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Forensic nursing is one of the most challenging and diverse career paths you can opt for in the profession of nursing. Your master's in forensic nursing prepares you to aid and care for those affected by personal violence or disaster.

The International Association of Forensic Nurses defines forensic nursing as "the application of nursing science to public or legal proceedings; the application of the forensic aspects of health care combined with the bio-psycho-social education of the registered nurse in the scientific investigation and treatment of trauma and/or death of victims and perpetrators of abuse, violence, criminal activity and traumatic accidents."

Registered nurses have been working in a forensic science capacity for decades, but the role was not formally recognized until the 1990s. Whether you choose a traditional college setting or earn a master's degree online, your degree in forensic nursing prepares you to put your nursing skills to work for those who have faced a devastating personal issue.

A Guide to the Master's Degree in Forensic Nursing

The master's degree in health with a specialization in forensic nursing offers many career opportunities that go above and beyond that of a registered nurse. However, your education must begin with pursuit of your registered nurse degree.

Degrees in Forensic Nursing

Before you can earn your master's in forensic nursing, you must become a registered nurse. There are three ways to get there:

  • Earn an associate degree in nursing.
  • Earn a bachelor's of science degree in nursing.
  • Earn a diploma from an approved, accredited nursing program.

You can also move beyond the master's degree into two distinct doctoral fields:

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). This degree readies you for working in expert and clinical practice areas, and is the more "hands-on" degree.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). A PhD program prepares you to move into a research-oriented position within the forensic nursing field.

Specializing with Your Master's Degree

Those with a master's degree in forensic nursing can move into many different specializations. Some of the more common specializations include:

  • Correctional nursing
  • Sexual assault nursing examiners
  • Domestic violence
  • Pathology and biology
  • Psychiatry and behavioral science
  • Physical anthropology
  • Questioned documents
  • Psychiatric mental health nursing
  • Toxicology

Those who opt to become sexual assault nursing examiners must earn certification to handle the delicate issues of rape and sexual abuse. Requirements include two years of experience working as a licensed registered nurse, an active nursing license, and a master's degree.

The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner certification (SANE) is offered for two distinct populations: first, the SANE-A, which allows work with adults and adolescents, and the SANE-P, which allows the nurse to work with children and adolescents.

How to Apply for the Master's Degree in Forensic Nursing

There are many ways to earn your master's degree in forensic nursing. The application process begins with several key decisions, such as choosing whether to pursue your degree in an on-campus setting or online. No matter your final choice, it all begins with research.

Step One: Find the Right Master's in Forensic Nursing Program

Meticulous research is the only way to find the best master's in forensic nursing program for you. Start with the most basic "must have" criteria and gradually narrow down that long list into a short list.

Focus on Accredited Master's Degree Programs

Accredited programs are the gold standard in education. A degree program is examined by an independent accrediting body and judged on the quality of the curriculum, expertise of faculty and staff, and other factors that help determine whether the degree program is on a par with other schools of excellence.

Accreditation is important for a number of reasons. Without accreditation, you run the risk of a degree that is not recognized by potential employers. If you choose to transfer from one program to another, credits earned from a program that is not accredited might be useless to you. Finally, only an accredited program is eligible for federal financial aid.

Resources

  • U.S. Department of Education. A frequently updated list of accredited institutions and programs can be found on the U.S. Department of Education Web site.
  • Accrediting Bodies. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission is the head accrediting body of forensic science degree programs. Their Web site includes an updated list of accredited programs, including contacts for further information.
  • WorldWideLearn.com. For more information on accreditation, including how it is determined and why it is so important, browse WorldWideLearn's section on Accreditation Answers.

Choose Your Format: Online, Campus, or Both

You know what you want to learn, but do you know how you want to learn it? Some are more comfortable with a traditional classroom setting on a college campus, while others prefer to earn a master's degree online. There also is the hybrid approach, in which a student combines on-campus learning and online education.

  • Online Learning. Online education offers a flexible schedule that doesn't disrupt the other obligations in your life. You can continue to work your regular hours and spend quality time with your family while using your free time to complete your coursework.
  • Campus Setting. For those who learn best in a traditional, hands-on teaching situation, attending an on-campus degree program might be your best bet.
  • Hybrid Education. The hybrid education combines the flexible features of online education with occasional classroom study. You might pursue the majority of your degree through online means, and then meet in a brick-and-mortar satellite school for testing and necessary hands-on training.

Resources

  • School Web sites. Browse school Web sites to find out what they offer. If you prefer a hybrid educational experience, look at the locations of satellite schools closest to your home.
  • WorldWideLearn.com. Still not sure what a particular school offers? Visit WorldWideLearn.com for a list of academic degree programs that are online, on-campus, or both.

Study the Academic Programs

You've narrowed down your options by accreditation status and educational format. Now, look at the degree programs themselves.

  • Faculty expertise. What kind of experience do faculty members have? Are they accomplished in the field of forensic nursing? Will they bring something unique to the table when class begins?
  • Curriculum requirements. What is expected of you? Do you have what it takes to handle the curriculum requirements? Look carefully at what each school asks of its students, and make certain you can fulfill all of the obligations. If you want to earn a master's degree online, be sure to look closely at what hands-on work might be required, and where you would be expected to complete it.
  • Research opportunities. If you are leaning toward a forensic nursing degree that puts you in the path of new research opportunities, make certain the school you choose has the facilities to help you get a jump-start on that desire.
  • Specialization and Options. By the time you enter the master's in forensic nursing program, you probably have a clear career path in mind. Make sure the degree programs on your short list offer the proper courses and training to make your dreams a reality.

Resources

  • WorldWideLearn.com. The information you need on each academic program is right at your fingertips. The easy-to-use request form on WorldWideLearn.com is an easy way to obtain information on schools, and tips on how to earn a master's degree online are available as well.
  • School Web sites. Visit school Web sites and research your specific questions about faculty, research, specialization, and the like. If you can't find the information on the school's site, pick up the phone and call the admissions office to request answers.
  • Academic journals. If a master's in forensic nursing program gets a glowing report in a respected industry journal, you can bet that degree is worth your time. Look at the profiles in academic journals, and don't forget to look at the names of those who wrote the articles, as well. Do you see any faculty names?

Evaluate the Quality of the Degree Program

Choosing a quality degree program ensures that your education is looked upon favorably by potential employers. How do you evaluate the quality of the master's program in forensic nursing? Start with these criteria:

  • History. How long has the master's program been in place? How many classes have graduated from the program, and what was their experience like? Is the online program connected to a traditional brick-and-mortar institution that has offered a quality education for decades?
  • Reputation. Word of mouth travels fast, and is an important element of establishing a reputation. Keep your ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying about the degree program that interests you.
  • Graduation and placement rate. How many people who start the master's degree program wind up completing it on time? How many are placed in jobs that reflect their new degree level? A good graduation and placement rate indicates good support throughout the educational experience.
  • Career support. Having someone behind you when you strike out on a new career is very important. The school you choose should have a career support program in place that keeps tabs on the program graduates and helps them succeed through every phase of their new careers.

Resources

  • U.S. News and World Report. The annual rankings list details the best health schools, as well as the best nursing programs, broken down by specialization. You can even find a list of the top-ranked online master's degree programs.
  • Statistics. When it comes to graduation, career placement, and the like, the numbers speak volumes. Find the most current statistics on your schools of interest. If that information is not readily available online, contact the school directly and ask for the most recent numbers.
  • Online search. this time, don't head to the school's Web site--hit up the search engines instead. What are people saying about the school? Check out message boards, professional forums, and personal blogs to get a feel for what others think about the schools on your short list.
  • Faculty and peers. Talk to the faculty of the degree programs, as well as peers who have walked this path before you. What are their impressions of the schools on your list? Which ones would they recommend as the best?

Step Two: Apply to Master's Degree Programs in Forensic Nursing

By this point, you have narrowed down a rather large list. You took into account accreditation status, educational format, academic offerings, and the overall quality of the degree program. Now it's time to look at your streamlined list and determine what they need from you.

Prerequisites

  • Degree. In order to earn your master's in forensic science, you must first be a registered nurse. If you have any other nursing degree or a degree in a health-related field, research what classes you must take in order to meet the minimum entry requirements for the forensic science degree program.
  • Testing. The forensic nursing degree program you choose might have various testing requirements, such as current certifications in specialized skills, the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for those who claim English as a second language.
  • Background check. Because a forensic nurse works with sensitive legal and medical information, a background check is performed for the peace of mind and safety of everyone involved.

Application Must-Haves

  • Academic transcripts. Obtain all your academic transcripts from prior educational programs, including information on all certifications you have earned.
  • Letters of recommendation. Many master's programs require letters of recommendation from former instructors, colleagues, and employers. Find out how many are required and request them early to give the writers time to complete a glowing recommendation.
  • Personal essays. Also known as a statement of purpose, this essay details why you want to become a forensic nurse, and explains what you intend to do with your degree in the future.
  • Work experience. Some master's programs in forensic nursing require a certain amount of real-world work experience before they look at your application.

Financial Aid Matters

  • Federal financial aid. Federal financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans could be the biggest financial help you receive. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is your starting point.
  • Scholarships. Several forensic nursing master's programs offer scholarships to those who qualify under certain criteria. You can also look to civic organizations, your current employer, professional organizations, and the like to find scholarship opportunities.
  • Grants. Federal grants can help pay your way through the forensic nursing master's program, but there might be more specialized grants available to you as well.
  • WorldWideLearn.com can offer more information on financial aid and help you decide which options are most feasible for you.

Step Three: Prepare for the Master's in Forensic Nursing Program

Forensic nursing can become a life-long, fulfilling profession. Start out on the right foot by immersing yourself in the networking and professional organizations that will become your foundation.

  • Join professional organizations. Joining a professional organization puts you in touch with like-minded people who are interested in learning more about the forensic nursing field. The International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN), the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), and other forensic organizations that address your particular field of expertise are all good options.
  • Attend conferences. Learn about new advances and meet others like you by attending conferences hosted by professional organizations. Conferences allow an opportunity to network with professional colleagues, as well as socializing events that allow you to build friendships with those who share the same career interests.
  • Subscribe to journals. A wealth of information can be found in forensic nursing journals. A few good places to start include publications from professional organizations, such as the Journal of Forensic Nursing.

Master's Degree in Forensic Nursing: The Road Ahead

As a forensic nurse, you provide a valuable service to individuals and communities just when your expertise is needed the most. A master's in forensic nursing opens the door to many specializations, and each one of them puts you in the position of helping those around you.

Sources

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences
  • Best Health Schools, U.S. News and World Report
  • Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education
  • Educational Testing Service
  • Forensic Nursing, Vanderbilt School of Nursing
  • Forensic Nursing, University of Tennessee
  • Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission
  • Forensic Science Graduate Program, University of California (UC Davis)

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