At the end of the second day of the 3rd Annual Student Archaeology conference in Edinburgh, there was a careers roundtable discussion. This included 5 guest speakers (who for the sake of argument will remain nameless) who were from a variety of archaeological sectors, from commercial, research/academic and community archaeology. This provdied a great insight for the students at the conference how these archaeologists got to where they are now. On the way back form the conference I realised there were a couple of interesting underlying themes that all of the archaeologists agreed on, and students should take note (and they are all related to each other)...
1. Foreign work opportunities appear to enhance your CV to no end. From working in bioarchaeological contexts with UNESCO (in laymans terms, identifying genocide victims in the Balkans) to recording Middle Eastern buildings, getting this experience demonstrates your enthusiasm for your subject and gives you the experience of working in a very different environment from British excavations, often in more dangerous situations. Additionally it gives you an excellent range of contacts and referees for future work and friendships as well as experiencing different areas of the world in general.
Personally I can relate to this as well (without sounding pretentious!). I got into my current job as a direct result of getting some geophysical work with the British School at Rome in Tunisia last year, working alongside snakes, boars and some locals who couldn't even speak French (it looks like it will be even harder to get into Tunisia for work given what has recently happened in Sousse)! Sadly this was down to sheer good fortune. I was very much in the right place at the right time with the right skills to exploit the situation.However, there are ways and means around this, such as applying for a funded placement for an excavation abroad at the Grampus European Archaeology Skills Exchange at http://www.grampusheritage.co.uk/. I did a placement out in Italy with Grampus and it was the single best excavation I did during my student days. The best part for my CV is that the methodology used in these areas wasn't that different from British archaeology, such as using the standard MOLA context sheets (although there are some minor differences which will differ depending on where you go and who you work with).
2. Working for multiple companies (in the commercial and academic contexts) is no bad thing. If anything it gives you an idea of how the sector works by seeing how different companies and charities work. However, there is no problem with working for just one company either. It is whatever is best for you personally and whether the company or charity concerned is doing the best it can for you. One of the biggest issues for students is the catch-22 (also highlighted at the roundtable discussion)- you need experience to get employed but you need employment to gain experience to get into that job! The best way to remedy this is to basically be lucky and find an opportunity (see point 1 above) or try to find an opportunity at University or a local society/local commercial unit.
This may lead to being in positions that don't relate to what you want to do (like menial office jobs), but often you will pick up valuable transferable skills, or even some job-specific skills that can be used in an archaeological role! With an archaeology degree you demonstrate to employers that you already have a large number of transferable skills (as they tell you at University).
3. Take every opportunity you can. New skills are easy to come by (if you have the money). All the panel agreed that the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists will become increasingly important, where you will gain a lot through networking (if you go the conferences and training events). However, you DO NOT HAVE TO BE A MEMBER OF CIFA TO BE AN ARCHAEOLOGIST. Additionally the panel generally concluded that no University can prepare you for everything, so much like the Grampus charity, be prepared to put in some legwork to fill in any skills gaps you can identify yourself. You can use the skills passport advocated by BAJR (British Archaeological Jobs and Resources).
On a slightly worrying note, there are not enough archaeologists with the right skills in the workplace at the moment (mainly post-processing). If you think this is something you want to do, you will be in demand in the commercial world, although sometimes this may require a PhD (or lots of experience). The main things that will help you most in getting a commercial job (aside from a Uni degree) are a driving licence, a CSCS (construction skills certificate scheme) card and the CIFA. More than this though, archaeological employers want commitment, enthusiasm (optional, but generally a given) and some demonstration of relevant experience.