One of the founders of the blog asked me to share my story about how I became an archaeologist. I am happy to share my own journey, since I took a much more direct path than many in the current climate of archaeology. However, I only agreed to do this as part of a broader call for us all to share our stories, whether we personally deem them “successful” or not. Our personal narratives of the trials, tribulations, and successes we have faced as archaeologists are powerful. Sharing the diverse pathways by which we have become archaeologists helps to empower others, especially women working through graduate degrees and wondering "am I doing this right?" or "do I have a future?" We could all benefit from the storytelling of our fellow archaeologists at all stages of career and life. I, for one, am curious about the challenges faced by the pioneers of gender equality in archaeology, as well as the challenges faced today by women in archaeology. With this in mind, I present my own story.
Currently, I am an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta. I graduated with my PhD in May 2011, almost a full year after I had taken up my tenure-track position (July 2010). I started my job at 29 years old, which led to some of the challenges I wrote about previously (see this post). Now, while this seems ideal (a job before you even graduate!), I would not recommend taking up a position before finishing your dissertation if you want to keep any sense of sanity. Nevertheless, the academic world being what it is today, I was not about to turn down or defer a job offer.
Prior to starting my job, I had been in post-secondary education for 12 years straight - 5 years undergrad, 1 MA, 6 PhD - and right out of high-school. There were a few reasons why I didn't take a break throughout my schooling. First, I didn't want to do/couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. I could have taken a year off, but for me, that would have been a waste of time, since it wouldn't be working toward my ultimate goal. I regret almost nothing in my past (not because everything was perfect, but because I prefer to look forward and recognize that every difficult moment is a learning opportunity, even if it is challenging at the time), but I do regret not taking some time off between my MA and PhD.
One question I am often asked is whether or not I had mentoring throughout my degrees and the role those mentors played in my journey. We all have mentors, and I have been lucky enough to have several people in the academy who were always very supportive of my career choices. If I needed help, I could always turn to them, and most eventually became members of my PhD supervisory committee. The majority of my mentors, however, were men. Throughout my undergrad, there was only one woman archaeologist who I encountered, and she was in a different department. I do remember taking a course with her and thinking "I want to be her when I grow up," attesting to the importance of having role models of the same gender.
My schooling did have some ups and downs. One ongoing challenge was finances. I received no monetary support from my family, so I funded my undergraduate degree by taking on student loans and working a part time job. I had first entered university with the goal of specializing in Near Eastern archaeology and much of my undergraduate degree was spent preparing for that career trajectory. Then, when I graduated, I didn't get into the one program to which I had applied. I was devastated, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me, in retrospect. I had already graduated with a BA but took a few classes that year and reevaluated my direction within archaeology. It also taught me that failure didn't mean the world was going to end – a very important lesson at any age. In the following fall, I began my MA in Northwest Coast archaeology at the University of Toronto, and I never looked back. I also made a pledge at this time - I was not going to continue in school if I had to go in further debt. I managed to get enough funding to survive until year 5 of my PhD, at which time I had to take on a job.
My only true moment of doubt about my future in archaeology occurred just after that graduate school rejection letter, where for two hours I seriously considered becoming a second-grade teacher. I don't mean to imply I didn't get discouraged at any other point in my career, but this was the only point where I spent any time and energy focusing on another path in my life. People have often asked me to explain how I was so sure this was the path for me. Honestly, I don't know. I had an unusual and difficult childhood and was home-schooled for six years, during which time I developed a fierce love of learning. My life was quite unstable during those years, but I found solace in written work and in the imaginative abilities of my mind. Going back to public school was a social shock but an easy academic transition. Learning was first a refuge, then a passion, and I have always loved being in an educational environment. September remains my favourite month because it represents the start of a new school year.
I also credit my mother with instilling a strong sense of independence in both myself and my sister. Neither of my parents graduated from university, although both had attended in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, they were both active learners and my mother in particular encouraged us to think outside the box, even in high school. As a teenager, I was convinced I could do anything I wished, as long as I was willing to put in the hard work. Once I set my mind to becoming an archaeologist, I was not going to be gainsaid. In high school, I read a small piece by Brian Fagan, entitled "Archaeology and You", and in it, he stated that a graduate degree was required to become an archaeologist. At that moment, I said to myself and anyone else who would listen, "I'm going to get my PhD in archaeology." Later, when in graduate school, I decided I was going to get a tenure-track position by the time I was 30. I don't know why I decided 30 - I guess it sounded good at the time - but four months shy of my 30 birthday, I began my position at the University of Alberta.
Many people who have seen my journey as it unfolded have suggested I am lucky. I feel blessed every day to be in the position I am in, but calling it luck is a bit of a cop-out. I believe we make our own luck. If I could sum up what I see as the key to my success, I would say it is the power of positive thinking and confidence in my ability to make my dreams a reality (cue inspirational music). I knew exactly what I wanted, I believed I would achieve it, and I never let doubt from within or without undermine that belief. My biggest challenge today is articulating what I want in my life in the future, but I have no doubt that I will be able to create that life, no matter what.
And that's my story. I invite you to share your story in the comments below. We all have different paths and challenges, but every story has great value.