Over the past century, physical anthropologists have developed methods to evaluate bones to understand people who lived in the past. Such questions might include: Was this individual male or female? How old were they when they died? How tall were they? Were the people in good or poor general health? This science involves the application of these same methods to modern cases of unidentified human remains. Through the established methods, a forensic anthropologist can aid law enforcement in establishing a profile of the unidentified remains. The profile includes sex, age, ancestry, height, length of time since death, and sometimes the evaluation of trauma observed on bones. Anyone who has watched the popular (12 seasons) TV series Bones has watched forensic anthropology in action with its lead character, Dr. Temperance Brennan.
Of course, the road starts with a Bachelor’s degree. We will explain which degrees will commence your academic journey into this field. Forensic anthropology is the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to help with the recovery of human remains, determine the identity of unidentified human remains, interpret trauma, and estimate time since death.
Forensic anthropology programs are perhaps best suited to those who combine a love for science and investigation with an interest in seeing justice served. Your degree should develop the foundational skills required to succeed in both the field and the lab and ultimately thrive as forensic anthropologists. You begin with a Bachelor of Arts or Science, depending on the school, in Anthropology with a concentration in forensics. Such a degree might combine archaeological search and recovery techniques. This method provides the laboratory skills of skeletal analysis to aid medico-legal death investigators in cases involving suspected human remains. Due to extensive lab and field study, this degree should be taken as a resident student.
Other programs offer a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science with an emphasis in Forensic Anthropology. Expect the coursework weighted in biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, human osteology, and physiology. You can start your degree path in high school by taking as many science classes as possible. This will enhance your scientific knowledge and analytical skills, by taking lab classes in chemistry and biology, in addition to physics, statistics, and calculus.
A Master of Science in Anthropology with a specialization in forensic anthropology generally gives students an opportunity to conduct work in the field and culminates in a full-length research thesis. Internship opportunities may be available as well. Students may gain hands-on application analyzing skeletal remains through participating in actual law enforcement or medical examiner cases, as well as by attending workshops. You will obtain more extensive training in osteology, forensic anthropological techniques and procedures, forensic anthropology field methods, biological anthropology theory, taphonomy, mortuary archaeology, human anatomy, crime scene investigation, and methods of human identification. Graduates at this level will be able to continue their graduate education in a doctoral program and/or work as a forensic anthropologist, law enforcement official, or medicolegal death investigator.
Your education could be a limiting factor in your career in this profession. Ultimately, you may need a Pd.D., depending on your ambitions. According to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), individuals need a bachelor’s degree in anthropology or a related field and a master’s degree in anthropology to meet the minimum requirements to work as a forensic anthropologist. According to the ABFA, most forensic anthropologists maintain full-time employment in academia and work part-time as forensic anthropology consultants, while a smaller percentage work as medical examiners or for the military.
For forensics professionals with niche research interests, several years of experience, and an unbreakable work ethic, there are various doctoral programs in forensic science. While most of the programs at this level fall into one of the subfields of the discipline—chemistry, clinical psychology, anthropology etc.—there are a few terminal degree options in forensic science as well. Furthermore, having achieved the terminal degree in forensic science may be a requirement for employment at the highest levels of universities, forensic laboratories, research organizations, and other institutions. Having a Ph.D. can not only enhance one’s candidacy for leadership and teaching positions but may also increase one’s salary potential as well.
Upon earning your doctoral degree, you can add to your resume and credentials by becoming a certified American Board of Forensic Anthropology Diplomate. To apply, you must be a person of good moral character, high integrity, and good repute. The ABFA recognizes that a doctoral degree in forensic anthropology may not be offered in some educational settings and consideration of other degrees will be assessed on a case by case basis. There is a multiple-choice exam designed to test the examinee’s breadth and depth of knowledge in the field of forensic anthropology.
Certification and licensing are not required to practice forensic anthropology. To be known as a certified Diplomate attests to your rigorous evaluation of the education, training, and experience you have obtained. The ABFA maintains a directory of all active Diplomates for potential clients to review.