I live in two professional worlds. Part scientist, part science communicator, I navigate a cross-disciplinary career with a saying from time in archaeology:
Work from the known to the unknown.
The Career Readiness Commission’s Fordham Conference cued up this phrase for me again and sparked questions. Should anthropology remain within the known training paradigms of the cultural, linguistic, biological, and archaeological subfields? Or, can it push into the unknown to support anthropologists working outside the academy?
Perhaps my field of applied archaeology, specifically cultural resources management (CRM), offers a known case study with insights for anthropology.
Cleaved from an academic core and shaped by decades of “salvage” practice, CRM was established by the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This Act, particularly its Section 106 language, initiated public oversight of historic and archaeological resources across the U.S. In response, a workforce—steeped in the Four Field approach—arose to meet the demands of a new sector.
Today, CRM archaeology is a billion-dollar industry with more than 10,000 professionals ranging from newly minted field techs to mid-career principal investigators. It cultivates specialties in historic architecture, environmental sciences, underwater archaeology, and tribal consultation, and aligns itself with the Green economy.
A few programs have pivoted toward CRM training by balancing theory with practical and technical skills. The results are mixed and many with advanced degrees struggle to translate their research into review and compliance jobs. Gaps in experiential learning also remain, as field school training is not always adequate to CRM needs and practitioners seldom return to university settings to foster the next generation.
To support professional development, the Register of Professional Archaeologists, the Society for American Archaeology, and the American Cultural Resources Association offer credentialing (like the RPA designation) and continuing education. Pilot programs within CRM for internships and research are also beneficial. My own dissertation on the geoarchaeology of the Upper Susquehanna River in New York State was the result of such a partnership.
The situation is not perfect. Issues remain over pay equity, workforce diversity, and an operations model that requires extensive travel.
So, what can we learn from CRM?
Embrace innovation as CRM did fifty years ago. Anthropologists can’t “hide in the bushes” forever, as Gillian Tett said in her conference keynote. Don’t wait for a federal mandate. Anthropologists and the institutions that train them need a “startup” mindset. Students should advocate for collaborative, hands-on, resume-building experiences as part of their educational trajectory.
Get real about academic timelines. Soaring student debt and economic downturn threaten job prospects across the social sciences. Academic programs must tune into the needs of working students and limit timelines for those seeking entry into professional, practicing, and applied careers. Executive education programs may be a useful model in this regard. And, if you need inspiration as a student, tap into the Career Readiness Commission’s Resources webpage to find more on Commission Materials and Career-related Materials.
Finally, it’s time to reframe success and let go of the stigma of working outside academia. What I am talking about is a sense of shame and its toxicity to a career. As a discipline, we need to reset expectations for the student journey and post-graduate outcomes. As a community, we need to keep building a robust infrastructure for mentoring, allyship, and career exploration.
The work of anthropologists outside the academy benefits us all. Based on applied CRM archaeology, the formalization of a practical route forwards that spans methods, techniques, and job skills is an essential next step. That way, the anthropological workforce will emerge from the metaphorical shrubbery and be ready to tackle the next unknown.