2021 Past Presidents’ Student Reception  on Careers in Federal, State, and Local Agencies

A Summary of the 2021 Past Presidents’ Student Reception on Careers in Federal, State, and Local Agencies Society for Historical Archaeology 2021 Virtual Conference
By Duane Quates, Mandy Ranslow, and Will Reed

The Past Presidents’ Student Reception session on careers in Federal, State, and Local Agencies took place on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, from 12:00 to 1:00 pm CST. During this hour-long session, students were given the opportunity to engage, question, and discuss employment opportunities and career strategies with three SHA leaders that work in the federal, state, and local government career path.  

The following is a summary of the discussions from the session. The panelists for this session were Duane Quates, Mandy Ranslow, and Will Reed:

  • Duane Quates earned his B.A. from the University of West Florida and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He began his government career as an archaeological student assistant with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Afterwards, he worked for the U.S. Department of the Army as a Federal Archaeologist at Fort Drum, New York, for almost seven years. In 2016, he transferred over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), where he currently serves as the State Cultural Resource Specialist and Archaeologist in Michigan.
  • Mandy Ranslow earned her undergraduate degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from University of Connecticut. Afterwards she was employed doing contract archaeology for eight years. She later gained employment as a Transportation Planner /Archaeologist with the Connecticut Department of Transportation (DOT). After six years of transportation experience at Connecticut DOT, she became the Federal Highway Liaison at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), where she currently works.
  • Will Reed earned his B.A. from Fort Lewis College and an M.A. from Idaho State University. He began working with the U.S. Forest Service in 1976. He then went on to work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and then moved into contract work. He later returned to the U.S. Forest Service in 1987 and has been there ever since. He currently serves as Regional Heritage Program Leader and Passport in Time Program Coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service Southwest Region.

In early December 2020, SHA sent students who registered for the 2021 Virtual Conference, a survey with a list of questions about careers in historical archaeology. In this survey, students were asked to select the career type or types of their choice, and then select the top three questions they would like the session panelists to address in terms of these career paths. Students were also asked to add their own questions for the session panelists. During the first half of the session on careers in Federal, State, and Local Agencies, the session panelists responded to the top three survey questions: 

QUESTION: What types of work experience and/or non-academic training do I need?

The short answer is internships and experience on archaeological projects. Students should make sure that they meet the Secretary of the Interior’s (SOI) Professional Qualifications Standards for archaeology before applying for government positions. The best way to do that is to gain work experience in archaeology. The panelists recommended taking on internships, even if unpaid, or take on summer work on archaeological projects. Education is only one-third of the SOI Professional Qualification Standards. Applicants will need to be able to show that they have the minimum 2½ years of experience and the related products and activities to demonstrate their proficiency in archaeology.

QUESTION: How should I structure my resume or CV to pursue this type of career?

The applicant should think of their CV or resume as the primary means through which they can convey to the employer that they are SOI qualified. It should be structured to include the three criteria of the S standards: education, work experience, and product and activities that demonstrate proficiency. Students often have a hard time communicating their work experience and the products and activities. The panelists advised that students should break down the work they have done toward earning a graduate degree into tasks and products. Include internships and volunteer work in your work experience. For example, volunteering for 2 years at an archaeological lab for 10 hours per week is 6 months of full-time work experience. As for products and activities, these can include such things as conference papers, presentations at historical or archaeological societies, participation in public outreach events, contributions to archaeological reports, book chapters, journal articles, and so on. All of these should be documented on the CV.

Duane Quates pointed out that when applying for federal jobs, you should tailor your CV or resume to the specific position that you are applying for. Using the USAJOBS.com resume builder you can create multiple resumes. When applying for a particular position use the key words in the position announcement to describe your education, experience, and activities and products. If the position asks for 2 years of “Section 106 review experience” do not use the phrase “cultural resource review experience.” The reason for this is that, as a first step, automated agency employment systems scan for these key words and rejects those that do not seem to match. Make it easier for the automated system to choose your application by using the exact wording in the position announcement. Mandy Ranslow noted that during her employment career, she used a similar strategy where she has a master CV that she would never submit for an application but cherry picks from the master what she thinks is the relevant experience to match the position announcement.

Will Reed pointed out that demonstrating proficiency in communication is very important. Do not be verbose. The aim is to communicate efficiently and concisely. Do not submit a 127-page application, as one unfortunate applicant did for a position with the Forest Service.

QUESTION: What type of courses do I need to take?

The panelists agreed that most academic courses within a M.A. or Ph.D. program are sufficient but that no academic program will give you all the skills necessary for your career. However, taking courses on cultural resource and heritage law could prove to be beneficial to a student. Will Reed advised that students may wish to take courses that will provide them with GIS, technical, computer literacy, accounting, or administrative skills, as these are becoming more and more valuable in the current job market. Duane Quates pointed out that academic programs will never adequately prepare the student for a career outside of academia. There are many skills that are emphasized in academic courses that the student may never be asked to perform in their career and vice versa. For example, he said that he recently had an intern asked him on advice on how to write a National Register nomination for a class assignment. Duane had to admit that the only time he had ever done one was in a similar course in 1999 but had never been asked to write, or even review one, in his 15-year government career.  The takeaway message here is that the student should be prepared that their academic program may leave them lacking in certain types of skills needed for a career outside academia or may provide proficiencies in skills that may not be pertinent to their desired career path. In either case, they should expect to have to learn on the job.

The panelists then addressed the following additional questions that were posed by students responding to the December 2020 survey:

QUESTION: What is the best way to look for federal, state, and local agency jobs?

For federal jobs use USAJOBS.com to search for positions. For state and local governments, you will need to search through their posted job listings or through other forums like Shovelbums.org. Mandy Ranslow added that you should keep in mind that some positions do not have archaeologist in the title so you may have to do a keyword search for archaeology. For example, she was a Transportation Planner for the Connecticut DOT and is currently the Federal Highway Administration’s Liaison with the ACHP. Neither position had archaeology in the title, but both were positions requiring someone with qualifications in archaeology (or architectural history).

QUESTION: Is the market run exclusively through networking or can an applicant without a connection apply for a job and be successful?

On the surface, government hiring may seem like a blind search and that only qualifications are considered. However, the hiring process has multiple stages of evaluation. The interview is the only stage where a specialist in the field enters the hiring process. They do not do the hiring; they only make recommendations and rank the candidates on the list they are provided.  So, applicants appear to have an equal chance, depending on qualifications and how well their applications are written, to get to the interview process. However, once in the interview with the specialist, networking may come in handy. All three panelists admitted that their networks helped them in getting government positions. Mandy Ranslow was asked to apply for the Transportation Planner position with the Connecticut DOT. Duane said that when he interviewed for his first federal job, although he did not know the people that interviewed him, they did know at least one of his references and spoke to them prior to the interview. Will confessed that when he applied for his current position, he wrote the shortest application of his career. He stated, “…if you spend enough time in government service you compile enough work that others know who you are, and your work speaks for itself.” The takeaway message here is to develop your networks while in graduate school. 

During the second half of the session, attendees were asked to post their own questions in the Chat Box, and the panelists responded to each question in turn.

QUESTION: Is the only route into these jobs through field work or do lab geeks have a chance as well?

Mandy noted that the session discussions had been a little fieldwork heavy as all the panelists were, at least formerly, field archaeologists. However, there are certain laboratory and curatorial jobs in government, so individuals with these skills should look for these types of positions. Duane pointed out that when considering the SOI qualifications, the work experience requirements does not distinguish between field and lab, so he felt that applicants with more laboratory and curatorial experience had an equal chance as those with field experience of obtaining most archaeologist positions in government.

QUESTION: Can those that do not have U.S. citizenship acquire a federal, state, or local government job or contract?

Federal positions require U.S. citizenship, but state and local government positions do not necessarily require U.S. citizenship. These, of course, vary from organization to organization.

QUESTION: How important are independent research presentations or presentations based on job-related findings for career advancement within agencies? How does this factor into professional development or obtaining jobs with greater responsibility?

Presenting findings to the public is one responsibility of most government archaeologists. Whether it is through public forums, conference presentations, or some type of publication, government archaeologists have a federal mandate to provide their findings to the public. This is one of the many skills that is sought during the hiring process and such endeavors, coupled with others, could lead to advancement within the federal government. 

QUESTION: How can students prepare themselves to understand Native American consultation and working with tribes.

Tribal consultation is one of the most important aspects of an archaeologist’s responsibilities in government. Those students looking to go into government archaeology would find that this is an advantageous skill to develop. Students can do this by volunteering with tribal projects and working directly for Tribes in your area. Many Tribes have archaeologists and cultural centers that may benefit from volunteer help or may be hiring on a fulltime, part-time, or seasonal basis. Additionally, if you have an internship with a government agency, inform your supervisor that this is a skill that you would like to develop and ask to be involved with tribal consultation.

The panelists would like to thank the Society for Historical Archaeology for holding this forum, and specifically, Mr. Terry Klein and Dr. Teresita Majewski (session organizers) for inviting us to participate in this way and for all the hard work they did in putting this together.

A Closing Note from Terry Klein and Terry Majewski:

We were very pleased about the results of this and the other career sessions. Exchanges between the panelists and attendees were lively and very informative, and several attendees acknowledged their thanks at the end of each session. We are looking forward to the next Past Presidents’ Student Receptions in Philadelphia! It will be great to finally see everyone in person! If you have any questions about this and the other career sessions, or future Past Presidents’ Student Receptions, please contact Mr. Terry Klein (tklein@srifoundation.org) or Dr. Teresita Majewski (tmajewski@sricrm.com).

Written by Mark Freeman

Website Editor