Without setting foot in a laboratory, people can preview forensic anthropology careers by watching television crime dramas. For example, the television show Bones features forensic anthropologist, Dr. Brennan whose job duties are exemplified through storylines. While it’s true that the real world can be different from Hollywood, becoming a forensic anthropologist can be a rewarding and intellectually stimulating career.
The duties of a forensic anthropologist overlap with other disciplines such as disaster recovery, forensic science, and criminal justice. In the aftermath of a storm, forensic anthropologists typically work closely with law enforcement 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, identify victims, and help determine the cause of death in criminal cases where skeletal remains are present.
Forensic anthropologists can help piece together whether someone died at the hands of homicide or suicide or perished due to accidental death or natural causes in cases where extensive time has elapsed between the time of death and the discovery of remains. Forensic anthropology work can bring closure to grieving families and protect the public by prosecuting criminals.
Forensic anthropologists can determine details about a deceased person by examining bones and teeth, such as their sex, height, age, and race. While many choose to work in public or private sector positions, some forensic anthropologists decide to work in academia. An example of this is the “body farm” at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where scholars study the decomposition of human remains to accurately identify victims and the cause and time of their deaths.
If solving criminal mysteries with science is an ideal career, read on for a step-by-step guide to become a forensic anthropologist, including career outlook, salary, and certification requirements.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for anthropologists and archaeologists is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2020 and 2030, as fast as the national rate for all professions.
However, forensic anthropology is a specialty in anthropology, so the demand for this specific profession could be highly competitive. According to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), many forensic anthropologists work in academia in teaching and research roles while others work as coroners or medical examiners. To improve job prospects, earning a master’s or doctoral degree is one recommendation, although it is also possible to find work as a forensic anthropologist with a bachelor’s degree.
Individuals who want to expand their professional networks should consider joining a professional organization like the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) or the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). These organizations offer professional development, networking opportunities, and certification.
In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 7,180 anthropologists and archeologists were employed in the United States (BLS May 2020). Earning an average annual salary of $69,960, the median wage was $66,130. Professionals in the lowest 10 percent earned $40,800 or less annually, while those in the top 10 percent earned 102,770 or more per year.
Many different factors can determine pay. For example, the type of work that the anthropologist is doing can make a difference. Following are the top-paying industries for anthropologists and archeologists, according to the BLS:
This data shows that forensic anthropologists are more likely to be employed in government-related positions, meaning that the salary potential for this specialty field of anthropology could be higher.
Payscale, a site that shares self-reported salary data, reports the average forensic anthropologist’s salary is slightly lower at $57,537 based on 26 individuals reporting (Payscale January 2022).
Location is a significant factor affecting salary, and living costs are essential to consider when negotiating wages. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2022) offers a cost of living data series to compare the most and least expensive places to live in the United States. This data explains why three of the BLS’s top five paying states for anthropologists and archeologists are also in MERIC’s top 10 most expensive states to live.
According to the BLS (May 2020), the top-paying states for anthropologists and archeologists are:
This data shows that forensic anthropologists looking for work in Illinois and Idaho can make their money go further by living in areas of the country with more affordable living costs. As of December 2021, Idaho ranks solidly in the middle at #25 on MERIC’s cost of living list, while Illinois ranks as the ninth most affordable state to live.
Pursuing a career in forensic anthropology requires a considerable investment of time and resources. As previously mentioned, it is difficult to find employment in this specialized field without a minimum of a master’s degree. The following is a list of common steps to take to become a forensic anthropologist.
Step 1: Graduate from high school or earn GED (four years) – Those interested in this career should be sure to dedicate themselves to their studies as early as possible, including high school. Excelling in biology and other sciences courses will serve as a solid foundation for further academic studies.
Step 2: Earn an undergraduate degree (four years) – An undergraduate degree in natural science or a related field such as anthropology, biology, or forensic science are ideal degree pathways to pursue this career. To gain admission to a competitive master’s program, students should maintain strong GPAs and pursue extracurricular opportunities. For example, while few programs offer specific degrees in forensic anthropology, some bachelor’s degree programs include forensics courses in their anthropology programs.
Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) offers a bachelor’s of science in forensic science, emphasizing forensic anthropology. Upper-division courses include analysis of human skeletal remains. In addition, students can join the Forensic Science Society to network and gain early experience in forensic science, which can be valuable to highlight when applying to graduate programs.
The curriculum in this program is based on the core requirements set forth by the Forensic Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), an organization that accredits degree programs in forensic science.
Oregon State University (OSU) offers a 180-credit undergraduate degree in anthropology. Students can complete this program on-campus or online and opt to earn a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science. Specializations are available in archaeology, biocultural, cultural/linguistic, and general anthropology. Forensic anthropology is one of several course topics, and students in the archaeology specialization can enroll in a 12-credit field school experience.
Step 3: Pursue a master’s or doctoral degree (two years) – Most forensic anthropologists have a minimum of a master of science degree. In a graduate program, students can focus their education on forensic anthropology specifically and gain hands-on experience through internships. In some cases, masters-level coursework transfers directly into a doctoral program, leading to highly-coveted academic and research-based careers in forensic anthropology.
The University of California Davis (UC Davis) offers a master of arts and a PhD degree program in anthropology in two specialty areas: evolutionary and socio-cultural. Students in this program are encouraged to pursue doctoral studies to promote scholarship in the field of anthropology. In the evolutionary specialty area, students study various cultures through human skeletal remains and population genetics. To graduate, students in this program must complete 36 units of courses, a qualifying examination, and a dissertation which can take approximately 4-6 years to complete.
Please visit our accredited forensic anthropology programs page for a complete list of schools, which includes on-campus, hybrid, and online options.
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 research and teach advanced degree courses in academia will earn a PhD.
Step 6: Become board-certified (timeline varies) – Forensic anthropologists with a PhD in physical or biological anthropology will have the opportunity to become board certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists (ABFA). While not required for all positions, having a certification is an indicator of an individual’s experience, expertise, and commitment to the field of anthropology. More detailed information about the ABFA exam is featured in the certification section below.
In short: because at least a master’s degree is often required for this career, a high school graduate can expect to spend at least six and perhaps up to 10 more years in school before they can expect to find reliable employment in this field.
Forensic anthropology work can be emotionally taxing due to the nature of interacting with human remains, so it is vital to develop effective coping skills. In addition, having a professional focus and a good work ethic is essential for forensic anthropologists to perform their work well over time.
With these skills, forensic anthropologists will be better able to accomplish their regular tasks and responsibilities, which include:
As mentioned above, forensic anthropologists who have earned a PhD are eligible to become board certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists (ABFA). To earn this certification, candidates must pass an exam that covers the theory and the practice of forensic anthropology.
The ABFA exam is offered annually and includes a written and practical exam. Candidates can complete the exam virtually through a test proctor for the written exam. As for the practical exam, candidates must make their own travel arrangements to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. To pass, candidates must earn an 80 percent or higher in each area, become certified, and hold diplomate status through the ABFA.
ABFA diplomates must earn and document continuing education credits to maintain the certification. Certification through ABFA demonstrates that a forensic anthropologist has reached a milestone in expertise in the field. Certification is good for three years so long as an applicant reapplies, pays their annual dues on time, and adheres to an ethical and professional standards statement.
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).