Forensic Anthropology
A. Midori Albert, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Wilmington

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)


What college courses do I need to become a
forensic anthropologist?

Wait! I've got a degree and want to go back to school to study forensic anthropology--what do I do? Click here.

Undergraduate Degree

The best way to approach your education in forensic anthropology is to realize that, above all, you are an anthropologist first...your specialty in the applied area of forensic science is secondary. Basically, all forensic anthropologists are anthropologists, but not all anthropologists are forensic anthropologists.

At the undergraduate level, you do not want to specialize. You will most likely be required to take classes in each of the three subfields of anthropology listed below--to ensure your breadth training:

The above list may also include linguistics (study of language), depending on where you choose to study anthropology.

In short, as an undergraduate student (working on your Bachelor's degree), it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with many different areas of anthropology first. From a solid foundation, you can then branch out and specialize. For example, you can focus on physical anthropology, where you may wish to specialize in osteology (which can later be applied to forensic settings).

Additionally, you could benefit greatly from courses in genetics, biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy/physiology, zoology, and statistics. Many of these classes will also satisfy your "basic studies" or "core" (freshman and sophomore) requirements.

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Wait! I've got a degree and want to go back to school to study forensic anthropology--what do I do? Click here.

Graduate Degree(s)

(1) Admission to Graduate School:

To be admitted to graduate school in anthropology, you should have a bachelor's (BA) in anthropology, or at the very least a minor or its equivalent. By equivalent I mean at least one anthropology survey course in each of the subfields: cultural, archaeology, physical, and language and culture or linguistics (if offered). Statistics would be great, and is highly recommended. A history and theory class in anthropology would further enhance your minor, if its not already required. Any undergraduate courses in anatomy/physiology or vertebrate anatomy would also be a tremendous benefit. I also highly recommend genetics.

Concentrate on earning a high grade point average (GPA), and strive to earn the best score you can on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE--the graduate school entrance exam). There are prep classes, books, CD-ROMS, etc. to help you here. There may be websites, too--I'll look into those when I update this page again in the upcoming months.

Additionally, any undergraduate research you can do is a major plus. Get to know your professors. Find out what research they're involved in and make time to volunteer. Good (and not just mediocre) recommendation letters from your profs who KNOW you is vital. Develop your writing skills--a well-written, concise, informative essay goes a long way to making a good first impression in an application packet. For some simple, brief pointers on good grammar and writing skills click here.

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(2) The Master's (MA) and Doctorate (Ph.D.): What to focus on, where to search, how long it takes...

In searching for an MA program, don't worry about going into a program where there is no forensic anthropologist on the faculty. Find an excellent osteologist or skeletal biologist with whom to study, to be your mentor. What you need at this level is a solid background in physical anthropology, and more importantly, osteology. Get proficient with statistics. Learn those bones, how to analyze them, what interpretations and explanations can be made from those analyses--in every context, not just the forensic context. The forensic applications can be learned later, at the Ph.D. level or even beyond. And, after a good foundation at the MA level, it will be all the more easy to understand the forensic applications of bone analyses.

If you happen to be applying to a program where you can study the forensic applicationis of osteology at the MA level, then go for it. My point here is that its not necessary; but if the opportunity is there, by all means go with it.

Same school; different schools: In applying to graduate school, you may apply to programs offering both the MA and Ph.D., or to programs offering the MA. It is recommended that you apply to programs not at the same institution where you got your BA. However, you may do your MA at the same institution where you got your BA; but then it is strongly recommended you go elsewhere for your Ph.D.

Many people go one place for their BA, then another for their MA and Ph.D.; still others go one place for the BA, another for the MA, and yet another for the Ph.D. The idea here is that you get different perspectives from different anthropologists on aspects of the field. In a sense, you are trying to avoid "academic inbreeding" and expand your way of thinking.

I'm currently recommending programs that offer the MA. Then, after the MA, find a different program offering the Ph.D. Today, funding is a major issue. Graduate school is not cheap. Also, academically, I believe the caliber of research offered in MA-only programs is impressive. In an MA-only program, you'll be the only graduate student--there won't be competition for resources (funding, professor time and attention) with Ph.D. students. This may be highly beneficial to you. The expectations for research may be higher, which is good--you'll learn a lot because you'll get a lot of one on one with your mentor.

This doesn't mean programs with MA and Ph.D. degrees leave MA students to fend for themselves. Many MA and Ph.D. programs are fantastic. You get to know your mentor very well, and can easily and naturally progress from the MA to the Ph.D. without a major move, starting over, etc. Really, it's not fair to generalize. I'm speaking from my own experiences and what I've heard from friends and colleagues. The decision is very much an individual one, with more than pure academics to consider. Things like geographic location, jobs, finances, marriage/family, etc. come into play as well, and may affect your decision of where to apply.

How long it takes:

Similar to choosing MA, or MA-Ph.D. programs, the length of time it takes you to complete your degree varies tremendously. Remember "Presumed Innocent"? It took Bonnie Bedelia's character (i.e. the murderer) over 10 years to finish her doctorate in math, right? Or, the classic joke: how many grad students does it take to change a lightbulb? One; but it takes 10 years...ha ha. Not funny.

I'd say, on average, many people finish the MA in anthropology (note: I'm talking about anthropology not any other disciplines) about 2 to 3 years, sometimes more. Anthropology requires research on humans, primates, or artifacts. Data collection isn't something you can do with that much alacrity. It took me 2 1/2 years to complete my MA, and I took classes over the summer. Many of my classes were also non-anthropology classes, too.

The Ph.D. varies even more widely. It's not uncommon for it to take 5 to 8 years, sometimes more--depending on things like, do you work, do you have kids, family situations to tend to, illness, funding to continue, etc. It also depends very much on the nature of your research project. Again, data collection is not something that can be rushed. Also, it takes time to gain experience teaching--many graduate students in anthropology go on to become professors and community college teachers, or lecturers--so teaching experience is important. Many graduate students become teaching assistants (TA's) and conduct labs or discussion sections of classes for undergraduate students. It took me 2 years to complete my Ph.D. I know--this is fast and weird. I was fortunate to have my skeletal sample housed at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) already, for years, before I began my project. Remember, too, that I had taken numerous courses at the MA level, much more than the minimum, so some of these were able to transfer over to the Ph.D.

In summary, it may take as few as 5 years or up to 8 or 10 to get your MA and Ph.D. in anthropology--if you're going to specialize in osteology or skeletal biology. You may learn the forensic applications along the way, or you may choose to learn them at the post-doctorate level (post-doc). It is important not to rush. What good are the degrees if you're truly not well-trained, confident in what you know, and have not jobs to apply for? Timing is more important than time.

Where to search:

Get a hold of the American Anthropological Association's Guide to Departments (AAA Guide to Departments)--a reference book listing all college and university anthropology departments in the US. It tells you if MA and Ph.D.'s are offered, how many student majors, graduate students, etc. are enrolled, how many graduated in the most recent year, what funding may be available, who the profs are and what their specializations are, etc. Write to professors with whom you think you may want to study. Arrange to meet with them, in person, to visit the campus and town. Remember, graduate school is a commitment of a few years--you want to get an idea of where you'll be living and who you'll be interacting with for those years. It's worth the investment.

A list of some of the major US anthropology graduate programs with forensic anthropologists on the faculty: Take me there!

About UNC-Wilmington: The anthropology department here where I teach and do research, and provide forensic services, offers an undergraduate degree in anthropology. There is no undergraduate degree in "forensic anthropology" offered anywhere. At the undergraduate level, the emphasis is on breadth. Exposure to cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology (human evolution, genetics, primates, adaptation and variation, and osteology), history and theory, statistics, etc. is of utmost importance. I do offer undergraduate research opportunities for our majors interested in various osteology projects, however; and this is a great opportunity to gain experience (which makes graduate research easier!), give you an edge in applying to graduate school (because you've been able to demonstrate your abilities and show your serious interest), and basically is just fun and cool.

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(3) For people wanting to go back to school to study forensic anthropology:

If you have a bachelor of arts (BA) or bachelor of science (BS) degree, but you haven't studied anthropology, then you should focus on taking some undergraduate level introductory courses in anthropology: cultural, archaeology, and physical. You should check with the departments to which you are applying and talk with the graduate coordinator who can offer you some more specific advice. You may be permitted to enter the graduate program and take undergraduate courses along with graduate courses to fill in some "gaps."

Either way, you'll need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) beforehand, and go through the process of applying (filling out applications, getting copies of college transcripts, writing a "letter of intent"--an essay expressing who you are, what you want to study, etc.--and obtaining recommendation letters from employers or past professors).

Be sure to scroll back to the above sections to read about: (1) Admission to Graduate School, and (2) The Master's (MA) and Doctorate (Ph.D.): What to focus on, where to search, how long it takes...

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