By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator
Finding a passion for archaeology can happen in many different ways. Some are inspired by science magazines or documentaries and decide to pursue their passion. Others may have a love for discovery and history, but not realize these passions can be pursued professionally as an archaeologist until later in high school or college. Even taking an interesting-sounding class during one’s undergraduate education could lead them to the job. Archaeology tends to become a lifelong passion, but that does not mean it does not take a lot of hard work to succeed.
Today, we are featuring Sylvia Cheever, who has just started her first year at Vanderbilt as a Ph.D. student! Though inspired by things like National Geographic as a child, Sylvia didn’t realize that archaeology was a real profession until college. It was in her undergraduate education that she found a human connection between anthropology and biology in bioarchaeology, and the more she learned about it, the more she realized it was what she wanted to do. From the sandboxes of her primary school to the labs at the University of Chicago, Sylvia decided to pursue her passion professionally and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in bioarchaeology at Vanderbilt University.
When did you decide to become an archaeologist?
I didn’t realize that archaeology was a profession until college, but when I was in preschool, I actually organized this “dig” with my classmates to look for the bones of our old class pet we had interred in the school yard. Then when I went to college, I thought I would pursue something in biology. Then, I realized there was this human-centric space between biology and anthropology that was really interesting. The more I got into this, the more I wanted to do it professionally.
What about archaeology interests you?
I like the idea that we leave a permanent footprint after death that is made up of a lot of things—material culture, ideology, philosophy, changes to environments, and relationships. It’s really like puzzle-solving in a way, and I have a genuine interest in solving puzzles. I love doing research to expand our knowledge of the past, and I enjoy the teaching aspect as well.
Who supports your dream of being an archaeologist?
Honestly, most of the people who are my biggest advocates and cheerleaders are friends who don’t work in archaeology or anthropology. It’s really cool to have support from these types of people. I’ve been given some fantastic opportunities to learn and builds kills through jobs and internships at both the Center for American Archaeology and the Field Museum. My colleagues and supervisors at both of those institutuions have advocated for me nonstop. My family as well! I am so appreciative of them; they have provided me with a lot of opportunities and support to continue following this path.
Do you have anyone you look up to?
I’ve benefitted from having these powerful and amazing academic mentors throughout my career. I got to learn osteology from Dr. Jane Buikstra and then did research and wrote my thesis with Dr. Nene Lozada. Now, I’m at Vanderbilt studying under Dr. Tiffiny Tung. I really like the idea that I’ll leave a legacy like that too one day. I have been really lucky to be surrounded by incredible female academics who have shown me the kind of future I can have and fought for my success.
After graduating from college, how did you pursue archaeology?
After graduating undergrad, I applied to Ph.D. programs and wasn’t accepted anywhere. At first, I wanted to give up and move on, but I realized that tons of people get rejected the first time they apply to Ph.D. programs or other academic opportunities. Sometimes application success is just based on timing and other factors you can’t control. Unfortunately, rejection isn’t something that is talked about a lot in academia and I think it’s critical to be vocal about our rejections as well as our successes to help normalize it.
The second time I applied was completely different. The exercise of writing the applications over and over again allowed me to refine what I was saying. It allowed me to better understand who I was and exactly what I wanted. Not getting accepted the first time was hard and a bit of a confidence blow, but I learned a lot from it. The second time around, I felt like I knew what I was talking about, and I was accepted to my top three programs.
What do you plan on doing in the future?
I plan on following the traditional academic route. I’d like to eventually get a Tenure-Track position at a university, maybe after post-doc fellowship. It would be interesting to pursue a post-doc that provided me with training in different methodologies—I’m particularly interested in methods that incorporate epigenetics. That being said, who knows where I’ll end up! The one thing I like about academia is that there are so many different jobs and paths to take. It really is a big open door with a lot of open ended-ness to it. A Ph.D. doesn’t make you an expert at everything, instead they train you how to become an expert using a particular focus point (your dissertation). In other words, you learn how to learn and how to conduct research independently. With that knowledge, you can go anywhere and do anything.
Do you have any advice for someone interested in becoming an archaeologist?
- Make sure it’s something you’re really invested in, because it is a long haul track. But, also remember that if you change your mind, you can change your course and that’s ok too.
- Treat every single class or field school like a job interview.
- Don’t be afraid of the cold email!
- Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and ask for things.
In his autobiography, Dr. Jones speaks about how much of a positive impact his aunt and uncle had on him. They encouraged him to follow his interests, do well in school, and be the best he could be. From a young age, they fostered encouragement for scientific pursuits and a love of nature by teaching him how to identify plants to allowing him to turn the garage into a zoo. This encouragement and support helped him earn his Ph.D. as well as succeed in essentially everything he tried.
Sylvia also spoke to how important support and mentors were to her success. Friends, who were not in the world of archaeology, and her family cheered her on and forward. She also mentions how amazing her academic mentors were to look up to, learn from, and appreciate.
Have you had the help of mentors or a support network in achieving your goals? How important has that influence been in your life? Do you think you, Sylvia, or Dr. Jones would have been achieved success without this kind of support?