Jobs and Skills in Underwater Archaeology: The View from a Contemporary Graduate Student

Posted In: Deep Thoughts

By Morgan Smith
ACUA Graduate Representative

Howdy, folks!

Morgan Smith here, one of the graduate student representatives for the ACUA. I am ABD at Texas A&M University and if you have coupled my school with the “howdy” above you probably just rolled your eyes. Yes, Texas A&M is home to a cutting-edge Nautical Archaeology program. However, I am affiliated with the Center for the Study of the First Americans. My dissertation focuses on submerged prehistoric sites in the state of Florida that date to the last Ice Age. But my interest began on submerged historic resources during my undergraduate at the University of West Florida. I am in the throes of finishing my PhD and employed by the National Park Service to conduct terrestrial compliance archaeology and geophysical surveys. That means I alternate between trying to cram in class readings, slogging through Florida swamps to finish my dissertation, and a cheap hotel room split with a buddy on a Phase I.

For this month’s “Deep Thoughts” I thought I’d take a moment to give my best unsolicited, retrospective advice to those I represent: the body of students pursuing archaeological research interests underwater.

If you are enrolled in graduate school with an underwater focus, do not forget your roots. Keep your terrestrial excavation skills sharp. It is no secret that few job descriptions include underwater research and even fewer entail underwater excavation. Let’s quantify this.

As of 2016, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded ~7,500 jobs in archaeology and anthropology, split between industry, government, education, museum, and self-employed positions. Parsing out underwater jobs from this number is problematic. “Underwater archaeologist” is actually an uncommon job title. Few among us work exclusively underwater, so most just retain the title of “archaeologist.” Further, BLS data is unavailable for 14 states, including 9 with coastline.

For blog purposes, let’s assume the number of archaeology jobs with an underwater component is ~5-10% (375-750) of the currently reported total (generous). Assuming frequencies by sector hold true, we can expect ~80% (300-600) of these jobs are in industry and government, ~6% (23-46) in academia and the other ~14% (52-104) split between self-employment and museums. The BLS also predicts slow growth for anthropology jobs in the next decade, with self-employment and education jobs gaining slightly, industry jobs sliding considerably, and the others staying steady.

“Overall, prospective anthropologists and archeologists will likely face strong competition for jobs because of the small number of positions relative to applicants. Job prospects will be best for candidates with a Ph.D. or an applied master’s degree, extensive anthropological or archeological fieldwork experience, and experience in quantitative and qualitative research methods.” BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, Anthropology and Archaeology, 2018.

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Clearly, it is a good move to stay versatile, whether through terrestrial fieldwork, over breaks, or a greater variety of coursework.

Graduate students should also be aware of the United States Secretary of Interior (SOI) qualification for archaeologists. This qualification is for federal employees only, but that’s roughly a third of your potential employers (NPS, BLM, etc.). In addition, many states defer to federal regulations and private companies working on federal land must comply here as well, so it’s very important. If you live outside the US, look around, chances are your country has something similar. In the absence of standards, SOI qualifications are a good goal. The Full SOI qualifications are here ( ) and are summarized as:

  1. At least one year of full-time professional experience or equivalent specialized training in archeological research, administration or management.
  2. At least four months of supervised field and analytic experience in general North American archeology.
  3. Demonstrated ability to carry research to completion.
  4. A graduate degree in archaeology or a related field.
  5. A professional in historical or prehistoric archaeology needs one year of supervisory level experience in the study of archaeological resources of that period.

Qualifications 1 and 3 (and obviously 4) are typically met upon completing graduate school. However, the second and fifth points are worth emphasizing. SOI standards stress training in North American archaeology. This means that students who attend graduate school abroad, only to return after graduating, may need further commitment to qualify. With regard to the fifth standard, all students who choose to work underwater must be aware of the time depth preserved by our territory. Given that submerged lands contain prehistory and history, you should have a fundamental understanding of each. In addition, being a more rounded underwater archaeologist helps us protect all underwater cultural heritage and will make you more versatile come hiring time.

Remember too that tools like geophysics, GIS, database management, and photogrammetry are must-knows for underwater students. Many people can learn to collect these types of data in a few days, but being able to process and interpret the data will help you stand out. If you cannot take a class on these methods, see if your department or school offers professional development funding for a short-course or webinar. Oh, and always ask the company giving the training for a student discount.

Underwater students should also check out this article: Market Share and Recent Hiring Trends in Anthropology Faculty Positions, published in September 2018 (Speakman et. al.). Written by archaeologists at the University of Georgia, it ranks anthropology programs by their ability to place students in tenure-track positions. This is particularly important for those with academic aspirations. The reputation of the institution you choose (among other things) makes a big difference.

Finally, all students should know that there is a great support system within underwater archaeology. This field is full of great people who are always willing to lend a hand or their time. That being said, if any students out there have a question, comment, or concern about anything, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or one of the other great ACUA grad reps. We are here to represent you and are happy to chat!

Dive safe and study hard.

Speakman, Robert J., Carla S. Hadden, Matthew H. Colvin, Justin Cramb, K.C. Jones, Travis W. Jones, Isabelle Lulewicz, Katharine G. Napora, Katherine L. Reinberger, Brandon T. Ritchison, Alexandra R. Edwards, Victor D. Thompson. Market share and recent hiring trends in anthropology faculty positions. PlosOne, September 12, 2018,