How to Become a Forensic Nurse: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Jan 27, 2020

Forensic nursing combines healthcare expertise with knowledge of the legal system. To become a forensic nurse requires completing baccalaureate and graduate education as well as obtaining professional certifications.

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What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?

Forensic nursing is a specialized field that utilizes nursing science in legal proceedings. Forensic nurses are responsible for treating patients who sustained injuries due to a violent or sexual crime such as battery, domestic abuse, child abuse, or sexual assault. Aside from addressing the patient's medical needs, they may also collect biological samples and analyze evidence, provide medical expertise to legal authorities, and give testimony in court. Forensic nurses usually work in urgent care centers and hospital emergency rooms, trauma centers, psychiatric facilities, correctional institutions, and coroners' or medical examiners' offices.

How to Become a Forensic Nurse

The process of becoming a forensic nurse typically involves completing undergraduate and graduate degrees, earning professional credentials, and obtaining certifications for certain specialty areas.

Step 1: Complete Undergraduate Studies in Nursing

Before getting into forensic nursing, students must first complete their undergraduate degree in nursing from an accredited institution. Starting a career in nursing requires earning a diploma, a two-year associate's degree, or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. While diploma and associate's degree holders can work as entry-level nurses, BSN graduates often take on more challenging roles and have better opportunities for career advancement. Some schools offer bridge programs that allow registered nurses with a diploma or associate's degree to earn their BSN. Transferring from a non-nursing degree to a BSN is also possible through accelerated BSN programs.

Step 2: Obtain a Registered Nursing (RN) License

In order to work as a registered nurse, one must have a nursing license. Graduates of diploma, associate's, and bachelor's programs in nursing are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Aside from passing the exam, aspiring nurses must also meet other state-specific requirements in order to earn their RN license.

Step 3: Pursue Graduate Education and Training

Licensed nurses with a BSN degree can pursue specializations in forensic nursing through a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or graduate certificate programs. Some MSN programs in forensic nursing provide concentrations in sexual assault, death investigation, child or elderly abuse, and correctional facility nursing. The curriculum may include courses in forensic pathology, psychopathology, pharmacology, interpersonal violence, advanced health assessment, emergency preparedness, and data management. Meanwhile, non-degree graduate certificates require fewer credits and usually offer select courses from the MSN curriculum.

Step 4: Earn Certifications in Forensic Nursing

While not a requirement for nursing practice, board certifications for forensic nursing are helpful for bolstering professional credentials. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) provides two certifications for nurses who intend to work as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE): the SANE-A for adult and adolescent specialization and the SANE-P for pediatric cases. To be eligible to take the SANE certification exam, RNs must complete a 40-hour SANE course and clinical preceptorship, accrue at least 300 hours of SANE-related practice within three years, and must have a minimum of two years of nursing experience. RNs who pass the exam may then use their SANE credentials, which will be valid for three years. Forensic nurses can renew their certifications by taking another exam or by continuing education.

Forensic Nurse Salary and Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses, which include forensic nurses, have a median annual salary of $71,730 as of May 2018, with the top 10 percent earning more than $106,530 and the bottom 10 percent earning less than $50,800. RNs employed by the government were the highest paid, with a median annual wage of $78,390, followed by nurses working in hospitals with a median annual salary of $73,650.

Based on BLS projections, employment of registered nurses could grow by 12 percent from 2018 to 2028, creating 371,500 new jobs over the ten-year period.

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