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Careers in Forensic Anthropology

Chances are that many who have an interest in forensic anthropology today developed that interest because something in the media sparked it. The television show Bones is a prime example since 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, a professional in this field 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. At other times, a forensic anthropologist can help collect evidence at crime scenes and identify the victims and the cause of death in criminal cases where skeletal remains are present. In many cases, forensic anthropology training allows these individuals 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 details about a person, such as their sex, height, age, and more even from a limited set of remains. The anthropologist will also work with other forensic specialists and law enforcement officers regularly. While working in the field is typically what draws someone to this particular job, some forensic anthropologists will readily choose to work in the academic world for part or all of their career.

Outlook for Forensic Anthropologists

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the career outlook for the field of anthropology (and archaeology) is expected to grow by 10 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is faster than the national average rate of growth expected for all professions, which is at 5 percent for the same period. In addition, forensic anthropology is just a single specialty in the field of anthropology so the job market for this profession is likely to be highly competitive. 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 one recommendation although it is also possible to find work with a master’s degree.

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, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, offers information as well, and is a great multidisciplinary organization for interested students or professionals to join.

Forensic Anthropology Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) reported that there were 6,720 anthropologists and archeologists in the United States. They earned an average annual salary of $66,810. The median wage was $63,670, according to BLS data from May 2019. Specialists who were in the lowest 10 percent earned $39,460 or less annually, while those in the top 10 percent earned $97,950 or more per year. Many different factors can determine pay. For example, the location and the type of work that the anthropologist is doing can make a difference. Following are the median salaries for different industries that hire anthropologists, according to the BLS:

  • Federal government: $77,560
  • Engineering services: $68,690
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: $61,360
  • Research and development (social sciences and humanities): $55,950

For forensic anthropologists in particular, it is much more likely that they will be employed in a government-related position, meaning that the salary possibilities for this specialty could be a bit higher.

How to Become a Forensic Anthropologist

Pursuing a career in forensic anthropology requires considerable dedication to the field. Indeed, it is difficult to find employment in this specialized field without a master’s degree at minimum. Following are some of the most common steps that one should expect to complete in order to become a forensic anthropologist.

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school (or earn GED) (four years) – Those who are interested in this career should be sure to dedicate themselves to their studies as early as possible, which includes high school. Excelling in courses such as biology and other sciences will be helpful in pursuing further academic studies.
  • Step 2: Earn an undergraduate degree (four years) – An undergraduate degree in a field such as anthropology, biology or forensic science is an important foundation for this career. In order to gain admission to a competitive master’s program, it is recommended to maintain a strong GPA. It is important to note that as of 2020, there are not any schools that offer undergraduate programs specific to forensic anthropology.
  • Step 3: Pursue a master’s degree (two years) – The majority of forensic anthropologists have a minimum of a master of science degree. It is in a graduate program that students can focus their education on forensic anthropology specifically and gain hands-on experience through internships.
  • Step 4: Obtain entry-level work as a forensic anthropologist (timeline varies) – With a master’s degree completed, graduates can begin to look for entry-level work as forensic anthropologists, working with law enforcement or in the private sector.
  • Step 5: Consider a PhD program (two to four years) – While a PhD is not necessarily required to obtain employment in this field, those who take the time to earn one will likely have more career opportunities. Those who want to continue in the world of academia will need to earn a PhD at some point.
  • Step 6: Become board-certified – Those forensic anthropologists who do earn a PhD will have the opportunity to become board certified from the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists (ABFA), another indicator of that individual’s experience and expertise.
  • Because at least a master’s degree is often required for this career, it can take a bit longer to get started. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least six more years in school before he or she can reliably find employment in the field.

    Forensic Anthropologist Tasks and Responsibilities

    Because forensic anthropology work can be emotionally taxing, it is important to develop productive coping mechanisms. Having a professional focus, as well as a good work ethic, is essential for a forensic anthropologist to perform their work well over time.

    With these skills, forensic anthropologists will be better able accomplish their regular tasks and responsibilities, such as:

    • collecting and examining skeletal remains
    • determining demographic details of a potential victim
    • assessing remains for trauma
    • determining potential time and cause of death based on remains
    • working with forensic odontologists to perform dental record matches
    • relocating human remains when necessary
    • providing expert testimony in court
    • writing and presenting thorough reports to law enforcement and prosecutors

    Certification as a Forensic Anthropologist

    As mentioned above, forensic anthropologists who have earned a PhD are eligible to become board certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists (ABFA). In order to earn this certified status, which is not a legal requirement, candidates need to be able to pass an exam that covers the theory and the practice of forensic anthropology. To maintain the certification, the individual needs to earn continuing education credits. Certification through ABFA demonstrates that a forensic anthropologist has reached a milestone in expertise in the field.


    Rachel Drummond

    Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).