How Do I Become a Genetic Counselor?

Find out about the types of jobs you could pursue in genetic counseling. Read on to learn more about career options along with salary and certification information. Schools offering Addiction Counseling degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Genetic Counselor?

Genetic counselors research the human genome and help educate families about inherited genetic traits. They meet with clients to discuss their medical history and possible tests. Then, they evaluate the information, write reports and discuss medical options with the patients. While most professionals provide genetic counseling in the traditional fields of prenatal, cancer and pediatric care, more counselors than ever are choosing to specialize in growing areas of the field, such as genomics, neurogenetics and heart health. Jobs are available in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, clinics, biotech companies, diagnostic laboratories, and more. See the table below for more information.

Genetic Counselor
Degree RequiredBachelor's degree (minimum requirement)
Master's degree (usually required)
Education Field of StudyBiology
Chemistry
Psychology
Counseling
Key SkillsGood interpersonal skills
Assess individual or family risk for inherited conditions
Provide information and advice to healthcare providers
CertificationCertified Genetic Counselor (CGC) designation by ABGC
Job Growth (2014-2024)29%*
Mean Salary (2015)$74,570*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Complete Your Undergraduate Training

To become a genetic counselor, you must first earn a bachelor's degree. Aspiring counselors often pursue degrees in the physical sciences, such as biology or chemistry, or the social sciences, like psychology or counseling. Almost any major is acceptable; however, you'll need to make sure your curriculum includes coursework in biochemistry, genetics, statistics or human development. These types of classes are often prerequisites for admission to a genetic counseling master's program.

Get Your Master's Degree

A master's degree is usually required in order to work as a genetic counselor. Many schools that offer these 2-year programs look for applicants who have not only completed undergraduate course prerequisites, but also have volunteer or paid experience in a counseling or social work role. You should consider programs that are accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) - graduation from one of these programs is a requirement for voluntary board certification. Common master's-level coursework includes research methodology, public health, counseling theory and ethics. You may also complete clinical rotations, conduct independent research and prepare a thesis.

Consider Becoming Certified

Once you receive your master's degree in genetic counseling, you can apply to earn the Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC) designation offered by the ABGC. Before you can sit for the certification exam, you must apply for Active Candidate Status (ACS), which proves that you completed an accredited graduate program and an adequate clinical experience. ACS is good for one examination cycle; if you don't successfully pass the exam while you have ACS, you'll need to reapply. After earning certification, you'll need to participate in continuing education or take a recertification exam every five years.

Find Your Niche

In a clinical setting, you'll work directly with families in different sectors, such as prenatal, pediatric, cancer, adult, cardiovascular, hematology or neurovascular genetics. You might be interested in working with biotech companies that develop and perform tests, or working as a liaison between diagnostic laboratories and physicians. Becoming an educator, working with lawmakers to develop public policies and becoming a researcher are also possible career choices.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are interested studying human disease, particularly as it relates to public health, you may want to consider a job as a research epidemiologist. These professionals conduct health-related research on a wide variety of topics, including some that are associated with genetics, such as chronic diseases and maternal/child health. Epidemiologists usually hold at least a master's degree. Alternatively, if you would rather focus your career on the practice of medicine, you could become physician assistant, where you would work in conjunction with physicians to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, including those associated with heritable conditions. To become a physician assistant, you must complete a master's degree program and pass a licensure exam.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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