What Is A Forensic Anthropologist?

A forensic anthropologist, also known as a forensic physical anthropologist, is a specialist in interpreting and analysing human remains. They apply their advanced scientific knowledge of the properties of the human skeleton to reach expert conclusions about biological identification, cause of death and other details which will help law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations and cold cases. They may also be used when identifying bodies in the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a hurricane.

It is a specialized discipline which requires a high level of education, and most forensic anthropologists hold a PhD in physical biology or a related subject. They can gather a lot of information about the deceased using their expertise, including the sex, age, height and weight of the deceased.

Forensic anthropologists work alongside law enforcement, but are also hired by other organizations, including museums and research centers.

Job Description and Common Tasks

Forensic anthropologists work on analyzing human remains, both on the scene where the body or bodies are found, and in a forensic laboratory.

This includes identifying signs of trauma on the body to determine the cause of death, and dating the body in terms of decomposition to confirm the date of death. Biological identification is also a large part of a forensic anthropologist’s responsibility.

This information can be essential to supporting criminal investigations and gaining convictions. Forensic anthropologists are also often called to court to testify as an expert witness and explain their findings to a jury. Forensic anthropologists can also be involved in non-criminal investigations, such as cemetery excavations, or working on archeology projects where human remains have been found.

As every case is different, a forensic anthropologist doesn’t have a ‘typical day in the office’. They spend most of their time in a laboratory setting, working on X-ray analysis, dental analysis, and DNA analysis. They will then compile their findings in detailed reports.

Day-to-day tasks include:

  • Excavating and extracting human remains from the site where they were discovered
  • Identifying remains in a late stage of decomposition as human
  • Cleaning and preparing skeletal remains for biological identification
  • Investigating skeletal remains for identification and signs of trauma
  • Creating reports of findings
  • Providing testimony in court as an expert witness

How to Become a Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists have a deep understanding of the human anatomy, particularly of the skeleton. This means the minimum level of education required to build a career as a forensic anthropologist is a graduate degree in biology, anatomy or anthropology. Most will hold a master’s degree or a PhD in a relevant subject.

Those looking to build on their academic career to become a forensic anthropologist can gain professional certifications from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.

Forensic anthropologists then build their reputation through work experience and working on a range of investigations as and when they are needed.

Very few forensic anthropologists work on a full-time basis, and support their investigation work with academic and teaching work, or working for institutions such as the Smithsonian.

Fellowships and internships are available across universities, large museums and other institutions to help forensic anthropologists build their experience and career.

Pros and Cons of Being A Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists also require soft skills such as excellent written and spoken communication, including explaining technical and complicated scientific concepts to lay people such as jurors and police investigators.

Pros of Being A Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists usually spend over a decade developing their specialist knowledge and education on the subject, and so can often demand high salaries for their consultation work and expertise. Salaries vary depending on experience and education, but Payscale.com has determined the median average salary of a forensic anthropologist is $50,000

The role is incredibly varied, with each investigation holding its own unique challenges, structure and outcomes. Forensic anthropologists work alongside a diverse range of figures every day, and they will meet a lot of people in their work

Thoser forensic anthropologists who work alongside law enforcement will experience a lot of job satisfaction, as their specialism is used to investigate crimes and bring criminals to justice. They are also often involved in helping shut cold cases, which can be a huge relief for the families and friends of crime victims

Cons of Being A Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropology is not for the squeamish. A large amount of the work involves working with and around human remains, which can be gruesome and upsetting work. The career demands a strong stomach and a fascination with biology and science which outshines the more unpleasant aspects of the role

The role is very specific and specialized, which means there isn’t a huge demand for the role. Forensic anthropologists will often focus on a broader area of education such as biological anthropology to increase their expertise. The majority of forensic anthropologists work on a consultative basis, meaning regular work and a confirmed salary is not guaranteed

Forensic anthropologists must be ready to be on call 24/7, as they may be needed quickly after the discovery of a body

Who Employs Forensic Anthropologists?

The leading employer of forensic anthropologists is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), providing assistance to FBI investigations using the most advanced technology available in the country.

Forensic anthropologists are also employed by museums to examine ancient remains and research institutions to work on developing the field. They are also employed by the military, local police departments and coroner’s offices.

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