Putting the Personal in Personal Statements: Tips from a NSF-GFRP Fellow

By Mia Carey

Before my maternal grandmother suddenly passed of congestive heart failure in the early 1990s, our family would gather every Friday night to play cards and cook, while some members drank and told stories of the old days. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family, and I believe it was her cooking that kept our family as close-knit as it was. She was a gorgeous woman, fair skinned with dark bone straight hair which was indicative of her Native American heritage, who got up every morning at the crack of dawn to begin cooking. I remember the house always smelled of cake. At those weekly Friday night parties, people from our neighborhood and our extended family from Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. would travel to her home just to get a plate. My grandmother was traditional African American cook, the type who never premeasured anything but was able to make it the same way each time. If you wanted to know embarrassing stories of your parents, aunts and uncles, or any other members of the family, Friday night was the night for them to be told. The stories are beginning to fade from my memory now, but what I will always cherish is that those fading moments are a unique part of my heritage that have been passed down for generations and told as a narrative over shared meals.

Before I explain it, you should probably know that I am a historical zooarchaeologist. My particular interests are in African Americans and the Diaspora, the post-bellum, post-Reconstruction period (1865-1900), health & nutrition, and historic preservation. I recently finished writing my master’s thesis, which analyses the dietary patterns from two antebellum and two postbellum free African Americans sites in Maryland to assess whether or not dietary patterns remained consistent among the broad and sustained economic, social, and political changes that characterized the 19th century.

I opened with this particular snippet of my personal statement for two reasons: (1) I put the personal in personal statement and (2) I deviated from the same cookie cutter response to why and when I became interested in archaeology. Unlike some of my peers, I had no clue what anthropology or archaeology was until my second semester of undergrad. My path to archaeology was gradual. When I first started grad school I wanted to do business until I realized that I couldn’t imagine myself wearing suits and heels for the next forty or fifty years of my life. I ended up in anthropology and finally into archaeology by the end of my sophomore year. In one of my archaeology classes we were required to choose a project, and I chose to analyze animal bones out of all of the other artifact classes. Why? Food had always been a part of my life. As the snippet suggests, food was an important factor in brining my family together and what I believed kept us close. It offered an opportunity for several generations to share their stories and our heritage. It served as a comfort in times of need and a celebration in times of joy.

I know that most people can’t relate their research interests with such an intimate part of their lives, but it helps. I was commended several times in my application reviews:

• The applicant is a strong writer, having brilliantly crafted the personal narrative.
• In addition, she is descended from Free Blacks and has combined her interest in family history with a scientific study of class in her graduate studies…

My point in all this: Make your personal statement stand out and make it personal. Everyone is going to have a story about wanting to be in their field since they were a child, but it doesn’t make you stand out or memorable. I took a risk with this statement because I never express my feelings about the loss of my grandmother, but she’s been such an inspiration in my work. Think outside the box when applying for an NSF or any other type of fellowship or grant that requires a personal statement.

Further tips:

  • Do not share something that you are uncomfortable with letting people in on. Use caution.
  • Get started early and seek out people in your department who may have received the award before– if they are like me they would be happy to help.

If you’re interested in reading my statement or discussing the application process, I’ll be more than happy to speak with you via email: m.carey17@ufl.edu

Mia Carey is a third year graduate student at the University of Florida. She has received a McKnight Doctoral Fellowship (5 years of funding) and the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship (3 years of funding).

Meet a Member: Todd Ahlman

Here’s the latest in our series of entertaining interviews with a diverse array of your fellow SHA members. Meet a member for the first time or learn something about a colleague that you never knew before. This blog series also offers current members an opportunity to share their thoughts on why SHA membership is important (Camaraderie? Professional service? Exchange of ideas in conference rooms and beyond? You tell us!). If you would like to be an interviewee, please email the Membership Committee Social Media Liaisons Eleanor Breen (ebreen@mountvernon.org) or Kim Pyszka (kpyszka@aum.edu).

An Interview with Dr. Todd Ahlman, the Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University where he manages archaeological research for the university and other public and private clients.

Fieldwork or labwork?

Both. Besides the fact that I get to work outside, the instantaneous discovery that occurs in the field is exciting and refreshing. In the lab, I enjoy getting an in-depth look at the material culture and putting all the pieces together to better understand past human behavior.

 What would be your dream site to work at?

Every site is a dream site because I get to do archaeology. I mean really, I have a dream job.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading the Encyclopedia of Caribbean Archaeology edited by Basil A. Reid and R. Grant Gilmore III and published by the University Press of Florida. It is a great summary of the diversity in the Caribbean.

 What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid I wanted to be a football player for the Minnesota Vikings, a doctor, or president. I actually figured out at age 15 that I wanted to be an archaeologist. Indiana Jones had no input into my decision; it was just a love of the past and things. My old brother has told me he knew it was fate because I was always intrigued by the ceramic and glass sherds we found while playing as kids. There have been a lot of people along the way who have influenced my path of becoming an historical archaeologist, but being an archaeologist is what I’ve always wanted.

 Why are you a member of SHA?

This is a good question and one I ask myself every year before I join. I am mainly a member for the journal, but I’ve found our journal has become less cutting-edge theoretically and topically in the past 5-7 years. That being said, the content in the journal is still the best for those interested in historical archaeology and that’s why I am still a member.

 At what point in your career did you first join SHA?

I joined SHA sometime in the early or mid-1990s, not long after I started graduate school.

 How many years have you been a member (approximately)?

18-19 years

 Which article from Historical Archaeology has been the most influential to you?

The one article that has been most influential to me isn’t one that I’ve read, but one I published in the journal in 2009. It was a four year odyssey to get it published and if it wasn’t for some prodding by Joe Joseph, it may not have been published. What it taught me was to never give up when it comes to getting something published. As long and frustrating as the process may be, you must stay positive and push forward.

 Which benefit of belonging to SHA do you find the most beneficial?

The journal is the biggest benefit on a long-term basis, but I think the conference is the most beneficial to the society because we get to meet our colleagues face to face.

Building Massachusetts Archaeology Month

Massachusetts Archaeology Month (MAM) is a popular public program in New England.  Recently I have heard of an alarming trend – the suspension, downsizing, or proposed cancellations of similar Archaeology Month celebrations in other states.  I am interested in what aspects of our program have kept it appealing to Massachusetts residents for more than 20 years, and ways that we can engage other states to participate in their own way.

Massachusetts Archaeology Month began in 1992 as Archaeology Week.  Hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, this initial celebration had 47 public archaeology events across the state. Calendars of events as well as posters were mailed to institutions, educators, and individuals throughout New England.  Initially hosted in June, Archaeology Week was moved to October in 1995.  Due to an overwhelming amount of participation in the first few years, we expanded the program in 2004 to be a full month of events, solidifying the pattern of monthly celebrations that we continue today.   This first extended Massachusetts Archaeology Month saw over 100 events.  Subsequent years have maintained this high-level of participation with an average of 90-100 events in 40-50 cities and towns across Massachusetts.

Despite having hosted over a thousand Archaeology Month events, the quality of programs that are offered continues to remain high.  Events are hosted by local partners, not individually coordinated by the Massachusetts SHPO.  Partners who host events include universities, museums (from small, house museums to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), local historical societies, government agencies (at local, state, and federal levels), CRM firms, libraries, archaeological groups, and more.  Each of these partners submits their event information to be listed in the state-wide calendar of events.  Events appeal to a wide audience, including those from different age groups, educational backgrounds, previous knowledge of archaeology, learning styles, geographical locations, and interests.  These special, targeted events have included walking tours of archaeological landscapes, site visits, lab tours, museum trips, lectures, hands-on learning for children, archaeological fairs, bike tours, canoe tours, demonstrations, discussions, and so much more!

We solicit for events early — often before the ground has even thawed in the spring.  We have found that keeping an updated mailing list of potential event holders and asking them early in the planning stages helps people dream up, plan, and develop high quality, well thought events in time for October.  That said, we are definitely on the early side, and many people still prefer to be listed in our website only, having missed the deadline for the printed calendar.

So after all of these years, how do we maintain the large number of events scheduled for Massachusetts Archaeology Month?  Why do venues want to list their events with us?  What are we offering in return?  A combination of benefits encourages groups to host events.  The most obvious benefit for an event holder is the advertising that we offer for their event (and subsequently for their organization).  Each year we send out thousands of calendar of event booklets, posters, and postcards.  We produce a press release to media outlets large and small across the region.  The opportunity to list an event as part of the larger MAM celebration often nudges organizations to host events that they might not have otherwise scheduled, so they can participate in this larger program.  Often the association with their event and Massachusetts Archaeology Month allows them to gain support from other local partners.  We receive participation from several local CRM companies because the timing (post-field season) makes it easy to schedule public presentations (sometimes required through mitigation). Finally we offer limited “matching” services to help coordinate venues looking for speakers and vice versa.

Looking ahead, there are always ways to improve.  The world is moving toward a more web-based future and so should we.  It is infinitely easier to update the calendar of events (to be more accurate and more inclusive) if we start to emphasize the website and start to phase-out printed calendars.  A notable exception here is that printed calendars work very well as references for institutional use (libraries, schools, museums).

Social media (such as Facebook or Twitter) is another useful tool for the future.  These forums make it easier for people to coordinate events with friends and colleagues, to share information about their plans, to post up to the minute event information, and to share photos from events.

I hope that the success and enthusiasm for Massachusetts Archaeology Month has sparked interest and hope in states that are losing their Archaeology Month program, or perhaps that have never had one.  Other states might choose the coordinating institution to be something other than the SHPO.  A historical society, state archaeological society, or university might spearhead the effort instead.  Additionally, moving archaeology month to a web-based calendar with social media advertising (still coupled with traditional press releases) is a cost effective option for states or groups hoping to re-invigorate their programs with little to no funding.

The effort to organize such a state-wide celebration will be rewarded.  State Archaeology Month programs can be sustainable through local participation, engaging and educational for the public, cost effective, and a great asset.

Do you have an Archaeology Month program in your state?  Have you recently eliminated it from your arsenal of educational tools?  What does Archaeology Month mean to you?