SO YOU WANT TO BE A FORENSIC
by Randy Skelton
Department of Anthropology
The University of Montana - Missoula
Missoula, MT 59812-1001
Forensic anthropology is a branch of the forensic sciences concerned
with the application of anthropological knowledge
and methods to the process of law. In the most typical scenario a
law enforcement agency finds skeletal remains and asks a forensic
anthropologist for help in identifying who the deceased individual is.
Many people think there are a lot of jobs available in forensic
anthropology. As much as I wish that were true, I haven't found
it to be so. The reason for this is that there simply aren't
enough cases, even in a big city like Los Angeles or New York City,
to keep a
forensic anthropologist busy. Combine this with the fact that
there are many forensic anthropology students who compete for the
privilege of working on cases for free, and you begin to see how
grim the situation is.
There are three places where you might find a career as a
forensic anthropologist: (1) as a faculty member at a college or
university, or working as a curator for a museum (2) working for
the army, which hires a few forensic anthropologists at their
forensic centers in Hawaii and Washington D.C., and (3) working
in a local, state, or federal crime lab as a regular staff member
who just happens to have expertise in forensic anthropology.
Getting a job as college faculty or a museum curator, or working for
the army usually requires a Ph.D. in anthropology, and in the
1990's is very difficult even with a Ph.D. Most of the people who
are successful at landing the few available jobs have degrees from
one of the major forensic anthropology programs.
Colleges and Universities with good graduate programs also tend to
have good undergraduate programs.
Good Ph.D. programs in forensic anthropology are offered at:
Some people, especially those without an undergraduate
degree in anthropology might find it useful to complete a
masters program in anthropology before attempting a Ph.D.
Excellent M.A. programs in forensic anthropology are offered at:
Florida Atlantic University. Faculty:
Yasar Iscan, Susan Loth.
California State U.- Fullerton.
Faculty: Judy Suchey.
California State U.- Chico.
Faculty: Turhon Murad, P. Willey.
University of Wyoming. Faculty:
Good programs can be found at too many other colleges to list.
Here at the University of Montana - Missoula, I teach one class
in forensic anthropology. We offer B.A. and M.A. degrees in
anthropology. Both our undergraduate and graduate programs focus
on offering a rounded, 4-field approach to anthropology. Although
some of my graduate students do their thesis on a subject related
to forensic anthropology, I can not honestly say that our program
is very good. Our main problem is that we have only a very small
forensic collection, so students have to find collections to work
with somewhere else.
Most people take the third route and pursue a forensic career as
a general laboratory technician. A good list of colleges offering
graduate and undergraduate programs in forensic science can be
http://www.eskimo.com/~spban/fse.html. The following are my
suggestions for the type of course work that would best help you
in preparing for forensic lab tech jobs. They are based on my
personal experience applying for jobs, advice from crime lab
personnel, and examination of job advertisements. It would be
impossible to take all these courses, but the more you can take,
the better. There is no ideal sequence of courses, nor is there
an ideal blend of courses.
Essential Skills and Knowledge:
I recommend the following courses at UM-Missoula. Equivalents can be
found at most colleges and universities.
science jobs require 20 to 30 semester credits of chemistry.
- General Chem: CHEM 161, 162, 164, 165 OR 151, 152, 154.
- Organic Chem: CHEM 261, 262, 263, 264 OR 221, 222, 223.
- Quantitative/Instrumental Analysis: CHEM 341, 342, 348,
465. This is the real "meat" of forensic science. Take as many as you possibly
- Physical Chemistry: CHEM 371 OR 370.
- Molecular/Cell Biology: Biology 221 & 222.
- Anatomy and Physiology: Biology 212 & 213.
Microbiology 300 & 301; OR 302.
- Take as many classes as possible from criminology and criminal
justice classes such as
SOC 230, 235, 324, 330, 332, 333, 334, 335, 435, 438.
Other Useful Skills and Knowledge:
BIOC 481, 482, 485 OR 381, 382, 385.
- Electron Microscopy:
Biology 440 &
Anthropology: ANTH 464.
- Field Archaeology: At UM-Missoula take
- Clinical Diagnosis:
Microbiology 406 & 407.
- Computer literacy: At UM-Missoula take
Computer Science 111.
- Statistics: At UM-Missoula take
Math 344, 345, 347, 348.
PSYC 350, 351.
- Drugs: Pharmacy
110, 421, 422.
Hints and Tips
- People interested in a career in the forensic sciences should
regularly check the employment notices in Academy News, which is
a companion publication to the Journal of Forensic Sciences and
available at most libraries.
- Aspiring forensic anthropologists should join their local
forensic anthropology group. For the
western U.S. the relevant group is the Mountain, Desert, and
Coastal Society. Dues are $5/year and include a subscription
to the society newsletter, The Connective Tissue. Join by sending
$5 to Dr. Michael Finnegan, Osteology Lab, 204 Walters Hall,
Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506.
Last revised May 24, 1996 by Randy Skelton.
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