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 Survey of Ph.D. Programs Minimize

This article originally appeared in the
SAA Bulletin, Volume 11, No. 1, 1993, pp. 8-11.

Most archaeologists who work in an academic institution consistently face questions about the nature and quality of programs. Administrators ask us to justify new faculty lines or expenditures for laboratories, contract programs, or publications. From a different perspective, undergraduates or students with M.A.'s who plan to apply to doctoral programs in archaeology want to know what characteristics they should look for and what programs are the best. Given the traditional four-field organization of anthropology departments, however, there are few, if any, national surveys of archaeology programs alone. For these reasons, the editors of the Bulletin were encouraged by several colleagues to conduct an initial survey to define what our peers see as the most important characteristics of outstanding graduate programs and what specific programs are viewed as either the best or most improved over the past few years. The results of such a survey are described below. It should be emphasized, however, that this effort was not conducted as an official survey of the Society for American Archaeology, nor has the SAA specifically endorsed our survey methods or our analysis.

The Sampling Design

The Bulletin questionnaire was sent to 290 archaeologists with Ph.D.'s who are employed in professional positions in North America. Selection of specific individuals was guided by a stratified, systematic sampling design. based on the number of archaeologists in academic institutions, museums and research institutions, and government positions, we elected to sample 225 to 250 individuals from academic institutions and 50 to 75 individuals from museums, research institutions, or government agencies. In order to insure diversity, we wanted to avoid selecting more than one person from any institution or agency. Thus, using the American Anthropology Association's Guide to Anthropology Departments, we determined that a systematic sample in which an individual was chosen from two out of every three institutions listed would provide the desired sample size. This procedure produced a sample of 235 individuals from academic departments and 55 individual from government agencies or private institutions. Selection of individuals within departments alternated systematically between assistant, associate, and full professors in order to sample individuals with different ranges of experience. Finally, in order to maximize the number of females included in the sample, we chose those individuals whenever possible.

Who Responded?

Perhaps the most important factor in a good department is the 'quality' of the archaeology faculty-their ability as scholars, their ability as teachers/mentors, their 'social networks' and ability to guide students successfully into professional positions. These characteristics are, of course, difficult to measure.

One hundred and sixty-three questionnaires were returned by December 13, an excellent 59% return rate. We achieved reasonable samples of all the various subgroups of interest, with the exception of individuals employed in non-academic positions. Those employed in the latter positions returned only 24 questionnaires (44%), in contrast to the 60% return rate for individuals in academic positions. In regard to the other subgroups, 42 questionnaires were received from females and 121 from males; 59 respondents are employed at institutions that offer a Ph.D. in anthropology, while 101 are not; 17 received their Ph.D.'s during the 60's, 66 during the 70's, 66 during the 80's, and 13 during the 90's. A diversity of institutions also were represented. Respondents received their Ph.D.'s from 62 different institutions; only seven of those institutions (Arizona, Berkeley, Harvard, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and UCLA) were represented by more than five individuals. Note that not all of these subtotals sum to 163 as some individuals failed to provide some of the requested information.

What Are the Most Important Characteristics of Outstanding Programs?

We began our survey with the assumption that the single most important characteristic of a graduate program is the quality of the faculty. As one respondent noted,the most important factor in a good department is the 'quality' of the archaeology faculty-their ability as scholars, their ability as teachers/mentors, their 'social networks' and ability to guide students successfully into professional positions.

We therefore asked individuals to evaluate the importance of 16 additional program characteristics, rating the significance of each on a scale from 1 (very unimportant) to 10 (very important). The characteristics, in order of their ranking by the respondents, are as follows:

  1. research opportunities for students;
  2. graduate funding;
  3. and 4. (a tie) curriculum and the quality of the university library;
  4. the success of faculty in competing for research funds;
  5. a strong emphasis on method and theory;
  6. the quality of faculty in related subdisciplines;
  7. laboratory space;
  8. the number of faculty;
  9. the faculty to student ratio;
  10. the diversity of topical specialties represented by the faculty;
  11. the diversity of geographical areas represented by the faculty;
  12. the presence of an affiliated museum or research institution;
  13. office space;
  14. the presence of a CRM program; and
  15. the presence of a departmental or museum publication series.
  16. Mean ratings, along with 67% confidence intervals (plus or minus one standard deviation), are shown in the figure above

T-tests run to compare the ratings of the different subgroups revealed few statistically significant (i.e., p < .10) differences. None were present between males and females. Respondents representing Ph.D. granting departments differed from those employed in non-Ph.D. granting institutions only in their assessment of the importance of the presence of an affiliated museum or research institution (t = -2.53, p < 0.01), a CRM program (t = -4.55, p < 0.01), and a departmental or museum publication series. (t = -3.58, p < 0.01). In all three cases, those working at non-Ph.D. granting institutions regarded those characteristics as more important, with mean ratings at least one point higher on the scale. A final comparison was made between individuals who received their Ph.D. prior to 1980 or after 1979. Again, only four statistically significant differences were discovered. Individuals who received their Ph.D.'s more recently rated graduate funding as slightly less important (t = 1.66, p < 0.10), the diversity of topical (t = -2.01, p < 0.05) and geographical specialties (t = -2.53, p < 0.02) represented by faculty as more important, and a strong emphasis on method and theory (t = -2.69, p < 0.01) as more important. The latter three differences may be a product of increasing specialization within the discipline-a phenomenon noted by several of the respondents-such that fewer individuals are competent to teach or guide research in different areas or on particular topics. Greater diversity among the faculty thus provide students with the opportunity to explore more research avenues.

As a final component of this section of the questionnaire, we asked what is the minimum number of archaeology appointments necessary for an outstanding graduate program. The range of answers is illustrated in the figure at the top of the next page. Despite the variation in responses, it is clear that most respondents (87%) believe that at least four faculty appointments are necessary and a strong majority (64%) assert that at least five appointments are the minimum.

Which Programs are Ranked Highly?

Our request that respondents list what they consider to be the top five archaeology Ph.D. programs in North America, taking in account the program characteristics they ranked as most important, elicited a range of responses. Several suggested that such rankings are subjective and we agree. Nevertheless, we are frequently called upon to make such recommendations when students ask where they should apply for graduate training. Comments by the respondents indicated that at least two strategies are followed when we offer suggestions to students. Some believe that students should apply to the best overall programs, ones that are strong in a variety of areas, including method and theory. Others believe that there is no overall set of "best" programs, as it depends on the interests of the student. Thus, one respondent wrote that
I advise students to match their regional interests, theoretical/methodological interests, and personal style of learning with appropriate Ph.D. programs. I don't think that any one program is 'tops' in all area or for all potential students.

Still others noted the impact of recent budget cuts at many institutions:

These are tough times in archaeology/anthropology. Rising departmental and university expectations for faculty, and cuts in library support and materials, are being felt throughout the country. I am urging students to meet with faculty and graduate students at 'desired' institutions to learn what expectations they should have for funding.

This diversity of strategies is reflected in the large number (23) of programs listed either as the best program in North America or rated among the best five (55 different programs). For those 55 programs, we tabulated the number of questionnaires that mentioned each institution and also calculated a weighted score that gave greater weight to higher rankings. Twelve different programs are included in the ten top ranked programs based on these two different measures, as shown by the histogram at the bottom of this page. Three programs-the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, and California-Berkeley-stand above the rest in the opinion of respondents, with much smaller differences among the remaining institutions, supporting statements by respondents that "I see balance (among programs) leading to more options and opportunities for students" and "the tendency is toward increasing specialization."

We examined the extent to which these rankings varied among the different subgroups in our sample and found little variation (top of this page; these lists are based only on the number of times a program was mentioned on the questionnaires). Michigan, Arizona, and Berkeley were consistently the top three programs in all groups. The placement of other programs typically varied only a small amount, with the exception of Washington (rated much higher by respondents who received their Ph.D.s before 1980 and who teach at Ph.D. granting institutions), Harvard (rated much lower by respondents from Ph.D. granting institutions and much higher by males), and Wisconsin and New Mexico (rated higher and lower, respectively, by respondents from Ph.D. granting institutions).

The greater differences between respondents employed in Ph.D. and non-Ph.D. granting institutions may be a result of several factors. One respondent noted that "it is very difficult or impossible for someone who has labored for 20 years in an undergraduate program to evaluate what is going on in various graduate programsā€¦I'm afraid that recommendations we make to our graduates seeking a respectable grad. school are woefully dated, and based on what we knew when we were seekers ourselves."

Which Programs Are Considered Improved?

As a final component of the survey, we asked individuals in our sample to list the five programs that that they thought have improved to the greatest extent over the past five years. Respondents found this the most difficult question to answer; 45 respondents left the section blank and many others listed only two or three programs rather than five. In addition, responses were highly variable. Forty-seven different programs were listed as the most improved and 71 programs were included in at least one list of the top five. The histogram below shows those ten programs thought most improved, with tabulations made in the same manner described above. Southern Methodist ranks first, based on number of times it was mentioned, while Arizona State is first in weighted score. Southern Methodist, Arizona State, Florida, Southern Illinois Carbondale, and Vanderbilt form a similar ratings group at the top of these rankings.

The Editors would like to thank the individuals who took the time to return our questionnaire. We regret that we could not include all of their interesting comments.