“In order to succeed, students need to be sensitive. Because they often work with victims of trauma, whether from a natural disaster or gender-based violence, nurses must be considerate of a patient’s history.”

Annie Lewis-O’Connor is a professor of forensic nursing at Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts. She has taught courses to nursing and public health students for 15 years.

Professor Lewis has a PhD in Nursing Research, a Master of Public Health, a Master of Science in Nursing and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. In addition to teaching, she serves as the Director of Nursing Practice at the Center of Women and Newborns at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

In your own words, what is forensic nursing?

It is grounded in the discipline of nursing and provides care services to victims of violent acts. Because services can be quite extensive, nurses often work in interdisciplinary teams to provide the best care possible for victims.

What classes do you teach in this subject?

For the last 10 to 15 years, I have taught graduate level courses on violence from a public health perspective at both Boston University and Boston College. My students learn how to properly assess a violent act and conduct an intervention. In order to promote a deep understanding of the causes of violence, I discuss current media stories and invite guest speakers to the class, such as a photo journalist and an expert in domestic violence.

How long have you been a professor of this subject?

I have been a professor of this subject for the last 15 years. Before becoming a professor, I worked full-time as a sexual assault nurse examiner for both adults and children. I am also a certified woman´s health nurse practitioner.

If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying this subject,” what would your response be?

I would tell a student interested to make sure they understand what this subject is. I have found that many students have a skewed perception because of television shows. They are often unaware of the daily tasks performed by professionals in this field.

In order to gain a better understanding, I would suggest that students explore the International Association of Forensic Nurses website, which is a membership organization for for these nurses worldwide.

In addition, it is important for students to know that there is no certification. If students pursue this career path, they will need to be prepared to explain their unique skill set to future employers.

What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed and what traits would hinder success?

In order to succeed, students need to be sensitive. Because they often work with victims of trauma, whether from a natural disaster or gender-based violence, nurses must be considerate of a patient’s history. In addition, they should have good listening skills.

On the other hand, people who are narrow-minded will struggle in the field. They should be lifelong learners who are open to learning new information from their patients.

What courses are most important for a student to take?

Students should take interdisciplinary courses in ethics and criminology with students from various fields. Because they collaborate with lawyers, doctors and social workers to provide adequate care for a patient, it is important for students to be exposed to different students’ perspectives in class. In these courses, students should expect to explore topics including evidence preservation and documentation, patient care and safety, and perpetrator accountability.

What skills can students expect to gain while studying?

Students can expect to gain excellent interpersonal skills, which are crucial to effectively communicate with victims of trauma. They need to be able to actively listen to patients’ stories without judging them or exhibiting negative body language. As a result, many classes will emphasize the importance of interpersonal skills by having students work through real-life situations.

Can you give a few study tips that would help a student succeed?

Although I don’t have an specific study tips, I would recommend that students read a wide variety of literature, such as survivor stories and personal accounts on victimization.

For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field?

In order to secure a job in the field, students should pursue their masters degree because a bachelors degree does not provide enough training to treat victims of sexual assault and violence. By earning a masters degree, they are prepared to do clinical work in forensics. However, students should earn a PhD if they plan on becoming a principal investigator.

What is the job outlook for students in this field?

At the moment, the job outlook for students is not good because many hospitals are implementing hiring pauses. Also, because students usually seek out their masters degree after receiving their bachelors degree, they lack professional experience when entering the job market.

After graduating, they usually work in the emergency room as a sexual assault examiner, or at a woman’s health clinic addressing gender-based violence. They can also work at local shelters leading focus groups on healthcare and self-care.

With that said, they are not just limited to a nursing position in the forensic field. They can pursue a career as a general nurse and bring a forensic lens to their position.

How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying this subject at the graduate level?

To prepare for studying at the graduate level, students should earn their bachelors degree. If students want to specialize in sexual assault examination, they need to take a 40-hour sexual assault course followed by 40 hours of clinical training. If students want to conduct death investigations, they need to pursue further education or pass a certification test.

In order to explore different career paths in this field, students should also seek out volunteer opportunities at shelters and organizations or spend time with a professional in the field.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying this subject?

I would advise students to remain balanced and pay attention to self-care. Although it can be an extremely rewarding career, it can be emotionally draining as well, so students should anticipate taking time off to recuperate.

Also, students need to remember to stay present and find joy in their own lives. Without maturity, coaching and mentoring, they will begin to develop a skewed vision of the world.

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