“To be a good forensic nursing student and professional you need to be flexible. In any graduate program, you need to be able to adapt to any challenges that may appear along the way.”

Kristen Panico is in the second year of her Master of Science program in Forensic Nursing at Fitchburg State University. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from University of Connecticut in 2004. Kristen works full time as a nurse in Boston and lives in Stoughton, Massachusetts.

Kristen decided to earn a masters degree in forensic nursing because she wanted to further her education, but she didn’t want to take on an administrative or teaching position after she completed graduate school, which is common for nurses who hold masters degrees. A degree in forensic nursing gives her the chance to continue to work directly with patients while playing an important role in patient advocacy.

In your own words, what is forensic nursing?

Forensic nursing is a cross between nursing and the legal field. Forensic nurses care for patients who have been involved in a situation that has caused them harm and which has prompted a legal investigation. But forensic nurses don’t always examine patients who have been victims of crimes, which is often the assumption. Positions range from working closely with the police and the legal field to working with insurance companies and helping to develop healthcare policies.

Why did you choose to get a masters degree in forensic nursing?

I decided to earn my masters degree in forensic nursing because I knew that I wanted to go back to school and get a graduate education. I also knew that I didn’t want a degree that would prepare me specifically for administration or for becoming a nurse instructor. When I found out about forensic nursing programs, I thought the field was very unique and interesting.

When you first considered pursuing a masters degree in forensic nursing, what were your expectations?

Before I entered my masters program in forensic nursing at Fitchburg State University, I didn’t realize how much forensic nurses act as advocates for their patients. Forensic nurses play this role much more than other nurses typically do. Forensic nurses blend other fields and disciplines with nursing to make sure that patients are getting the right kind of care. They also work to make sure that the legal and judicial system supports their patients as well.

What do you find most enjoyable about studying forensic nursing?

I enjoy knowing that studying forensic nursing will allow me to continue to work with patients. Most of my colleagues at the hospital where I work are going back to school to get masters degrees in education so that they can teach nursing, or they are getting advanced nursing degrees. These degree often take you further away from the patient and put you into a more administrative role.

How did you choose your graduate school?

Choosing a school for a masters program in forensic nursing is a little bit different than it would be if you were applying to a different field or branch of nursing. Forensic nursing programs are relatively new, and there are very few in the country. Aside from my program at Fitchburg State University, there were only 2 or 3 others in the northeast. I also liked the fact that the program at Fitchburg State offers online courses, so I am able to work at my own pace and on my own time.

What is your program’s curriculum like?

The forensic nursing program at Fitchburg State University usually takes about 3 years to complete if you attend full time, which means enrolling in 2 classes each semester. Courses that we take in my program include nursing research, an introduction to forensic nursing, nursing theory, forensic law and scientific forensics. We also take clinical classes that teach you how to actually work with and care for patients.

Once you complete your coursework, you conduct research and complete your thesis and research project.

What parts of your curriculum or particular classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?

I think my clinical classes will be the most valuable to me when I begin my career as a forensic nurse. Right now, I am enrolled in a research course which I am very excited about, because I have been able to bring my experience at my current job into the classroom. One of the women who I work with is involved with forensic nursing and preventing violence against women. She knows I am in this masters program, so she has taken on a mentoring role with me. Our work together is also benefiting directly from what I am learning in my class.

What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in a forensic nursing program and what traits would hinder success?

To be a good forensic nursing student and professional you need to be flexible. In any graduate program, you need to be able to adapt to any challenges that may appear along the way.

Once you become a forensic nurse, you have to continue to show this kind of flexibility. Caring for other people means that your job will change significantly from 1 day to the next. If you are close-minded and inflexible, you will struggle to succeed in this field.

What is your thesis topic?

I haven’t entirely worked out my thesis topic, but I know that I would like to write about violence against women. I am interested in looking at international cases, like the situation in Haiti after the earthquake and how women experienced this disaster. I am also considering doing research on women and AIDS.

Do you have an advisor, and if so, how does your advisor support your academic progress?

My advisor makes sure that I have all of my courses selected for each semester and that I have a solid plan in mind for the program. With my advisor, I have set up a timeline to keep on track and make sure that I graduate on time.

What is your weekly schedule?

I work full time at a hospital in Boston, so I spend 3 nights each week at work. Because I study online, I am able to hold this job and still complete my coursework, which is great. Right now, I only have 1 class that requires me to log on at a specified time, which happens every Monday from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Otherwise, I can access the online class at any time.

How do you balance your studies and your personal life?

I work full time, so it can be difficult to balance my studies with my job and the rest of my life. I hold the night shift, so after working I often need to come home and sleep during the day. This cuts into the time I have to study and socialize. For the most part, I try to keep 1 or 2 days open for friends and family so that I don’t get burned out.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After I earn my masters degree in forensic nursing, I plan to stay in school. I would like to get a masters degree in public health, and I am also thinking about pursuing a PhD. Before I graduate from my forensic nursing program, I would like to take a class in public administration so that I can prepare for a program in this field.

Now that you have completed 1 year of your forensic nursing graduate program, if you could go back to college, what would you do differently?

I don’t know if I would do anything differently if I went back to college. I enjoyed my experience, and I think I received a good education.

What advice do you have for students who are considering a masters degree in forensic nursing?

I would advise you to take the opportunity if you have the chance to earn your masters degree. Forensic nursing is a great field with great job prospects. I also suggest that prospective students look into online programs. Studying online may allow you to be more successful than if you try to balance attending on-campus classes while holding a job.

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