There is nothing more frightening for a fresh university graduate then traversing the job market for the first time with their new degree and a realistic fear of not gaining employment in their field. The ‘real world’ can be a scary place and with a specialized profession, like archaeology, the positions that are available may be rare and highly competitive. Undertaking a field practicum while obtaining your degree can be a great way to get a ‘leg up’ on the competition. This July, I undertook ARCH 8159-Maritime Archaeology Field Practicum that took place over a week on Hinchinbrook Island in far North Queensland. Besides the obvious benefits of obtaining 4.5 credits, in only a week, towards my Masters in Maritime Archaeology degree (MMARCH) and spending that week on a beautiful uninhabited tropical island, I also gained valuable work experience; established resourceful personal contacts, and; received practical guidance from course supervisors and peers.It is through practical courses, like field schools and practicums, that one finds out what the physical aspects of ‘the job’ entails; archaeology as a verb, an action. As a student, you know about research, report writing, and deadlines. These translate well into the life of a professional archaeologist and little transition is needed besides learning new formats or report requirements. It’s the adaptability needed in the field, the uncertainty of variables like weather and transportation, and the psychological components, that can sometimes find their way on to your project, that are impossible to teach in a classroom. For example, over the course of the week we had five out of seven days with winds over 30 knots (over 55 kilometers per hour). We had four out of seven days with rain for the majority of the day, and showers just about every day. It is also difficult, for anyone, to live an entire week on an island spending all of your ‘awake time’ (and ‘sleep time’, as we shared tents) with the same eight people. While things can get tense, you can choose to take away insight into different personalities, how to deal with them, mediate, and help build your emotional intelligence, or workplace empathy skills. Alas, there is no syllabus written about “how to keep your field logbook dry and legible when it’s constantly raining” or “how to not take everything personally in the field”. Its experiential knowledge gained from ‘mistakes made’ and ‘lessons learned’ while one is out in the field. I guarantee that what you pack for your first field experience is nothing like what you’re going to pack on your second or twentieth field project. Suddenly having a fresh pair of pants every day is not worth the extra kilos in your pack by the tenth time you lift it onto your shoulders, and that expensive new jacket that’s supposed to be waterproof is only water resistant. You learn quickly what you don’t need and what you do. After digging numerous trenches by hand, I would’ve gladly traded my snorkeling gear for a shovel. During this past practicum I have experienced everything from a Cane toad jumping on my face whilst sound asleep in my tent, to hiking five kilometers in the sand in order to ‘dig holes’ quicker than the tide could fill them back up, and then hike five kilometers back to the start all while carrying gear. These are just a couple examples of some of the unexpected parts of working in the field that can only be understood by those who have experienced ‘doing archaeology’.
You may be asking; “what makes a field practicum different from a field school?” For the MMARCH program, ARCH 8152-Maritime Archaeology Field School is a core topic, meaning that it must be completed in order to fulfill the requirements of the degree. It is in the field school where you are first introduced to the practical component of Maritime Archaeology; where you are taught the foundations of how to ‘do Maritime Archaeology’. But it’s also where you are still undeniably a student in a class, an unconventional class, but a class none the less. The practicum is a topic elective that must be chosen by the student and is more likened to a job or internship. You must have completed the field school as a prerequisite to ensure at least some familiarity with fieldwork but it is expected that the students essentially be employees for the time they are in the field. You are expected to pull your own weight, like carrying gear every day to and from site, taking turns on the metal detector (which can start to weigh heavily on your arm after 15 minutes or so), or jumping in to help everyone back-fill the many trenches that were dug just about every day. We share the burdens and the triumphs. This is where the true value of a field practicum lies.Having completed now both the field school and the practicum, I can truly appreciate the experience I have gained by both, and recognize the variances between them. The field school is valuable as an introduction to fieldwork, field methods, and team dynamics; and the practicum for its introduction to the need for adaptability in the field and for the luxury of being able to make mistakes, learn from them, and have professionals available for guidance. Where you’re just not feeling like an overwhelmed student worrying about notes, terms, and performing academically, but having the confidence of a peer or employee; trusted with important project tasks, minimal supervision, and the pressure of performing professionally. The purpose of a practicum course is to provide invaluable field experience to students so they may feel confident in their abilities as an archaeologist in the field and so that they may successfully transfer the ‘proactively’ driven ‘book smarts’ of their degree to the ‘reactively’ driven reality of a project in the field.
It is no secret that I am an advocate for practicums in post-graduate degrees, especially ones as practical as archaeology. Flinders University offers an additional practicum course (ARCH 8156-Advanced Maritime Archaeology Fieldwork Practicum) as well as numerous field schools ranging from conservation (ARCH 8802) to geophysics (ARCH 8808). While the theory and research studied and performed while undertaking your advanced degree are equally important, it is the ability to know how to work in the field and the confidence of “been there, done that” that can really set you apart when the illusive job posting surfaces and you have more field experience than the other applicants. It may be enough to tip the scales in your favour. Even the personal connections you make on practicum, whether peers, supervisors, or informants, can be beneficial resources or references for future employment, projects, or field opportunities. I am not saying that doing the practicums will guarantee you a job, but I can guarantee it will not be looked upon as a waste of time or credits.