Learn About Landing a Forensic Anthropologist Job

Anthropologists working in the Forensic Physical Anthropology Lab
••• George Steinmetz/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

It does not take long for a body to begin decomposing after death. Absent any preservation techniques or proper burial; human remains very quickly become unrecognizable. Though the popular television series, Bones, famous forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan may not be a real person, her job certainly is. These highly trained and skilled scientists get the answers other forensics experts can't.

If you think you can learn a lot from a dummy, you'd be amazed at what you can glean from a body or skeletal remains. When criminal investigators need help gathering and analyzing decomposed human remains, they turn to forensic anthropologists to get the answers they need.

What is Forensic Anthropology

Age, weight, sex, height and even diet: all of this and more can be determined from skeletal remains. Forensic anthropology is an indispensable discipline in identifying not only victims of crime but in determining whether they are victims, to begin with.

Anthropology is the combined study of all aspects of humanity: culture, societies, psychology, and biology. Physical anthropology, which is the parent discipline of forensic anthropology, focuses on the biological sciences. Forensic anthropology, then, is the application of the question of law to the anthropological sciences.

Forensic anthropology is still an emerging field; the wider science of anthropology itself is relatively young, and the application of forensic science to the discipline only reached widespread acceptance in the 1970's.

The age of the practice, however, shouldn't be construed to minimize its importance. Through forensic anthropology, investigators can gain important clues to help solve old crimes and cold cases.

Job Functions and Work Environment

Practitioners do not typically work in forensics full time. Instead, they are usually university researchers or professors who provide consultation to law enforcement agencies. Generally, forensic anthropologists are experts in applied and physical anthropology and assist detectives and investigators when called upon.

Forensic anthropologists perform most of their work conducting field research and in laboratories. They are typically based on university or college campuses. One of the most famous and best-known campuses is located at the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility in Knoxville. There, scientists study how donated bodies decompose, and they can conduct research to enhance the knowledge base of the field.

Forensic anthropologists' primary function is to provide analysis of remains as opposed to the collection and preservation of evidence. They are often called to scenes where decomposed remains are found to begin analysis before the remains are moved. They oversee the transportation of the remains to a laboratory where detailed analysis can take place.

The job of a forensic anthropologist often includes:

  • Handling human remains
  • Cleaning skeletal remains
  • Inspecting decomposed remains for signs of trauma
  • Providing biological information about remains
  • Compiling reports
  • Working closely with investigators and special agents
  • Providing courtroom testimony

Forensic anthropologists can provide information about who a victim is and how they lived. Even more importantly, they can provide important information about how a victim died and how long they've been dead. By looking for signs of trauma, they can help to determine the modus operandi for a murder and supply information crucial to making an arrest and gaining a conviction.

Education And Skill Requirements

Those interested in a career in forensic anthropology will need to earn a bachelors' degree in either anthropology or other related science such as archaeology, as well as a master's degree in anthropology. Most forensic anthropologists hold advanced degrees, including doctorates, in physical anthropology.

Forensic anthropologists must be highly analytical and have an understanding and appreciation of the scientific method, as well as for the criminal justice system and legal process. They must also be able to articulate their findings and be prepared to explain and defend them in court.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook

Very few people are hired full time as forensic anthropologists. Instead, they work in anthropology departments in universities as research assistants and professors. Earning potential can be around $71,000, in line with other college professor salaries. Additional fees can be earned through consulting work.

Is a Career Right for You?

Forensic anthropology is fascinating but gruesome work. It is certainly not for the faint of heart. However, the information that can be provided to investigators is invaluable. If you are fascinated by human biology, appreciate science and have a desire to help solve perplexing crimes, forensic anthropology may be the perfect criminology career for you.