Mercyhurst University

Biological and Forensics Track


The Master of Science degree program in Anthropology, Forensic and Biological Anthropology concentration is focused on providing students with a comprehensive training regimen in the combined fields of forensic anthropology and biological anthropology. Students receive extensive training in the classroom, field and laboratory that allows them to be strongly competitive for Ph.D. programs in physical or biological anthropology, anatomy and biostatistics. The program is enhanced by the large amount of forensic casework opportunities the Department of Applied Forensic Sciences provides for students, which allow them to gain real first-hand experience in outdoor crime scene recoveries and analysis of recovered remains, skills that are expected of forensic anthropologists. Students are taught the importance of ethics in forensic science and the significance of their personal role in the forensic science community.

Educational Goals and Objectives

Forensic and Biological Anthropology Track Program Outcomes

Goal: Develop and master the principles and professional practices of Forensic and Biological Anthropology.

  • Competently and comprehensively document forensic context from a variety of outdoor forensic scenes.
  • Expertly analyze and interpret human skeletal remains.
  • Progress to advanced levels in the areas of skeletal biology, human anatomy, human growth and development, and human variation.
  • Proficiently process data utilizing univariate and multivariate statistical principles and analyses.
  • Critically analyze and knowledgeably utilize the historical, current, researched and published, topics in Biological and Forensic Anthropology.

Program Emphases

Forensic Archaeology:

Apply contemporary archaeological techniques during the identification, documentation, and collection of all outdoor forensic scenes, including surface scatters, buried body, fatal fire, and mass fatalities.

Critically evaluate the significance of in situ physical evidence at a variety of crime scenes.

Operate an electronic Total Station and Differential GPS unit.

Forensic Osteology:

Conduct themselves as expert osteologists with the ability to identify complete and fragmentary human remains, as well as distinguish human from non-human remains.

Estimate chronological age, sex, stature, and ancestry of human remains.

Understand the range of human variation and their associated evolutionary processes.

Skeletal Trauma Analysis:

Differentiate between antemortem, perimortem and postmortem skeletal trauma.

Provide biomechanical interpretations for traumatic forces producing defects in bones.

Forensic Taphonomy:

Interpret taphonomic modification of bones due to decomposition, heat alteration, water transport, burial factors and other enviornmental factors.

Biostatistics and Data Analysis:

Apply appropriate statistical techniques to the analysis of human skeletal remains.

Know how to properly use and apply the computer program FORDISC 3.0.

Understand rules of evidence and the basics of the American criminal justice system.

Understand the Daubert criteria as applied to the analysis of evidence and presentation in courts as well as its implications on expert witness testimony.

Critically evaluate literary sources for valid methodologies, appropriate results and applicability to topics under discussion.

Conduct research and investigation of human remains under the strict ethical guidelines currently in place in the disciplines of general science, forensic science, and forensic anthropology.

Degree Requirements

The curriculum is constructed so that full-time students will complete six required courses during the first year and seven required courses during the second year, most in a prescribed sequence. As such, students can only be admitted into the program beginning in the fall term. Selection of additional elective courses is encouraged within the context of the program. Students must obtain at least a B grade in each of the required courses. Any classes resulting in a C+ or C grade must be repeated. More than two C's in required courses will result in dismissal from the program. Students who earn a grade of B or higher in a repeated course will have their original grade replaced by a PASS on their transcript. The student will be allowed to retake only two courses and any D grade will also result in dismissal from the program. Students dropped from the program may petition for readmission after one year.

At the end of the first year, the student must take a two day comprehensive examination that is based on material covered in the first year required courses. Only students with a passing grade on this exam may enter into the second year of the program.

Students are also expected to develop a thesis topic approved by their advisor by the end of their first year. Work should begin during the summer after the first year and continue throughout the second year. The thesis must be completed within one year after the completion of course requirements. Each student’s research must contribute knowledge to the areas of forensic or biological anthropology, archaeology, or bioarchaeology. The final product must be submitted in a format suitable for publication in an approved journal or book.

Comprehensive Examination

One of the primary tools used to assess the assimilation of information presented in the curriculum of the first year of graduate study is the comprehensive examination. This examination is administered at the end of the first year of the program and consists of both written and practical components given over the course of two days. Students are tested in three main areas: forensic anthropology, forensic osteology, and biostatistics.

The first day of the examination lasts approximately eight to ten hours and is comprised of the written component of the test. This component will test the student’s knowledge of the history of the field, the current literature on forensic and biological anthropology, and the theories and standards relevant to these fields, supported by current and proper references. The second day of the comprehensive examination lasts approximately seven to eight hours and consists of three portions. The first tests the student’s knowledge of the statistical software program FORDISC 3.0. The second and third portions of the examination test the student’s practical abilities in forensic osteology, including identification of fragmentary human remains and non-human animal bones, as well as analysis of biological profile, taphonomy, and trauma.

Thesis Requirement

All students will be required to write a thesis. The topic of the thesis must be approved prior to the start of research and will focus on a topic within the purview of forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology, biological anthropology, or bioarchaeology. Student theses may also encompass other forensic sciences and aspects of forensic investigation (pending approval of a thesis topic).

Ideally, the student will narrow down his or her research during the first year of the program, and collect data the summer between the first and second years. It is expected that the student will be analyzing data during the second year and then writing and defending the thesis at the close of the second year or during the following summer. The preferred thesis product is a publishable article prepared for a recognized scientific journal.