Archaeology Graduate Degrees – USA vs. UK

Gloaming King’s Manor

An archaeology PhD is an archaeology PhD, right? Well…kinda. Sorta. Actually, there are tremendous differences between the USA and the UK and when you add differences between institutional practices within countries there are a pretty vast array of experiences available. Is one better than the other? It depends on what you expect your CV to look like at the end of your program and what your goals are at the end of your PhD.

Brief translation note: USA calls it graduate school, UK = postgraduate study. In the USA you write your Master’s Thesis and your PhD dissertation, in the UK you write a Master’s dissertation and a PhD thesis. Lecturers in the UK are Assistant Professors in the USA. Confused yet? I’m going to mostly use the USA nomenclature for this post.

Again, I will emphasize that a lot of this is my own personal experience, not the result of a proper longitudinal study so your mileage may vary, objects may be closer than they appear in the mirror, take with a grain of salt, etc.

I received my MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, which in the USA is considered an R1 research institution. This is a designation for institutions with the highest level of research in the USA, so my experience may already vary considerably from other USA institutions. (For more about post-PhD destinations and universities in the USA & Canada, check out this article)


At the outset, a major difference between the UK and USA is the application process. In the USA prospective students must take the GRE, a standardized test that costs $205 to take. Many students also take a specialist GRE course to train to take the test. The GRE is not required in the UK. At York you must give us samples of your writing, pass a certain academic standard and come recommended.

USA prospective students also pay to apply to programs. It is currently $105 to apply to Berkeley if you are an American citizen, International students pay $125. You also have to pay for your University to forward your transcripts. It is not unusual to pay over $1000 to apply to USA programs. There aren’t any fees to apply in the UK.

It is also highly competitive to apply for PhDs in the USA (I have no idea about Master’s). Several hundred people apply to the PhD program in Anthropology at Berkeley each year and only a small percentage receive a place, and an even smaller percentage receive funding. The stats are probably similar to Harvard’s Anthropology PhD program, about 4% acceptance rate.

At York if you apply for a named, funded PhD (usually associated with an existing research project and advertised on, there is a competitive application process with interviews, etc. If you are applying as an unfunded PhD, you must approach a faculty member with a research project and then you work together to see if it is a feasible PhD project and you either stump up the cash or try to get funding. I’m not going to get into funding too much as it is a changing landscape (particularly with *rexit and *rump) but here’s some information on funding for Master’s and PhDs at York.

The Master’s Degree

My USA Master’s degree was also integrated into my PhD–it was considered the first year of study in the program which is common at USA research institutions. This mildly annoyed some other graduate students who had gone elsewhere to receive their Master’s degrees first. My MA consisted of two semesters (terms) of coursework followed up by a written and oral examination, which is different than non-integrated USA Master’s degrees (called terminal degrees), which can be either 1 or 2 years. All students in the cohort took History and Theory of Archaeology and Archaeological Research Strategies, both team taught by two of the archaeology faculty. No dissertation, but collectively the papers I wrote easily hit the word count required for a UK dissertation (15,000 – 20,000 words).

At York our Master’s degrees are either 1 year full time or 2 years part time. We offer a wide range of MA and MSc degrees ranging from Digital Heritage to Field ArchaeologyPrehistory, Historical Archaeology, Medieval Archaeology, Cultural Heritage Management, Bioarchaeology, Conservation Studies, and several others. These are all led by faculty program directors and have both specialist overview courses and shorter methods-based courses that are open to any Master’s student. For example, I usually get a lot of Cultural Heritage Management and a few Buildings Archaeology students in my Analysis and Visualisation course which is an overview of the main digital technologies used for archaeological interpretation and they generally are quite interested in recording with photogrammetry, 3D reconstruction, that sort of thing as applied to buildings.

The PhD

My PhD process was, even amongst my own cohort, singular. So I’ll try to move into generalizations as much as possible, but given that there is so much variation, you’d best do your own investigations.

USA PhDs take a long time. At Berkeley, the average is 8.1 years. When I tell my UK peers that it took me 7 years to finish, they are usually aghast. I am obviously a slacker or inept (which is probably true) because a full-time UK PhD takes, in theory, 3 years (6 years part-time).

At Berkeley there is a progression process that involves a first year Master’s, writing your field statements (three long literature reviews), a second year review (I don’t even remember this), then writing your dissertation prospectus. You take coursework for at least three years, and there is a public archaeology outreach requirement at Berkeley as well. And you have to prove proficient at a second language. And a pedagogy class. Degrees also usually involve a couple of seasons of fieldwork and sometimes artefact processing so…it can take a while.

At the end of your third year you take your oral qualifying exams. The oral exams are things of legend–I realized that my examiners had 150 years of collective experience. It was pretty awesome, actually–four extremely smart women discussed my research for three hours then we all ate blackberry cobbler together.  After advancing to candidacy comes…(wavy hands)…the dissertation writing years. The final defense is a public lecture.

At York (and from what I have heard at other UK institutions) we have thesis advisory panels that consist of your supervisor and at least one additional member of staff. These panels are twice a year and at your second and fourth meeting the panel decides if you have done enough to progress with your degree. After the first meeting, you must submit material at each of these panels. The PhD students also have training workshops to prepare them for both academic and non-academic jobs.

A few other quirks:

  • UK institutions are quite happy to have undergraduate students who continue on to their Master’s, then PhD, and sometimes even lecturing in the same institution. In the USA it is rare that you will be accepted to the same institution where you completed your undergraduate degree.
  • In the USA you can and are sometimes expected to take coursework in other departments. I had some outstanding courses from the Berkeley Centre for New Media, including The Social Life of New Media taught by the delightful Nancy Van House.
  • Some USA PhDs are required to have “outside advisors” who are either from a different department or another institution. Nancy Van House (from the School of Information) was mine.
  • UK PhDs are generally expected to get 1-2 postdocs before landing a lectureship, whereas USA PhDs can get hired straight into a position. But sometimes they have to adjunct for a while first.

USA vs. UK?

If I could do it all again? It’s actually hard to imagine. I think a UK Master’s degree would have prepared me pretty well for a USA PhD or if I had wanted to continue as a commercial archaeologist. And I have to say I’m pretty stoked about our Digital Heritage & Archaeology Information Systems degrees. We get lots of American students too, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Maybe more now that taxes on USA grad students may rise 400%!

Though it took (relatively) aaaages, the coursework made the USA PhD magical. The Senses of Place course was team-taught by Rosemary Joyce & Ruth Tringham whose combined brilliance cannot be understated. The aforementioned Social Life of New Media. Lithic Technology by the legendary Steve Shackley who assigned absolute (obsidian-filled) mountains of reading. Even the undergraduate courses at Berkeley were incredible–I sat in on Laura Nader’s Controlling Processes, a class that was completely worthy of Berkeley’s fiery, radical reputation and is obviously resonant today.

Basically if you can get a fully-funded PhD position at an R1 institution in the USA (and have a decade to spare and can figure out the taxes), go for it. But if you want a very directed course, no GREs or up-front fees, that takes a fraction of the time, a UK Master’s or PhD may be for you.


Archaeology Undergraduate Degrees – USA vs. UK

As I become more familiar with the UK-style Archaeology undergraduate degree, I can’t help but compare it to my USA undergraduate education. Obviously n=1 is a small sample size and this is all painted in very broad strokes, but I thought it might be instructive for others, as I had very little idea of the differences before I changed continents.

I attended the University of Texas, Austin, which is a very large, public university. By very large I mean over 50,000 students and over 24,000 staff. I received two undergraduate BA degrees, in Anthropology and Asian Studies with a minor in Japanese language–I wanted to study the Jomon > Yayoi transition in Japan, but…strayed. That’s beside the point! I received a fairly standard USA liberal arts degree, which means that I studied anthropology and archaeology, sure, but most of my classes were in other subjects such as Astronomy, English, and, for example, a fantastic class on Korean New Wave cinema. Out of the 40 (!!) different courses I took, I had 4 archaeology-specific classes, not including field school and other volunteering gigs. I also taught at the University of California, Berkeley which is a similar size to UT, so some of my experience stems from that equally large, public USA university.

At the University of York, our undergraduate students study archaeology from beginning to end–every single class they take is specific to archaeology. You can specialize in Heritage, Bioarchaeology, Historical Archaeology, or focus on more science-based (BSc) or humanities-based (BA) Archaeology in general. The standard course in the UK is 3 years long, not the 4 year course I took in the USA. York Students take the same, Archaeology-focussed courses at first, then have some choice in specialization later on, say in Ancient DNA, Visual Media in Archaeology, Historic Houses, Battlefield Archaeology, Neanderthals, Medieval Africa, World Mummification among others. There are a lot more faculty as well, 36+ lecturers at York vs., for example, 9 at Berkeley and 8 at UT (though others in Classics, Near Eastern Studies, etc). UK terms are shorter, 10 weeks vs 15 weeks long in autumn, spring & summer, but unlike in the USA, summer is not optional.

I enjoyed my USA undergraduate degree(s), and there are strong arguments to be had in anthropologically-based archaeological learning, but I’m also very impressed by the breadth and depth of the learning of UK-based archaeology undergraduate students. When I teach 3rd year UK undergraduates they have the same level of understanding as Master’s students in the USA and their reading (in my special topic course at least) is entirely peer-reviewed journal articles. I also made the entire second-year cohort read Ingold, but I wouldn’t necessary recommend it. In theory, USA liberal arts degrees seem to prepare students more broadly for general enrichment (and employment, I suppose) but the UK Archaeology undergraduates certainly seem to do just fine in subjects beyond archaeology, continuing on in law, education, biology, etc.

Other differences include simple things, like books. In the USA, I regularly had $300 book bills each semester (keep in mind this was in the early 2000s before pirated books were available). UK students pretty much expect to have access to all of their course materials from the library and we get major complaints if we don’t have enough copies or if the reading isn’t electronic.

There is also much Much MUCH more contact for UK students than I had–each year I am assigned 5-6 undergraduate supervisees whom I (in theory–they don’t always show up) meet at least twice per term. I meet many other students in office hours, particularly while teaching courses to the entire cohort. We keep close track of and accommodate for student disabilities, are trained in mental health first-aid, and with cohorts of 80-100 students each year, get to know students pretty well. This is probably less different for students who attend small liberal arts colleges in the USA. All of the other undergraduate students in UK courses are generally in the same year and are Archaeology students rather than the large USA Introduction to Archaeology courses (300+ students!), with a very small fraction of students who are actually interested in or have any background in archaeology.

Another difference (which may vary considerably within the UK) is that students learn archaeological field skills from commercial archaeologists, rather than from graduate students or other undergraduates as is often the case in the USA. Also USA students pay extra fees to attend field schools whereas the UK field school is part of the degree.

USA vs. UK if I could do it all again? Well, I wouldn’t trade some of the UT courses I had for the world–Dr. Maria Franklin’s African American Material and Expressive Culture changed my life. I had no idea what I wanted to focus on when I began my degree and I fully explored the broad scope UT had to offer. But if I had known that I wanted to be an archaeologist, I probably would have benefitted from the intense focus available in a UK Archaeology degree. And it might have been cheaper! Let me know if you are an American considering a UK university.

Coming soon, the postgraduate follow-up post!




Podcast: Cooking With Archaeologists

Tamsin & I in the field last March.

Dan, Tamsin and I went on the Cooking With Archaeologists podcast to chat about digital archaeology, research in Qatar and the Arabian Gulf and life in the field. It was lovely to speak to Colin and we contributed our super secret recipes for kebabs & a bonus recipe for baba ganoush:

Lamb Shish Kebab

Diced lamb
Onions finely diced
Chilli powder
Aleppo pepper or Urfa Biber (smoked Turkish pepper)
Smoked paprika
Ground black pepper
Ground cumin
A few drops of lemon juice

Marinade for at least 6 hours and then put onto skewers

Light a BBQ with good lump-wood charcoal and let it get good and hot

Baba ganoush

Place the aubergines in the hot coals and let them burn until blackened and cooked through.
Scoop out the roasted aubergine, mash with a fork and add a crushed garlic clove, olive oil and salt.

Skewer up your lamb and cook over hot coals until it is just a little pink. Serve with flat bread and garlic labneh (or Greek yogurt)