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Become a Forensic Archaeologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a forensic archaeologist. Research the education and career requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in forensic archaeology.

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Do I Want to Be a Forensic Archaeologist?

Forensic archaeology is a sub-field of forensic anthropology, so people who practice this specialty are more commonly called forensic anthropologists. Professionals in this field use their knowledge of anthropology to help identify human remains, usually in medical or legal situations. In a few cases, forensic anthropologists employ archaeological methods to assist in the excavation of human remains.

Sometimes, the hours can be long, and evening and weekend work isn't uncommon. The demand for forensic anthropologists is limited, so full-time jobs in this field are rare. Those who do work full-time are employed in several settings, such as medical examiners' offices, the armed services, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions.

Job Requirements

Forensic anthropologists, including those who specialize in forensic archaeology, typically need at least a master's degree, and those interested in becoming university professors usually need a PhD. The table below summarizes the requirements for forensic anthropologists who specialize in forensic archaeology.

Common Requirements
Degree Level A master's degree may be acceptable, but a PhD is preferred or required for some positions*
Degree Field Graduate degree with a specialization in forensic, biological or physical anthropology**
Experience Varies; some jobs may require up to 4 years' experience**
Key Skills Analytical and problem-solving abilities, critical thinking and writing skills***

Sources: *American Board of Forensic Anthropology, **Job postings from August 2012, ***U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Students who want to pursue careers in forensic anthropology with a specialization in forensic archaeology should strongly consider undergraduate majors in anthropology or archaeology. Specializations in physical or biological anthropology are recommended for admission by some master's degree programs. However, for students whose schools don't offer these majors, an undergraduate degree in biology, chemistry, math or forensic science can also provide solid preparation.

Success Tips

  • Participate in an internship. In many cases, students who are accepted to graduate programs in forensic anthropology have completed internships as undergraduates. Typical settings include archaeological excavation sites, law enforcement agencies and medical examiners' offices.
  • Choose electives carefully. Some forensic anthropology master's degree programs prefer to accept students with coursework in areas like statistics, experimental design, anatomy, chemistry and biology. Students planning to apply to these programs can stand out by taking these courses as undergraduates, even if they're not required.

Step 2: Complete a Master's Degree Program

The next step toward becoming a forensic anthropologist specializing in forensic archaeology is to earn a master's degree. Admission to forensic anthropology master's degree programs tends to be highly competitive, and they are typically designed to prepare students for doctoral programs. However, graduates could also qualify for some jobs in settings such as law enforcement agencies, medical examiners' offices and crime labs. A master's degree program in general anthropology can also provide good preparation for this career if it includes solid training in topics like physical anthropology, osteology and statistics.

Success Tip:

  • Publish completed research. This advice is particularly important for those who plan to apply to doctoral programs. Publications demonstrate a PhD candidate's preparedness for independent research.

Step 3: Enroll in a PhD Program

Although a PhD is not strictly required for all forensic anthropology jobs, competition for the limited number of positions in this field is likely to be fierce, so doctoral degree holders may be preferred over master's graduates. Also, for those who want to teach and conduct forensic anthropology and archaeology research in academic settings, a PhD is usually essential. Since there are currently no PhD programs specifically in forensic anthropology or archaeology, those pursuing careers in this profession can earn a doctoral degree in anthropology and specialize in, study or research forensic anthropology.

Success Tip

  • Get teaching experience. Those who plan to seek tenure-track positions in academia should take advantage of any teaching opportunities their PhD programs offer. In addition to research experience and publications, a strong track record in the classroom can be helpful on the job market.
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