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

Forensic nurses have a very important job that can be overlooked in the discussion of forensic investigations. Not medical examiners or forensic technicians, these nurses are highly skilled healthcare providers who have specialized training and experience in caring for victims and assisting with criminal investigations. Forensic nurses are able to offer professional assistance for investigations into assault and even accidental death. The work they do can help to collect and preserve evidence, which can be critical to solving a crime and eventually prosecuting the perpetrator.

When it comes to forensic nursing, the majority of the time on the job will likely be 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 crimes during one of the most trying times in their life can be heartrending but also quite rewarding.

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 that can help in the investigation.

Featured Forensic Nursing Programs

Duquesne University - MSN in Forensic Nursing (for RNs)
Duquesne University - Post-Master's Forensic Nursing Certificate (for RNs with MSN)
Stevenson University - Master of Forensic Science (Biology & Chemistry Tracks)

Forensic Nursing Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) combines forensics nursing along with other forms of nursing. For all registered nurses (a prerequisite title for forensic nurses), 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. Of course, only a fraction of these available positions will be for forensic nurses, but with numbers like that, there are likely to be positions available for virtually every type of nursing specialty. The job opportunities in the forensic nursing field are likely to be quite robust for those who want to pursue the career path.

The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) is a professional organization for those in the field, and it offers a substantial amount of information about what working as a forensic nurse is like as well as the certifications that are available for this specialized position.

Forensic Nurse Salary

Although there are many reasons to pursue a career in forensic nursing, a stable and comfortable salary is certainly one of them. Again, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019) data is only available for all registered nurses, but can still be helpful in extrapolating the expected salary for a forensic nurse. The median wage for registered nurses in 2019 was $73,300 annually. Those in the lowest 10 percent earned as little as $52,080, while those in the top ten percent earned as much as $111,220.

There is also some salary data available that is specific to the forensic nursing profession. (Oct. 2020), a career site, indicates that the median salary for a forensic nurse comes in at $65,047 per year. According to this data, the majority of yearly forensic nurse salaries range from $50,000 (25th percentile) to $75,000 (75th percentile). As with most jobs, the salary for any nurse will vary considerably based on a number of different things, particularly that nurse’s training and experience and the location of the position.

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

Becoming a nurse in any specialty requires dedication and hard work as well as significant 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 a requirement for entry to 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 the 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 successfully completing this exam, nurses will be able to 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) – Before pursuing the forensic specialty, RNs should work in a clinical setting for at least two years. To be eligible for future certification, they should work in a setting 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, he or she must complete at least 40 hours of training specific to the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) role. There are also other specializations available, as outlined in the next section.
  • Step 6: Begin clinical forensic nursing practice (at least 300 hours) – Upon completing the classroom training, nurses can begin to practice in the specialty in a clinical setting. Nurses must complete at least 300 hours of this training over the course of a maximum of three years to be eligible for SANE certification although 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 be helpful in demonstrating one’s expertise to potential employers and ultimately career advancement.

There is not a quick path to the career as a nurse who specializes in forensic exams. 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 he or she is 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 even a doctoral-level degree in order to further their careers and particularly if they are interested in teaching the next generation of nurses.

Forensic Nursing Specialities

Though all forensic nurses will work with victims of crimes, there are specializations within the field as well. As alluded to above, the most common specialization within forensic nursing is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. 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. A nurse death investigator may have to visit crime scenes and attend autopsies. This type of specialization has its own challenges, but can also be quite rewarding.

Forensic Nursing Tasks and Responsibilities

Anyone entering forensic nursing should have a good idea of some of the skills he or she should have and develop. The field is very demanding. Nurses in the field need to be very detail-oriented and have critical thinking skills, and they need to be full of compassion.They often work with people who are going through a traumatic time, so having compassion and patience is hugely important. Great communication skills are necessary as well, as the nurses are going to be communicating with other medical professionals, law enforcement, and victims of crimes.

Leveraging these essential skills will help 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

All states require that registered nurses have a nursing license that is valid in that state. Upon graduation from the nursing school, the nurse needs to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing in order to apply for licensure. While requirements vary by state, aspiring nurses should expect to submit an application as well as to 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 those who want to work with adults) or a SANE-P (for those who want to work with the pediatric population.

Not all forensic nursing is specific to sexual assault. For those nurses looking for a different type of certification, there are also 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 being eligible to apply for certification. Continuing education is also required 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).