Forensic Nurse Career Guide

    Forensic Nurse Career Guide

    Do you love crime dramas? Would you like to be part of an investigative team which helps victims get justice?  For nurses with an interest in criminal justice and caring for crime victims, forensic nursing provides a challenging and rewarding career option.

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    Forensic nurses provide compassionate care to victims of violent crime, abuse, or neglect while gathering evidence to support law enforcement. By doing this, they play a vital role in both our healthcare and criminal justice systems.

    Forensic nurses may also help their communities by working side by side with pathologists and coroners to identify accurate causes of death and ensure accurate reporting of vital statistics and epidemiology trends.

    Part One What is a Forensic Nurse?

    A forensic nurse is someone who works with crime victims to gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony that can be used in court. Forensic nursing is a unique specialty that blends the worlds of nursing, science, and the legal system. 

    According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), forensic nurses do far more than address victims’ physical and emotional needs. They also collect evidence, provide medical testimony in court, and consult with legal authorities. Because nurses are skilled in effective communication, assessment, and documentation, they are the perfect professionals to fill forensic roles.

    Real-world forensic nurses work with many types of people in diverse settings.  You can find forensic nurses in many different places, such as hospitals, anti-violence programs, psychiatric institutions, coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, communities (after natural disasters), and correctional facilities. In their many roles, they may work with victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, as well as psychiatric patients, law enforcement, courts of law and public health organizations. 

    In their many roles, forensic nurses may work with victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, as well as psychiatric patients, law enforcement, courts of law and public health organizations. 

    Forensic nurses bridge the gap between law and medicine.

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    Part Two What is the salary range for forensic nurses?

    Forensic nursing is a relatively new specialty, and because of the diversity of work settings, salaries for forensic nurses can vary greatly. It’s important to research your geographic area carefully to uncover details about job opportunities and potential salary for specific positions.

    Also, it’s important to clarify with any employer what the expectations are for being on-call, and what the compensation for on-call availability will be.

    Nursing salaries depend on your level of education, years of experience, and employer size and location. In May 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics 1 reported the RN salaries ranged from $47,120 to more than $102,990.

    The median annual wage for a nurse working in the hospital setting was $68,450 or $32.91 per hour.

    Registered Nursing salaries vary by location.  Here are the 5 highest paying states for registered nurses and their average annual incomes.

    The highest Paying States for Forensic Nurses

    California Massachusetts Hawaii Alaska Nevada
     $90,860  $86,810  $83,950  $82,080  $77,840

    Other Salary Considerations

    When you evaluate a total compensation package, look at the big picture.

    Does the employer provide continuing education tuition support and paid education days? Is health insurance part of the benefits package, and if so, what is your responsibility for self, spouse/partner, and dependent coverage? How many paid days off can employees earn per year?

    Be sure to research the cost of living expenses in your chosen geographic area, including housing, taxes, transportation costs, and many others. 

    Advanced Practice Salaries For Forensic Nurses

    Advanced practice nurses generally earn higher salaries.  Some forensic nurses obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in forensic nursing (see part 4 of this guide). 

    The BLS reports that in 2016, the median annual income for nurse practitioners was $100,910. Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide. 


    Part Three What is the career outlook for forensic nurses?

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 16 percent through 2024 – much faster than the average for all jobs. Plus, the aging of baby boomer nurses who are nearing retirement and the growing health demands of boomers are causing a current and predicted future nursing shortage.  

    A 2014 report 2 found that states in the South and the West will have the highest demand for nurses from 2012-2025.

    The states with the highest projected demand are Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Washington, Georgia, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Alaska, Rhode Island, Maine, Montana, South Carolina, and Hawaii.

    In addition to the growing need for nurses, violent crime is ever-present in our society. Although crime rates in the U.S. rise and fall, tens of thousands of Americans will suffer from violent crime each year. Some statistics that may affect the demand for forensic nurses in the future:

    • After a dip in the number of violent crimes reported in 2006 and 2011, there was a 3.9 percent increase in the estimated number of violent crimes in 2015 over 2014. 3
    • There were an estimated 1,197,704 violent crimes committed nationwide. This is 372.6 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants 3
    • The estimated number of murders in 2015 was 15,696. 3
    • An estimated 90,185 rapes. 3
    • FBI UCR data also show that violent crime rates are higher in metropolitan areas and cities in nonmetropolitan areas than in nonmetropolitan counties. 3

    Violent crimes are defined by the (FBI) as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

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    Part Four How do I become a forensic nurse?

    Forensic nurses require a mixture of nursing science and legal expertise. Here are the steps for becoming a forensic nurse.

    Step One

    Earn your nursing degree. You must first graduate from one of the following:

    • A two-year program for an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN)
    • A three-year program for a diploma in nursing (usually hospital-based)
    • Four-year college or university program leading to a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN)

    Step Two

    Take the RN licensing exam. After graduation, you’ll need to pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada. Once you pass this exam, you may apply for your first nursing job.

    Step Three

    Gain relevant experience. Forensic nursing employers most often will prefer that you have prior clinical nursing experience. A background in medical-surgical, pediatric, or psychiatric nursing (for nurses wishing to pursue forensic psychiatric nursing) is a good start.

    Step Four

    Consider a forensic nursing certificate program. Certificate programs can train you for the unique skills needed for this specialty. They include programs in continuing education or post-graduate departments of nursing schools. Certificate programs vary in length and may include a practicum. Earning this type of certificate is not the same thing as becoming board certified in forensic nursing.

    Earning this type of certificate is not the same thing as becoming board certified in forensic nursing.

    Step Five

    Obtain an advanced degree. Master’s or doctoral degree programs in forensic nursing are also an option. These degrees prepare you to work in clinical forensic roles, teaching, legal nurse consulting, research, forensic psychiatric nursing (evaluation of alleged perpetrators of violent crime), violence prevention programs, and roles that require collaboration with the criminal justice system.

    Bear in mind that having an advanced degree in forensic nursing is not a guarantee of finding a forensic nursing job that fits. You may need to be creative and advocate for a role that matches your level of expertise.

    Top Schools For Forensic Nursing

    According to NursingSchoolHub, the top five schools offering an MSN in forensics are:

    • Xavier University - Cincinnati, OH
    • Duquesne University - Philadelphia, PA
    • Monmouth University - West Long Branch, NJ
    • Boston College - Boston, MA
    • Cleveland State University - Cleveland, OH

    Part Five What Certifications Are Required for Forensic Nurses?

    Board certification isn’t required to work in most forensic nursing roles, however, it does show that you have the expert knowledge to meet the highest standards of practice. It also demonstrates your commitment to the profession.

    IAFN offers two certifications for sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs): the SANE-A for working with adults and adolescents, and the SANE-P for working with pediatric patients. Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board.

    Before taking the exam, candidates must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and meet any other eligibility criteria established by the Forensic Nursing Certification Board. The IAFN certification web page describes how to obtain SANE certification.

    Certification exams are offered twice a year, in May and October, and can be taken at testing sites across the U.S. and internationally.

    An Advanced Forensic Nursing Certification (AFN-BC) is also available from IAFN, in collaboration with the American Nurses Credentialing Center. This certification requires submitting a portfolio documenting your expertise rather than taking an exam and involves a stringent peer review process.

    Some communities use RNs as coroners or death investigators. Check with your local agencies to see if they currently hire nurses as death investigators, and if so, the type of education and experience you need to qualify.

    Some universities offer courses in forensic nursing, either as electives for undergraduates or as part of a graduate degree in forensic nursing.

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    Part Six What is it like to be a forensic nurse?

    Violence is a healthcare problem. Forensic nurses work to end violence, help victims through the experience, and work closely with the criminal justice system to support investigative and legal processes.

    Forensic nurses must be detail-oriented, organized, skilled in collecting and preserving evidence that’s admissible in court, and committed to accurate and careful documentation. Forensic nursing is an emotionally challenging field. Developing good self-care practices is critical to keeping professional and personal balance.

    The IAFN recommends that you read about vicarious trauma so you know how a forensics career can affect your personal and professional life. It also advises watching the following documentary video on forensic nursing:

    Forensic nurses may work in the following settings:

    • Hospitals – in emergency departments or sexual assault centers
    • Community agencies focusing on violence prevention
    • Coroners’ and Medical Examiners’ offices
    • Corrections Facilities (jails and prisons)
    • Psychiatric Institutions

    Forensic nurses care for victims of:

    • Sexual assault
    • Child neglect/molestation/rape
    • Elder neglect/abuse
    • Victims of homicide, attempted homicide, assault

    Some of the work responsibilities of forensic nurses are:

    • Providing comfort and psychosocial support to victims of violent crimes and their families/significant others
    • Treating physical injuries
    • Collecting and preserving evidence that’s admissible in court (e.g., victim’s clothing, bullet(s), and other physical samples)
    • Assessment of alleged perpetrators and collecting evidence as indicated

    Part Seven What are the continuing education requirements for forensic nurses?

    Clinical practice and continuing education requirements for renewing a nursing license, certification, and advanced practice certification vary by state and credentialing agency. Check with your state board and professional organization for the rules on keeping your RN license and certification up to date. 

    You can also visit our CNE Guide for details.

    Part Eight Where can I learn more about forensic nursing?

    Learn more about forensic nursing by searching the web and talking with nurses currently working in the field. You may also want to review copies of forensic nursing textbooks in your local public or nursing school library. 

    Helpful websites include:

    International Association of Forensic Nursing

    American Forensic Nursing

    American Institute of Forensic Education

    Academy on Violence and Abuse

    American Academy of Forensic Sciences

    Canadian Forensic Nurses Association

    American Board of Medico-Legal Investigators

    Part Nine Where can I find the best forensic nurse jobs?

    Many sources can get you started on your search for forensic nursing positions. Many online resources are available including hospital websites, nursing social media pages, and dedicated nursing sites such as our job board

    Many forensic jobs, such as those with a coroners’ or medical examiners’ office, are available through county governments. Check your local government employment websites to determine the types of jobs available, and to find out about any openings. 

    Forensic nursing is a fascinating and emotionally challenging career path offering a chance to work with a variety of patients, work settings, and skills. You can play a vital role by providing compassionate care and bringing criminals to justice.

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    1. National Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics - Registered Nurses. Retrieved from:
    2. US Department of Health and Human Services, The Future of the Nursing Workforce: National- and State-Level Projections, 2012-2025.  Retrieved from:
    3. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015 Crime in the United States. Retrieved from: 
    4., Top 7 Forensic Nursing Programs. Retrieved from:


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