We are pleased to announce that History on the Bridge is beginning a new series focused on “catching up” with Messiah College History alumni. Each month we will feature different alumni and find out what life has been like for them since graduation! This month we will be hearing from Nick Schmuck, graduating class of 2011. Nick is currently studying Paleo Cultures and Environments at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and has taken the time to answer some questions!
Q: What has your life been like since graduating Messiah, and how did you end up in Alaska?
A: It will be four years this spring since I graduated! I transitioned pretty smoothly from Messiah into an MA program at the University of York (UK) studying Medieval Archaeology. At the time I was on a mission to be a historian that integrated archaeology with their work, but the archaeologists won out. At York I focused on the Viking Age and ended up hiking around Denmark looking for Iron Age burial mounds and cemeteries – it was a dream. I used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to play with maps and try to predict where sites might be…it’s fun stuff. When I got home, my life was applying to grad schools and looking for jobs as an archaeologist. Eventually I started travelling a lot, did some volunteering in Colorado and Wyoming, went to conferences, and volunteered on a post-wildfire archaeological survey in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming (which ties into how I got to Alaska, sorry it’s a long story). Anyway I ended up getting a proper job in St. Mary’s City in Maryland, which landed me in Chesapeake Bay/Colonial archaeology. That was almost nine months of full time excavation, all through winter. Fantastic experience. I still had the itch to go to grad school and do research though, and the prehistoric material we were finding underneath the colonial in Maryland was far more interesting to me. I had heard good things about some exciting work up here in Alaska from a fellow volunteer on that Wyoming project, and as it turns out the archaeologist leading that survey was well acquainted with some of the professors in Fairbanks. So here I am, frantically trying to learn everything there is to know about North American prehistory all at once. Not where I saw myself a few years ago, but I love it.
Q: What does a typical week look like for you?
A: A typical week for me is not terribly exciting. Life in Fairbanks certainly provides a few extra quirks to grad school life. A ton of us live in dry cabins (no running water/indoor plumbing), and it gets properly cold and has snow and long dark winters. Heading to your outhouse in the middle of the night and getting floored by how vibrant the auroras are – that makes it all worth it. It’s a lot of fun, honestly. Other than that my typical week involves long hours in the office every day. When you’re not in class you’re reading for class, and if you’ve finished reading for class, you’re reading for long-term projects or to continue working through the literature for your region of study. It never ends. Grad students are good at finding excuses to get away though, so evenings on weekends tend to be…less productive. I’ll take this opportunity to say that summer archaeology in Alaska is a blast – a lot of sites are helicopter-access only, you spend two-three weeks camping at a time and get to experience a summer with no night. Sure, the mosquitoes are bad, but the archaeology is so much more interesting than back home.
Q: Having done archaeological work and research in such unique places, what is one of your favorite stories to tell?
A: I really can’t pin down a favorite story, I’ve picked up so many. One of the good ones comes from when I was in England. I joined up with a professional reenactment group – they take themselves seriously, everything is about accuracy and they like to play around with experimental archaeology. Anyway, one weekend we were camping in front of a 12th century castle to put on infantry and cavalry displays for some rich English folks, within earshot of a herd of cattle. Famous cattle, these are the only wild cattle left in the world, supposedly genetically isolated since the Romans were ruling Britain, and generally massive and dangerous as far as cows go. So of course we crazy Americans ignored the warnings and all the signs in the woods and multiple fences to go looking for these things, dressed like a couple of poor roman soldiers. Long story short, an irate bull chased us out of his field, and we were left praying the fence we jumped would hold him in. It’s not every day you face a charging primeval bull while dressed in a tunic and cloak.
Q: From your experience, how does the job market look for history students interested in archaeology?
A: The job market is rough anywhere. Experience and connections are your answer. Museum jobs are an option, if you don’t mind lab work. For fieldwork, you have to be willing to be mobile and flexible. Hiring strategies are interesting for CRM (Cultural Resource Management). They probably represent the bulk of archaeology jobs, and are often focused on pedestrian surveys prior to construction of roads or pipelines, that sort of thing. It’s great if you like hiking for miles every day and camping, getting paid to find awesome artifacts in the middle of nowhere. Funding for their projects can be troublesome though (I had a job lined up in Arizona that pushed the start date back week by week for a month before I moved on), but if you find a good company to get in with you’re on your way. A lot of these companies now have representatives at conferences, and meeting those people while you hand in your resume can be everything. In the southwest, many companies ONLY hire from people they meet at the annual regional conference (Pecos). To break into archaeology as a history major you’ll need experience though, so get to a field school, take some classes with Dr. Pettegrew, and volunteer!
Q: If you had to choose one experience or event from your undergraduate years at Messiah that has most prepared you for life after graduation, what would it be?
A: Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s hard to say what prepared me most for life after graduation. Because I went on to academia, I have to say that the most influential experience was my study abroad semester in Oxford. Getting new perspectives is incredibly important, and my time there convinced me that as painful as academia can be, it was something I wanted to really get into. I’m so happy Messiah had that connection, it really enriched my greater Messiah experience.
Q: Do you have any advice for Messiah College History students preparing to graduate?
A: What I wish I would have really accepted when I graduated was the need for volunteering experience in our field. We all come out of college feeling like we put in our time and deserve to be paid, but that isn’t how it works anymore. I spun my wheels applying to jobs I was technically qualified for (on paper) for months and months, and it wasn’t until I started volunteering that things started happening. It takes a lot of work to find the right fit, and it can mean ‘wasting’ a summer, so it isn’t easy. I pretty well went broke driving around the country. I volunteered a bit with a great company out of Denver called Historicorps, they’re a nonprofit that focuses on restoring historic buildings. I spent a week deep in the Rocky Mountains on a crew repairing log buildings in an abandoned mining complex from the turn of the century, and then got to do some archaeology in the Wyoming wilderness, where I made some great connections. One connection leads to another opportunity which leads to another. Make volunteering work for you – sure I didn’t make money, but I found options that had me camping in the mountains (and the food was incredible). It gave me the opportunity to learn some new technologies in the field – and that can make all the difference on a job application. I wasted a lot of time being unemployed or doing basic labor jobs while I looked for better work because I felt entitled, so don’t fall in that trap!
Q: Can you tell us a little about your current research?
A: I’ll be working in Southeast Alaska, where sea-level fluctuations through time have been more dramatic than anywhere else in the world. I’ll be using paleoenvironmental data and paleoshoreline models (what plants/fish/animals/etc. lived where in the past and where the coastline used to be) to help direct surveys looking for places where early hunter-gatherers lived. Over the last few years a geologist and archaeologist working for the Forest Service in Tongass National Forest have used a paleoshoreline model to look for older sites on one of the many islands off the coast, taking our number of Early Holocene sites in Southeast Alaska from 5 to 16. Hopefully I’ll be helping to broaden our search to other islands and tighten the predictive capabilities of the model. Now that we know where to look, we’ll be able to better understand how people were living and moving along the coast. In the next few years I should be joining surveys and then excavating and analyzing these early sites for my thesis. Pretty exciting stuff!