How to Become a Forensic Nurse
Do you love crime dramas? Would you like to be part of an investigative team that helps victims get justice? For nurses with an interest in criminal justice and caring for crime victims, becoming a forensic nurse could be the career for you!
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.
These forensic medical experts 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.
What Is a Forensic Nurse?
A forensic nurse is a registered nurse (RN) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who works with crime victims to gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony in court. Forensic nursing is a unique specialty that blends the worlds of nursing, science, and the legal system.
What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?
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.
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
Forensic nurses bridge the gap between law and medicine.
Where do Forensic Nurses Work?
Real-world forensic nurses work with many types of people in diverse settings. You can find them 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, and neglect, as well as psychiatric patients, law enforcement, courts of law, and public health organizations.
Forensic Nurse Salary
The average forensic nurse salary in the US is $58,198 annually or $28 per hour (ZipRecruiter). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an annual average salary for registered nurses of $81,220 per year or $39.05 per hour as of May 2022. Forensic nurses earn slightly less than the average nurse salary because they often work in the private sector, where pay can be lower.
Factors that Impact Forensic Nursing Salaries
Compared to other nursing specialties, forensics is relatively new. Additionally, because of the diversity of work settings, forensic nursing salaries vary greatly. Forensic nursing salaries may also vary depending on whether you live in a rural or urban community, your employer, and how much nursing experience you have.
It's important to carefully research your geographic area and uncover salary details about forensic nursing jobs near you. Also, remember to clarify with any employer what the expectations are for being on-call and what the compensation for on-call availability will be.
Highest Paying Cities and States for Forensic Nurses
Forensic nursing salaries may change drastically depending on where you live. Here's an overview of the top-paying states and cities for forensic nurses:
TOP-PAYING STATES for Forensic Nursing
New York: $66,391 annually | $31.92 per hour
California: $65,509 annually | $31.50 per hour
Vermont: $59,871 annually | $28.78 per hour
Maine: $59,481 annually | $28.60 per hour
Massachusetts: $59,009 annually | $28.37 per hour
Via ZipRecruiter, 23 Aug 2023
TOP-PAYING CITIES FOR FORENSIC NURSing
Bolinas, CA: $87,333 annually | $41.99 per hour
Bellefonte, DE: $80,417 annually | $38.66 per hour
New Hartford Center, CT: $79,397 annually | $38.17 per hour
Millbourne, PA: $79,162 annually | $38.06 per hour
Casa Blanca, AZ: $78,744 annually | $37.86 per hour
Via ZipRecruiter, 23 Aug 2023
Other Forensic Nurse Salary Considerations
When you evaluate a total compensation package, look at the big picture. Ask yourself these questions to better understand exactly what you're getting out of your forensic nursing job:
- Does the employer provide continuing education tuition support and paid education days?
- What types of health or life insurance coverage does the employer offer as part of the benefits package?
- How many paid days off can employees earn per year?
- How many paid holidays does the employer offer?
- Does the employer offer a robust retirement plan, like 401K matching or a pension fund?
Finally, research the cost of living in your geographic area to ensure the compensation package will cover your basic life needs. These include housing, taxes, transportation costs, food, entertainment, and beyond.
Advanced Practice Salaries For Forensic Nurses
Advanced practice registered nurses generally earn higher salaries. Some forensic registered nurses go on to get master's in nursing or a doctoral degree in forensic nursing. Forensic NPs hold master's or doctoral degrees in forensic nursing, have more responsibilities, and can earn higher salaries.
Nurse practitioners in the US earn a median annual salary of $125,900 per year (BLS, May 2022). Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide.
How to Become a Forensic Nurse
The forensic nursing field combines nursing science with legal expertise. With the right education and career plan, you can enter this exciting and relatively new field. Here's how to become a forensic nurse in 6 steps:
Step One: Earn Your Nursing Degree
You must first graduate from one of the following:
- A two-year program for an Associate 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 of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Step Two: Take the RN Licensing Exam
After graduation, you will need to pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide exam for RN licensure in the US and Canada. After passing the NCLEX, you can become licensed to work as a registered nurse.
The NCLEX was recently updated, and nursing graduates can expect to take the Next Gen NCLEX (NGN).
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
Currently, there are two forensic nursing certificate programs for qualified nurses. Offered by the International Association of Forensic Nures, these professional certifications showcase your expertise in the field. Though not necessary to work as a forensic nurse, they can enhance your resume and make you more competitive for forensic nursing jobs.
Step Five: Apply for an advanced degree program
Master’s or doctoral degree programs in forensic nursing are also an option. These degrees prepare you to work in:
- Clinical forensic roles
- Academic teaching
- Legal nurse consulting
- Forensic psychiatric nursing (evaluation of alleged perpetrators of violent crime)
- Violence prevention programs
- 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.
Step 6: Determine how to pay for your advanced degree
Deciding how to pay for nursing school can seem like a formidable task, and that’s okay. Luckily, there are many options to help offset or lessen the burden of the cost, including grants, scholarships, and student loans -- federal and private. If you're already paying off existing student loans, you can also consider refinancing them to a lower interest rate to save money.
Forensic Nurse Career Outlook
Growing Healthcare Demands of an Aging Population
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 6 percent through 2032 – faster than average for all jobs. However, with nurses from the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, and the increased healthcare demands of that generation, the need for nursing care will only rise. This 65+ demographic has grown rapidly, jumping from 41 million people in 2011 to 71 million in 2019—a 73% increase.
Violent Crime Creates a Need For Forensic Experts
There's also reason to believe that specific demand for forensic nursing care may remain steady or even grow. Now more than ever, we're aware of the prevalence of violent crime in our society. Although crime rates in the US rise and fall, tens of thousands of Americans suffer from violent crime every year. The knowledge and expertise of forensic nurses are essential to getting these victims justice.
Top 10 Forensic Nursing Programs
We curated the best forensic nursing programs using several determining factors, which include the following:
- NCLEX pass rate
- Acceptance rate, when available
Only ACEN or CCNE-accredited schools are eligible
Forensic nurses complete various levels of education, so this list includes undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs.
Our selection panel is made up of 3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees:
- Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
- Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC
There are numerous forensic nursing programs, and our panel of nurses ranked them based on factors mentioned in the methodology. Because individual nursing pathways and careers take various forms, the top 10 forensic nurse programs are ranked in no particular order.
Tuition: $687 per credit hour
Program Length: 2-3 years
Accreditation: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
Xavier University's online forensic nursing graduate program leads to either an MSN or a dual master's degree in nursing and criminal justice. For only the MSN, nurses complete 36 credits, 10 of which focus on forensics.
Applicants must have a bachelor's degree and at least one year of experience as an RN. Also, while the program calls itself 100% online, nurses are required to complete six credits worth of nursing practicum, the only in-person requirement for the degree.
Program Tuition: In-State: $23,833.60 | Out-of-State $23,871.60
Program Length: 2 years (part-time)
Accreditation: CCNE and Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
Located in Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State University offers an online MSN in forensic nursing. The program takes two years of part-time study to complete, though students need to complete 500 hours of clinical study throughout the program.
While completing an MSN in forensic nursing at CSU, students can choose to boost their education with a certification in clinical forensic nursing, legal nurse consulting, forensic psychiatric nursing, forensic correctional nursing, or as a forensic nurse death investigator. Additionally, this program is affordable even for non-resident students, who pay only a dollar more per credit hour than in-state.
Tuition: $945 per credit hour
Program Length: 3 years
DeSales University offers perhaps the most flexible and comprehensive forensic nursing program. Available part-time or full-time and completed online, on-campus, or through a hybrid of the two, DeSales's MSN in forensic nursing also includes certification in investigative forensics.
Regardless of online or on-campus study, students are required to complete 51 classroom credit hours, 375 clinical practicum hours, plus 75 clinical lab hours on-site in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.
Tuition: $1,143 per credit
Program Length: 3 years
Available either in-person or online, Fairleigh Dickinson University's MSN lets students choose a specialty. Those interested in forensic nursing select the adult gerontology nurse practitioner with a forensic focus. This 42-credit track requires 555 hours of clinical service and prepares graduates to become APRNs with a specialization in forensics. FDU's MSN requires more than other programs, but graduates earn certification and could receive higher wages.
Tuition: $1,699 per credit hour
Program Length: 2.5 years
Duquesne University offers two different forensic nursing options: an MSN and a post-master's certificate. However, most aspiring forensic nurses likely don't hold an MSN and will enroll in the full MSN program. This entirely online program takes 36 credits to complete and 225 clinical hours with three potential start dates per year. Duquesne University partners with the Wecht Institute to offer this degree, so nursing students complete some courses through a different school within Duquesne.
Semesterly Tuition: In-State: $6,464 | Out-of-State $12,818
Program Length: 2-3 years
An incredibly affordable MSN for anyone who lives in Texas, Texas A&M University's online MSN in forensic nursing is a 36-credit program completed over 2-3 years, though most students take closer to three years.
While nurses complete most courses online, Texas A&M does require a total of 45 in-person hours at the Bryan College Station campus to meet clinical requirements set by the AACN. The university separates this into two visits taken during the second half of the degree. Students are responsible for obtaining their own preceptor for one course during their final semester, so that’s important to keep in mind when considering Texas A&M.
Tuition: $347 per credit hour
Program Length: 3 years
Fitchburg State offers two options for nurses to pursue forensic specialization. The first is an MSN in Forensic Nursing, which comprises 39 credit and 420 clinical hours. Most students can complete the program in three years, but they have up to six years to finish all graduation requirements.
Fitchburg's second forensic nursing path is a post-graduate certificate option for students who already have an MSN. The university states that students can complete this program in as little as two years. However, like the MSN, they have up to six years to finish it.
Fitchburg uses a rolling admissions schedule, allowing students to apply at any time. Additionally, prospective students must have at least one year of nursing experience for the university to consider their candidacy.
Tuition: $626/$671 per credit hour1
Program Length: 9 months
The online portion of Penn State, Penn State World Campus, extends higher education to tens of thousands of students across the globe. Instead of completing an MSN, those interested in forensic nursing complete Penn State's undergraduate certificate in nursing forensics.
This 12-credit certificate takes less than a year to complete and costs far less than an MSN. However, only current RNs without a BSN should consider this program. That being said, graduates can transfer their forensic nursing credits into Penn State's online RN-BSN, making this a great option for RNs looking for both a BSN and a forensic nursing position.
1 Cost per credit hour depends on how many credits a student already has. See Penn State tuition details.
Program Length: 9-15 months
Another option for nurses who don't want to complete an MSN the University of California Riverside's professional certificate in forensic nursing leads to various forensic nurse positions. Current RNs and LPNs can enroll in the program, and RNs can count either 20 hours or more of continuing education or a SANE certification toward elective credits, reducing the length and cost of the certificate. This short 16-credit certificate takes as little as nine months to complete.
10. Aspen University
Annual Tuition: $13,455
Program Length: 2-3 years
Aspen University specializes in online education and offers its MSN with a forensic nursing specialization entirely online. Available to current RNs who hold a BSN, the MSN takes as little as two years to complete, though some part-time students take longer.
While the program doesn't include any clinical practice, graduates learn all the skills necessary to succeed as a forensic nurse. To keep the degree affordable, Aspen University also set up an optional monthly payment plan, covering the cost of the program over a 41-month period.
Forensic Nursing Certifications & Requirements
Certifications are not required to work in most forensic nursing roles. However, they show that you have the expert knowledge to meet the highest standards of practice. It also demonstrates your commitment to the profession.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Certifications
- SANE-A for working with adults and adolescents
- 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. For example, you must complete a minimum of 40-hour SANE didactic course by an accredited provider, a SANE clinical preceptorship, and accrual of 300 hours of SANE-related practice within the past 3 years.
The IAFN offers SANE-A and SANE-P exams twice a year, in April and September. Eligible applicants can sit the exam at testing sites across the U.S. and internationally.
Forensic Nurse Certifications for Non-Nursing Roles
Some communities use RNs as coroners or death investigators. Check with your local agencies to see if they currently hire forensic nurses for these roles and, if so, the type of certifications they require. Some examples of death investigator certifications include the Registry Certification or Board Certification offered by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
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.
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.
To renew a SANE-A or SANE-P certification, you can either renew via examination and a fee or continuing education (CE) and a fee. Continuing education credits are very specific, and it is important to read through the renewal handbook for specifics related to the certification.
You can also visit our CNE Guide for details.
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
How to Find Forensic Nursing Jobs
Many sources can get you started on your search for forensic nurse jobs. Many online resources are available, including hospital websites, nursing social media pages, and dedicated nursing sites such as our job board.
Many forensic careers, such as those with a coroner’s or medical examiner’s office, are available through county governments. Check your local government employment websites to determine the types of forensic nursing jobs available and find 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.
Forensic Nurse FAQs
How do I become a forensic nurse?
- To become a forensic nurse, you should complete a BSN-RN program and then apply for a forensic nursing certificate program.
Do forensic nurses go to crime scenes?
- Forensic nurses can go to crime scenes, but they may also be involved in the background as well.
Does the FBI hire nurses?
- Yes, the FBI does employ nurses.
How do you become a forensic nurse in the FBI?
- First, earn your BSN-RN, then become a Certified Forensic Nurse and work at least 3 years in the field before applying with the FBI.
What does an FBI forensic nurse do?
- An FBI forensic nurse cares for patients of trauma, sexual assault, and other crimes, as well as collects evidence and works with legal teams on investigations.
Can you be a nurse for the CIA?
- Yes, the CIA hires nurses in different specialties, such as occupational nursing.
What state pays forensic nurses the most?
- ZipRecruiter.com reports the top paying state for forensic nurses is New York earning $66,391 annually, or $31.92 per hour.
How many hours does a forensic nurse work a week?
- Forensic nursing is more likely to work a traditional 40-hour work week, although some overtime may be required, especially in an active crime scene.
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