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Questions to Remember when Considering a Human Osteology Postgraduate Course

8 Jan

This post is a follow-up the now-updated Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses In The UK post that I produced last year (which is kept up to date, so please leave a comment below or email me if you know of any courses that should be added).  Whereas that post dealt with the cold hard facts of which universities in the UK offer human osteology courses this post will deal with you, the student.  The post is aimed at those who are interested in pursing a master’s degree in human osteology, either as a Masters of Science or a Masters of Art, as it is at this level that the course goes into the depth of detail needed to either go into research or into commercial archaeology.  I believe that it is vital that you know the course that you want to go on but that you also know the reputation of the department, what the course offered entails and what your prospects are job-wise after you have completed the course.  As this post is aimed at universities within the UK bare in mind that travel distances are fairly minimal compared to continental Europe or elsewhere, however the pound is a fairly strong currency and, as such, it can be expensive to live here.

So without further ado I present here a quick list of thoughts* to think about before you apply for a course in human osteology.  Please bare in mind that although this post has been produced with the UK in mind it can, or could, be applicable for any other country where the student is considering applying for a master’s degree in human osteology.

skull-saxon

1) Think Carefully Before Committing

Pursing a masters course in human osteology is not a course to be taken lightly as it will incur a significant financial commitment, both for the course itself and for the accommodation and living costs whilst studying for the degree.  It pays to think carefully about your interest in a specific specialist course in archaeology and whether you could make a career from it or not, therefore it is worth seeking advice out whilst at the undergraduate stage.  Further to this it is wise to remember that many universities will want to see a 2.1 Upper Second Class degree attained at the undergraduate level whilst some courses do preferably ask for 1st class degrees before being considered for a Master’s program.

However, stating that, experience and knowledge can count for an awful lot, especially demonstrable knowledge and experience (i.e. volunteering or working for an archaeological unit).  By taking the time and effort to gain excavation and post-excavation experience (especially bone processing) it will show determination and a willing effort to learn on your behalf.  A final piece of advice for this part is to be honest with yourself regarding what your options are.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are available as a full-time course only, although a select few have been known to offer them as part-time courses.  It is always worth asking the course director for further information.

2) Know The Courses On Offer

It always pays to be informed of archaeology departments that offer human osteology as a taught or research Master’s.  There will be certain criteria which will impose limits on the options of courses available to you, whether they are imposed by outside factors or factors of your own choosing.  Necessarily the list will often include financial cost, travel times and extent of knowledge of academic universities.  I would heavily advise that you spend time reading through departmental literature to get a feeling for each academic course under consideration, and to make a note of the facilities that each department has.  A great way for feeling what the strengths of a department are is by looking at past research topics (in the form of dissertations) and by looking carefully at the modular choices on offer.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, isolate what you most want out of such a degree, what your research interests are and what department can best serve you.  Different courses have different focuses, for example the University of Durham’s MSc in Palaeopathology course specifically focuses on trauma and pathology in the human skeleton, whilst the University of Exeter’s MSc in Bioarchaeology course focuses on a range of topics in biological archaeology, including plant and animal remains.

Remember to also consider the course director and associated teaching staff research interests as they may correlate with yours, which would be beneficial.  Pertinent questions to consider are:

Does the department have the technical expertise or the right equipment on hand or on site?

Does the department have a fully kitted out human osteology lab or will you be cramped for space?

Would you have access to the human osteology lab at all hours or only during week days?

What modules does the course offer and what modules are core or free selective choices?

What scholarships or funds are available for you to apply for?

When this has been considered I would email the course director with a few basic questions pertaining to how successful the course is, success rate of employment afterwards, and by directly asking what the strengths of the course are.  You will need to be careful in keeping the email concise, polite and straight-forward as course directors are usually busy people!  Further to this I heavily advise emailing a current student of the course or a PhD research student, politely asking questions directly on what their views are of the masters course and of the department as a whole.  This will bring you a generally much more honest answer from someone who is not tied down to the department directly.  You can also get in touch with people from the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources group at their forums or the Facebook group and as k the great British archaeological hive mind for advice and experience.

3) Attend Open Days

Be aware that when emailing staff members and research students it may take some time for a response, be patient as they are often very busy people dealing with a wide range of pressures and deadlines.  Once you have narrowed down the course wish list I would advise attending a departmental open day to see for yourself what the atmosphere is like.  Are the staff friendly?  Ask the staff questions and do not be afraid to mention your interests and any considerations you are having.  If you can attend open days try to see each university that interests you, and even some that don’t quite offer the course you want but offer interesting alternatives.  You never know what actually attending a university open day will quite be like, and it could lead you down a research alley or area of interest that you had not considered before.

4) Decision Time

Having isolated the university courses of interest, emailed course directors and current student,s and having toured various university departments and campuses, you are now in a good position to be able to select at human osteology course that you want to pursue.  This is the period where you get to sell yourself to the department by highlighting how attractive you are as a future student for their department.  Also be aware that you are paying money to attend a course and to receive tuition.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are taught at internationally recognised institutions, some of which have set the bar for how the courses should be taught.  Remember however that times change, get views now on what is happening in the department, what changes are expected to come and what resources will be available for the foreseeable future.

It also pays to remember that it does not have to one university specifically, pick a range of 3 or 4 ideal universities that offer courses that you are interested, maybe even pick 3 different ones that offer different aspects of the topic that the others do not.  I personally picked the University of Sheffield for my choice of human osteology courses specifically because it was the only program that offered human dissection in a separate human anatomy module, whilst also offering 3 modules on human osteology and biological anthropology.  However I also liked the look of the University of Exeter’s bioarchaeology course because it offered modules in palaeobotany and zooarchaeology (which I thought could have been beneficial on the job market), whilst still offering the chance to specialise in human osteology.

5) Application Time

It is easy to get carried away with the personal statement during the application process and, in truth, it is not really a personal statement at all.  Be concise and professional, try not mention the course director too much (I cringe when I recall my personal statement!), and be confident to mention your previous experience but also your future research ideas and academic strengths.  If you can add something that will stand out amongst the competition then do it.  It is worth mentioning here that it is probably best to apply for more than one course, even if you already have a place at another university.  Be aware that you may receive a conditional or a none-conditional offer, conditional offers are normally given to those students that have yet to finish their undergraduate degrees.  Remember that if you are dead set on pursuing a masters in human osteology and have yet to finish your undergraduate degree aim for a 2.1 or a 1st.  However try not to pressure yourself too much as you can always apply at a later date, when you have more experience.  Completing a masters now is no shortcut to a job and, in fact, in archaeology it is becoming almost the norm for many graduate to go on to complete a masters in an archaeological topic before working in the field.

Note

*This is just a quickly compiled guide to how to approach the best choice masters based on what I went through, feel free to mix it up!

Further Information

  • My blog entry on all known human osteology MSc and MA courses and short courses available in the UK.  Please contact me at thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com if you would like a course added to the list.

Thoughts on Academic Archaeology

5 Jan

There have been many excellent blog lists highlighting the incredible archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds from 2013.  Off the top of my head here are four blogs (and one site) that are fantastic at summing up the advances that 2013 have brought:

  • John Hawks reviews his year in Human Evolution, and may I just say what a year it has been in the study of human evolution (for some reason very hard to link to the specific blog entry, just scroll two down or so or look at the whole amazing site!).
  • Katie Wong looks at the fantastic list of human evolutionary finds and studies at Scientific American, with links to the articles for your further perusal.
  • Katy looks at the year’s most interesting and important mortuary archaeological finds at Bones Don’t Lie.
  • Paige, at Imponderabilia, highlights some remarkable archaeological finds from the past 12 months.
  • …and of course Past Horizons is the site where you can keep up to date on all manner of archaeological and palaeoanthropological finds throughout the upcoming year and previous years!

So in highlighting the finds of 2013 I think it would be dreary of me to create my own list because so many great bloggers got there ahead of me (and I wouldn’t know when to stop).  Instead I am going to do something slightly different.

I am going to highlight what I would like to see change in academia regarding my own past experiences  of academia itself and those that I have heard from friends.  Now hear me out – I am aware that this will be a quite personal list relating to human osteology and funerary archaeology but I also think some of the categories stretch over the whole subject of how archaeology is taught at the university level education, where there could be improvements and what I believe could enhance the under-taking of an archaeological degree.  In a way it is also wish list for what I (looking back on my undergraduate and masters education) wish I had been taught.

So without further ado I introduce to you my thoughts on what could improve the academic experience for the bioarchaeologists and archaeologists at university level education:

1) Human Evolution

I highlight human evolution first because there is often a human origins module in most undergraduate archaeology programs.  The past few years have seen tremendous change in how much our knowledge has grown and it continues to grow with the application of new techniques and discovering new remains.  My main worry is that many universities may teach outdated theories or not teach human evolution at all.  For me human evolution contains the best combination of archaeology: science, anatomy and fieldwork.  Granted not every student who takes archaeology may be interested in human evolution or palaeolithic archaeology (and very rarely have the chance to dig at a palaeoanthropological site), but just to give that basic bedrock knowledge of who we are would be one worth keeping as a core module.  In my eyes it is a vital basic module, one that can be hard to keep on top of agreed but surely one fundamental to archaeology and the study of our origins as we are today.   Further to this it helps to contextualise archaeology as a subject itself, the importance of evolutionary biology and the continuing role of the historical context of science.

2) Genetics

Genetics is mentioned primarily due my background because when I was studying for my MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology degree, I felt that having a basic introductory module in genetics would have been fundamentally beneficial to understanding the scientific literature.  Of course a student of archaeology at the university level may have already attained a college level knowledge of biology (how I wish I had chosen it now!), but a tailored course on the importance of genetics and the understanding of molecular biology would reap benefits for the modern zooarchaeologists, palaeobotanists and human osteologists.  My view is based on the belief that although macro study and recognition of skeletal material is fundamental to the bioarchaeological sciences (and to the maintenance of a job), a paradigm shift is possibly underway (1) in the way in the fact that genetic studies have fundamentally opened up a new and developing understanding of human evolution and the continued evolutionary adaption of organisms to their environment (see Hawks et al. 2011).  Although there will always be a need for human osteologists etc in the archaeological and academic sector, an understanding of genetics and an ability to study the results of such studies and original examinations would provide the bioarchaeologist with a much more informed toolkit to assess archaeological remains and their context, either in a commercial environment or in a research post.

3) Media Relations

Kristina Killgrove has an illuminating short series on her blog entitled Presenting Anthropology.  This is invigorating, dynamic teaching of archaeology as a social media outreach.  It also makes the students think of how they are presenting archaeology to the public.  We all know of the repeated failures of presenting the skeletal system properly in shows such as Bones etc (definitely check out Kristina’s Powered By Osteons if you haven’t!).  Blogging is fantastic and I’d heartily recommend any student of archaeology to give it a go, but I also realise it is not the be all and end all of outreach and media relations.  Sometimes you have to actively engage with the very people who misrepresent you.  I’d quite like to see the extension of the teaching of social media and active outreach to the majority of archaeology courses if it was possible, especially to highlight the value of those avenues of outreach.  Archaeology is easily cast aside by the people that lead us but that need only be the case if we let them.  Therefore I would actively encourage each and every person who identifies as an archaeologist to promote the value and worth of heritage to as wide of an audience as you can!  Again, at a university level, I think a simple guest lecture on this topic would hopefully sum up the current state of play whilst lecturers and course leaders could actively encourage their students to get out there, both in person and online.

4) Reviewing Each Other In Class, Writing Articles & How to Apply for Funding

Reviewing each other in class is not an especially new idea as many academic modules across all distinctions include active seminars and student participation.  However I believe that, as an marked component of a module, individual and group marking of a student’s paper could encourage active and valuable feedback that reflects the peer-review process and academic publishing.  I asked a few of my friends whether they think they would value such an idea, of scoring an essay a student in the class has wrote individually and then discussing it in a group, and many said they would feel uncomfortable with the idea.  I can understand that but I also think it could be a valuable exercise in understanding the different approaches and viewpoints that a university level class facilitates.  There is a variation of this when, often in seminar setting, a published article is handed out and the individual students have to discuss it and then the group discuss the article’s merits together, but it is my belief that comments on your own writing would be more helpful or the approach could be combined to provide a comparison of the literature and approaches used.

This naturally leads into another facet of this idea that under-graduate and master level students are, in my experience, not given advice on how to write an article for a journal.  I do not just mean content alone but style, diagram placing and referencing as well.  Many academic journals have strict guidelines on what particular format or program the article should have been wrote in before acceptance or the peer review process takes place (if you get that far!).  A class or two could help inform the students of such basic knowledge.  As a part of this idea I also think it would helpful be to be told on what to look out for in an academic journal.  We all know there are predatory journals out there in the academic publishing world, waiting to snap up an article to boost the publishing houses qualifications or ‘seriousness’.  (Two fantastic sites to check out are Retraction Watch and Scholarly Open Access).  Another natural extension of this is (for those who are either looking at MA or MSc courses, PhD or post-doc funding) for students to be given advice on how to apply for funding, to be informed on what bodies fund what research depending on the applicants research area, and how to write a funding form or grant efficiently and effectively.  I am aware that this already happens for PhD students but this is normally at an individual level, wouldn’t a concise one off lecture be helpful to all?

5) Guest Speakers

A relatively simple wish, for archaeology departments to regularly hold guest speaker events either at the department or at the Student Union.  The University of Sheffield’s archaeology department is very active in bringing in a wide range of guest speakers for the weekly Tuesday Lunchtime Lecture and I was grateful for seeing some invigorating and inspiring guest speakers.  This may be a wish that is already largely fulfilled but it is one worth highlighting anyway.  Guest lectures can be relatively easy to organize, with social media definitely making it easier to make contact with a variety of archaeologists both in the commercial sector or in the academic sector.  Guest speakers are also a great way to introduce the great variety of strands in archaeology to an already dedicated and largely interested audience.  I think there could be great scope in grading the guest speakers for a variety of audiences, from introductory talks to the various aspects that make up archaeology a a whole right up to the cutting edge specialist researchers whose knowledge would be beneficial to a select audience.

6) Active Science

Sometimes in academia it can be difficult to think that you are actually contributing anything to the great font of knowledge, especially at the masters level were you are not entirely sure your work will have any impact.  It should be stated here that the majority of universities that offer archaeology also have an active on-going field archaeology project with the undergraduate courses especially stating that fieldwork must be completed before beginning the 2nd year of study.  However I think that there is the opportunity for university students to participate at a deeper level, particularly if the university department runs specialist and technical equipment.  In my own experience there was limited opportunity, outside of the normal fieldwork sessions, to join in with scientific research opportunities.  This may have been a consequence due to the nature of the archaeology departments of where I studied (and the lack of technical equipment) but I cannot help but feel that a greater integration of student and lecturer would provide numerous benefits to both, including gaining all important technical and research experience.

7) Improve Field/Commercial Skills

From informal chats with David Connolly (BAJR leader), reading Doug’s Archaeology and carefully reading the Institute For Archaeology‘s quarterly magazine a common gripe from commercial archaeological units is the fact that many students require training for commercial fieldwork after they have joined an archaeological unit.  As stated above many universities that offer archaeology as an undergraduate degree course state that 2-3 weeks (sometimes more) of fieldwork during the 1st year must be completed before the student can proceed onto the 2nd year of the course.  However this is generally conducted at a research excavation which is quite unlike a commercial excavation.  After the 1st year many students will take modules that they are particularly interested in, thus the opportunity to excavate may not be taken up again before job seeking starts.

I would argue that commercial excavation is very different from university led research excavation and that time and monetary constraints are major factors involved in the excavation ahead of building work (as if so often the case at commercial sites).  Further to this the skills needed often need to be quickly learnt and applied to help record the archaeology effectively and efficiently.  You only ever get the chance to dig and excavate once.  It is also well known that the environment of commercial digging is fundamentally different to research led excavations.  Therefore I propose that, at some stage and preferably at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, guest talks or lectures are given on the differences between excavation types.  Ideally the skills needed to excavate on commercial sites should also be taught and maintained (I do realise not everyone wants to dig though!).

8) Contact Time

It has been noted that many non-EU students who come to study archaeology at the post-graduate level can be put off at first by the lack of contact time, either in scheduled tuition meetings, lectures, practical/lab classes and/or seminars.  This is generally the way with British academia, it is normally standard that the student must allocate his or her time carefully to allow the full maximum use of the university’s resources for their needs.  Modules often have a stated hour learning limit (ie 50hrs reading time, 24hrs lecture time) in the modular handbooks over the semester or year, given out at the start of each term.  However some students have started to question the amount of active contact time in consideration of, and relation to, the hike in university fees in the UK.  This is a tricky situation as students should receive quality education but also accept that the lecturer has other research needs and a whole raft of students and colleagues to work with and projects to proceed on with.  Archaeology, as a discipline, places varying pressures across the department and as such there is no easy answer to this one.  I wish I had more contact time but I also wish I had made slightly better use of the time I was given to access the human osteology lab.

Notes

(1) This may be hyperbole!  The importance of genetics in understanding the relationships between hominin species in the Homo genus however is helping to suggest relationships and interbreeding that could not be conclusively evidenced from the fossil anatomical record alone.  The picture is far from clear but recent DNA studies of the Altai Neandertal suggest that genetic drift and interbreeding are distinctly important mechanism in understanding the evolution of of the Homo species (if indeed they are different species or sub-species).
 
Bibliography

Hawks, J., Wang, E. T., Cochran, G. M., Harpending, H. C. & Moyzis, R. K. 2007. Recent Acceleration of Human Adaptive EvolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences104 (52): 20753-20758.