Kathryn Catlin, graduated from UMB in 2011
PhD candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University
Kathryn Catlin finishing up a test unit in 2016 at Hendilkot on the farm Hamar in Skagafjörður, Iceland. Katie Wagner took the photo.
1. What is your position now; what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
I got my MA in Historical Archaeology from UMass Boston in 2011. Now I’m a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Northwestern University, and this year, thanks to grants from the Fulbright Program, the Leifur Eiriksson Foundation, and the NSF, I’m living in Iceland doing research for my dissertation, in which I investigate marginal medieval household sites and their relationship to social and environmental change.
I can’t really say I have a typical day, which I think is one of the great things about being in academia. Life as a grad student at Northwestern is fairly similar to UMass Boston: reading papers, writing papers, attending seminar classes and guest lectures, working on research for my own project or my advisor’s, and in many quarters, serving as a teaching assistant. It also involves a lot of grant writing. At NU, I have gotten involved with graduate student advocacy groups, something I never did at UMass and which has been very rewarding.
Here in Sauðárkrókur, Iceland in November, my day starts well before sunrise even if I sleep in (sunrise now is after 10 am). I have a desk at my flat as well as at the museum in town, so I might work at either place on data analysis or writing part of a report, article, or chapter for my dissertation. In September, I spent most days floating the macrobotanical samples we collected this summer, in preparation for mailing them to Boston. Some days I go to the archives or the library, where I am reading and translating records about the region that date from the late medieval period to the early 20th century. Twice a week I attend an Icelandic class aimed at foreigners, and this month I’ve been going to a book club where we are reading Sturlungasaga in Icelandic. In the evenings I come home and cry about the US election fallout while I practice knitting, or have dinner with friends. In January I plan to move to Reykjavik, where I will be in residence at the University of Iceland and my life will change again, and then in April I’ll come back north to start my final summer of fieldwork as the days start to get longer and warmer.
I took a meandering path to get to NU, which began well before I started at UMass. My undergraduate degree and my first Master’s are in engineering. After working in that field for a few years, I decided I needed to make a switch, and began taking archaeology classes at my local community college. From there, I applied to graduate schools and came to UMass. I got my MA in two years and then worked for a year in the GIS department at the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which gave me great experience in GIS and web map programming, and also meant I was able to focus on PhD applications without worrying about my thesis at the same time. I would recommend that for anyone who wants to go on to a PhD – finish your thesis quickly, then take a year off of school to gain more practical experience and to write applications.
2. What is the most interesting project (field, lab, academic, or community) that you have worked on recently?
I think my dissertation is the most interesting! However, in the interest of diversifying this post, I’m going to talk about something else. (For my dissertation, I’m working in association with the Skagafjörður Church and Settlement Survey, of which John Steinberg and Doug Bolender at UMB are PIs, so I will assume many readers are familiar with the broad outlines of that project. Feel free to ask me questions in comments though, or read this interview I gave to Polar Field Services last spring.)
My advisor at Northwestern is Matthew Johnson, and I’ve been working with him on the recently concluded Elite Landscapes of Southeastern England project, jointly run by NU with the University of Southampton Archaeology department and the National Trust in the UK. Through geophysics, landscape survey, standing building survey, historical research, and other techniques, we studied the evolution of the prehistoric through modern social and environmental landscapes at Bodiam Castle, Scotney Castle, Knole House, and Ightham Mote in Kent and Sussex Counties in SE England. I assisted with the surveys and led an effort to locate and synthesize grey literature, reports, and artifact finds from excavations and mitigation work at Bodiam over the last two centuries. I’ve learned a lot through the course of the project, especially about the traditions of medieval archeology and landscape analysis in the U.K., which has helped me to put my work in Iceland and on historic sites in the US into a broader international perspective. I’ve gotten to work with British stakeholders, professionals, and graduate students, as well as several teams made up of both American and British undergraduates, and the perspectives, experiences, and friendships we’ve shared have been very rewarding. Also, what can I say, working at medieval castles is every bit as fun as you might imagine! We have an edited volume coming out very soon in which I co-authored a few chapters.
3. What is one thing that you remember specifically about your time at UMass?
One thing about UMass that I appreciated while I was there, and appreciate even more in hindsight, was the way everyone in the Fiske Center gathers together for lunch or for Tea @ 3 with Dennis (I hope you still do that!). It was a lovely change to take a few minutes out of the day to relax with students and professors and talk about something other than school, and I miss that.
4. What is the best advice you got (or wish you had gotten) in graduate school?
The best advice I got at UMB (and I think this holds true for grad school and for life in general): take full advantage of your opportunities. If you have a chance to learn to float, develop your GIS skills, assist with a geophysical survey, apply for a grant, talk at a conference, dig at a new site, or teach a class, TAKE IT, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to your thesis. I learned so many new skills and worked on so many projects while I was at UMass just because I stepped up when the opportunity arose – sometimes I don’t know how I had time to do so much, but somehow, it all fit. In particular, the labs and collections and UMass and around the Boston area are fantastic; take advantage of them while you can. Conversely, if you see an opportunity that WILL help with your thesis, take it! One of the best decisions I made at UMass was to take an independent study in anthropological theory and Icelandic history instead of that semester’s elective seminar; it set groundwork that helped me to write a better thesis, and put me in a better position to succeed at NU.
The second best advice I got is to stop stressing about the thesis and just write it. It´s not an end in itself but a means to an end, and your most important work is going to come later (and I think that is true no matter what you intend to do after graduation). My current advisor puts it this way: Q: What do you call the author of the worst dissertation in the world? A: Doctor.
5. Anything else you would like to add?
Just two more pieces of advice! Be open to change. I came into UMass with a clear idea that I would write a thesis on the excavation and social context of ferry landings on the Potomac. But I took the chance to go to Iceland, and now I’m living here, and I wouldn’t trade it. Relatedly, if you have the desire and the means, it is never too late to completely change the course of your life — you just have to do it.
I´m happy to answer questions in comments about any of this or any other topic, and you are also welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about the Alumni Profile series, look at the inaugural post here.