60 Second Interview: Forensic anthropologist


Forensic anthropology lab

Catriona grew up around doctors but always knew she didn't want to study medicine. When she heard about forensic anthropology, she knew it was the perfect career for her. Whether it's teaching students or helping the police to identify skeletons, a 'typical' day in the life of a forensic anthropologist can be anything but! 

Catriona tells us how she became involved in forensic anthropology and why you need to be really dedicated in order to succeed. 

Name: Dr Catriona DaviesDr Catriona Davies Forensic Anthropology Lecturer

Company: Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, University Of Dundee

Industry: Science and Research

What is your job? Lecturer in Forensic Anthropology

How long have you worked here? 8 months

Education: BSc and PhD in Forensic Anthropology at University of Dundee; Scottish advanced highers - French and biology; Scottish highers: French, biology, history, English, modern studies

1. What was your very first job?

My very first (ever) job was a Saturday job, working in a local farm shop on the West coast of Scotland.

2. What did you want to do when you were at school?

When I was at school, my choice of career varied between going to university to study law, becoming an officer in the Royal Navy, and studying a science-based subject at university

3. How did you find out about the industry?

Having grown up around doctors, as a child I was very aware of forensic medicine and pathology, but I also knew I did not want to study medicine. When I was in fourth year at high school, an admissions representative from Dundee University came to give a careers presentation and mentioned the new BSc honours programme in Forensic Anthropology. After some research, it was clear that this was the career path for me. 

4. How did you get there?

After hearing about the BSc honours programme, I researched the entry requirements to decide which subjects I needed to study for my higher exams. As there was no requirement to study higher mathematics, I made the decision to swap this subject for higher history.

Although it may seem a little strange to study a subject like history when wishing to pursue a science degree at university, the skills in researching, critically analysing and writing extended answers were certainly useful during the application process.

I received an unconditional offer to study BSc (hons) Forensic Anthropology in March 2006, and started my undergraduate degree in September of that year.

After the hard work of my undergraduate degree, I continued to study in the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID), initially undertaking a Masters by Research which was then transferred to a PhD in September 2011.

I graduated from my PhD in November 2013 and after a brief spell at the University of Leeds, I returned to CAHID to work as a lecturer in Forensic Anthropology. 

5. What is a typical day like?

A typical working day for me begins around 8am, catching up on emails or paperwork from the previous day and doing final preparation for that day’s teaching. This year, I will spend between two and four hours teaching each day. 

I am the programme leader for the MSc Forensic Anthropology degree at the University of Dundee and lead a number of modules that are delivered across our MSc and final year BSc (hons) Forensic Anthropology degree programmes. So part of my day will normally be spent updating the resources for students on these courses, marking their assessments or providing feedback.

In addition to my lecturing role, I am also a certified forensic anthropologist. On a typical day, this will mean responding to emails from police officers regarding bones that have been found, usually by people walking their dogs or digging up their gardens, and informing them whether the bone is from a human skeleton or from an animal.

This is part of a service officially called the Virtual Anthropology Consultancy Service, colloquially known as the “bones service”. We respond to emails from all UK police forces, including those in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, Bailiwick of Guernsey and States of Jersey. 

A typical working day for me ends around 6pm, although I will frequently work beyond this, either at the office or when I get home where marking or feedback needs to be finished.

The typical day for a university lecturer in forensic anthropology is no different to any other university lecturer — but the extraordinary days are just that: extraordinary. 

6. What’s the best thing about your job?

Without a doubt, the best thing about my job is the people that I get to work with and meet, including both our students and staff. The job can be very stressful, for students during exam times to staff during busy periods, or as a result of forensic casework. Without the people that we have working together, it would not be possible.

7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?

There are lots of challenging aspects of my job, both as a lecturer and as a forensic practitioner. The most challenging aspect is maintaining a work/life balance.

It is the nature of both lecturing and working in forensic practice, that those who are involved are extremely dedicated to their work. You have to be in order to succeed. The downside of this is that you can lose the balance between work life and home life. This is a challenge that we all have to deal with, and some are better at it than others. 

8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?

As with any scientific discipline, to pursue a career in forensic anthropology, you need to have a solid foundation in biological science. At school, this means taking biology and chemistry. And at university this could mean taking a first degree in human biology, human anatomy or one of the available undergraduate programmes in forensic anthropology. This can be supplemented by postgraduate study in forensic anthropology through taught or research streams. 

Aside from the academic aspects, there are a number of traits that are common all people who work in the forensic sciences, including forensic anthropology: determination, dedication, integrity, honesty and teamwork.

It is vital that you have the determination to succeed, it will help to sustain you through the difficult times. You have to be honest, with yourself and with others. Building your CV to include activities that allow you to develop and show these characteristics may be beneficial.

If you choose to pursue a career in forensic anthropology, it is important to be aware of the challenges that you will face during your education or your working life. As a discipline that focuses on the examination and analysis of human remains, you must be aware that you will be faced with situations that are potentially stressful or traumatising.

Your teachers will try to introduce this to you in a controlled, clinical manner, giving to time to process your thoughts and feelings, but it is important to realise that this job and the stresses that accompany it, are not for everyone. 

9. What things do you wish you’d known before starting your career?

There are not many things that I wish I had known before starting my career, other than the importance of maintaining a life outside work. It is very easy to become consumed by your work and very difficult to break the habit of long working days once it is established. 

10. Where would you like to be in 5 years?

In 5 years, I would like to be a senior lecturer in forensic anthropology at the University of Dundee and a Certified Forensic Anthropologist Level I. 

If you're interested in science and have a determined nature like Catirona, why not find out more about careers in Science and Research

Image credits


Courtesy of Dr Davies



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