Questions to Remember when Considering a Human Osteology Postgraduate Course

8 Jan

This post is a follow-up the now-updated Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses In The UK post that I produced last year (which is kept up to date, so please leave a comment below or email me if you know of any courses that should be added).  Whereas that post dealt with the cold hard facts of which universities in the UK offer human osteology courses this post will deal with you, the student.  The post is aimed at those who are interested in pursing a master’s degree in human osteology, either as a Masters of Science or a Masters of Art, as it is at this level that the course goes into the depth of detail needed to either go into research or into commercial archaeology.  I believe that it is vital that you know the course that you want to go on but that you also know the reputation of the department, what the course offered entails and what your prospects are job-wise after you have completed the course.  As this post is aimed at universities within the UK bare in mind that travel distances are fairly minimal compared to continental Europe or elsewhere, however the pound is a fairly strong currency and, as such, it can be expensive to live here.

So without further ado I present here a quick list of thoughts* to think about before you apply for a course in human osteology.  Please bare in mind that although this post has been produced with the UK in mind it can, or could, be applicable for any other country where the student is considering applying for a master’s degree in human osteology.


1) Think Carefully Before Committing

Pursing a masters course in human osteology is not a course to be taken lightly as it will incur a significant financial commitment, both for the course itself and for the accommodation and living costs whilst studying for the degree.  It pays to think carefully about your interest in a specific specialist course in archaeology and whether you could make a career from it or not, therefore it is worth seeking advice out whilst at the undergraduate stage.  Further to this it is wise to remember that many universities will want to see a 2.1 Upper Second Class degree attained at the undergraduate level whilst some courses do preferably ask for 1st class degrees before being considered for a Master’s program.

However, stating that, experience and knowledge can count for an awful lot, especially demonstrable knowledge and experience (i.e. volunteering or working for an archaeological unit).  By taking the time and effort to gain excavation and post-excavation experience (especially bone processing) it will show determination and a willing effort to learn on your behalf.  A final piece of advice for this part is to be honest with yourself regarding what your options are.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are available as a full-time course only, although a select few have been known to offer them as part-time courses.  It is always worth asking the course director for further information.

2) Know The Courses On Offer

It always pays to be informed of archaeology departments that offer human osteology as a taught or research Master’s.  There will be certain criteria which will impose limits on the options of courses available to you, whether they are imposed by outside factors or factors of your own choosing.  Necessarily the list will often include financial cost, travel times and extent of knowledge of academic universities.  I would heavily advise that you spend time reading through departmental literature to get a feeling for each academic course under consideration, and to make a note of the facilities that each department has.  A great way for feeling what the strengths of a department are is by looking at past research topics (in the form of dissertations) and by looking carefully at the modular choices on offer.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, isolate what you most want out of such a degree, what your research interests are and what department can best serve you.  Different courses have different focuses, for example the University of Durham’s MSc in Palaeopathology course specifically focuses on trauma and pathology in the human skeleton, whilst the University of Exeter’s MSc in Bioarchaeology course focuses on a range of topics in biological archaeology, including plant and animal remains.

Remember to also consider the course director and associated teaching staff research interests as they may correlate with yours, which would be beneficial.  Pertinent questions to consider are:

Does the department have the technical expertise or the right equipment on hand or on site?

Does the department have a fully kitted out human osteology lab or will you be cramped for space?

Would you have access to the human osteology lab at all hours or only during week days?

What modules does the course offer and what modules are core or free selective choices?

What scholarships or funds are available for you to apply for?

When this has been considered I would email the course director with a few basic questions pertaining to how successful the course is, success rate of employment afterwards, and by directly asking what the strengths of the course are.  You will need to be careful in keeping the email concise, polite and straight-forward as course directors are usually busy people!  Further to this I heavily advise emailing a current student of the course or a PhD research student, politely asking questions directly on what their views are of the masters course and of the department as a whole.  This will bring you a generally much more honest answer from someone who is not tied down to the department directly.  You can also get in touch with people from the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources group at their forums or the Facebook group and as k the great British archaeological hive mind for advice and experience.

3) Attend Open Days

Be aware that when emailing staff members and research students it may take some time for a response, be patient as they are often very busy people dealing with a wide range of pressures and deadlines.  Once you have narrowed down the course wish list I would advise attending a departmental open day to see for yourself what the atmosphere is like.  Are the staff friendly?  Ask the staff questions and do not be afraid to mention your interests and any considerations you are having.  If you can attend open days try to see each university that interests you, and even some that don’t quite offer the course you want but offer interesting alternatives.  You never know what actually attending a university open day will quite be like, and it could lead you down a research alley or area of interest that you had not considered before.

4) Decision Time

Having isolated the university courses of interest, emailed course directors and current student,s and having toured various university departments and campuses, you are now in a good position to be able to select at human osteology course that you want to pursue.  This is the period where you get to sell yourself to the department by highlighting how attractive you are as a future student for their department.  Also be aware that you are paying money to attend a course and to receive tuition.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are taught at internationally recognised institutions, some of which have set the bar for how the courses should be taught.  Remember however that times change, get views now on what is happening in the department, what changes are expected to come and what resources will be available for the foreseeable future.

It also pays to remember that it does not have to one university specifically, pick a range of 3 or 4 ideal universities that offer courses that you are interested, maybe even pick 3 different ones that offer different aspects of the topic that the others do not.  I personally picked the University of Sheffield for my choice of human osteology courses specifically because it was the only program that offered human dissection in a separate human anatomy module, whilst also offering 3 modules on human osteology and biological anthropology.  However I also liked the look of the University of Exeter’s bioarchaeology course because it offered modules in palaeobotany and zooarchaeology (which I thought could have been beneficial on the job market), whilst still offering the chance to specialise in human osteology.

5) Application Time

It is easy to get carried away with the personal statement during the application process and, in truth, it is not really a personal statement at all.  Be concise and professional, try not mention the course director too much (I cringe when I recall my personal statement!), and be confident to mention your previous experience but also your future research ideas and academic strengths.  If you can add something that will stand out amongst the competition then do it.  It is worth mentioning here that it is probably best to apply for more than one course, even if you already have a place at another university.  Be aware that you may receive a conditional or a none-conditional offer, conditional offers are normally given to those students that have yet to finish their undergraduate degrees.  Remember that if you are dead set on pursuing a masters in human osteology and have yet to finish your undergraduate degree aim for a 2.1 or a 1st.  However try not to pressure yourself too much as you can always apply at a later date, when you have more experience.  Completing a masters now is no shortcut to a job and, in fact, in archaeology it is becoming almost the norm for many graduate to go on to complete a masters in an archaeological topic before working in the field.


*This is just a quickly compiled guide to how to approach the best choice masters based on what I went through, feel free to mix it up!

Further Information

  • My blog entry on all known human osteology MSc and MA courses and short courses available in the UK.  Please contact me at thesebonesofmine at if you would like a course added to the list.

14 Responses to “Questions to Remember when Considering a Human Osteology Postgraduate Course”

  1. archaeotutor January 8, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    I think this is all very practical advice. I did my MA in Osteoarchaeology at Southampton. It was a good course with respected lecturers that allowed me to do both human osteology and zooarchaeology modules. Something I personally found beneficial because even though I eventually went more into the zooarch line, my PhD required me to be comfortable with both sets of literature.

    One question I would consider asking if I were doing that time again is: how much practical lab time is there? Not just the stuff on the timetable, but also how easy is it to gain access even outside the timetabled workshops? The study of bones, whether they be human or animal, is very hands on, in my opinion. To be confident, you need to handle assemblages and see as many different species/variations/pathologies etc as possible. Book study and lectures alone just won’t give you that. The more practical sessions the course allows for and the easier it is to have access outside timetabled practicals to do your own study, the better.

    • These Bones Of Mine January 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm #

      I completely agree with that and had forgotten it in the list! Yes, I have taken part in a short course on zooarchaeology and gladly would again as I think it is vital to be able to tell species apart, and it gives you much more professional scope.

      Yes, I should have stated about lab time as it really is vitally important. For me that is why the Sheffield course was so good, we were allowed into the lab any time practically – it is where we spent all of the first semester pretty much! That and the range of modules allowed us to get close and attached to the bones. I am aware that some courses only have minimal access to such labs and that is a great shame. Thanks for the helpful comment and good to hear your views!

      • Jamie Kendrick March 8, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

        Technical expertise and equipment is an issue I would give MUCH greater consideration to now if I was in the position of a prospective postgraduate. I was always interested in the genetics side which is something that the Sheffield programme offers no exposure to. This is not to fault my course, it was everything it said it was. Unfortunately some of my course mates were not impressed with the facilities on offer, or rather the facilities that were available for use by Masters students. I had no idea there was a CT scanner on the ground floor!

        How would you rate your experience at Sheffield? Was it everything you expected it to be? Did the course content live up to its billing in terms of teaching and research opportunities?

        • These Bones Of Mine March 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

          Same here, especially in the training of chemical methods and access to hardware and resources. No, the masters computer room is actually non accessible for me in the wheelchair (never attempted it on crutches), and the osteo research lab was quite small. Intrigued to see how it is now with a third online osteo course and how cramped it is or isnt. They got a portable x ray machine whilst I was there, but a CT scanner!? Really!? that is amazing if there is one. Is it for materials science?

          I’ve wrote a few times about studying at sheffield and what I’d do definitely (this post being a new reflective one) but I’ve also wrote a small post here: though it is not very detailed. The best thing, by far for me, was the gross anatomical dissection we got to do. It did but I wish we had more time, the UK masters goes by so quickly, and when I look at other countries who have 2 or 3 years, and then PhD programs which can last a lot longer I start thinking is the UK version rushed? Did I learn enough? Did I spend enough time in the lab? What about commercial/business osteo? What about all these other facets of archaeology? But the course was good, I was largely happy with it.

  2. Jamie Kendrick March 9, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Ah maybe it was an X-Ray machine, I didn’t feel confident writing that, CTs after all are a hefty price and the department has no money! Still, the X-Ray was not advertised and unknown to me. Didn’t realise there was a new online course, intriguing – is this the future of teaching?! Certainly there is no substitute to hands-on anatomy and osteology like you say, what a privelege and fantastic experience!

    One year was intensive but thoroughly enjoyable, I agree. Surely it’s advantageous to be a year ahead academically, even if there is the threat of burnout. I’ll check out your other post now!

    • These Bones Of Mine March 9, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

      Ah sorry I meant online as in live (the osteoarch course which deals with human/animal remains), not on the web! Yes, really is no substitute for actually getting your hands on the material and studying it.

      Hmm that is pretty annoying, thought it would have been, especially to palaeoanthro people. Yes, that is true, but I just wish we could have covered a few things in more details (stats!). Thanks, the other post is a shorter summing up after finishing the course.

  3. Kristin February 14, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi there! I discovered your blog not too long ago while doing some research on postgrad programs and I have to say I am throughly enjoying your posts! Very accessible and excellent information provided. I will be starting my MA in Human Osteology at UCC in the fall and I cannot wait. Thanks for all the information you provide and I look forward to discovering more with you blog.

    • These Bones Of Mine February 14, 2017 at 5:55 pm #

      Hi Kristin,

      No worries, I am very glad that you find the posts accessible and full of information, that is exactly what I am aiming for! Good luck with your course in Human Osteology at UCC, please do feel free to let me know how it goes!


    • Amanda Anderson February 16, 2017 at 1:44 am #


      I will also be attending UCC for Human Osteoarchaeology! I found this blog while researching my options, as well, and absolutely loved it!
      I’ll see you in the fall!


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