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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 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 just 4 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is somewhat slower than the growth expected for all professions combined (around 7 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, 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

For those who were working in anthropology in 2017, the median wage was $62,280 according to BLS data. Specialists who were in the lowest 10 percent earned as little as  $36,390 annually, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $99,580 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. Following are the median salaries for different industries that hire anthropologists, according to the BLS:

  • Federal government: $76,960
  • Engineering services: $61,570
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: $59,730
  • Research and development (social sciences and humanities): $55,600

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) (4 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 (4 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, a strong GPA will be required. It is important to note that as of 2018 there are not any schools that offer undergraduate programs specific to forensic anthropology.
  • Step 3: Pursue a master’s degree (2 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 (2 to 4 years) – While a PhD is not necessarily required to obtain employment in this field, those who take the time to earn one will 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 a master’s degree is virtually 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 reliable find employment in the field.

    Forensic Anthropologist Tasks and Responsibilities

    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.

    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 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 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.