns a student to a particular professor for whom you might do any number of tasks. Like a TA, an RA usually includes a stipend and tuition waivers. Fellowships are full tuition waivers that are usually accompanied by a stipend, and they are designed to provide sufficient income for a student to apply themselves fully to coursework without worrying over their phone bill or other real life hassles. Usually fellowships are competitive and based on academic merit; some fellowships are designed to fund minority students, women, members of underrepresented groups, or special academic interests, so look closely at the department's literature and ask questions about the range of funding possibilities.
6. Program reputation: this is not a be-all and end-all, but more respected programs with well-known faculty certainly will help in the ultimate job search. Know what your preferred program is noted for: e.g., they may be a strong CRM training department, they may be Marxists, etc.
By early Fall of your senior year you should have identified a handful of programs in which you're very interested. Eventually you should expect to apply to three programs or so; some people apply to five or six, others do just a couple, but its usually not a good idea to only apply to one place.
You will be required to submit GRE scores with your applications, most of which will be due early in the New Year, so if you have not already done so you must schedule and take the GREs in the Fall of your senior year. Many people take them a couple of times, in case they have an off-day once out, but this is up to you. Different programs give different credence to the GREs, so know how your preferred programs will view these scores (e.g., as basic ways to make an initial cull, as mechanism to award teaching assistantships, and so on).
The application process can work quite differently in various schools, but its generally pretty consistent from one place to the next in the US. You should expect most applications to be due just after Christmas; some will ask for them as early as December 1st or so, and others will give you until April 1st to turn in everything. Be aware that financial aid departments can have different deadlines than academic departments, so be sure not to miss one of the financial aid deadlines. When you write to the school initially, they'll probably send along all the application materials and deadlines. Be aware that these are drop-dead deadlines: if you miss one, you have little or no chance of being granted a reprieve. If it needs to be said, of course you should follow any directions they give you to the letter. Some schools, for instance, will require you to actually paper-clip material in a particular order, tell you where to place the paper clip, specify fonts and word count, have your references send their letters in special envelopes signed across the flap and then integrated into your admissions application, and give you a couple of different addresses to send things, so review all the literature they provide you closely; they will generally be unforgiving for the tiniest infraction because there are a lot of strong applicants. Increasingly more universities are doing applications online, and don't let the appearance of an instant submission tempt you to wait until the last possible day to turn in your materials; inevitably this will be the day you lose internet and get a foot of snow and are stuck at home, so still work ahead of the deadlines as much as possible.
The application package for almost any department will include transcripts for every school you've attended, letters of recommendation (generally at least three), a completed application (sometimes one for both the university and the department), and a statement of purpose, which also is known as a personal statement or statement of intent. While you'll send substantially the same information to every school, a "good" application in one place is not always a "good" application everywhere; every place looks for different things. The bottom line is that some places will reject promising students for a variety of good reasons, so don't take rejection too personally should it rear its ugly head.
The application directions from many schools will be a confusing maze directing you to send various pieces of your application to different campus addresses, using particular font sizes, typing all material within specified spaces, or even paper-clipping applications materials in a particular order. It may seem really stupid, but just do it--this is no time to wage a protest against bureaucracies, and in fact you'll confront even more troublesome bureaucracies in a fair amount of CRM and academia.
Every application will cost money: expect each application to set you back $50-$100 in most cases, sometimes more.
Two pieces of this package are key. The statement of purpose is probably the single most important element of the application. Generally a statement of field is about a page to two pages single spaced; some schools set limits on number of words or make you print the application within a specific space and with a given font size and spacing. The second critical element of the package will be letters of reference: solid letters of reference will boost your case substantially.
A statement of purpose typically outlines your research interests and makes a case (either directly or obliquely) for why you are particularly well-suited to that program. Statements should clearly present your basic research interests, demonstrating a dovetail with those of the department and/or a faculty member, and specify in general how you anticipate pursuing this research in grad school. Any given program or faculty member may look for something distinctive in statements, but strong statements tend to strike a balance between being specific and directed without appearing to have any intellectual flexibility. This means a statement should state a generally discrete area of interest (e.g., industrial archaeology; New England contact period; Late Classic Maya), but it is not necessary (and sometimes counterproductive) to be too fixated on a narrow topic. Don't try to guess what a given school is looking for in its applicants' statements, because there is no one way to write the perfect statement. Programs look for different strengths, but most programs will look for some basic things.
Your statement should confront why you are seeking entrance into this program: grad programs want to know if you fit their sense of the sorts of students they are best suited to intellectually (i.e., in terms of the focus of your research) or in a broader personal sense (e.g., a program committed to anthropology as activism will seek out archaeologists who do public interpretive research). How do you find out what they look for?: first of all, read faculty's literature closely; you should obviously share their basic intellectual position, and your statement should speak at least obliquely to the sorts of subjects they raise in their literature. If you have field experience, you certainly should mention this, particularly if it was with data or a period that you plan to research in graduate school. Some applicants will already have access to a data set of some sort from a dig they've already done or a project they worked on, and if you do you should make sure this is clear in the statement. Describe that data (e.g. late-19th century rural farmstead in southeastern Indiana) and be clear that you have been extended permission to work with it if permission is necessary (e.g., if you worked for a CRM firm or did analysis on your undergrad program's dig, your graduate committee will want to know what sort of material you have to work with and be sure that the CRM principal investigator or your undergrad professor has given you approval to work with the material). If you had undergraduate research experience, by all means indicate that and detail the work you did.
One upshot of this: your statement is generally the same from one letter to the next BUT you must plan to write statements that differ somewhat for different programs--don't think this is a writing task you'll complete one Saturday afternoon, or at least don't expect that afternoon statement to get you admitted to many institutions.
Target a professor or professors in the program you would want to study with and is best suited to what you do. Know that they will likely read your statement most closely and have the most sway over whether you are admitted. Preferably you'll meet with or send a letter to this professor prior to the admissions review---you need to know if they're planning on a sabbatical soon, have they recently embraced a wholly new research subject, are they overloaded with students already, are they thinking about taking early retirement, and other pragmatic stuff as well as the personality test. My own feeling is that if you only target a professor with a letter prior to the application, you're easier to reject because you're just a name on a page: human contact makes more sense in most cases.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do is let people read your statement before you send it off: take all kinds, supportive and surly alike, grammar police as well as emotive readers, cultural anthropologists as well as archaeologists. You should not nourish a false pride about your statement, no matter how hard you worked on crafting the perfect page: nothing could be more embarrassing or unnecessary than spelling and grammar errors or arguments or passages that are not clear. Just running spell check is not sufficient. Find some professors to review the draft as well as some grammatical compulsives who'll catch your comma errors and such.
You will be expected to solicit several letters of reference from academics or professional archaeologists to support your application. These will be read closely by graduate departments, but as with personal statements, various programs will look for different things in these reference letters.
The application package the program provides will typically include three blank forms for referees (or email/web page addresses to which their letters should be submitted). You will be expected to fill in your name and the department to which you are applying, and then provide that form to the person who will write the letter. Letters will require you to indicate whether you waive your right to see the letter-writers' letters. You have the legal right to see any of the letters that support your application, and programs technically should not place more weight on a letter that is confidential. Various folks have different perspectives on whether you should indeed waive your right to see the letter, but my feeling is if you're concerned that Professor X will not write a good letter, then you should ask somebody else; if you know the letter-writer and prepare them well, you should feel sufficiently safe to waive your right to access.
You should expect to solicit three letters, and some students will include even more. Your letter writers should be academics or professional archaeologists. It is certainly nice if you have some luminary scholar providing a letter, but a strong letter from a lesser-known academic can be just as strong if you prepare the writer well and they are able to speak clearly and convincingly about your academic and personal potential.
Your job is to prepare the letter-writers. Just providing the form to three professors is not enough: this is unlikely to produce strong letters. You should first meet with each letter writer individually well ahead of the deadline. You should discuss why you are applying to each program that has made it to the final cut and discuss your personal research interests and how you hope to pursue them in graduate school. This will also provide the letter-writer the opportunity to quiz you on details of your schooling, preparation, and experience.
You should provide your letter writers with your personal statement or a draft--they need to know what you're saying, and they likely can provide you with suggestions. If you have significant experience, you should prepare a sheet that inventories your field and research experiences. Strong letters will show that the writer knows the applicant's qualifications and background, and faculty often don't know much of their students' backgrounds, so you need to help the writer and provide these details.
Provide each letter-writer a copy of your transcript; you can make this out yourself, but since you'll be required to include transcripts with your applications, just copy one of those and provide it to the writer. If necessary, highlight the courses that you've taken with that faculty member. Again, do this long before the deadline.
Every school will have a different process for receiving letters of reference. For instance, some schools will expect the letter writers to prepare their letters, seal them in an envelope that they sign across the flap, and then return this directly to you to be included with your application materials. Others will expect the letters to be sent out under separate cover. Some may accept emailed letters, and increasingly more programs take letters online. Faculty usually expect this mailing expense to be paid by their departments, but some professionals may not have a mailing budget, so you should consider providing a self-addressed stamped envelope for those writers. Some schools will provide letters for the writers that do not include any address--they're really testing you--, so be sure that the writers receive letters that are fully addressed.
Provide each writer a single sheet that indicates the deadlines for each school to which you've applied. You should plan to contact each letter writer a couple weeks prior to that deadline and ask them if they need anything else to complete your letter--this is a nice way of asking if they have completed the letter. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned letter-writers have been known to miss deadlines or forget such tasks, so help out your writers and don't let them misplace you. Many programs will not consider an incomplete application, regardless of how sympathetic they may be.
Regardless of the final verdict, inform each letter-writer of the responses, tell them where you've decided to go or what you've decided to do, and thank them for the time they put into the task. Few things are more disgruntling than to prepare a letter and then never hear from the student whether the application was successful or not. It is bad manners to meet a faculty member at a conference a year later and let them know you did get admitted based in some significant part on their letter. Your letter-writers will be your colleagues for the rest of your career and will have something invested in your success, so take the time for the modest courtesy.
Plan ahead! If you anticipate going to graduate school directly after you complete your undergraduate training, then you need to start planning in your junior year. If you decide to lay off for a while and perhaps do some CRM work for a year or two, start thinking ahead to the sort of work you want to do and how it will prepare you for graduate school eventually.
During your junior year, peruse web sites for potential graduate schools and send away for materials from every one in which you have even remote interest. You may choose to start with one of the online graduate school guides like about.com (among the most useful online resources, the archaeology site has a very thorough "Getting into Graduate School" series) and the Society for Historical Archaeology (which inventories historical archaeology programs and includes links to web pages).
If your primary interest is in prehistoric archaeology, the major meeting is the Society for American Archaeology, which is held in April. By April of your senior year the acceptance decisions will have been made, so if you want to meet up with a whole bunch of prehistoric archaeologists this will be your best chance before the application period.
If you have not taken an archaeology field school by junior year, plan to take one between your junior and senior years. This is absolutely essential regardless of whether you plan to go on to graduate school or CRM.
By the beginning of Fall semester in your senior year, you should be at the point that you've whittled the field down to a short list in the neighborhood of five or so. By the time you give your letter writers all your materials around the beginning of November, you should make the final cut.
If you have not already done so, you must take the Graduate Record Examinations in the Fall.
The American Anthropology Association meets in November, which fits graduate school searching very well. If you can afford it, you stand a good chance of being able to meet with somebody from your prospective school at AAAs. The Society for Historical Archaeology meets in January, which is not a bad time, either, since many applications will not be due until early Spring. A variety of regional and specialist archaeology groups meet throughout the year, so don't overlook smaller meetings as potential places to meet faculty.
Expect to meet with your letter writers and provide them everything they need by November. Keep in mind that they have conferences, end-of-semester responsibilities, and holiday shopping, too, so always give them too much time rather than too little.
Most applications will be due in early Spring of your senior year. Some schools' financial aid materials will be due earlier, so don't miss those deadlines if you are seeking loans or other aid. There will be no excuse for missing any deadlines, even if the universities are sympathetic to your plight, so do not bungle a deadline.
Updated December 18, 2009