Forensic Anthropologist: Career Guide
The primary task of a forensic anthropologist is to gather and interpret evidence to assist in the identification of human remains and determine the cause of death. Therefore, forensic anthropology is considered a criminal justice career. Forensic anthropology is a specialized discipline, and many organizations seek the services of forensic anthropologists. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Laboratory Division added forensic anthropology as a service in 2010, through which it provides field and laboratory analysis and assistance to FBI units and other law enforcement agencies. Forensic anthropologists employed by the FBI are considered professional staff and are granted access to the most advanced technologies and equipment available to work on the FBI's most challenging cases. Openings at the FBI's headquarters and field offices are frequently posted. Museums and research institutions frequently hire forensic anthropologists to examine and to catalog important collections and sometimes to analyze and to acquire new specimens.
The Smithsonian Institution's Department of Anthropology is one of the most widely known and respected anthropology centers in the US. The Smithsonian's staff of anthropologists has been involved in assisting law enforcement investigations for over 100 years. Its collection of human comparative skeletons is one of the largest in the world, with over 30,000 sets.1 Fellowship opportunities are posted on the Smithsonian's opportunity page. Forensic anthropologists might also consider a career as a professor of forensic anthropology. The faculty of the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee Knoxville are active in the field of anthropology and are connected with other highly respected institutions. Through the Forensic Anthropology Center, the department also offers courses to professionals from diverse fields and graduate student research opportunities.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Forensic anthropologists are deeply involved in the legal system as they are increasingly called on to testify in court as expert witnesses, whether they have worked directly on a case or are consulting as professionals. The daily work of forensic anthropologists is highly varied, but most spend much of their time in the laboratory, examining direct evidence and remains through observation, X-ray analysis, and other technological means, as well as checking dental and medical records. They may also assist in recovering bodies from the scenes where they are located.
Steps for Becoming a Forensic Anthropologist
Since forensic anthropologists must thoroughly understand human anatomy, anthropology, and aspects of many other scientific disciplines, most hiring organizations require candidates for these positions to possess a graduate degree. But some employers may accept a lesser degree, especially if it is offset by experience. Professional forensic anthropologists may also earn certification through such organizations as the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors or the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Students interested in this career may consider earning a bachelor's degree in forensic science or anthropology as a starting point, which may allow them to find work in the forensic sciences while pursuing a graduate degree. In order to become a forensic anthropologist, you should expect to follow steps similar to the ones below.
- Acquire a graduate degree relating to forensics and anthropology.
- Apply for a forensic anthropologist job.
- Earn certification as a forensic anthropologist (optional).
- Undergo a background investigation.
- Pass a drug test.
- Be interviewed.
- Get hired as a forensic anthropologist.
- Receive on-the-job training.
Forensic Anthropologist Job Training
Prospective anthropologists generally complete extensive hands-on training while earning their master's and/or doctoral degree. This training may involve a broad education in physical and biological anthropology, among other sub-specialty areas. Depending on your career placement, for example, working for academic institutions versus medical examiner offices, on-the-job training may also be necessary.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Anthropologists who specialize in forensics have complex responsibilities, and as a result, require a broad skill set and experience to do their jobs well. Experience working with law enforcement and with using lab equipment are both essential. Photography skills and knowledge of how to use and read X-rays are also advantageous.
Possible Job Titles for This Career
- Forensic Anthropologist
- Forensic Physical Anthropologist
Forensic Anthropologist Salary and Job Outlook
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide job data for forensic anthropologists, it provides data for the related occupation of forensic science technicians, who earn a median salary of $57,850 per year.2 The BLS reports that anthropologists and archeologists earn a median salary of $62,280 per year.3 Because there is not a huge demand for forensic anthropologists, the job outlook growth rate is slower than average and competition for open positions, especially if they are full-time, is highly competitive.3
Interested in a career similar to forensic anthropology? Check out these related careers:
- Blood Spatter Analyst
- Computer Forensics Investigator
- Crime Lab Analyst
- Forensic Accountant
- Forensic Ballistics Expert
- Forensic Nursing
- Forensic Psychologist
- Forensic Science Technician
- Crime Scene Investigator
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: How can I make myself more employable as a forensic anthropologist?
Answer: Forensic anthropology is a very specialized field and forensic anthropologists typically aren't in demand. As a result, the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists recommends that aspiring anthropologists also focus on a broader area, such as biological anthropology or physical anthropology.
Question: What type of schedule does a forensic anthropologist work?
Answer: The American Board of Forensic Anthropologists reports that very few individuals secure full-time employment as forensic anthropologists. Many work for universities, museums, or research organizations, or offer consultations on an as-needed basis. Forensic anthropologists might also be contracted to help identify the remains of individuals in mass graves.
Question: What other options do I have for working if I cannot find full-time employment as a forensic anthropologist?
Answer: Some forensic anthropologists use their skills to secure employment as identification specialists or death investigators. Other options include teaching as faculty for a college or university or developing a second specialty in the forensic sciences.
Question: How is archaeology related to forensic anthropology?
Answer: Forensic anthropologists may work with identifying the cause of death for remains found in archeological sites. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences observes that aspiring anthropologists with experience working at archeological sites will gain valuable “hands-on” experience that will enhance their anthropology work.
- American Academy of Forensic Sciences: Provides an overview of the forensic anthropology career for students.
- ABFA: American Board of Forensic Anthropologists: A professional organization providing educational resources, certification, and the latest news for forensic anthropologists.
- Society of Forensic Anthropology: A professional organization for practicing forensic anthropologists.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology: Forensic Anthropology Sub-committee: A professional working group that creates “standards and guidelines related to application of anthropological methods and theory, particularly those relating to the recovery and analysis of human remains.”
1. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: https://naturalhistory.si.edu/research/anthropology
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Anthropologists and Archeologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/anthropologists-and-archeologists.htm