GUIDE
July 2, 2022
Forensic nurse working in a morgue

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.

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.
Forensic nurse roles including providing care, gathering evidence, and testifying

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. 

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.

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Part Two Forensic Nurse Salary

According to Ziprecruiter.com, the average salary for Forensic Nurses is $35.00 per hour, or $72,659 annually. While the median annual wage for a registered nurse working in a hospital setting according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2021, was $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour. Forensic nurses earn slightly lower than the average nurse salary, but forensic nurses usually work in the private sector and pay can be lower.

Forensic nursing is a relatively new field 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.

Highest Paying Cities and States for Forensic Nurses

Registered nursing salaries vary by location. Unfortunately, the BLS does not differentiate between different specialties of nursing. Here are the 5 highest paying states for registered nurses and their average annual mean incomes according to the BLS.

Top Paying States for Registered Nurses

  • California: $124,000
  • Hawaii: $106,530
  • Oregon: $98,630
  • District of Columbia: $98,540
  • Alaska: $97,230 

Top Paying Cities for Registered Nurses

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $155,230
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $151,640
  • Vallejo-Fairfield, CA: $146,360
  • Santa Rosa, CA: $141,440
  • Napa, CA: $139,680

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 May 2021, the median annual income for nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists was $123,780 per year, with the bottom 10% earning $79,870 and the top 10% earning $200,540. Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide. 

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Part Three How to 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 will 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.

The NCLEX exam is a standardized, computerized exam that all individuals must pass in order to earn their RN license. 

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. See more on this in section 6. If you're not looking to go the nursing route, you can also explore other kinds of forensic science degrees

>> Explore Forensic Nurse Certification Review Materials*

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, 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.

>> Related: How to Earn a Master's Degree in Forensic Nursing

Step 6: Determine how to pay for your advanced degree

Deciding how to pay for nuring school can seem like a daunting task, and that’s ok. 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. 

Part Four What Is the Career Outlook for Forensic Nurses?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 9 percent through 2030 – 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. This 65+ demographic has grown rapidly, jumping from 41 million people in 2011 to 71 million in 2019—a 73% increase. 

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.

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Part Five Which Schools Have the Best Forensic Nursing Programs?

Top 10 Forensic Nurse Programs

Methodology

This list is based on a number of factors including:

  • Reputation
  • NCLEX pass rate
  • Tuition
  • 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. 

Nurse Panel

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, BSN, 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. 

1. Xavier University

Annual Tuition: $24,120 (based on per-credit tuition rate)

Online: Yes

Program Length: 2-3 years

Xavier University's online forensic nursing graduate program leads to either an MSN or both an MSN and a master of science in 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 at least four credits worth of nursing practicum, the only in-person requirements for the degree. 

2. Cleveland State University

Annual Tuition: In-State: $531.40 per credit Out-of-State $541.40 per credit

Online: Yes

Program Length: 2 years

Located in Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State University offers an online MSN in forensic nursing. The program takes two years of full-time study to complete, though students need to complete 400-500 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 nurses, legal nurse consultants, forensic psychiatric nurses, forensic correctional nurses, or forensic nurse death investigators. Also, all forensic nursing students receive the same per-credit tuition rate regardless of where they live. 

3. DeSales University

Tuition: $910 per credit

Online: Yes

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 a certification in investigative forensics. Regardless of online or on-campus study, students are required to complete at least 275 clinical practicum hours, plus 75 clinical lab hours, on-site in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. Upon graduating, nurses should demonstrate excellent leadership, organizational, and investigative skills. 

4. Fairleigh Dickinson University

Tuition: $1,100 per credit

Online: Yes

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, forensic focus. This 42-credit track requires 550 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. 

5. Duquesne University

Tuition: $1,635 per credit

Online: Yes

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 prepares students for any area of forensic nursing. Duquesne University partners with the Wecht Institute to offer this degree, so nursing students complete some courses through a different school within Duquesne. 

6. Texas A&M University

Semester Tuition: In-State: $26,922 Out-of-State $34,976

Online: Yes

Program Length: 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. 

7. Mount Mercy University

Tuition: $690 per credit

Online: Yes

Program Length: 18-24 months

Available in an online or hybrid format, Mount Mercy University's MSN lets students choose one of five emphases, including an emphasis in forensic nursing. Students who choose the hybrid format to attend courses on Wednesday evenings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The forensic nursing route requires 36 credits, and students take courses about the theories of crimes and justice, administration of justice, and presenting evidence during a trial. This quick program uses a per-credit tuition rate, so part-time students don't pay higher tuition as they might elsewhere. 

8. Penn State World Campus

Tuition: $590 per credit

Online: Yes

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. 

9. University of California Riverside

Annual Tuition: $4,500

Online: Yes

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: $13,318

Online: Yes

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. 

Part Six 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):

  1. SANE-A for working with adults and adolescents
  2. 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.

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

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.

Part Seven 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. 

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Part Eight 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 Nine 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:

  1. International Association of Forensic Nursing
  2. American Forensic Nursing
  3. American Institute of Forensic Education
  4. Academy on Violence and Abuse
  5. American Academy of Forensic Sciences
  6. Canadian Forensic Nurses Association
  7. American Board of Medico-Legal Investigators

Part Ten 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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Part Eleven Forensic Nurse FAQs

  • How do I become a forensic nurse? 

    • To become a forensic nurse, you should complete a BSN-RN program, 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?

    • Indeed notes that Pennsylvania pays forensic nurses the most, with an average salary of $95K. 
  • 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. 

Sources:
1. National Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020 Occupational Employment Statistics - Registered Nurses. Retrieved from: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm#st
2. US Department of Health and Human Services, The Future of the Nursing Workforce: National- and State-Level Projections, 2012-2025.  Retrieved from:
https://bhw.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/bhw/nchwa/projections/nursingprojections.pdf
3. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2015 Crime in the United States. Retrieved from: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/home 
4. NursingSchoolHub.com, Top 7 Forensic Nursing Programs. Retrieved from: http://www.nursingschoolhub.com/top-7-forensic-nursing-programs/

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