How to Become a Forensic Nurse

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Forensic nursing—a growing career field at the intersection of medicine and law—is a specialty only recently recognized by the American Nurses Association (ANA). In fact, the ANA and the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) co-published the first standards and scope of practice guidelines for forensic nurses in 1997, outlining the necessary education, skills, and typical job responsibilities in this dynamic subfield which strives to accumulate evidence, counsel victims, and ultimately deliver justice to.

So what do these medical professionals do? The IAFN and ANA report that forensic nurses have a variety of roles, including caring for victims of traumatic violence; collecting evidence (e.g., photographs, blood, tissue samples); identifying types of injuries (e.g., trauma, neglect, accident, abuse, exploitation); creating educational programs; shaping public policy and research; liaising with law enforcement and medical personnel; providing consultation to victims and families; and acting as expert witnesses in courtrooms. These crucial functions require advanced instruction in the differentiation of disease and injury; pharmacology; pathophysiology; public health; criminology; mental health; traumatology; victimology; and ethics.

Since forensic nurses may work with victims of sexual assault or domestic violence, it can be a difficult (albeit rewarding) profession, requiring a mix of compassion and emotional fortitude in facing the uglier aspects of human behavior. Furthermore, they may choose to get more advanced training in areas including death investigations, risk management, bioterrorism, employee litigation, international civil rights, human trafficking, and other domains, working in a variety of settings such as hospitals, community centers, public health organizations, police departments, and shelters.

Career Outlook for Forensic Nurses

It is no secret to anyone who has researched growing careers that nurses are in high demand. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) indicates that the demand for registered nurses is expected to grow by 7 percent between 2019 and 2029—nearly double the expected average growth among all US occupations in that decade (4 percent). Those who go on to earn advanced degrees and become nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, or nurse-midwives can expect to enjoy a 45 percent growth rate over the same period of time.

Of course, the BLS statistics are for all nurses and not specific to the forensic specialty. Forensic nurses can certainly expect to reap at least some of the benefits of a high demand for nurses, including decreased competition for jobs, better salary prospects, and more options when it comes to work setting.

Forensic nursing can be a rewarding career for medical professionals not only due to the nature of the work but also monetarily. According to (2020), these professionals make an average annual salary of $65,047, with the majority making between $50,000 and $75,000.

Education and Professional Licensure Requirements for Forensic Nurses

Forensic nurses can fall into either of the two categories depending on their training and highest academic degree achieved. Registered nurses typically have at least an associate degree as well as professional licensure through their state board of nursing. Nurses with advanced degrees such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) may choose to become nurse practitioners, which involves its own licensing process.

No matter what level of nurse a forensic nurse wants to pursue, they will need to apply for licensure from their state board of nursing and meet all of that state’s requirements. Typically, at minimum nurses should expect to sit for the NCLEX exam, provide nursing education records, and submit to a background check as well as fingerprinting. More details on how to obtain nursing licensure are listed below.

In the forensic nursing specialty, there are also a number of certifications that are available although not legally required. The most common forensic nursing certification is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) offered by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN).

Steps to Becoming a Forensic Nurse

There are varied paths to becoming a forensic nurse. Some choose to receive their associate degree in nursing (ADN); obtain their registered nursing (RN) license; garner experience and specialized education in the field of forensics; and achieve an entry-level professional certification (e.g., SANE). Others, however, choose to push their degree and credentials to a more advanced level to enhance their candidacy for employment and salary prospects. Below is one possible path to becoming a forensic nurse.

  • Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years). Forensic nurses of all levels must graduate from high school or complete their GED. Prospective forensic nurses are advised to excel in courses such as chemistry, biology, physics, anatomy, and mathematics to enhance their college applications. At this stage, some students may even take an internship or volunteer through local programs at hospitals, police departments, or civic organizations.
  • Step 2: Attend an accredited bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program (four years). Although some aspiring forensic nurses choose to pursue an associate’s degree prior to earning their registered nursing (RN) license, it may be advisable to enroll in a four-year BSN program which has a number of advantages.

    First, BSN programs may provide a richer variety of classes including specialized instruction in forensic photography in a healthcare setting; courtroom testimony by a healthcare specialist; and forensic approaches to domestic violence. Second, professional certifications may require at least a master’s degree and getting a BSN fulfills many of the prerequisites of a graduate education in nursing. Above all, when seeking any college degree or certificate, prospective students are urged to verify the accreditation status of the program.

    There are various types of accreditations for forensic nursing schools. Two typical programmatic accrediting agencies are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. (ACEN).

    In addition to supervised clinical instruction, accredited BSN programs offer didactic courses such as health promotion across the lifespan; health assessment; principles of pharmacology; community & public health nursing; and more. One standout option is the Ball State University BSN program in Muncie, Indiana. This ACEN-accredited program provides various academic points-of-entry to accommodate applicants of differing levels of education and experience (e.g., entry-level, RN-prepared, non-nursing bachelor’s degree). Boasting a 94 percent pass rate among its graduates on the NCLEX-RN exam, Ball State provides specialized instruction in acute & chronic illnesses, methods of rehabilitation, and the foundation of leadership, as well as comprehensive exposure to an array of clinical settings.

    For candidates with bachelor’s degrees in another field, there are various “accelerated” BSN options such as the four-semester program at Duke University, comprising 58 credits of courses and almost 800 hours of clinical experience. With a unique focus on the evolving needs and technologies of modern healthcare, students are trained at multiple clinical sites with opportunities for international study. There are CCNE- and ACEN-accredited programs across the country, both online and on-campus. For more information on certificates and degrees in this field, please visit the forensic nursing schools page.

  • Step 3: Pass the NCLEX-RN exam (timeline varies). The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) provides the NCLEX-RN exam, the main certification for registered nurses (RNs). Since requirements to take the exam vary slightly by state, NCSBN encourages candidates to check with their local state board of nursing. This is a competitive exam, comprising computer adaptive testing (CAT) in four “client need categories” including safe & effective care management; health promotion and maintenance; psychosocial integrity; and physiological integrity. In 2020, 72.59 percent of all NCLEX-RN exam-takers passed (NCSBN).).
  • Step 4: Garner nursing experience in the field and additional education in forensic nursing (timeline varies). While some aspiring forensic nurses may be eager to jump into a graduate education, many people choose to garner RN experience and advance their specialized training through certificate programs or other opportunities. There is a variety of programs available to RNs to advance their preparation in the forensic subfield.

    For instance, the University of California—Riverside (UCR) offers an extension program in forensic nursing with instruction in forensic approaches to blunt force & firearm injuries; domestic violence; courtroom testimony; crime scene preservation; and clinical ethics. This program is open to RNs and other licensed medical professionals.

    Also, in a partnership with the American Institute of Forensic Education (AIFE), American Forensic Nurses (AMRN) has online professional development courses in sexual assault examinations, forensic wound recognition, evidence collection in the emergency department, and other topics relevant to the forensic nursing field. For more information on distance-based and brick-and-mortar forensic nursing certificates, check out the forensic nursing schools page.

  • Step 5: Get entry-level professional certification (timeline varies). At this stage, some candidates choose to pursue certification which can enhance a person’s employment prospects. For example, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) provides two sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) certifications: SANE-P (pediatric) and SANE-A (adults and adolescents). To become SANE certified, candidates must be RNs with at least two years of experience and 40 hours of classroom instruction. They must also pass a comprehensive exam which is offered twice annually (April and September). These certifications are valid for three years and can be renewed following the completion of 45 hours of continuing education.
  • Optional: Pursue a master’s degree in forensic nursing (two years). In order to reach the upper echelons of this field, prospective forensic nurses are encouraged to pursue a graduate education in the field. For additional online and on-campus graduate programs in forensic nursing, visit the forensic nursing education page.
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Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).