A genetic counselor could...
|Research a heritable disease to discover causal mutations and prevention.||Help people with a family history of genetic disorders have healthy babies.|
|Advise lawmakers about laws to protect people against genetic discrimination.||Counsel patients, who are at risk of inheriting a genetic disease, about their options.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Many decisions regarding a person's health depend on knowing the patient's genetic risk of having a disease. Genetic counselors help assess those risks, explain them to patients, and counsel individuals and families about their options.|
|Key Requirements||Attention to detail, curiosity, and the ability to listen, empathize, and explain|
|Minimum Degree||Master's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, chemistry, algebra, geometry, calculus, English, foreign language, sociology|
|Projected Job Growth (2010-2020)||Faster than Average (14% to 20%)|
|Interview||Read this interview with Barbara Biesecker, a genetic counselor at the National Human Genome Research Institute.|
Training, Other Qualifications
The majority of genetic counselors practicing today are board certified. Board certification to become a Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC) is available through the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Requirements include documentation of the following: a graduate degree in genetic counseling from an accredited program; clinical experience in an ABGC-approved training site or sites; a log book of 50 supervised cases; and successful completion of both the general and specialty certification examination.
Education and Training
Students interested in genetic counseling careers should be sure to take all the high school biology, chemistry, and math courses available to them. Good written and communication skills are also important and can be gained in English, foreign languages, and sociology classes.
In college, students should continue to study biology, chemistry, statistics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Students interested in pursuing this career should also seek ways to gain experience in counseling. This can be done in a number of ways, including applying for peer-counseling positions, or volunteering with a crisis center or hotline.
Genetic counselors need to complete a master's degree in genetic counseling. Coursework typically includes clinical genetics, population genetics, cytogenetics, and molecular genetics, coupled with psychosocial theory, ethics, and counseling techniques. Clinical placement in approved medical genetics centers is an integral part of the degree requirement.
Genetic counselors need to have strong analytical reasoning skills in order to evaluate the genetic risks of their patients. Counselors also require robust interpersonal communication skills to help them effectively explain the genetic risks to their patients and then counsel them about their options. Inductive reasoning, active listening, oral communication, and writing skills are all critical to a genetic counselor's career. Genetic counselors also need to be socially perceptive, staying aware of others' reactions and understanding why they react the way they do.
Nature of the Work
Watch this video from NOVA scienceNOW to learn how personal DNA sequencing may revolutionize healthcare.
In clinical settings, genetic counselors provide information and support to individuals who have or are at risk of having birth defects or genetic conditions, as well as to their families. They analyze family history information, interpret information about specific disorders, discuss the inheritance patterns, assess the risk to individuals, and review available options for testing or management with families. In addition to informative counseling, genetic counselors also provide supportive counseling to help individuals and families cope with and adapt to their altered circumstances.
Some genetic counselors also work in research settings, where they use the same diagnostic skills to discover how disorders are inherited and evaluate what can be done to treat them.
Genetic counselors often have teaching roles, in addition to their clinical or research work. They are involved in educating medical residents, medical students, genetic counseling students, physicians, other health care providers, and the general public, about human genetics.
Genetic counselors can work in a wide variety of settings. The most common setting is a clinical practice. Genetic counselors work in prenatal, pediatric, adult, and cancer clinics, where they serve to inform and counsel patients about their genetic risks.
Genetic counselors also work in laboratories. Some counselors are now working for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state Departments of Health. Others are working for pharmaceutical companies in the area of pharmacogenetics.
Additionally, many genetic counselors are involved in educating health care providers at medical or nursing schools.
On the Job
Typical tasks for a genetic counselor might include some of the following:
- Gather and analyze family history information to look for patterns of inheritance of a disease.
- Counsel individuals or families to help them understand their disease, define goals, and develop realistic action plans.
- Teach others, both informally and in classroom settings, about how traits are inherited.
- Develop, improve, and customize genetic tests.
- Confer with other health professionals to determine the best treatment for a patient with a genetic disorder.
Companies That Hire Genetic Counselors
Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...
- A Prescription for Success: Drugs & Your Genetics
- A Toxic Test: Can Plants Be Genetically Resistant to Heavy Metals?
- Are Fingerprint Patterns Inherited?
- Bioinformatics - The Perfect Marriage of Computer Science & Medicine
- DNA Fingerprinting
- Drugs & Genetics: Why Do Some People Respond to Drugs Differently than Others?
- From Genes to Genetic Diseases: What Kinds of Mutations Matter?
- Pedigree Analysis: A Family Tree of Traits
- Who Done It? DNA Fingerprinting and Forensics
Do you have a specific question about a career as a Genetic Counselor that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- National Society of Genetic Counselors: www.nsgc.org
- American Board of Genetic Counselors: www.abgc.net
- BLS. (2009). Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), 2008-09 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 1, 2009, from http://www.bls.gov/oco/
- NIH Office of Science Education. (n.d.). LifeWorks. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://nihlifeworks.org/
- NOVA scienceNOW. (2008, June 27). Personal Genome Project. Retrieved July 28, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/dispatches/080627.html