Forensic anthropology is an exciting field with one of the highest enrollment rates in social science disciplines. But what exactly is forensic anthropology? And how do students enter the job market?
Forensic anthropologists specialize in biological anthropology and focus on human osteology, from microscopic osteons to the morphological structures of bony elements. They are trained to recognize normal human variation, disease patterns, pathology, trauma, and taphonomy (how our bodies change after death). The word forensic is used to describe science within the scope of the legal system, so forensic anthropologists use their experience, education, and context to help resolve modern unidentified human remains cases at medical examiner and coroner offices. They do this by estimating identifiable features such as age, sex, population affinity, and height and by recognizing traits that can be compared with antemortem records. Casework includes documenting and analyzing skeletal remains found in clandestine graves, mass fatalities, burned remains, traumatic injuries, and unidentifiable decedents.
Sound like a job you’d like to do?
1. Find an internship or volunteer opportunity at a local museum, funeral home, hospital, law enforcement agency, or medical examiner/coroner office. Such settings can provide an excellent opportunity to gain experience, help your community, and find out if working in a medicolegal context is for you. After college, I volunteered for six months at the Museum of Health and Medicine in DC (while earning money as a waitress at a nearby Texas Roadhouse and living with my parents). I spent most days cataloguing old histology slides and photographing historical microscopes but sometimes there would be skeletal material or human remains to review with the curator of anatomy. It wasn’t always glorious or even that interesting, but I proved to myself and my mentor that I was hard working and dedicated.
2. Attend college and take anthropology, math, criminal justice, and science classes. Then attend graduate school for a MS or MA in biological anthropology. Look for a program that has at least one practitioner-based forensic anthropologist. Check on the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) website for a list of board-certified professors who teach at US institutions.
If you are interested in teaching anthropology yourself, aspire to do advanced research in forensic anthropology, or wish to become certified as a diplomate, go on to get your PhD! The same tips apply as for the master’s program.
3. Gain a variety of experiences, including in the lab, in the field, as a researcher, on crime scenes, with a medical examiner/coroner, as an analyst or criminalist, in museums, and with nongovernmental organizations. The point is to try lots of different jobs before landing on your career! Eliminating something that does not suit you is just as important as a confirmation that you have found your dream job. In my career, I worked on scene and behind the scenes―both had benefits and drawbacks, both were challenging and rewarding in different ways. Every experience is an opportunity to learn something new!
4. Consider your area of operations: Do you want to stay close to your home base or would you like to travel? Would you like to live in a new city now and move home later in life? If you are just leaving college, now might be the perfect time to get out and explore the world.
5. Consider your hours: Are you a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five person? Or are you comfortable working shifts, picking up overtime, working holidays, weekends, and overnights? Do you like stability or can you handle being flexible?
6. What are your salary requirements? Consider the agency―some nonprofits might not pay a lot in salary but provide a big payoff in your passion bank. Do you have any health or family obligations that require good benefits? A state or government job might be the best option for you. Consider the position’s hierarchy and your ability to get raises and promotions―is there much room for growth? Is that something that is important to you?
7. Are you comfortable doing “other tasks as assigned”? Many forensic anthropologists work in a dual role―they are medicolegal death investigators by title and use their forensic anthropology skills when necessary. As a medicolegal death investigator, I was able to use my experience and education to become the go-to forensic anthropologist for the entire state. The bulk of my daily job duties were routine death investigation within a busy medical examiner office.
8. What are your long-term goals? Do you want to be a forensic scientist for a long time and try a bunch of different things or would you like to stay with one agency in one job? Many of the medicolegal positions do not have career ladder opportunities―consider this possibility when applying and interviewing for these positions.
9. Be ethical. Attend conferences and read journal articles in order stay current in modern methodology and practice. Do you have the experience and education to be a subject matter expert and testify in court? Never make formal statements or write reports regarding the biological profile, skeletal pathology, positive identification, or trauma analysis outside of your experience and education.
10. Do you have a support system among your family and friends to build a resilient career and be successful mentally and physically? Many forensic scientists experience burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma related to their careers. It’s okay to have feelings! Make it a part of your practice to debrief and share with your support system so that you can process those emotions and engage in positive behaviors in line with healing and thriving in this career.
Forensic anthropology is a rewarding, exciting, and challenging career! There are many ways to enter the field and many different opportunities to use your education and experience. If you follow these 10 steps, you’ll go far!