Letter to a young scholar

I sometimes receive notes from undergrads or other folks wondering what advice I can give about studying to become X… I thought I’d share the response I wrote this morning.

Hi ____

Thank you for your note, and your query about how I got here and various options for your own path. I’ll tell you first about my own journey. Don’t let that part put you off, but I want you to have your eyes open as you consider your options.

My own personal journey is perhaps not a template to follow: I went to the UK for grad school in Roman archaeology. At the end of that process, I was teaching random courses at universities across the south east of england, piecing together enough money to keep me going, living out of a rucksack. I eventually got tired of that and came back to Canada where I was, for all intents and purposes, unemployable in Canadian archaeology. I started my own businesses, and also supply taught at a local high school, to make ends meet (see this: https://medium.com/@electricarchaeo/on-teaching-high-school-109cb75caedc ). Eventually I got a position working online for a for-profit “university” in the US, which gave me a bit of stability. Eventually, I saw the job advert for a position in ‘digital humanities’ at Carleton, and here I am.

So my journey involved transforming myself from frankly a second rate Roman epigraphist into a digital humanities scholar and digital archaeologist. I benefited from being in the right place at the right time, having made a bit of a name for myself by blogging my continuing research throughout that period. There was a lot of luck involved.

Between December 2002, when I received my PhD, and July 2010, when I started at Carleton, I had precisely 2 interviews for full-time academic postings.

Now, the keys to getting the job at Carleton were that when I returned to Canada, I had to work extremely hard to make connections with people in the community I wanted to be a part of. Conferences, open research online. Contract archaeology wanted nothing to do with me because I had not gained enough experience of field archaeology in the UK to be employable in Canada – AND Canadian archaeology uses different approaches than european stuff.

*my advice, for what it’s worth*

  • I’d have still gone to the UK for grad school, but I would not necessarily jump into doing a PhD. Few places in this world are better for archaeology, ancient civ, etc. An MA opens opportunities; a PhD can be perceived as narrowing your range of options – you have to work hard to convince people of the truth of the phd, that it makes you better in the long run for a wide variety of things.
  • I knew I didn’t want to go to a Canadian school, because I wanted to jump right into my interests. A UK school allows that; Canadian schools demand a whole bunch of coursework first.
  • Follow the money: go where they really want you. If a school offers some sort of scholarship, I’d take it. My 1 year of MA in the UK doubled my entire debt to that point.
  • Do an MA that fills you with joy – it’s one of the few times in this life where you can. An MA of any stripe is all to the good, so don’t fall into the instrumentalist trap of picking something that you think someone ‘else’ (however construed) would approve.
  • A classical MA, of whatever stripe, can be a very good foundation for a wide variety of paths in this life. Don’t worry necessarily about the job at the end of it. Classical folks in my experience tend to be some of the most creative and lateral thinking people I’ve ever met.
  • Be aware that such things can take a toll on your mental health. Make plans to keep your support networks, your friendships, intact
  • I’d have focussed on getting more fieldwork. That said, archaeology suffers from gendered labour issues such that it is largely men in positions of power. So if you plan on trying for an archaeological career in fieldwork, know that this is an issue.
  • Classics departments are greying, but they are not necessarily hiring to replace retirement.
  • Work constantly on your digital literacy: skills, trends, research methods, questions, theories
  • Develop a scholarly online presence
  • Lurk on twitter, follow scholars whose work fills you with wonder, or whom you admire. Follow a couple you loathe, for a contrary view.

You might also wish to frame your interests a bit more broadly, and consider in what other contexts you can engage with Greek and Roman civ – museums, digital work, community, public, game studies, and so on.

Best wishes,


(cover image, Daria Nepriakhinia, Unsplash)