SYWTBA: Become a Forensic Anthropologist

buried skull and bones

So you want to be a forensic anthropologist? Read part one of our comprehensive guide to getting ahead.

A lot of us grew up watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on TV, and as we carefully observed our heroes dig through the buried evidence and discover the secrets that lead to another bad guy going to prison, we all thought: “that’s what I want to do!”

 

How do we get there?

In reality, more schools are offering programs in crime scene investigation, and in some disciplines, more job opportunities are opening, especially with the rapid introduction of new technologies like DNA sequencing and thermal imaging radar. At its core, forensic anthropology is a set of studies merging many aspects of science. To be a successful specialist, be prepared for a long education. If you begin to apply yourself in high school (secondary school or college), you will be able to specialize sooner in undergraduate studies, but once you have your Bachelor’s degree, you must continue to learn, and specialize in the area that interests you the most as you earn your Masters and/or your PhD degree.

 

Do you have what it takes?

Before you even consider the years of study, you should consider a few important questions. Since many cases you will encounter as a trained forensic practitioner will include visits to ghastly and disturbing crime scenes, can you put aside the sights and smells of rotting flesh, burned bodies, pools of blood and inhumanity that will be a commonplace occurrence?  Can you look at the torn body of an innocent person and put aside your emotions in order to concentrate on close inspection, evidence gathering and determining a cause of death?

There is a big difference between watching TV CSIs, knowing that the bodies are either wax models or made up actors, and seeing, smelling and touching the real thing. And there is no way to prepare yourself until you have been with one.

 

The nerd patrol: facing your classes

High school or secondary school students determined to follow the path of Gus Grissom and Sarah Sidel (of the fictional Las Vegas Crime Lab on TV) will find that organized classes in forensics are simply not readily available.  However, since specialized college courses will be based on science, students might load up their schedule with courses in biology, chemistry, anatomy and physics.  All of these are the basic classes that form the foundation of a forensic course of study. Their additional benefits? Learning good habits by practising the scientific method and proper lab techniques.

Another important course to take, if it is offered in your school, would be anthropology: the study of human culture, interaction, growth and psychology. This subject group interrelates with biology, chemistry and the social sciences as well.

Very few high schools have police academies; those are usually vocational schools off the pathway to higher education. To acquire an introduction to forensic (legal) perspectives, many high schools in the United States have an extracurricular cadet program in cooperation with the local police force, which would enable a committed student to observe and learn about police procedure, including evidence handling and chain of custody.

 

Connecting the dots: no longer a child’s game

If your science teacher understands that your goal is towards a forensic science career, ask for some lab experiments to be oriented towards discovering what happens to organic matter when it is distressed in unusual ways.  Physics applies in how bones bend and break and a simple lesson could be developed using chicken bones and a torque meter.  Wouldn’t it be fun to find out how bone cells enter and ‘clean up’ and injury in a fracture, and isn’t it interesting that other bone cells enter the wound and deposit osteoid, which eventually fills the cracks and ossifies and calcifies? This is pure biology, and the calcification process is simple chemistry.

While you may not get to actual, living bone experiments until you reach college, there are many elementary experiences that will not only provide a strong basic understanding of science, but by doing the research, following scientific principles, learning to make hypotheses and draw conclusions, allow you to develop a superb level of comprehension as well as an active and inquiring scientific mind. These are both qualities that will serve you well as you advance in your education and establish your career.

 

A kindred spirit guide: a counselor who can point the way

It is important that you explain to your high school counselor as soon as you can that your intention is to follow a path towards forensic science or anthropology, more specifically. They are qualified to show you what classes will give you the boost you need. More importantly, your counselor can provide a list of colleges and universities which have comprehensive courses in forensics.

 

It’s getting intense: your college career

In the next two chapters of SYWTB: Become a Forensic Anthropologist, we will discuss the undergraduate programs, specialization decisions and the advanced degrees necessary to continue your path to enlightenment.  And then – the icing on the cake – employment opportunities!

 
Your Turn: What kind of advice would you like us to give in our next installment? Not so keen on a career in forensic anthropology and want to see a bit about another profession? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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