Non-Academic Careers in Physical Anthropology

Text by the Career Development Committee of the AAPA


The links I have inserted are not necessarily definitive, nor endorsed by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists; they take you to sites that help illustrate the topic, that's all. Caveat emptor!


The purpose of this brochure is to inform physical anthropology graduate students of career opportunities in non-academic settings. In a concern with the future professional careers of students completing their graduate educations in physical anthropology (particularly at the doctoral level), the American Association of Physical Anthropologists has established a standing committee devoted to career development. This brochure is one of the Committee's educational efforts to inform the student constituency of the Association as to the nature and diversity of professional careers in addition to those in anthropology departments in colleges and universities.

There are many academic careers for appropriately trained physical anthropologists. In addition to the most traditional, that of faculty member of an anthropology department, they involve academic affiliations with community colleges and a number of different non-anthropology academic units within four year colleges and universities. These include medical schools; indeed, currently one in eight American physical anthropologists has some formal professional affiliation with a medical school, most frequently in departments of anatomy. Departments of genetics, zoology, and biological sciences are also logical academic units in which one might find physical anthropologists.

This brochure focuses on non-academic careers in applied anthropometry (public and private sectors), epidemiology, museums, zoological gardens, and forensic anthropology. There are a great many other non-academic professional careers available for appropriately trained individuals possessing graduate degrees in physical anthropology. Included are positions on the staffs of hospitals, regional primate centers, and private biomedically oriented research laboratories, to name just a few.

In order to gain a comprehensive appreciation of the non-academic affiliations of physical anthropologists, and non-anthropology academic affiliations of those employed in colleges and universities, a perusal of the annual membership directory of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists is highly informative. Typically, that directory is part of the December issue of each year's edition of the American journal of Physical Anthropology.


The number of individuals involved in private sector engineering anthropometry is relatively small, not due to a lack of need but by default. While career opportunities exist in the aerospace industry and with private consulting firms, other professionals trained in such fields as psychology, human engineering, and biomechanics have entered it. There are neither structured courses nor a specific study track for students interested in private sector careers in applied anthropometry.

The following academic preparation is suggested at the graduate level. Take as much course work outside of anthropology as possible; in the medical/ health field, courses such as gross anatomy, genetics, nutrition, biostatistics, and epidemiology are very helpful. Engineering schools offer statics, dynamics and biomechanics, and human engineering (sometimes offered in psychology). Courses in kinesiology and body composition are also valuable. Generally, the stronger one's mathematics and science background, the better the opportunities for employment.

In the private sector, the physical anthropologist often works with engineers and designers and the more broadly trained one is, the easier it is to work with them. Above all, the physical anthropologist must be thoroughly grounded in the physical and life sciences early in his/her training. Additional useful skills include photography (still and video) for research documentation, proposal and report preparation, computers and programming, and accounting and management.


A prime requisite for pursuing a career in public sector applied anthropometry is measurement experience. Prior experience doing anthropometry of living subjects is most advantageous, although such training is not always readily available within anthropology graduate programs. It is possible to augment an anthropology curriculum with anthropometry courses from such other university departments as nutrition or physical education. While an individual interested in pursuing a career in applied anthropometry may lack extensive anthropometry training, measurement experience acquired through the analysis of skeletal material may partially offset the deficiency.

In addition to measurement experience, an individual seeking a career in public sector applied anthropometry could greatly enhance his/her employment opportunities with a sound working knowledge of statistics. This skill and the ability to manipulate data with computer proficiency enhance one's marketability considerably.

Interpersonal communication skills are crucial, particularly in government work, where situations frequently arise wherein the researcher must formally and/or informally discuss ongoing programs with others. Thus, teaching experience and the presentation of research at professional meetings are both invaluable assets to public sector careers in applied anthropometry, as is the ability to effectively communicate in writing. Technical writing must be learned through extensive experience or formal education. Coursework in technical writing is strongly recommended to the student interested in a career in public sector applied anthropometry. Other important training includes biology, anatomy, genetics, etc.


Museums, particularly museums of natural history, anthropology, archaeology, and science and technology, offer a number of employment possibilities for broadly trained physical anthropologists. The 1988 Official Museum Directory published by the American Association of Museums lists over 700 such institutions in the United States. Other categories of museums, such as university museums, academies and institutes, and general museums, may also have job possibilities for physical anthropologists.

The classic position for a physical anthropologist is a museum curator. However, such positions are few and exist in larger research institutions. Training for curatorial positions is the same as for academic positions in the same area of specialization. However, computer literacy for collection management and museum studies is useful, if not necessary.

Museums are very much involved with education, usually at secondary and primary school and adult levels, through on-site, outreach, traveling exhibit, and publication programs. Physical anthropologists, with their perspective on humans in the natural world, human biology, and hominid evolution, can be very effective museum education officers and coordinators.

Other positions in museums that graduate level physical anthropologists may contemplate are in exhibit development, registration and collection management, and publications. Museum administration, particularly as director of a smaller institution, is an employment possibility that is overlooked by many young job aspirants. Museum studies background and especially practical training as an intern are invaluable aids in applying for such positions.

Breadth of training is probably the key element in preparing for most museum positions in physical anthropology. Training in the natural sciences, especially anatomy, biology, geology, and paleontology for natural history museums, and in general anthropology for archaeology and anthropology museums, is essential.


Epidemiologists study disease frequency, distribution, and determinants in human populations. Physical anthropologists interested in non-academic careers in the field of epidemiology should have certain qualifications as a result of their graduate training. Quantification and measurement are central to careers in epidemiology. The ability to derive measurements, and record and analyze data should be a part of all training. Statistical, demographic and computer skills are also very helpful.

One should also be able to uniquely contribute to identifying subgroups of people at risk for disease. Anthropological/population genetics makes an important contribution to epidemiology; molecular biology is also becoming an increasingly important area. Anthropometric, nutritional, physiological and psychosocial dimensions of disease are important in the identification of individuals and groups at high risk for disease.

Training in analytical reasoning is especially useful in epidemiology for the critical review of the literature. Knowledge of research design, sampling procedures, and questionnaire development and administration are also important.

Physical anthropologists should have many skills for careers in the field of epidemiology. Methodological skills are extremely important; specific courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, and research methods are especially helpful. In pursuing graduate school in physical/medical anthropology, such training should enhance career opportunities in both non-academic and academic settings.

Teaching and research positions in medical schools and in schools of public health are also career options, as are positions in the public and private sectors. Positions in government are available at the local, state, federal and international levels. Private sector careers include consulting and positions in nursing homes and hospitals, to name a few.


Physical anthropologists with specialties in primate genetics, both population and molecular, and behavior have the most relevant qualifications for employment in zoos. Careers in zoological gardens fall into two main categories: research related to captive propagation of endangered species and collection management. Captive management plans for rare species are driven by genetic considerations, because the space available for propagation in zoological gardens is limited.

Training in primate behavior has relevance to two main career areas: reproductive studies and improved mental health. Behavioral aspects of reproduction cover the entire process from courtship to offspring rearing. Individuals with more advanced training will be stronger candidates for such employment. Regarding mental health, the utilization of behavioral expertise in identifying environmental sources of stress, in providing for relief from chronic understimulation, and in conditioning individuals for necessary handling routines are examples of ways in which the welfare of captive primates may be improved.

Staff positions for geneticists in zoos focus on the application of new technology (e.g., DNA fingerprinting) to the special problems of zoo populations or on the genetic management of small populations. A demonstrated awareness of the special problems of captive populations and experience in working on such problems are definite assets. It is not difficult for a graduate student in primate genetics to find an opportunity to study a zoobased population.

For behaviorists, the specialties that are most likely to be of interest to zoos lie in the area of developmental/environmental/reproductive studies. In all cases, a knowledge of physiology will increase employment prospects. Standard training in behavioral primatology as provided by most anthropology graduate programs is too narrow a base for employment in zoos. Typically, zoos employ a single behaviorist qualified to initiate research within each of the major vertebrate taxa.

Entry into the world of zoo behavioral research is abetted by early career involvement with zoo-based populations. The reality is that zoos need scientific approaches to animal management and propagation to a greater extent than most realize. Career opportunities can be enhanced by demonstrating the value of scientific approaches to these problems.


Medical examiners and coroners across the United States have recently become aware of the added values of having a forensic anthropologist on their staff. Forensic anthropologists are not only trained to identify skeletal material; some recent graduates have been hired to supervise morgue operations. Career opportunities exist within the national network of state and county medical examiners and coroners.

The Forensic Anthropology Program at the University of Tennessee has a semester training program in morgue management and operation in conjunction with the State Medical Examiner in Memphis. A graduate training program in forensic anthropology also exists at the University of Arizona.

The Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii has recently increased its staff of forensic anthropologists to aid in the identification of skeletal remains from Southeast Asia and the Pacific area. Non-academic positions for physical anthropologists trained in the forensic area are expanding. With population increases resulting in the rise of crime rates, the demand for physical anthropologists trained in human identification will also increase.

In addition to graduate coursework in skeletal biology and human anatomy, students interested in non-academic careers as forensic anthropologists should also receive training in archaeology field methods, legal evidence, pathology, criminalistics, and forensic laboratory methods (radiography, photography, etc.). Supervised casework and participatory membership in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences are also import ant in terms of professional development.

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