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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. Forensic nurses can care for patients’ immediate medical needs and bring perpetrators of 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 rewarding in assisting people in giving voice to their experiences to lessen future crimes and bring perpetrators to justice.

Forensic nurses work 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 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).

With experience and certification in forensic nursing, registered and advanced practice nurses can find work in this unique and specialized nursing field. Read on to learn more about forensic nurse salary data, education requirements, degree programs, 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 forms. For all registered nurses (a prerequisite to becoming a forensic nurse), the BLS predicts a growth rate of 6 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is about as fast as the national average for all professions during the same decade (5 percent). At this pace, 195,400 new jobs are expected to be added in the same decade.

The number of forensic nurses is growing to meet public health demands. In 2021, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) received 1,213 applications for certification. This represents a 27 percent increase from the previous year and a record high for the organization (IAFN 2021). In addition, the IAFN offers two Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certifications for nurses working with adults, adolescents, and children, and in 2021, 420 forensic nurses renewed their SANE certifications.

In 2021, the IAFN renewed 99 percent of its applicants and, as of February 2023, has certified 2,320 forensic nurses. Although registered nurses need not be certified to qualify for forensic nursing positions, having SANE certification demonstrates commitment and capability to employers and patients. Based on these occupational growth trends for RNs, it’s safe to assume job opportunities in the forensic nursing field are likely to be robust for those who want to pursue the career path.

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 help estimate the expected salary for a forensic nurse. The average salary for registered nurses in 2021 was $82,750 annually (BLS May 2021) with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $59,450
  • 25th percentile: $61,790
  • 50th percentile (median): $77,600
  • 75th percentile: $97,580
  • 90th percentile: $120,250

As with most jobs, a forensic nurse’s salary will vary considerably based on several different factors, mainly that nurse’s training and experience. In addition, the cost of living in the location of the position is an essential 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 2021):

  • California: $124,000 (annual mean wage)
  • Hawaii: $106,350
  • Massachusetts: $98,630
  • Oregon: $98,540
  • Alaska: $97,230

The BLS also shows the top-paying industries for registered nurses (BLS May 2021):

  • Nonscheduled air transportation: $112,630
  • Pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing: $105,270
  • Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods: $101,240
  • Federal executive branch (OEWS designation): $97,600
  • Office administrative services: $96,630

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Becoming a nurse in any specialty requires dedication, hard work, and 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 in nursing (BSN) or another discipline.

A bachelor’s degree typically requires four years to complete, while students can complete an associate’s degree in less time. However, a BSN does make a nurse eligible for more jobs over time. In addition, there are BSN programs for applicants with non-nursing degrees.

Step 3: Become a registered nurse (less than one year) – Nurses must sit for the NCLEX exam after graduating from college. 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. Other specializations are also available, 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 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.

In short, it takes four to six years to become a forensic nurse with a high school diploma. 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 can 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.

Online Forensic Nursing Programs

Several university programs offer forensic nursing degrees and certificate programs for registered nurses. Most programs are offered at the graduate level, but some graduate and professional certificate programs are available to registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees or professional licenses.

Most online forensic nursing programs are offered at the certificate and master’s degree levels.

Undergraduate Forensic Nursing Certificate Programs

Penn State University

Penn State University’s World Campus offers a 12-credit program in forensic nursing for undergraduate students. This program can be completed as part of the RN to BSN program or as a stand-alone certificate. Courses cover topics such as violence and its impact on society, evidence collection and preservation, and forensic nursing seminar. To earn the certificate, students must complete all courses with a grade of C or better.

The forensic nursing program at Penn State aims to prepare nurses for roles in the legal system, including forensic examination, injury documentation, and testimony in court cases. In addition, by combining nursing skills with forensic expertise, these nurses can offer valuable support to law enforcement and legal professionals.

  • Location: University Park, PA
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Tuition: $620 per credit

University of California Riverside

The University of California Riverside (UCR) offers an online forensic nursing certificate for licensed medical professionals, such as RNs, LVNs, and LPNs. This program comprises 16 units and covers forensic evidence collection, ethical forensic nursing practice, and death investigation.

As an accredited provider by the California Board of Registered Nurses, students can feel confident in their education quality. In addition, the forensic nursing certificate from UC Riverside can provide important skills for healthcare professionals looking to expand their knowledge and broaden their career options.

  • Location: Riverside, CA
  • Duration: Nine to 15 months
  • Accreditation: Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)
  • Tuition: $4,500

Graduate Certificate in Forensic Nursing Programs

Texas A&M University

Texas A&M University offers a 12-hour forensic science certificate program for nurses. The program includes four core courses, with 10 hours of lecture time per course. There are two start dates available for those interested in the program. In addition, students can choose from courses such as forensic healthcare foundations, forensic investigation of injury, and the impact of violence across the lifespan. Optional elective courses cover topics like forensic sexual assault examination, forensic photography, human trafficking, and clinical pharmacology.

This program is open to applicants with a bachelor’s degree in Nursing and a current RN license; GMAT or GRE scores are not required for admission. Those who complete the program will have the necessary training to pursue forensic nursing careers in medical-legal settings.

  • Location: College Station, TX
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $789 per credit (residents); $1,319 per credit (non-residents)

Duquesne University

Duquesne University offers a 15-credit hour post-master’s certificate program in forensic nursing, providing formalized training for individuals interested in becoming a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE). The program requires 150 clinical hours and five required courses, including forensic science and the legal system, criminal law and the courts, and advanced forensic nursing I and II.

Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and an unencumbered RN license. With three start dates per year and no GRE required, individuals can begin their forensic nursing journey at their own pace. This innovative program prepares nurses for SANE certification, allowing them to make a valuable contribution to the field of forensic nursing.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,635 per credit

Master’s Degrees in Forensic Nursing Programs

Oakland University

Oakland University offers an MSN in forensic nursing, making it the only program of its kind in the state of Michigan. This 39-credit program can be completed entirely online and is designed for Registered Nurses with bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

Courses cover healthcare policy, advanced health assessment, and nursing leadership, focusing on forensic nursing. This specialized field combines traditional nursing duties with legal and investigative techniques, allowing nurses to work as consultants or experts in forensic settings such as crime scenes or correctional facilities. Oakland University’s forensic nursing program prepares RNs for positions within forensic nursing and allows them to advance their career in this growing field.

  • Location: Rochester, MI
  • Duration: 28 months
  • Accreditation: American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • Tuition: $834 per credit

Xavier University

Xavier University’s MSN program offers a unique forensic nursing track for aspiring healthcare professionals. This 36-credit hour program combines the science of nursing with the legality of criminal justice, preparing students to provide quality healthcare to victims while also collecting vital evidence for legal matters. As a forensic nurse, individuals have the opportunity to become powerful advocates for victims of violence and work towards promoting their rights.

Additionally, students in this program can earn both an MSN and a master of science in criminal justice (MSCJ), allowing them to become even more well-rounded forensic nurses. This specialization is an invaluable resource within forensic nursing, and Xavier University provides individuals with an exceptional education in forensic nursing and criminal justice.

  • Location: Cincinnati, OH
  • Duration: 2-3 years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $670 per credit hour

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, it can also be quite rewarding in that this role helps bring closure and justice to the loved ones of victims of violent crimes.

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 must be detail-oriented, have critical thinking skills, and exhibit compassion 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 of 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 reporting 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. In addition, upon graduation from nursing school, the nurse must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) 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, be fingerprinted, and be subject to a background check.

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 be certified as a SANE-A (for adult and adolescent patients) or 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 in a medical examiner or coroner’s office who conducts death scene investigations and has at least 640 hours of experience.

Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.