Chances are that many who have an interest in forensic anthropology today developed that interest because something in the mass media sparked it. The television show Bones is a prime example, as the main character, Dr. Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist. Even though the real world is quite a bit different from Hollywood, working in the field can be a very rewarding experience intellectually, emotionally, and financially.
The duties of someone in this field can vary, as forensic anthropology careers can actually cover a few different territories. Often, they will work closely with law enforcement when trying to identify remains, particularly after natural disasters where there are mass casualties and the need for proper and fast identification is paramount. They can also help collect evidence at crime scenes and can help to identify the victims and the cause of death in criminal cases where they are working with skeletal remains. They have the ability to tell whether someone died due to homicide, accidental death, suicide, or natural causes.
The skills that the anthropologist develops, through schooling and experience, help him or her to be able to determine information, such as sex, height, age, and more even from a limited set of remains. The anthropologist will work with other forensic specialists and law enforcement officers regularly. Some will only choose to work in the academic world, however, as they have options when it comes to forensic anthropology careers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the career outlook for the field of anthropology (and archaeology) is expected to grow by about 21 percent between 2010 and 2020, which is slightly faster than average. Of course, forensic anthropology is just a single specialty in the field of anthropology, and the jobs in this field could be highly competitive in the future. Very little turnover occurs, as people tend to keep these types of jobs for much longer. To improve the chance of getting a job, obtaining a PhD is a recommendation. However, it could be possible to find work with a master’s degree as well.
Individuals who want to learn more about the opportunities and the forensic anthropology salary and options should consult with one of the professional organizations in the field. The American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), for example, is the most prominent and respected organization. The AAFS, American Academy of Forensic Sciences, offers information as well, and is a great multidisciplinary organization to join.
For those who were working in anthropology in 2010, the median wage was $54,230 according to BLS data. Specialists who were in the lowest 10 percent earned as little as $31,310 annually, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $89,440 per year. The entry-level salaries may be less than $40,000, but it is difficult to determine a definite salary, as many different factors can determine pay. For example, the location and the type of work that the anthropologist is doing can make a difference. Those who are working at the federal level, for example have a median wage of $70,800.
The field of forensic anthropology is a subset of anthropology. Those who want to enter this specialized field are going to need to make sure that they have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology first. It is a good idea to take a number of general courses in anthropology to get a feeling for the field. Other classes that will be helpful include chemistry and anatomy. After completing a bachelor’s of science program, students will want to continue and receive a master’s degree, as well as a PhD in the field. This will help to bolster the forensic anthropology salary one can expect and broaden the work possibilities.
Some of the skills that prospective students will want to bring to the field include a desire to solve puzzles, sometimes quite literally in the case of piecing together skeletal remains. Having emotional separation from the work, as well as a good work ethic, is important as well.
Forensic anthropologists should make sure to receive certification from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Candidates need to be able to pass an exam that covers the theory and the practice of the field before receiving certification. To maintain the certification, the individual needs to stay in the field and needs to earn continuing education credits. Certification through ABFA demonstrates that the forensic anthropologist has reached the pinnacle of education in the field.
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Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.