How to be Successful in Cultural Resource Management

By Todd Ahlman

jake and edward in Crooks park
CAS field crew performing shovel tests

The business world is littered with articles that are a list of the four, five, six, or any innumerable ways, actions, factors, or steps to be successful in the business world. It is simple enough to sit down with a business-oriented magazine (think Harvard Business Review) and learn what you should do to be a successful employee, manager, executive, or CEO. I have learned in my career that these sources are valuable in navigating the business world, but when it comes to our field there are few guidance materials for establishing a successful and happy career in Cultural Resource Management (CRM.) This blog post aims to fill that void. The information here comes from my own career, and the background and experience I look for when hiring and promoting.

Undergraduate students who plan on becoming CRM archaeologists must remember that in the United States archaeology is a sub-field of anthropology and they will be taking classes in at least three of the four sub-fields. That being said, important courses undergraduates should seek to take include introductions to archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistics; a regional archaeology overview; human osteology; a laboratory/artifact analysis course; statistics; a GIS (geographical information systems) introduction; and, most importantly, an archaeological field school. As our last blog post addresses, the archaeological field school experience is a vital part of an archaeologist’s education. Internships and voluntarism are also valuable opportunities for learning skills and gaining valuable experience. Look for experiences where you will learn new skill-sets, and that provide you a learning outcome that will be useful later in your career.

JakeBetween my undergraduate and graduate studies, I took a couple years and worked for the National Park Service. This experience gave me a lot of practical field and laboratory experience that helped me in graduate school and throughout my career. I have known many people who entered the CRM workforce after completing their undergraduate studies to make some money and gain experience. Many of the jobs available to folks in CRM are temporary, lasting anywhere from a couple days to a year or more. These jobs require a lot of mobility and flexibility, and are a good gauge for assessing if you are suited to a career in CRM. This experience will also be crucial for those folks who plan go to graduate school as preparation for their post-grad school jobs.

The key to a successful graduate school experience is having a direction before applying to schools. Selecting the right school will help ensure you get the education best suited for your career plans. Whether pursuing a master’s degree or PhD, a student looking at a CRM career should take a variety of courses in archaeology, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology as well as statistics, GIS, public history, and business. Why public history and business? Public history courses provide students with vital skills in historical research, outreach, and relevant preservation laws and procedures. CRM is a business and most practitioners are ill-prepared for the business aspect. Identifying a good overview business course that includes information on management, accounting, and business development will help you in the business world. Even if your university offers a non-thesis opportunity, do not go down that path. Make sure you undertake a structured study with a written thesis. Being able to write coherently and cohesively is an important element to being successful.

One thing most graduates are missing is an understanding of federal, state, and local cultural resources laws. For instance, in CRM it is vital to understand how to apply the National Register of Historic Places criteria to a variety of resources and how this drives the fieldwork we undertake. In Texas, we also have the Texas Antiquities Code. Look for Amy Reid’s upcoming blog post on how the antiquities code is applied in Texas.

In my experience as a manager and someone who has hired numerous archaeologists, I have always looked for people with field and laboratory experience beyond a field school (an instance where internships and volunteering can come in handy if your school does not have many field opportunities), an understanding of GIS applications, the ability to write, and a resume that shows they are motivated and hard worker. Do not worry if you do not have business, managerial, and marketing skills as most recent graduates have not been exposed to these aspects of CRM, but plan to gain them and watch how those who are successful conduct themselves. In the end, the most successful archaeologists in CRM have a broad background, understand how to apply cultural resource laws, can write well, and are highly motivated. Having a background in GIS, business, and public history is a bonus and will help further one’s goals.

Dr. Todd Ahlman is the Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies. He has worked in the cultural resources field for more than 25 years. For more information about his upcoming field school on St. Kitts Island, please see our website.