Forensic nurse examining hard drive

Do you like to watch crime shows like Law and Order: SVU? Are you having trouble deciding if you want to be a nurse, attorney, or detective? If so, forensic nursing might be the perfect career for you. 

Forensic nurses often work with trauma victims to provide care and gather evidence for law enforcement agencies. In addition, they sometimes work with coroners or medical examiners on death investigations. 

Because of this close relationship with legal matters, forensic nurses may testify as fact or expert witnesses in court. Fact witnesses testify about their experience with the evidence in a case. Expert witnesses receive payment to testify.

Here, we will answer many questions you may have about forensic nursing, including:

  • How do I become a forensic nurse?

  • What’s the difference between a forensic nurse and a registered nurse (RN)?

  • What’s the potential for advancement for a forensic nurse?

  • How much money does a forensic nurse make?

By the time you finish this article, you should know whether forensic nursing is a good fit for you.

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What are the steps to becoming a forensic nurse?

There are several steps to complete in becoming a forensic nurse. The good news is you’ll earn money through much of the process. As a result, you could have your first nursing job after 18 to 20 months.

Earn a nursing degree

The first step to becoming a forensic nurse is earning a nursing degree. You have two choices. You can get an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN).

You can earn an ADN in as little as 18 months. But you’ll need a BSN to qualify for some jobs. For example, though many nursing certifications require a BSN for exam eligibility, it isn’t necessary for forensic nurses. Still, if you want to pursue an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), you will need your BSN.

The BSN degree opens you to more opportunities but takes significantly longer. Often, the better choice is to get your ADN, get some experience from your first nursing job, and then go into an RN to BSN program. 

A BSN is a four-year degree. But many prospective nurses complete their BSN much quicker than four years. While you’ll usually earn an ADN at community colleges, you’ll probably get your BSN from a traditional university. 

Pass the NCLEX-RN nursing exam

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) offers the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN). To be eligible for the NCLEX-RN, you must have an ADN or BSN. 

The NCLEX-RN usually requires one to two months of study. However, unlike many certification exams, the NCSBN offers the NCLEX-RN any time you want to take it as long as you have your authorization to test (ATT) from your state’s nursing regulatory body (NRB). 

To get your ATT, you’ll need to apply to your state’s NRB. You also need to register with Pearson VUE — the company that administers the NCLEX-RN. Then, when you receive your emailed ATT, you’ll need to go back to Pearson VUE’s website to schedule your exam. 

Your ATT is only valid for 90 days. Failure to take the exam during that period means you’ll have to repeat the process. Once you pay the $200 exam and schedule your test date, you’re ready to take the NCLEX-RN.

The NCLEX-RN is a five-hour exam that’s given by computer. After passing the NCLEX-RN, you are an RN. It took 18 months for your ADN and one to two months of studying for the exam. Now an RN, you can work toward becoming a forensic nurse.

Gain work experience

Now that you’re an RN, it’s time to find that first nursing job. You’re an expert in nursing, but are you an expert on the different employment opportunities available? How much do you know about other employers? It makes sense to work with an expert to find the best job to achieve your goals. 

You need to gain relevant work experience. Since forensic nurses working in hospitals usually work in emergency rooms or urgent care departments, those are the best places to gain knowledge that will help you on your journey to becoming a forensic nurse.

Forensic nurses working outside of hospitals often work in

  • Coroner’s offices

  • Medical Examiner’s offices

  • Pathologist’s offices

  • Non-profit organizations that serve victims of sexual assault

Consider forensic specialty qualifications

The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) offers two certifications related to sexual assault. These are the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) for adults and adolescents (SANE-A) and children (SANE-P). 

The SANE-A exam’s eligibility requirements are two years of RN practice. The SANE-P exam requires three years of practice as an RN. The other requirements include the following:

  • Completing a minimum of 40 hours of SANE coursework

  • Completing an approved SANE clinical preceptorship

  • At least 300 hours of SANE-related practice within the past three years

The IAFN offers the SANE exams twice a year. The exam fees are as follows:

  • $275 for the SANE-A exam for IAFN members

  • $425 for the SANE-A exam for non-members

  • $425 for the SANE-P exam for IAFN members

  • $575 for the SANE-P exam for non-members

Once you pass one of the SANE exams, you’re certified in one area of forensic nursing. However, if you need to do more to achieve your goals, it may be time to consider an advanced degree.

Consider an advanced degree program

An MSN in forensic nursing opens many opportunities for you. It will help land jobs such as 

  • Legal nursing consultants

  • Expert witnesses

  • Research positions

  • Jobs in coroner’s or medical examiner’s offices

  • Teaching positions

Apply for forensic nurse jobs

While most jobs as a forensic nurse are in a hospital setting, there are some opportunities you would never have considered. For example, the FBI hires forensic nurses. So, as a forensic nurse, you could be a key part of a criminal investigations team. 

Your SANE certification helps you find jobs in forensic nursing since it shows expertise and relevant work experience. Some employers require you to have at least a BSN. However, as mentioned above, an MSN in forensic nursing opens additional opportunities for you.

Can you become a forensic nurse online?

Yes! The most important part of your nursing education is your hands-on clinical experience. You can complete your education online.

Some programs bridge classroom education for RNs with only an ADN. 

These are RN to BSN and RN to MSN programs. 

You can also complete these programs online. So, if you want to keep your current job and work on these programs online at night, you can.

Using these bridge programs gives you the best of both worlds. First, you can work while you’re earning your ADN. Then get relevant work experience while working on an RN to BSN or RN to MSN. 

By earning the ADN, you start earning money quicker than a BSN but don’t qualify for as many opportunities. Still, you can use these bridge programs to be eligible for the full array of opportunities for forensic nurses while still earning income as a nurse.

What is the difference between a forensic nurse and a registered nurse?

All forensic nurses are at least RNs, but all RNs aren’t forensic nurses. So, it would be best if you were an RN before entering forensic nursing.

What positions can you progress to from being a forensic nurse?

You have many options for advancement as a forensic nurse. First, of course, you can get your SANE-A or SANE-P certifications. But if sexual assault work isn’t for you, there are other options if you earn your MSN degree. 

With an MSN, you could become an Advanced Practice RN (APRN) specializing in forensic nursing. NPs earn the highest salaries in the nursing profession. While some NP specialties earn more than others, most average over six-figure salaries. 

Do your forensic nurse exam qualifications expire?

The SANE-A and SANE-P certifications expire every three years. You’re required to earn a certain amount of SANE-related continuing education hours to renew your certification. If you do not have enough continuing education hours, you’ll need to renew by retaking the exam. 

How much do forensic nurses make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t keep data for forensic nurses. But the BLS has data for RNs and NPs. 

The average of all states’ median salaries for RNs is $76,945. 

The average of all states’ median salaries for NPs is $116,439.

The states with the highest median salaries for RNs are —

  1. California at $125,340

  2. Hawaii at $111,070

  3. Oregon at $99,410

  4. Alaska at $99,110

  5. Washington at $96,980

The states with the lowest median salaries for RNs are —

  1. Alabama at $60,510

  2. South Dakota at $60,550

  3. Mississippi at $60,790

  4. Arkansas at $61,530

  5. Iowa at $61,790

The states with the highest median salaries for NPs are —

  1. California at $151,830

  2. New Jersey at $137,010

  3. New York at $133,940

  4. Washington at $130,840

  5. Massachusetts at $129,540

The states with the lowest median salaries for NPs are —

  1. Tennessee at $95,120.

  2. Alabama at $102,410

  3. South Carolina at $102,850

  4. Missouri at $103,490

  5. West Virginia at $104,750

Salaries for forensic nurses vary depending on their experience, certifications, and education. 

Certified forensic nurses must have at least two years of experience. That means they will be closer to the medium than an entry-level RN. Forensic nurses should see a substantial increase in their salary if they choose to earn an MSN and qualify as an NP.

One key factor to always remember when comparing average or medium salary numbers based on geography is the cost of living in an area. So, for example, if you make twice as much in one state as another, but the cost of living is twice as high in that state, in real terms, you aren’t earning any more in the higher-income than you were in the lower-income state.

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How long does it take to become a forensic nurse?

Since you can earn an ADN in as little as 18 months, you could start your first RN job within 19-20 months after starting your ADN. That leaves some room for passing the NCLEX-RN. Then, you can earn your two years’ experience to qualify for the SANE-A. So, you could become a certified forensic nurse in less than four years.