A woman sitting at a desk with a computer

A genetic counselor could...

Research a heritable disease to discover causal mutations and prevention. Digital image of chromosomes floating in a black space Help people with a family history of genetic disorders have healthy babies. A baby grabs a mans nose while sitting in a grassy field
Advise lawmakers about laws to protect people against genetic discrimination. A sequence of the letters A, T, C and G overlaid on a blue tinted image of people walking on a street Counsel patients, who are at risk of inheriting a genetic disease, about their options. Close-up photo of a doctor talking to a patient
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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
Median Salary
Genetic Counselor
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Much Faster than Average (21% or more) In Demand!
Interview Read this interview with Barbara Biesecker, a genetic counselor at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net and LifeWorks

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.

Other Qualifications

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

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.

Watch this video from NOVA scienceNOW to learn how personal DNA sequencing may revolutionize healthcare.

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.

Work Environment

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.

Source: NIH

Companies That Hire Genetic Counselors

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