As a forensic nurse, you will not only treat especially vulnerable patients in the moment, but you’ll also help them by gathering evidence and working with law enforcement and legal professionals. This is a career path built upon a deep knowledge of nursing practice, theory, and specialized skills. You’ll find yourself responsible for important evidence and even testifying in court.
Why pursue a career in forensic nursing?
What makes this such an engaging career is the combination of social, personal, and professional advantages, opportunities, and benefits.
Helping others in the short and long term
Forensic nurses assist in putting the pieces of an investigation together following a crime or accident while also carefully and sympathetically providing medical services for victims. Their attention to detail is vital. They examine and treat patients shortly after an incident while maintaining the integrity of evidence. Their deep understanding of and strict compliance with proper evidence gathering procedures is pivotal to informing the actions of the criminal justice system. These professionals also provide court testimony as expert or factual witnesses months or years later.
Registered nurses are both in demand and well-compensated for their work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that RNs earned a median salary of $73,300 as of May 2019. That figure is significantly higher than the national median salary for all occupations, which was only $39,810.
Partly because forensic nursing is a far more specialized and newer field, having only emerged in the 1980s, the BLS doesn’t specifically track salary figures for this profession. However, data from PayScale indicates a salary range of $58,749 to $89,221 for forensic nurses. More senior forensic nurses have higher earning potential than those in the early or middle stages of their careers.
Ease of career adjustment
Forensic nurses develop and use the same foundational skill set as registered nurses, and will always play key roles in providing medical services to patients. That’s true in settings from hospitals and long-term care facilities to in-home visitations.
As long as you choose to earn a nursing degree and maintain your certification as a registered nurse, you will have a variety of roles to explore. If you need a break from the unique stresses of forensic nursing — such as routine exposure to the emotional and physical trauma of victims — or simply want to focus on a different area of this profession, you already have many of the necessary qualifications in place.
Your first steps
There are several paths you can follow to enter the world of forensic nursing, including:
Becoming a registered nurse (RN) by earning an associate degree or Bachelor of Science in Nursing and completing the necessary licensure exams.
Gaining clinical experience and building soft skills on the job as an RN — such as communication and critical thinking.
With these qualifications, you can then follow a few different paths to become a forensic nurse:
Finish specialized forensic nursing training through the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) course, which is generally offered by a professional association, health care group, nonprofit organization, or government agency.
Complete a Master of Science in Nursing that focuses on forensic nursing.
Earn a certificate in the field offered by a university or college.
Areas of opportunity for forensic nurses
Forensic nurses benefit from the potential to work in the public and private sectors. The variety of workplace options means there’s no single path you must pursue.
Workplace opportunities for forensic nurses:
Community programs focusing on harm reduction and anti-violence initiatives
Medical examiner and coroner’s offices
Public and private hospitals
Psychiatric care facilities
Where are the forensic nursing jobs?
Forensic nurses are part of the broader professional group of RNs. In general, there are more RN positions available in areas with larger populations.
It may not be surprising to learn that California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania — states with large populations — employ the most RNs overall. However, the list of states with the highest concentration of RN jobs is significantly different. BLS data indicates those five states are:
Overall, job growth prospects are strong for RNs. The BLS job outlook for the field, which predicts growth in the number of available positions between 2019 and 2029, is 7%. This is more nearly double the 4% average growth rate for all occupations.
RNs in general and forensic nurses in particular address a widespread and enduring health care need. While forensic nurses provide care to a smaller and unique subgroup of patients, their services are valuable everywhere people may be threatened by disasters, violent incidents, and criminal acts.
Entry-level opportunities and advanced job options
Entry-level forensic nurses earn an average total annual compensation of $63,199. It’s important to note that salary can still vary due to location and specific employer, even when narrowing the field based on experience.
More advanced forensic nurses may enjoy compensation at the higher end of the total range, which reaches up to $80,080.
Sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE)
SANE is a common career path for RNs, especially those just starting in the field.
If you choose to become a SANE, you can expect to focus on providing relevant, attentive care for victims of sexual assault. At the same time, you will also diligently collect evidence that can assist law enforcement and legal teams in prosecution. It’s up to you to maintain a balance of compassion and urgent care while following strict procedures to keep evidence useful and admissible in court.
As a SANE, you can specialize in work with adults and adolescents or focus on pediatric patients. Certificates and qualifications offered by professional organizations can help you demonstrate your knowledge of and aptitude for a specific area of practice.
Nurse coroner or medical examiner nurse
Nurse coroner, medical examiner nurse, and similar roles are part of an emerging field for forensic nurses. These professionals are like traditional medical examiners and coroners: investigating causes of death that may be difficult to determine or indicate foul play.
As a nurse coroner or medical examiner nurse, you will have very different duties to those of a SANE. However, you will still draw on your combined knowledge of nursing and forensics on a regular basis to help answer questions and address uncertainties that inform law enforcement and legal professionals.
Since this is still an emerging role, individual jurisdictions have broadly different rules and policies about job eligibility.
Supervisory and managerial roles
With experience comes the ability to compete for managerial positions. Greater responsibility and new experiences can be an exciting change in your career, and you may also enjoy increased compensation.
Forensic nurses who have spent significant time on the job may also find opportunities to educate prospective and new professionals in the field. You could pursue academic or professional instruction as either a primary career or a supplemental role that draws on not only your training, but on your practical experience as well.
Top skills sought by employers
As a forensic nurse, you’ll need many of the same skills possessed by RNs. This includes technical proficiency in nursing and related health care knowledge.
According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), top general skills for RNs include:
Effective verbal communication
Service orientation — actively seeking methods to help patients
O*NET also listed commonly needed abilities and knowledge areas specifically related to nursing for RNs, such as:
Biology - for understanding the human body
Mathematics - for calculating various metrics and confirming medication dosage
Sociology - for recognizing group behavior and dynamics
Psychology - for understanding human behavior and responses
More unique abilities include supporting especially vulnerable and potentially traumatized victims while gathering evidence without contaminating or compromising it. You’ll lean heavily on soft skills like communication, cooperation, and teamwork while working with law enforcement agencies, attorneys, and legal specialists. You’ll also need to build a deep understanding of proper procedure and documentation as they relate to time spent with patients and information gathered from them, as well as courtroom conduct.
Forensic nursing internships
You can also seek out more specialized forensic nursing internships to add to your practicums, clinicals, and residencies that are already part of your RN education. If you pursue a Master of Science in Nursing with a forensics concentration or a similar program, your college or university may provide some form of experiential learning opportunity. If you pursue a professional course offered through a government agency, nonprofit, or professional organization, you may be directed to contact relevant professionals in your community to learn more.
Accounting industry groups
Professional organizations focused on forensic nursing offer you the chance to connect with colleagues, find training, and stay updated on advancements in your industry. Organizations you could consider joining include:
Forensic nurses fill a vital role as health care professionals while supporting the patients they treat through work focused on law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Because of the education and experience they must develop to serve in these roles and the widespread demand for nurses, forensic nursing can be financially as well as personally rewarding.
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