Man wearing a balaclava.

#10 Advice for New CRM Archaeologists: Keeping Busy During Downtime

Chris Webster over at DigTech-LLC just posted another episode of his CRM Archaeology podcast  where some of the usual suspects covered topics including women working in CRM, social media advice for archaeologists, the government shutdown, and some great responses to a listener question: “What do techs do with themselves during work lulls?” I was not able to make it on the show for this episode but really wanted to offer my answer to that question.

The guests all had some great advice, both directly to the listener’s question, but also to the wider topic of how to prepare for, and get through, lulls in paid archaeology work. I thought I would write down some of what I have learned from work lulls throughout my career. As an added bonus, I can take the time to properly compose and edit my thoughts in this post, as opposed to stuttering and rambling the way I sometimes do on the podcast!

 The very first year I worked in CRM, I only worked a total of 6 weeks over two projects in October and November – near the tail end of the field season for northern latitudes. After graduating in June, I worked a few months for a construction company and then after fieldwork I holed up in my apartment for winter, living off my credit card for any expenses I could and saving my meager cash reserves for things I could not, like rent or certain bills (e.g. paying my monthly credit card minimum or student loans). Looking back, this strategy could have easily ended with me in deep, deep debt had I not found a job once the season resumed (I was hired back on by the same company I worked for in November), and made sure that I paid off my credit card debt as fast as I could. Over the next few years, I got a little wiser from my experience and by learning from the many other shovelbums I met through work. The lessons are:

Save that Per Diem!

Contrary to what some archaeologists believe, per diem is actually not Latin for “beer money.” In fact, depending on the project, this money can quickly add up into a sizeable amount. After covering food and lodging expenses, I often put any extra per diem in a savings box and then into the bank as soon as I can. Nowadays, many banks offer mobile deposit through smartphones, so I often do not have to wait until the next time I near a bank or have to spend a stamp to deposit that extra money- but any cash still goes straight into the savings box. This extra savings can help you get through work lulls, the winter months, or just buying or repairing a piece of personal field gear.

Network, Network, Network

For a long time, I felt sleazy about doing anything that I considered “networking” until I realized that it does not have to be sleazy if you are networking with people that you genuinely like and want to keep in contact with anyway. Networking is really just being intentional and putting in the time to get to know and keep in contact with people. Rather than approaching every person you meet as a potential “lead,” focus on learning what makes each person interesting and seeing what you have in common while appreciating the differences.

One thing I deeply regret about my early shovelbum days is not getting more people’s phone numbers or last names. Archaeology is a pretty small field, so I have actually reconnected with some folks on subsequent projects or through friends of friends, but there are still a number of great archaeologists who I know only by their first names. Remember that your field buddy is not always going to be down the hall in hotel room 205 after the project ends. These days, I take the time to ask for personal contact information, if they are willing, and put it in either my Google contacts list or in the incredibly useful Evernote software. I have found a number of jobs through friends, but I also really enjoy passing on ads for great jobs to people I know would be a great fit. Having a list of people who can be references from when you worked on an excavation or special project in a specific area is also useful for applying for other similar jobs.

With Facebook, twitter, Google+, and other social media, it is easier than ever to keep in passive contact your friends and colleagues. Social media can be great tools for quickly seeing what folks are up to and sharing what you have been doing. I have found, however, that to really catch up with folks, it pays to take the time and effort to make a phone call or instant message with old friends. You will learn more about what is really going on in their lives and how they are doing in a 10 minute phone call than with a month’s worth of status updates. I am not always great about this, but rather than loading up another audiobook or podcast the next time you are driving out to a project, try phoning up an old field buddy or crew chief (using a hands-free headset, of course) to see how they are doing. You will almost always be rewarded by rediscovering why you got along in the first place and you might occasionally find out that you can help each other find work.

Bill White has some great advice about networking over on his Succinct Research blog  and in his Kindle eBooks.  If my anecdotal experience is correct, the more archaeologists you know, and the more work opportunities you pass on to friends, the more jobs you will be able to find, especially when you really need one.

Stay Aware that “Winter is Coming”

I always put aside a standard percentage of my paychecks; I recommend 10-30% if you can swing it. When you are in the middle of the field season and racking up lots of overtime pay, it can be easy to feel flush with cash and able to buy all sorts of shiny toys and treat your friends (and yourself) to fun nights out. It is important to treat yourself to a great meal and a good brew occasionally and especially to build good friendships with your crew, but you might be surprised how much you can save up by cooking meals in a hotel room and saving a percentage of every paycheck over the season. You can do a lot of crew bonding over cooking shared meals (one person supplies the hot plate, another person brings the rice cooker) or splitting a growler of the local microbrew rather than hitting the hotel bar or casino every night (a particular danger of working in Nevada). Some of the best times I have had on projects were hanging out with the crew around a grill, hosting ukulele jam sessions (ukes are great portable instruments), hotseating “Punch-Out!” on a NES console hooked up to the hotel room’s TV, or playing wiffleball around the back of the motel. If you do things right, you can make great friends and eat well, but also continue living an enjoyable lifestyle all year round, rather than turning into a penniless hermit from December-April.

Finding Winter/Temporary Work

Work Seasonal Retail

In the podcast, Stephen Wagner made a good point about working as a seasonal employee over the winter. I have done this in the past and just suggest that you be honest with hiring managers that you are looking for seasonal work and hope to go back to archaeology once the thaw takes hold. Many retail stores are just looking for seasonal employees, so they might value having a worker who they know can find other options in the spring. Be aware though that the end of retail season can come faster than you expect and it will be hard to argue that you should stay on longer if the field season has not started back up yet.

Starting a Side Project or Business

In direct response to the listener’s question, archaeologists have lots of options to consider doing in their downtime. Many of them may not pay monetary returns immediately, but still have other benefits. You can find a topic in which you are interested, whether that is archaeology, another interest, or a combination of the two, and start writing posts about them for your own blog or for a group blog . I find that writing for my blog helps me learn about new archaeology software and helps me improve my writing skills. WordPress, tumblr, and Blogger are all great options to start a blog for free. Another great option for graduate school survivors is to revisit your thesis for journal article ideas or the seed of a future book. You could also work on personal projects like a novel or comic strip (like the classic ShovelBums comix), learn to program mobile apps, or start an Etsy store to sell field-ready blaze-orange knitted balaclavas to cold weather archaeologists (Figure 1). Some may disagree with this advice, but I strongly believe in not working “under the table.” When working as an independent contractor or for yourself keep track of your business expenses, get the appropriate licenses, and always be sure to pay your taxes. If you are starting a business in the U.S., I highly recommend checking out your local Small Business Administration office or the SCORE  website for more advice on the details of starting a business.

Man wearing a balaclava.
Figure 1. Wouldn’t you feel warmer and safer if all your clothes were blaze orange? Image by wikicommons contributor Elipongo.

Collect Unemployment

I have never collected unemployment myself, but there are times I probably should have. As Chris points out in the podcast, you (through the companies you work for) pay into the unemployment system, so you should not feel bad about using it when you need to. Please be honest about using unemployment, however, and let your unemployment office know as soon as you restart paid work. Please also remember to vote and contact your politicians when bills are proposed that affect unemployment, especially if you use the unemployment system. I am not sure how working day labor jobs (see below) or side businesses affect your eligibility for unemployment, so be sure to check the laws where you live.

Work at Home

While there are many “work from home” scams, there are a few things you can do to earn at least a little money while wearing your pajamas. One of my favorite options is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or “mTurk” crowdwork service. You probably will not make even minimum wage at lots of the tasks on mTurk, but you can make a little money and have quite a bit of fun on there as well. Some of my favorite jobs have included doing transcriptions of audio interviews and making facial expressions and correcting 3D models for computer facial recognition researchers. You should also keep mTurk in mind if you conduct any research projects that need lots of survey participants.

This Lifehacker post has some other good advice on finding other downtime work, just ignore the author’s laughable idea that you can teach a community college class in archaeology if you “dabble in dinosaur-bone hunting on the weekends.”

Day Labor

Temp agencies like LaborWorks or Labor Ready offer first come, first serve day labor jobs to the folks who show up in the morning. Usually you have to be up pretty early, before 6 am most times, to go check-in and sit in the waiting room, but then after a few hours you will either have a job for the day (or even longer) or you will at least be up and ready to pursue other interests rather than surfing the web in your bathrobe (which is how I mostly spent my first winter). I have worked for these agencies in the past and the jobs are usually not glamorous, but can help pay the bills or teach you a new skill. When I have gone in to do day labor work, jobs have included mostly unskilled labor like installing cubicles at a new bank branch (which I did work) or gutting fish at the local cannery (which I sadly was not chosen for). You can also get to know people from lots of different backgrounds if you act friendly near the coffee station and don’t just stare at your phone. I suggest taking along some archaeology reading for while you wait. At the very least you will get some reading done, and people who notice the cover may strike up a conversation and give you the chance to do some guerilla public archaeology: “No, I don’t dig up dinosaurs, I do something much cooler…”


While opinions differ on how valuable it is to work #freearchaeology, you can still find ways to do archaeological work during the winter, but it might not be paid. Consider volunteering with a local museum, university, or even a non-archaeological organization to keep you active and build out your skill set. I have found volunteering with museums and repositories to be particularly valuable as I was able to see a different side of archaeology: where artifacts, samples, and records are stored and how they must be cared for after the fieldwork is complete. I think this perspective has improved my work in the field since I must consider whether someone will be able to read my handwriting and especially that tasks put aside in the field to be “done later” very rarely actually get done at all. Doug Rocks-MacQueen has some great posts about the pros and cons of volunteering in archaeology over on the “Doug’s Archaeology” blog.

Always Keep an Ear Out for Work

As folks on the podcast mentioned, the best way to handle downtime is to have as little downtime as possible. In the US, keep abreast of the latest jobs on ShovelBums and ArchaeologyFieldwork even when you are currently working a job and try to line up projects for the entire season, if possible. Be sure to include a little space in your schedule for travel between gigs and in case a project runs long so that you do not over commit yourself. If you make sure to update your CV every few projects and to keep a cover letter template ready, applying to a new job ad should not take you more than a half-hour per ad. I also recommend that you have another pair of eyes look at your CV and cover letter template occasionally to catch any typos and to improve your application. Friends and family are great resources for improving your application materials, but it’s even better to get advice from past archaeology bosses or your college or local employment centers.

Social media are great for keeping up to date on archaeology jobs, but you can also use it to pass on jobs you can’t take to the rest of your network. Checking the jobs list can be as simple as following the twitter feeds for the different job boards and retweeting links to your archaeology friends. Both ArchaeologyFieldwork and ShovelBums have twitter feeds, by the way.

Stay Mobile

This bit of advice can be hard to put into practice, especially if you are in a relationship, but staying mobile and unencumbered by an apartment lease or more stuff than can comfortably fit into your personal vehicle (or even a backpack for a few archys!) means that you have access to all of the archaeology jobs that come up across the country, rather than being limited to those within a few hour’s drive of your sweetie or the empty apartment that you have to continue to pay rent for. My friends Chris Webster and Patrick Zingerella are my personal favorite examples of the ultimate archaeology road warriors/gypsies, and you are sure to come across more after working in CRM for even a few months. These archaeology ninjas are comfortable living for weeks, if not months, at a time out of tents, RVs, the back of their car/truck, and the gamut of m/hotels from gob-infested rat-holes to 4-star hotels with inexplicably cheap rooms (yes, both happen). These shovelbums know how to make every place feel like home and tend to be pretty wise about how they spend their money, find jobs, and where, when, and how to hole up for the winter. In fact, I hear Chris is literally writing a book on these topics…

Do you have comments about ways you have found jobs or advice about what to do during your downtime? Please post them in the comments below!

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