Fictional and non-fictional television shows have introduced the public to various aspects of forensic anthropology, and many students have become interested in a career in forensics as a result of this highly glamorized Hollywood interpretation of the field.
What is it actually like?
First, to be a practicing Forensic Anthropologist you need a master’s degree or doctorate with a major in anthropology and a focus in biological, physical, or forensic anthropology, which usually takes a total of six to ten years.
What training and skills are necessary to become a Forensic Anthropologist?
The paths to becoming a Forensic Anthropologist may be somewhat varied, but a typical educational background is as follows:
4 years for a bachelor’s degree (BA or BS): Usually this degree is in anthropology or biology with a human emphasis, with additional courses in biology, geology, physics, chemistry, statistics, anatomy, and osteology, among others. At most U.S. institutions, an undergraduate major in anthropology includes the subfields of archaeology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology, and sometimes also linguistics.
2-4 years for a master’s degree (MA or MS): The master’s degrees of most forensic anthropologists are in anthropology with a focus on physical/biological anthropology (or the degree may actually be titled as physical/biological anthropology). Some programs have master’s degrees specifically in forensic anthropology. Master’s programs commonly require the student to complete a written thesis based upon original independent research in the field. In the U.S., master's students are also required to complete a year or more of coursework. Some master’s programs are terminal (i.e., the student’s education at that institution ends when they complete their master’s degree), while others involve a transition from master’s- to doctoral-level coursework and research while remaining at the same institution (see below). Students should align themselves with graduate programs that offer exposure to forensic anthropology casework while still in graduate school. There are some individuals who practice forensic anthropology with a master’s degree, but the current standard is a doctoral degree, followed by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology certification.
3-9 years for a doctoral degree (PhD): Most physical/biological anthropology doctoral programs are highly competitive. In the U.S., these programs require several years of coursework in physical/biological anthropology along with a written dissertation based upon original independent research in the field. Again, students should seek programs with a focus on forensic anthropology and practicing forensic anthropologists on the faculty (preferably those who are ABFA-certified). Coursework taken for the master’s degree may be counted toward the doctoral degree, depending on the relevant university and/or program requirements; some programs accept students directly into a doctoral program without first obtaining a master’s degree.
Certification: Currently, the only certification for Forensic Anthropologists in the U.S. is through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), which confirms those who are experts in the field. For ABFA board certification, it is necessary to have earned a PhD and demonstrate practical case experience as judged by case reports, a curriculum vitae, training logs, and letters of reference that are submitted for review. Once a person has been approved, they must then sit for an exam that is composed of both written and hands-on practical portions. Although some may practice forensic anthropology without board certification, this certification is highly recommended, as it attests to their competency in all core areas of forensic anthropology. For some jobs, such as those in accredited medical examiner offices, board certification may be required.
Like all scientists, Forensic Anthropologists must remain current in their field through continuing education activities. This includes reviewing new methods in professional journals, attending conferences and workshops, conducting research, and remaining involved in casework.
Forensic Anthropologists should possess good analytical skills, critical thinking abilities, and logical reasoning. They need to have good mathematical skills, attention to detail, and what might be called “3-D imagination,” in order to visualize the reconstruction of a shattered skull, process a crime scene, or to understand how the forces in trauma affect bone. Excellent written and verbal communication and computer skills are also critical. Beyond writing a master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, a Forensic Anthropologist must be proficient in writing forensic case reports and designing and completing research projects. Many also write books and book chapters. They must have good verbal communication skills, particularly during expert witness testimony. During their anthropological education, they should also have fostered a holistic perspective that encourages collaborative, interdisciplinary work and acknowledges the interconnected nature of social and biological systems.