If you’re interested in a career that involves helping people and you have strong science skills, then genetic counseling may be the perfect choice for you. Genetic counselors work with patients who have or may be at risk of developing a genetic disorder. They provide information and support to families who are coping with a diagnosis and help them make decisions about their care. This blog will help you understand what you can expect from a genetic counseling career and how to become a genetic counselor.
1. What Is Genetic Counseling?
The best way to understand what a genetic counselor does is to consider the brief history of this profession. Genetic counseling was first developed in the 1960s by a small group of doctors and scientists who fought against discrimination against people with genetic diseases. These professionals believed that they could help reduce prejudice and inform medical care through patient education, so they established the field of genetic counseling. Since then, a not-for-profit organization called the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) was founded to set standards for training and practice in clinical genetics.
Today, over 4100 certified genetic counselors work in the United States. The majority of students graduating from a certified program are employed as counselors or as part of a medical team (the second largest group is employed as geneticists). The main role of a genetic counselor is to provide information and support; they do this through direct counseling with patients and families, by providing accurate information about the disease process, by helping people understand their options, and by guiding people through complicated diagnostic and treatment issues.
2. What Are the Responsibilities of a Genetic Counselor?
The NSGC defines the standards of practice for genetic counselors. These standards are used to guide counselors in their clinical care, teaching, research, and advocacy activities. The responsibilities of a genetic counselor are to:
- Assess the family history and personal medical history of individuals who may be affected with or at risk for inherited conditions
- Develop a list of diagnostic options to address the concerns identified during the assessment process
- Educate individuals and families about their condition by providing appropriate information in a manner that is easily understood
- Help individuals or families interpret complex medical information
- Develop a treatment plan based on an individual’s needs, values, preferences, age, gender, culture, etc.
3. Why Become a Genetic Counselor?
There are many reasons to consider a career in genetic counseling, but most people choose this profession because of their interest in the medical sciences and the desire to help others. Genetic counselors often say that they enjoy being a part of a patient’s journey or providing information about a patient’s condition so that it is easier for them to understand.
Another reason to become a genetic counselor is that there are few jobs in the healthcare profession that offer an average salary of $88,000 after completion of training. Job satisfaction associated with this career path is also extremely high; most genetic counselors report feeling fulfilled by their work.
Additionally, if you decide to specialize in reproductive counseling, you will be in high demand as an increasing number of people are turning to genetic testing before pregnancy. As technology advances and fewer limitations exist for reproductive options, many couples look for a counselor who can explain the potential risks associated with a certain genetic disorder and help them decide how they want to proceed.
4. What Is Required to Become a Genetic Counselor?
Since the field of genetic counseling is relatively new, the educational requirements are not as extensive as they are for other healthcare professions. Most professionals learn on-the-job training with some additional coursework. If you are interested in becoming a genetic counselor, it’s important to look at specific programs available so that you can find one that best suits your interests and career goals.
There are currently 28 genetic counseling training programs in the United States. Although each program is different, most offer the same basic courses that meet current standards for certification set by the NSGC. Genetic counselors must have a bachelor’s degree before they can be admitted into one of these programs (most students apply after completing their junior year of college).
The next requirement is that you must take specific coursework that will help prepare you for the field. Most of these programs offer courses in human genetics, medical terminology, statistics, counseling skills, communication skills, ethics and laws pertaining to genetic testing, research methods, clinical presentation skills, patient care skills, biology/developmental science courses (depending on your intended area of focus), and a clinical practicum.
All genetic counselors must complete an 1100 hour (about 18 months) long internship and pass the national certification exam after graduation before they can practice; this is required by the NSGC. The majority of students find an internship towards the end of their program, although some programs may require or offer internships as early as the second semester.
5. How Much Do Genetic Counselors Make?
As far as salary goes, most genetic counselors enjoy a comfortable salary after completing their training and internship. The median annual income for a genetic counselor is $68,000; however, this number varies depending on your area of specialization and where you work. As with many other professions, the higher your level of education and the more experience you have, the more you can expect to make.
6. What Can I Do With My Degree?
There are several different areas where a genetic counselor can work; some prefer general counseling while others specialize in specific groups or patients. For example, some genetic counselors assist adults who are at risk of passing on a condition to their child, while others focus on helping adults who have been diagnosed with a genetic disorder or inherited cancer risk. These professionals typically work in private practice, universities, hospitals, and laboratories.
There are also several different paths you can take if you want to specialize in reproductive counseling; these include prenatal diagnosis, carrier screening, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and pre-pregnancy counseling. Prenatal diagnosis involves testing of the fetus to see if it has specific inheritable conditions; this type of testing is most commonly used for Down syndrome or neural tube defects. Carrier screening typically involves only adults who are interested in learning about their own personal risks for passing on a condition. PGD is an option for those who have a family history of a specific genetic disorder and do not want to worry about having children affected by the condition. Pre-pregnancy counseling, as the name implies, involves working with couples who are considering having children to decide if they should test themselves or their future child (if they can) for specific inherited conditions.
7. What Is the Job Outlook for Genetic Counselors?
The field of genetic counseling is expected to grow by 30% over the next decade, which means that there will be many new opportunities available in both private practice and public health settings. If you’re interested in working with people directly and having your own office, you may want to consider becoming a licensed professional counselor or marriage and family therapist in addition to completing your degree in genetic counseling.
8. What Are Some Related Jobs?
Many genetic counselors get their start in the healthcare field and choose to work in a medical genetics department, which is typically “upstream” from the genetics counseling offered at hospitals and clinics. There are also other options for those interested, including:
- Medical laboratory technologist (another great option if you enjoy science and working with numbers)
- Research assistant Genetic counselor
- Medical social worker
- Counselor (can be done in conjunction with another type of position such as a genetic counselor)
- Registered nurse
- Physician assistant
- Licensed professional counselor
- Marriage and family therapist
- Social worker
- Pediatrician (a great option if you enjoy working with kids)
- Psychologist (this can be a great option if you are looking for training in psychological counseling)
- Veterinarian (a good option if you love animals but don’t want to work full-time with a particular species)
- Pediatric nurse practitioner (a good choice if you want to provide healthcare for kids and their families)
- Medical geneticist
- Physician’s assistant
- The certified medical sonographer (an interesting career that requires advanced training)
9. What Are the Skills Needed to Become a Genetic Counselor?
There are many different skills that are necessary for genetic counselors to have, including:
- -the ability to make quick decisions
- -excellent verbal and written communication skills
- -empathy, but not the ability to take on other people’s feelings as your own
- -high intelligence with a strong memory
- -interest in science and the humanities
- -the ability to work as part of a team
- -strong hand-eye coordination
10. Where Do Genetic Counselors Work?
Some of the places that genetic counselors typically work include:
Hospitals & clinics Universities & colleges Government agencies Private practice Colleges Health fairs Family planning centers Medical research labs Blood donor centers Schools Counseling centers Anywhere there is a need for counseling related to inheritance, disorders, traits, etc.
11. What Online Courses Can I Take to Become a Genetic Counselor?
There are several online options for genetic counseling programs, including:
Carrington College – A full list of the 300+ courses offered at this school can be viewed on their website. Carrington offers an ADN-to-BSN completion program which also includes a certificate in genetic counseling. Students who are accepted into the program will have the opportunity to begin taking the necessary courses in the final year of their ADN program.
University of Cincinnati – This is a nine-month, full-time program (including one summer session) offered on campus and online. The majority of the coursework is completed through face-to-face classes; however, students will need to complete some online classes as well.
University of California San Diego – This is a nine-month, full-time program (including one winter session) offered on campus and online. In addition to the bachelor’s degree program, this school also offers a Ph.D. in Genetic Counseling that requires students to have completed a bachelor’s degree prior to enrollment.
Vanguard University – This is a 22 month, full-time program (including one summer session) offered on campus and online. After completing the coursework, students will need to complete an 18-week practicum experience which can be completed at a genetics clinic in their area. In addition to the master’s degree program, this school also offers a Ph.D. program in Genetic Counseling.
12. Best College to Study Genetic Counseling
If you are looking for colleges with genetic counseling programs, there are many online and on-campus degree programs to choose from. Here is a list of some of the most popular schools that offer degrees related to genetics counseling:
- University of Florida
- University of Washington State
- University Rutgers
- University Texas
- A&M Eastern Virginia Medical School
- University at Buffalo Duke
Genetic counseling is a relatively new and quickly growing field. It offers many opportunities for career growth and development. If you are interested in helping people understand their genetic makeup and the potential implications of that information, then genetic counseling may be the perfect career for you. With hard work and dedication, you can achieve success as a genetic counselor. We wish you all the best on your journey to this exciting and rewarding career!