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A forensic anthropologist is an anthropological scientist who uses the science-based testing methods of archaeology and anthropology to assess and report on evidence in legal cases. Forensic anthropologists work primarily with hard remains of bodies such as bones and teeth and provide law enforcement and members of the justice system with detailed reports, including identification of remains, determination of illness or cause of death, medical history and any other relevant information.
Education and Advancement
Becoming a forensic anthropologist takes significant time, effort and money unless you receive scholarships. A Doctorate is the minimum requirement for the "anthropologist" label and the education must include a solid foundation in physical anthropology, as well as training and experience in forensic, archaeological, anthropological and scientific techniques to excavate, identify, piece together and test evidence for use in the legal system. Once you're on a career path, advancement is relatively stable due to the lack of competition found in other scientific professions.
Finding a Job
Work as a forensic anthropologist is consistent once you have a job, but finding a job may prove challenging. For example, all forensic anthropologists in Canada work in teaching positions at universities, as do many in the United States. While working as a professor of forensic anthropology, consultation or part-time work with law enforcement is possible, but for many forensic anthropologists full-time positions within law enforcement are unavailable. In the U.S., unlike Canada, there's a professional organization for networking called the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA). Joining the ABFA helps establish a reputation since there are minimum education and experience requirements for membership.
Not Always Bones
Forensic anthropologists typically work with bones and teeth, but may encounter situations in which they must work with more complex cases of human remains, such as burn victims or victims of an explosion or other disaster. This type of work is disturbing for some, at least in the beginning of their career. Typically, the remains are identified, then any necessary tissue samples are collected and remaining tissue is removed from the skeleton so the anthropologists have clean bones with which to work.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the income for anthropologists in 2008 ranged from $53,910 to $89,490 with 50 percent earning between $39,200 to $70,980. The salary for government-employed anthropologists is listed at $88,302. In 2008, the BLS lists 11,100 employed anthropologists with two percent self-employed and 37 percent employed in professional, technical or scientific jobs. While finding a full-time position as a forensic anthropologist takes time, once you find one you can earn a decent salary.
Working as a forensic anthropologist, though a competitive field, is considered rewarding. The job may bring opportunities to solve mysteries in the realm of archaeology, from finds around the world -- for example, identifying mummies or other remains of ancient civilizations -- or working with the remains of soldiers from wars throughout history, up through modern times. Other forensic anthropologists work with law enforcement agencies directly, helping identify human remains, determining age, sex, race and other important features of victims and helping determine the actual cause of death. This may solve a crime or clear up confusion for the investigators, but it can also provide closure or hope to families with missing loved ones.