Forensic anthropology is mainly study of osteology, or study of the bones. It is a subfield of biological anthropology, where the focus is on borrowed techniques from skeletal biology and osteology that are applied to “forensic” or legal situations. In legal situations, it is important to determine age (of the corpus and of the individual), gender, ancestry, trauma and disease. The goals are primarily to identify identity cause of death when deterioriated or skeletal remains are of unknown individuals.
The common level of education for a forensic anthropologist is at the PhD, although some have masters or even bachelors degrees that are supplemented with years of extensive training and experience. The forensic anthropologist is well educated in all of the subfields of general anthropology besides physical, or biological anthropology. The main subfields are: cultural anthropology, archaeology, and even linguistics, which may be considered as either a subfield or as a component of anthropology in general.
Forensic anthropologists differ from forensic pathologists, who are medical doctors who specialize in forensic pathology. The forensic pathologist is the person who focuses on the soft tissue to conduct autopsies and to determine cause of death. It is critical to have an accurate determination as to whether death was accidental, homicidal, suicidal, or from some other cause. Although regular doctors can perform autopsies, forensic pathologists are doctors who have additional pathology residencies, then specialized forensic pathology training in addition to their other medical training.
Forensic anthropologists, who focus on the bones and are osteologists, work in a variety of places, including law enforcement agencies and work settings. These include the FBI, as private consultants, in academic and laboratory settings, in research settings and in medical examiner/coroner departments.
Undergraduate courses for a forensic pathologist cover the spectrum of anthropology in general, with linguistics added. Masters and PhD level programs can be supplemented by work and study with a forensic pathologist as mentor. The focus is on gaining a comprehensive and detailed knowledge of the bones, along with a mastery of statistics.
The teacher/mentor plays an important role in the postgraduate education of a forensic anthropologist.
The postgraduate education in the applications and techniques used in forensic pathology can be obtained at the PhD level or with a while obtaining the Masters Degree. One recommendation is that learning under different schools and mentors, where there are different perspectives, benefits the individual who is learning at the application level. In other cases, it might be fine to stay at the same school through to the Masters or PhD.
Overall, getting a Masters or Phd in forensic anthropology represents a long term and major investment of money and years of life. The resulting incomes for forensic anthropologists varies from: US $32,000 to US $71,000. It is apparent that experience is a great factor in the amount of pay, so it might be possible to get experience while earning qualifying degrees, so that expenses are helped by having income and that post graduate full time career opportunities and pay start out at a much better level.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington, “Forensic Pathology Program”.
PayScale page for Forensic Anthropologists