What Does a Forensic Anthropologist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Alison Czinkota © The Balance 2019 

Forensic anthropologists are experts in analyzing human remains and are often called upon to work in forensic investigations involving deaths that may have been caused by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or forest fire, or a crime.

Using their knowledge of bones, a forensic anthropologist can examine human remains and determine how a person died, such as whether it was by suicide or homicide, or from accidental or natural causes. Forensic anthropologists can determine with a great deal of certainty a deceased person's age, weight, sex, height, and diet.

Forensic Anthropologist Duties & Responsibilities

The job of a forensic anthropologist working in the field 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

A forensic anthropologist's primary function is to analyze remains, as opposed to collecting and preserving them as evidence. Forensic anthropologists are often called to scenes where decomposed remains are found in order to begin analysis before the remains are moved. They also oversee the transportation of remains to a laboratory where detailed analysis can take place.

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

Forensic Anthropologist Salary

The salary for this position varies based on experience, education, and skills. Additional fees can be earned through consulting work. Forensic anthropologists generally earn the following:

  • Median Annual Salary: $50,165 ($25.66/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $96,000 ($35.00/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $23,000 ($24.45/hour)

Source: Payscale.com

Education, Training, & Certification

To become a forensic anthropologist, you need to complete at least a bachelor's degree to qualify for an entry-level position and a master's degree to advance:

  • Undergraduate degree: Those interested in a career in forensic anthropology need a bachelor's degree in either anthropology or another related science, such as archaeology, bioarchaeology, physical anthropology, forensic science, biology, or chemistry. In addition to the general education courses in your degree program, you should take courses directly related to forensic anthropology, such as human variation, criminology, and forensic archaeology.
  • Graduate degree: Most forensic anthropologists hold advanced degrees, including a Ph.D., in physical anthropology. Master's programs can be in forensic anthropology or biology, or anthropology with a concentration in forensic anthropology. Coursework may include human anatomy, skeletal analysis, osteology, forensic pathology, and taphonomy, which is the study of decaying and fossilized organisms.
  • Experience: All programs in this field require laboratory and practical work. Master's degrees require internships and fieldwork.
  • Certification: For American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA) certification, it is necessary to have earned a Ph.D., and then demonstrate practical experience based on case reports and a curriculum vitae that are submitted for review. Upon approval, you will need to pass an eight-hour certification exam.

Forensic Anthropologist Skills & Competencies

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. Other important characteristics include:

  • Communication skills: Forensic anthropologists must be able to articulate their findings and be prepared to explain and defend them in court. They must also distill highly technical information into understandable language for colleagues, police investigators, attorneys, jurors, and other nonscientists.
  • Being part of a team: As part of an investigative team, the forensic anthropologist must cooperate, collaborate, and share information with other team members, such as forensic dentists and pathologists, to achieve results.
  • Critical thinking skills: Findings should be based on rational, skeptical, unbiased analysis.
  • Composure: Some crime, accident, and natural disaster scenes can be extremely upsetting, and forensic anthropologists must maintain self-control and focus on their task.

Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017, does not provide a separate classification for forensic anthropologists, however, it does offer a classification for anthropologists and archaeologists. Employment growth for this category is expected to grow 4% up to 2026, slower than the average for all occupations. In addition, prospective anthropologists and archaeologists will likely face strong competition for jobs because of the small number of positions relative to applicants. 

Work Schedule

Practitioners do not typically work in forensics full-time. Instead, they are usually university researchers or professors who provide consultation to law enforcement agencies. Typical classroom hours are about 15 hours per week, but a forensic pathologist could be on call 24 hours per day, seven days a week.

Forensic anthropologists who work full-time may be employed at a museum, a medical examiner's or coroner's office, or at a military facility.

Work Environment

The majority of forensic anthropologists work as college or university professors who engage in forensic casework as part of their professional and community responsibilities. Their work primarily takes place in classrooms, offices, laboratories, and lecture halls.

Other forensic anthropologists are employed at a medical examiner or coroner’s office, at museums, or by the military or other governmental agencies. Fieldwork may be local or may involve traveling to other counties or states. 

Forensic fieldwork may involve carrying examination equipment to areas that are difficult to access possibly due to rough terrain or hazardous conditions such as debris. Some scenes may be emotionally upsetting and difficult to observe. You will need to focus on the task at hand to perform your job properly.

Forensic anthropology is fascinating but gruesome work. It is certainly not for the faint of heart. However, the information 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.

How to Get the Job

APPLY

Look at popular job boards such as Indeed and Monster for the latest job postings. These sites also give tips on resume and cover-letter writing, as well as interviewing techniques.

Industry-specific resources include the Young Forensic Scientists Forum, which offers employment and career information for aspiring forensic anthropologists. Also, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers jobs in this field.

FIND A JOB OR INTERNSHIP PROGRAM

Internships, as well as full-time positions, are available in many U.S. states through colleges and universities, military and government facilities, and museums. For example, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences offers fellowships, internships, and career opportunities to qualifying candidates, as does the American Museum of Natural History. Get in touch with the businesses and universities in your area to determine what they offer.

Comparing Similar Jobs

If you are interested in working as a forensic anthropologist, you may also want to explore these careers (listed along with their median annual salaries):

Source: PayScale