I have an office job that should provide me solid financial base for early pensioning. I've lately developed passion for outdoor activities (mountaineering, diving etc.) when it was too late to adapt the professional career path.

I wonder if it's a viable way to use the opportunity to use the outdoor experience in the archaeology research (or maybe some other discipline where outdoor skills are strongly required) and start PhD in my late (or maybe early) 50s.

I know it's not too old to start PhD, but I don't want to simply make it for hobby and feel like a tween being 60 (I'm aware I'm about to take place of someone younger) but to use it with the profit for both me and the community. I'd like to be able to help in research and share my experience with younger.

Is it plausible at all? And do the various outdoor skills are strong points for PhD entry that would counter my age and missing routine in the academics?

I have the Master in the social sciences, so I have a formal basis to apply.

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    Do you need to be employed? Seems to me that participating in and contributing to archaeological digs and their analysis does not require a PhD, just time to volunteer. (Source: grandfather who worked a number of local projects in his retirement. His profession was as a mining engineer, so he had some technical insight but also had time.)
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 20:36
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    @JonCuster it's also an interesting perspective.
    – user117096
    Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 20:44
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    There are other disciplines besides archeology that involve fieldwork and specialized skills (mountaineering, scuba diving, etc.) One project that I was involved in (doing data analysis) involved graduate students collecting rock samples at 18,000 feet above sea level. However, your outdoor skills probably won't be enough by themselves to get you into such a program. Furthermore, I'm afraid that you might face significant age discrimination. Commented Sep 7, 2021 at 21:34
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    As an undergraduate, I studied archaeology. I thought about pursuing graduate school and a career in the field. I ultimately went in another direction, largely because all of the PhD archaeologists I worked with were office workers---they didn't do all that much field work; maybe a couple of weeks in the summer if they were lucky enough to be able to lead a field school. Outdoor skills are only of incredibly minimal relevance. A background in the four fields, a good grounding in the history and philosophy of anthropology, and some strong letters are likely more important. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 23:14

3 Answers 3


Disclaimer: I’m not an archaeologist, so this is an answer written from a general perspective of an academic.

It’s certainly “plausible” for you to do a PhD if you are highly motivated and have clear goals. But you need to understand that there isn’t such a thing as a “ticket to the PhD”. The only kind of ticket is hard work, and writing a thoughtful application that convinces the people in the program that you have high potential to succeed in, and bring value to, their program.

Assuming that any particular skill or set of skills that you have will be your “ticket” in would be a serious mistake in my opinion. First, the skills that you say you have are far from uncommon, and not particularly difficult to acquire (unless we’re talking seriously technical stuff like trimix diving, which I suppose may be useful in some specialized branches of marine archaeology). Second, I’m concerned that you are more focused on the PhD involving outdoor skills and activities than on what the PhD is actually about. Imagine an archaeologist reading your personal statement where you say you want to do research in archaeology “or maybe some other discipline where outdoor skills are strongly required”. Well, you could be the world’s best outdoorsman but if you don’t show a passion for the specific discipline you are applying to, I doubt your application will rank very highly (and even if you don’t write a sentence like this one that explicitly gives away your lack of attachment to the specific discipline, it will likely show in other more subtle ways). Besides, if you lack that kind of passion, I think you might want to reconsider the whole idea of a PhD. A PhD is hard enough to do for those who do have the passion for the topic they are working on — it is that passion that will get them through the hundreds or thousands of hours of boring grunt work, sitting in offices and seminar rooms, data analysis etc, that a PhD involves in addition to the “fun” field trips. If all you want are opportunities to do some fun science outdoors, you will likely be disappointed.

With regards to the age issue, another issue of possible concern to me is that you say “I'm aware I'm about to take place of someone younger”. This suggests to me that you potentially view yourself as unworthy of a spot in the PhD program, possibly due to your age. That’s not a helpful mindset to have. If you have the passion and think you have something unique to contribute, then you should apply. But you should not be thinking of yourself as “taking the place” of anyone — that’s another sign to me that you may lack real drive and passion for the journey that is the PhD. Your age is what it is, and gives you a perspective on life and abilities that are different from those of someone younger, for better and for worse. The people reviewing your application will surely have their own ideas about what it means and how it factors into the context of a PhD program in their area. There’s nothing you can do to eliminate this factor, but from your end I’d encourage you to at least not sabotage yourself by explicitly making age an issue where it may not be one at all.

Hope this gives you some things to think about, and good luck!

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    I especially agree that age is irrelevant and should not be a consideration.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 15:47

I am not an archaeologist, but I know a retired professor who supervises digs. Sometimes there are gaps in academic archaeology which only passionate outsiders can fill, and those outsiders may be interested in getting volunteer help. If your primary interest is in the outdoor side of archaeology, my advice to you would be to find what sort of digs are happening in your area and ask a supervisor if they'd be willing to take you on as an assistant. This type of work is where outdoor experience would come in handy.

As part of taking this route, it is also important to learn the difference between archaeology and hobbyist metal-detecting, which is often destructive to historical sites.


It seems a bit far fetched actually, unless standing around in the heat supervising students on a dig is an "outdoor activity". I'd guess that most archaeologists spend more time in the lab, analyzing things, than in the field. And even more time trying to draw conclusions and present them.

The people who will evaluate your application will be academics, not athletes. They will be looking for other indications of success. Being active in the outdoors might be a real benefit in some fields (sport...) but would have very little weight, I'd think, in anthropology. Fieldwork is, I'd assume, more intellectually stimulating than physically.

But, I can think of one possible need that doesn't seem to be well covered. At the last global maximum (glaciers), the sea level was much lower. Perhaps 200 feet, IIRC. People almost certainly lived on the shore in many many places but their traces there have all been lost. I've wondered, personally, about the origin of boats sophisticated enough for over sea travel. Perhaps there is evidence somewhere (some how?) buried in ancient sea shore habitat. Not an obvious path to success, of course.

Just guessing, actually, as this isn't my field, though I've done a bit of reading about the first peoples of what became the Americas.

OTOH, outdoor activities are a great way to break out of a rut when stuck at a desk.


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