Frequently Asked Questions
So, You Want to be an Egyptologist...
If you can see yourself doing anything besides Egyptology as a career, do it. Nothing less than a driving compulsion to study Egyptology will sustain your resolve through the trials of graduate study in Egyptology and the abysmal odds and attrition of the Hunger Games that is the academic job market. I think most archaeologists have followed such a compulsion and “calling,” so to speak, and I am no different. I have always had a deep fascination with the ancient world, and I’ve been lucky (or foolish) enough to follow those interests. American primary and secondary education does not include much instruction on the ancient world, and it wasn’t until I attended the University of Texas at Austin that I was able to devote myself to the study of ancient cultures, prepare for graduate school, and make a successful transition to serious study. However, there are academic paths you can follow early on that will help prepare you for studying Egyptology at the graduate level.
High School Students
Egyptology requires a strong foundation in a liberal arts education, with an emphasis in history and anthropology. Advanced scholarship in Egyptology requires a reading knowledge of French and German, so you should take courses in those languages to prepare you for graduate study. If you are specifically interested in archaeological field work, a foundation in Egyptian Arabic will also be required. It’s practically impossible to catch up on these foundational language skills while you are also training in your field, so pursue them well before you reach the graduate level. Needless to say, in such a competitive field as Egyptology your academic record must be stellar from the beginning, so make sure it reflects academic excellence. Look for local opportunities to learn the skills required to be an historian or archaeologist. Local libraries, universities, community colleges, museums, or historical societies might offer such opportunities. Archaeological field schools are a great place to learn the basics of archaeology and they are often eager for volunteers.
Currently in the United States you cannot specialize in Egyptology at the undergraduate level. Choose a major that allows you to continue an emphasis in history, anthropology, and archaeology. During your college years you don’t want to lose any ground you’ve gained in studying French and German, so consider a minor in one of those languages and/or take as many electives as you can in those areas. Continue to pursue any local opportunities that will provide you with experience in history and/or archaeology. Many colleges also offer study abroad programs or opportunities to participate in archaeological field schools that will help prepare you for post-graduate study. Take the initiative and talk to your professors about their experience and career path and listen carefully to their advice and counsel regarding your own academic path. I was a “double major” at University of Texas Austin, resulting in a Bachelor’s of Arts in German, as well as a B.A. in Humanities. The Humanities degree was an interdepartmental honors program in which I was able to design my course of study with an advisor. I focused on ancient civilizations and took courses in art history, classics, archaeology, and French, culminating with an honors thesis that centered on ancient Egypt.
You will not pay for graduate school. If you are accepted into a program that does not offer you financial support, you will not go. With rising tuition costs, student loan debt can cripple your financial future, and no one ever got rich studying Egyptology, so your chosen career will not help you pay off any debt you acquire in earning a graduate degree or doctorate. If you feel you must pay for an M.A. in Egyptology, so be it. It's hard to get into a Ph.D. program these days without one. But be on the lookout during that M.A. process for funding opportunities the entire time. A simple M.A. at an R1 university in the United States will set you back up to $80,000 or more. And don't forget: the interest accrues immediately now for graduate degrees with government education loans. So again I caution you--most Humanities higher degrees need to be paid for by the degree granting institution.
But let’s assume you are accepted into a graduate program that offers you financial support. At every opportunity engage in complex, nuanced, multi-disciplinary research that asks difficult questions that are applicable to other fields of archaeology. Push yourself to finish your M.A. and Ph.D. in eight years or less. Too many graduate students spend a decade or more completing their Ph.D.’s.
For graduate school, I attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. This was an inclusive M.A./Ph.D. program, and I studied there for eight years. I opted for the program in Egyptian art and archaeology, but Hopkins is a multidisciplinary program that requires study of ancient texts for all students. In addition to visual culture, history, and religion courses, I studied Old Egyptian, Middle Egyptian, Late Egyptian, Coptic, and Demotic – the various stages of the ancient Egyptian language. My secondary subject was ancient Near Eastern archaeology.
Parallel Career Paths
Perhaps you have read all of the above information and are a sane person and thus have decided to consider other career paths. Believe it or not, pursuing another career does not preclude you from engaging in Egyptology. The study of Egyptology crosses many disciplinary boundaries, including art history, social history, anthropology, economics, religious studies, philology, and (increasingly) technology. There are a number of more stable, more lucrative career paths that might allow you to engage in the study of Egyptology without making it your main career choice. Surveying, photography and photographic technology, drawing, forensic anthropology, database creation and management, Geographic Information System (GIS) engineering, information technology, and various other technological engineering skills are quite marketable and often prove useful to Egyptologists. If you pursue such a specialty and take the initiative to seek out Egyptological projects, you may find a unique way to contribute to the field without forfeiting financial and career stability.
I am privileged to be able to devote my life to the study of ancient people. And I am very aware that I am one of the few people in this world who is paid to follow that dream. I hope this advice is helpful. Good luck with your studies! And read, read, read. Always be reading, no matter what path you choose.