My parents recently sent me a box from their attic of old rubbish from my past. These two items are fabulous examples of my first efforts at gainful employment, as a shelf-stacker and cashier at Sainsbury’s, Friar Street, Reading town centre, around 1990. At once level, these are a disturbing reminder of a past best forgotten of A-level part-time work.

Still, simultaneously it is both a comfort to know that I have these items should the need arise. To paraphrase Lester Burnham in American Beauty, I am sure there have been amazing technological advances in the industry, but I am always on the look-out for the least amount of responsibility. So having done work like this is a great back-up if archaeology goes south!

Perhaps more pertinently, these artefacts are a reminder of what might have been had the academic career not worked out… After all, most doctoral students PhDs in archaeology and other academic subjects leave their specific discipline and end up in another lines of work, or no work at all. Many of them use the advanced research skills they have acquired but perhaps in other situations.

While I like to imagine I’m special, I know very well that I was one of many aspiring, talented, articulate and passionate young archaeologists looking for work at that time and subsequently. While universities like to cultivate the idea that they select bright young minds from a pool of excellence to fill their junior lecturing jobs, and I remain a firm believer that many great people rise to the forefront in careers at UK universities, I am also aware of how competitive and unpredictable gaining an academic career has been and how many bright people simply don’t get a lucky break. I consider myself very lucky as well as able.

A further point here, despite the respect and affection I have for my universities of former study and my former teachers, I know very well that if I had followed the career advice of my former lecturers, I would NEVER have succeeded as an academic. Sorry, but in this regard, they let me down and I worry I am doing the same for my students.

Why is an academic career so challenging? There are so many skills and expertise one needs to acquire certainly. I concede there remain complex gender issues and there are class issues too; there are ethnicity and disability discrimination at work and there are also issues of accent, dress and demeanour. Personality is an issue too of course as well as ability, and often justifiably so since an academic has to be an effective communicator and teacher, not just a brilliant mind who can get away without too much social interaction.

I find it personally heartbreaking to have students and see colleagues unable to find work. Equally, it is very depressing not be short-listing all of the great potential who apply for jobs at my institution; it is both promising and disturbing how much competition there is out there for few academic positions. At least one thing I can say about our institution is that we are creating new job opportunities for archaeology and heritage academics; few places are!

Having said that, I’m also aware that there is plenty of one-dimensional rubbish about causation in the media and spouted by academics on this subject. It is difficult to tolerate this when I see how some of those that firmly believe there is a single issue that is keeping them back have many other problems they are not addressing or not even aware of. There are plenty of bad decisions and bad advice out there affecting the career paths of young academic archaeologists and plenty of justified but misapplied and misdirected indignation. Acquiring a doctorate doesn’t guarantee or entitle you to a career in academia and there is no single path to an academic career.

The fact remains there are a lot of talented people keen to have academic careers and few positions for them to pursue. I’m not celebrating and relishing this competitiveness as some like to in order to legitimise their fragile egos; just observing that it exists and isn’t always clear or fair how careers work out.

Anyway, these artefacts bring to the surface issues that dog me personally and how I consider my own academic career and those of my students and peers. I share them since they might serve as points of reflections for the academic discipline of archaeology as a whole.

For the record, I was really rubbish and slow at shelf-stacking, but reasonably okay on the old-fashioned tills (before the chicken-clucking scanners). I recall how many colleages who I worked with without my educational abilities who showed me respect and friendship, but also those that looked down on me (mainly customers) for my work in the shop. Like many who have worked in such roles, I try to remember both the good and bad of my experiences.