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Careers in Forensic Nursing – Education, Salary & Job Outlook Guide

Forensic nurses are an essential part of forensic investigations. These specially trained nurses are highly skilled healthcare providers with specialized training and experience in caring for victims and assisting with criminal investigations.

In addition, forensic nurses provide physical evidence reports to assault and accidental death cases. By collecting and preserving evidence after traumatic events, forensic nurses can care for patients’ immediate medical needs and bring perpetrators of physical sexual assault crimes to justice with irrefutable DNA evidence.

The majority of a forensic nurse’s time is spent in a hospital setting, often in an emergency room. The work can be chaotic and can be mentally and emotionally draining. Helping victims of sexual assault and partner violence can be heartwrenching, yet also rewarding in helping people give voice to their experiences to lessen future crimes and bring perpetrators to justice.

Forensic nurses will spend time working with law enforcement, other nurses, and doctors. However, they will spend quite a large chunk of time working with actual victims, collecting evidence, speaking with them about their ordeal, and helping to support them. They may measure wounds, take photos, and take tissue or blood samples as official evidence in a criminal investigation.

The number of forensic nurses is growing to meet public health demands. In 2020, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) received 1,028 applications for certification; a 14 percent increase between 2019 and 2020 and a record all-time high for the organization (IAFN 2020). The IAFN offers two Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certifications for nurses working with adults, adolescents, and children and in 2020, 2,136 nurses held one or both of these qualifications (IAFN 2020).

With experience and certification in forensic nursing, registered and advanced practice nurses can find work in this unique and specialized field of nursing. Read on to learn more about forensic nurse salary data, education requirements, and career outlook.

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Forensic Nursing Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) combines forensics nursing and other nursing subfields. For all registered nurses (a prerequisite to becoming a forensic nurse), the BLS predicts a growth rate of 7 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average for all professions during the same decade (4 percent). At this pace, 221,900 new jobs are expected to be added in the same decade.

As stated above, in 2020, the IAFN certified 2,136 forensic nurses although registered nurses need not be certified in order to qualify for these positions. Based on these occupational growth trends for RNs, it’s safe to assume there will be positions available for virtually every type of nursing specialty. Job opportunities in the forensic nursing field are likely to be robust for those who want to pursue the career path.

The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) is a professional organization that represents forensic nurses and complementary professions. In addition to providing continuing education and professional development opportunities, the IAFN offers two Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certifications: SANE-A (adult/adolescents)and SANE-P (pediatrics/adolescents).

Forensic Nurse Salary – How Much Do Forensic Nurses Make?

Although there are many reasons to pursue a career in forensic nursing, a stable and comfortable salary is undoubtedly one of them. Again, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data is only available for all registered nurses but can still be helpful in estimating the expected salary for a forensic nurse. The average salary for registered nurses in 2020 was $80,010 annually (BLS May 2020) with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $53,410
  • 25th percentile: $61,630
  • 50th percentile (median): $75,330
  • 75th percentile: $93,590
  • 90th percentile: $116,230

As with most jobs, a forensic nurse’s salary will vary considerably based on several different factors, mainly that nurse’s training and experience. The cost of living in the location of the position is an important factor and higher salaries often correlate with higher costs of living. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) offers a cost-of-living index to help job seekers make informed decisions about how far their money can go in a particular area.

Here are five of the top-paying states for registered nurses (BLS May 2020):

  • California: $120,560 (annual mean wage)
  • Hawaii: $104,830
  • Massachusetts: $96,250
  • Oregon: $96,230
  • Alaska: $95,270

The BLS also shows the top-paying industries for registered nurses (BLS 2020):

  • Business and support services: $106,670
  • Federal executive branch (OEWS designation): $96,230
  • Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $92,110
  • Other investment pools and funds: $91,990
  • Office administrative services: $89,490

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Becoming a nurse in any specialty requires dedication and hard work,, as well as years of education. Since forensic nursing is a specialized type of nursing, those interested in the career should be prepared to pursue even more training. The following is the most common path taken by new forensic nurses.

Step 1: Graduate high school (four years) – A high school diploma or GED is required to enter an undergraduate nursing program. Students in high school should do their best to excel in science courses such as biology and chemistry to set themselves up for success.

Step 2: Pursue an undergraduate degree (two to four years) – Registered nurses must have an undergraduate degree to be eligible for RN status. While some nurses have only an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), others choose to earn a bachelor’s degree, either in nursing (BSN) or another area such as biology.

A bachelor’s degree typically requires four years to complete, while an associate’s degree can be completed in less time. However, a BSN does make a nurse eligible for more jobs over time.

Step 3: Become a registered nurse (less than one year) – After graduating from college, nurses must sit for the NCLEX exam. Upon completing this exam, nurses will apply for licensing through their state board of nursing. It is important to note that nurse eligibility requirements vary by state, so new RNs should be sure to investigate the requirements in the state where they plan to work.

Step 4: Explore clinical practice (at least two years) – RNs should work in a clinical setting for at least two years before pursuing the forensic specialty. To be eligible for future certification, they should work in an environment that involves thorough physical examinations, such as an emergency room or trauma department.

Step 5: Complete forensic nursing training (40 hours) – Assuming a forensic nurse wants to earn the most common forensic nursing certification, they must complete at least 40 hours of training specific to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) role. There are also other specializations available and are outlined in the next section.

Step 6: Begin clinical forensic nursing practice (at least 300 hours) – Upon completing the classroom training, nurses can practice in the specialty in a clinical setting. Nurses must complete at least 300 hours of this training for a maximum of three years to be eligible for SANE certification. However, other specialties will have different requirements.

Step 7: Earn forensic nursing certification – While professional certification is not a legal requirement for nurses working in the forensic specialty, certification such as the SANE certification program through the IAFN can help demonstrate one’s expertise to potential employers and ultimately career advancement.

There is no quick path to a forensic nursing career. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least two more years in school, plus a minimum of two years gaining clinical experience before they are able to specialize. While earning an advanced degree is not a requirement for this type of work, many nurses do go on to pursue a master’s degree or a doctoral-level degree to further their careers.

Forensic Nursing Specialities

Though all forensic nurses will work with victims of crimes, there are specializations within the field. As alluded to above, the most common specialization within forensic nursing is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). These nurses treat and examine victims of sexual assaults, including completing rape kit exams. This work can be emotionally trying,, and nurses wanting work in this field should be exceptionally patient and compassionate.

Forensic nurses may also work as death investigators, which means working alongside medical examiners or coroners to determine the cause of death in cases where there is a suspicion of foul play. In addition, a nurse death investigator may have to visit crime scenes and attend autopsies. This specialization has its challenges but like forensic nursing, can also be quite rewarding.

Forensic Nursing Tasks and Responsibilities

Anyone entering forensic nursing should have a good idea of some of the skills they should have and develop. The field demands high levels of professional integrity. Forensic nurses need to be very detail-oriented, have critical thinking skills, and exhibit a compassionate demeanor with traumatized patients. They often work with people in various stages of shock, so patience and diligence are essential.

Forensic nurses also must have exceptional communication skills as they ask victims to relive traumatic details, perform medical exams on traumatized people, and communicate with medical professionals, law enforcement, and other victims or witnesses to crimes.

Leveraging these essential skills helps forensic nurses to complete daily tasks such as:

  • Assessing and treating injuries in patients who may have been victims of crimes
  • Gathering evidence from patients, including physical evidence, biological evidence, and photographs
  • Maintaining chain of custody while sending evidence to appropriate labs
  • Making and report observations about patient behavior that may be relevant to an investigation
  • Reporting potential crimes to law enforcement while respecting patient privacy laws
  • Delivering expert testimony in court

Licensure & Certification for Forensic Nurses

All states require that registered nurses have a nursing license that is valid in that state. Upon graduation from nursing school, the nurse needs to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing to apply for licensure. While requirements vary by state, aspiring nurses should expect to submit an application and be fingerprinted and subject to a background check.

As mentioned above, the most common certification for the forensic nurse is the SANE designation, which is available from the IAFN. An RN must take an approved course and complete at least 300 hours of training to be eligible for the SANE exam and certification. Nurses may choose to be certified as a SANE-A (for adult and adolescent patients), a SANE-P (for pediatric and adolescent patients), or they can earn both certifications.

Not all forensic nursing is specific to sexual assault. For those nurses looking for a different type of certification, there are also these options:

  • Forensic Nurse Specialist – Offered through the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP), this certification requires nurses to complete five online courses successfully before applying for certification. Continuing education is also needed to maintain one’s status.
  • Death Investigation Certification – Forensic nurses who work primarily in death investigation, may be eligible for certification through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). The death investigation certification is available to anyone working in a medical examiner or coroner’s office who conducts death scene investigations and has at least 640 hours of experience doing so.

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).