To PhD, or not to PhD. That is the question.

I’ve recently been encouraged by a colleague and friend to apply for a funded PhD at his department. 

This is extremely exciting news, and it’s truly an honour to even be thought of, but I can’t help but feel a bit of apprehension. There’s my old friend, the Impostor Syndrome, and I often wonder how I even got as far as doing a masters (I suspect many of my A level teachers would be shocked to learn that out of my entire group of friends, I’m the one who’s been head-hunted for a funded doctorate!). I also wonder if I’d be able to handle 3.5 years of in-depth, solitary research. Having said that, I think one of the main problems I’ve encountered during my masters is the sheer amount of juggling I have to do with my subjects, writing essays on completely different topics at the same time, and fitting a part-time job in around it all. I suppose with a PhD I’d be studying broadly, but following my own interests and setting my own deadlines which I imagine would suit my learning style far better.

I won’t even go into the issue of finance and funding, because those are the woes of practically any archaeologist, but this is a very large factor in my considerations.

So I suppose I’m calling on people who are doing/have done PhDs and feel they have any advice. Is there such a thing as over-qualification? Do you think that doing a PhD could ever be a bad thing? Does anyone regret their decision? What would you say to your pre-PhD self, if you could?

 

Advertisements

Why archaeology needs Game Developers and Other Nerds*

I recently discovered the wonderful online magazine, Love Archaeology, created and run by postgraduate students at Glasgow University. This discovery in itself merits the creation of a blog post (I strongly recommend checking it out, the thing has a wonderful feel – a mix of enhusiasm, knowledge and general good spirits!), but it also links nicely on to a little archaeology rant that I’ve had brewing up inside for almost a year now.

The third issue of Love Archaeology considers how the study of material culture in imaterial worlds – that is, fictitious creations such as novels and popular games like the Elder Scrolls arc that have their roots firmly placed in our own, human archaeologies – can contribute to archaeological thought. This sort of thing has been hovering on the edge of my brain for god knows long, but I never quite took notice. Clearly I am preoccupied by the past, and that preoccupation has made its way into my hobbies in the form of nerdalicious pursuits such as the playing of Skyrim for really quite unreasonable amounts of time, and the perhaps more honourable act of reading great works of fiction such as George R. R. Martin’s epic political medieval fantasy. I’ve always maintained that I’m an archaeologist for the sole reason that I am also an escapist, and I very much enjoy pretending that the real world doesn’t exist by immersing myself in other worlds, populated by our ancestors. I suppose it just didn’t occur to me that this is exactly what a very large percentage of the population in most developed countries is doing as well.

Does this make us all archaeologists? I certainly believe it means we all think like archaeologists. Or does it mean that archaeologists think like humans? And I suppose that is indeed the goal – to get inside the heads of our human ancestors.

Anyway, I digress. The above discussion is a very interesting one, and one which I might attempt to pursue and perhaps somehow twist into something resembling a thesis. My main point for this post was, however, why the world of archaeology needs game developers and other hardcore gaming-type nerds in general.

This is an opinion that I’ve been brewing ever since somewhere around the middle of my third year studying for an Archaeology BA at Cardiff. I shall illustrate it with this beautiful piece of artwork that I stumbled across whilst surfing the web. Okay, I didn’t stumble across it at all, I was actively seeking out epic bits of concept art for the aforementioned Skyrim.

Image

(c) Bethesda Studios 2011. Art by Adam Adamowicz. Cross section view of a long hall built by the fictional race who live in Skyrim, the Nords.

This wonderful piece of art was released in 2011 previous to the release of the actual game, Skyrim, the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The games are set on the fictional continent of Tamriel, of which Skyrim is a northern province (imagine mountainous landscapes filled with viking-esque settlers and warriors). More images belonging to the same collection of concept art can be found here.

Anyway, I digress once again. My point is… my point is just look at the above image. It looks like an archaeological reconstruction. Or rather, the best archaeological reconstruction anyone has ever seen, ever, in the history of archaeological reconstructions. The image clearly shows both the interior and exterior of the building. It shows the different stages of the build, and the contents of the building, the way it would look if it was occupied by people. The attention to detail is absolutely stunning, and the skills with which is was drawn are undoubtedly phenomenal. This is the sort of digital art that the archaeological world desperately needs.

The people who develop games like this are clearly extremely creative individuals. They’re also clearly hugely talented. We need them.

We are living in an increasingly visual world. In general I think people don’t read as much as they used to, and engage with their real and virtual environments in an increasingly  visual and visceral way. I feel like one of the main things holding archaeology back (don’t get me wrong, archaeology is definitely going places,  just a bit slower than the rest of the world) is our lack of ability (or reluctance?) to represent our findings and our theories in a visually creative and accessible manner. Although deeply rooted in academic scientific knowledge, archaeology is also fundamentally linked with the imagination, and in order to communicate the results of our imaginings, we need to use creative means. I’m interested in the way that archaeology has been artistically represented in the past and, although I’ve barely scratched the surface, what I’ve found has been pretty dire most of the time.  I’m not saying that there are no archaeologists who are good at drawing, definitely not. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some instances of really great visual representation in archaeology. What I think is probably the case is that most archaeologists are so preoccupied by their own research that they cannot bring themselves to spend huge amounts of time representing the things that they simply want to know more about. Or perhaps more realistically, and more depressingly, we simply don’t have the means to fund the creation of such effective images. I know if I was as gifted as the person/people who drew those images linked above then I’d be letting Bethesda pay me handsomely to do their concept art rather than trying to get penniless archaeologists to pay me for interpretive drawings.

Something that I’ve found during a large amount of the class discussions for my MSc in Digital Heritage at York has been that there are so many ways in which archaeology could be headed, making the digital dissemination and preservation of archaeological knowledge more effective and more widespread, but there is this one, terrible looming factor that holds us back. The ever-essential financing that would make such endeavours possible.

So what I would suggest, then, is that we communicate more with the people who have got all the skills and resources to produce such inspiring and imaginative creations. They’re already doing an archaeology of their own, what’s stopping them from getting involved in our archaeology as well?

*By ‘Other Nerds’ I mean ‘Other Hugely Specialised and Talented People’. Obviously.

The problem of finding your place in the world of heritage and archaeology. Or why I should never take time off.

I had some holiday pay to use up at my part time job, so I thought I’d take a week off before lectures started again and have some relaxation time.

Oh, I have never been more misguided. Will I never learn that time off means time to think. And thinking time inevitably leads to my usual identity crisis, which reads something like:

1. Oh my god what am I going to do when I finish this degree? I need to pay back all that debt I’ve got myself into.

2. Oh no, the only jobs in the sector that I am studying so hard to enter are so ridiculously competitive that there’s no chance I’ll get any of them with my lack of experience.

3. Because I’ve studied the thing I love, I am unqualified to do any of the other decently paid jobs.

4. I’ve got it! I’ll apply to continue my studies and just become ridiculously specialised and elite.

5. Bugger, missed the application deadlines. Oh and there’s the slight issue of having a coherent research proposal, which I am nowhere near having anyway.

6. Hurrah, I’m going to be stuck in retail forever.

I’m sure that these woes are familiar to ALL other archaeologists/heritage workers, if not all other people everywhere, today, and I know what it is that I need to do; volunteer, volunteer, volunteer! But there’s the issue of having to pay the ridiculously high rent of York, and having to study for the masters that I’m currently attempting to complete.

I know that most success stories belong to hard working, determined individuals, and as enthusiastic as I can often appear, at times I just don’t feel like I’ve got that extra spark that so many of my competitors have.

It’s when I am having these really rather immature identity crises that I think of something my dad has always said of a career in music:

It’s got to be the only option. It’s got to be music or nothing. If you can see yourself doing anything else, do that instead.

I think that applies to archaeology as well. You’ve got to do it out of passion. One might even say obsession, because the competition is ridiculous and the pay is by no means generous.

I suppose that the only way I’ll find out if it really is archaeology or nothing is by graduating and finding out where life takes me.

Image

(c) Prof. Niall Sharples. An image that appeared on a lecture slide concerning Iron Age society, but that I feel rather aptly sums up my feelings in this post.