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.