Forensic anthropologists conduct detailed scientific investigations on human remains to identify bodies and explore possible causes of death. Their work is often essential to uncovering reliable facts in a criminal court case where other evidence is scarce. The opportunities to become a forensic anthropologist full-time in law enforcement or a forensic science lab are limited, but many professionals are able to provide consulting services in addition to holding another title, such as university professor. A person who wants to become a forensic anthropologist generally needs to obtain a Ph.D. in the subject and participate in several years of postdoctoral research before working independently.
Some of the basic skills needed to become a forensic anthropologist can be developed in high school. A student who is interested in the career can take courses in biology, anatomy, chemistry, and physics to learn about the human body and become familiar with the scientific method. In addition, he or she can learn about anthropology and forensic science by visiting respectable websites and reading books on the subjects. Near graduation, a student can begin applying to accredited four-year universities.
Relatively few colleges offer undergraduate degrees in forensic anthropology, so most future workers choose to major in anthropology or biology. Lab-intensive science classes are important to develop practical skills working with microscopes, chemical slides, and other essential lab equipment. In addition to career-specific studies, a student can benefit from math, communications, and computer science courses to broaden his or her professional skills. As a junior or senior, an individual can take requisite admissions exams and apply to forensic anthropology graduate or doctoral programs.
A Ph.D. is needed to become a forensic anthropologist in most settings, which entails about four years of additional study. Once enrolled in a program, a student can expect to split his or her time between detailed classroom lectures and hands-on lab experience. Classes in biological anthropology, organic chemistry, and biochemistry generally make up the first year or two of a program. Courses in osteology, the study of bones, are usually emphasized in the first half of doctoral school. The last two years are generally spent in university labs or internship positions at forensic science institutions, giving a student the opportunity to gain valuable practical experience.
Research efforts continue following graduation in the form of a postdoctoral research fellowship. Fellowship programs can take between one and three years, and involve conducting intensive studies under the guidance and supervision of trained anthropologists. At the end of a fellowship, an individual can look into potential job openings in private organizations and law enforcement as well as permanent academic positions. Opportunities to become a forensic anthropologist improve with ongoing experience and respected research findings.