Genetic Counseling

Genetic counseling is utilized as a screening tool in healthcare fields such as oncology, reproductive health and prenatal medicine. Learn about job duties, educational requirements, degree coursework and salary information.

Is Genetic Counseling for Me?

Career Overview

Genetic counseling is the profession whereby counselors help clients understand the implications and management of inherited genetic disorders or conditions. The genetic counselor meets with a client to gather a medical history of the client and his or her blood relatives. The information is then used to build a biological family tree, which, when combined with analysis of clients' genetic test results, helps the counselor identify genetic traits and inherited genetic disorders. This in turn helps the counselor recommend treatment and management options for the client.

Genetic counselors have traditionally worked in the prenatal, pediatric and cancer fields. However, due to expanding knowledge in the field, you may find work in areas such as reproductive technologies, cardiovascular genetics, cancer genetics and neurogenetics. Additionally, you may be employed in research, education, healthcare consulting or policy development. To work as a genetic counselor, you'll need a Master of Science in Genetic Counseling from an American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC)-accredited program (www.abgc.net).

Employment

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that genetic counselors can expect strong job growth from 2012-2022, with an increase of 41% predicted (www.bls.gov). PayScale.com reported that as of March 2014, the majority of genetic counselors earned $46,025-$83,615; this reflects salaries and bonuses within the 10th-90th percentile range. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for this career was $56,800 in 2012. According to the 2010 Professional Status Survey of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), genetic counselors boasted a job-satisfaction rate of 89% (www.nsgc.org).

How Can I Become a Genetic Counselor?

Education

According to the NSGC, you'll have a better chance of admittance to a genetic counseling master's degree program if you have an undergraduate degree in biology, psychology or genetics. However, it was noted that other educational backgrounds are acceptable, though you'll need to have taken courses in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, general psychology and statistics.

In a genetics counseling master's degree program, you may expect to learn about the many genetic metabolic anomalies as well as common congenital malformation disorders that can occur. You'll take courses about human genetics, cytogenetics, molecular genetics and cancer genetics. In a typical program, you'll role-play interview situations to gain practical experience working with clients. You'll gain valuable skills doing clinical rotations in varying specialty areas, such as pediatric, cancer and reproductive genetics. Some programs may also offer rotations in nontraditional areas, such as a genetics or pharmaceutical laboratory.

You'll usually be expected to choose between a thesis and non-thesis degree plan. In the thesis degree plan, you'll need to pass a written comprehensive examination and an oral examination as well as write and defend a thesis.

If your interest lies in research or teaching at the college level, you'll typically need a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Genetics. A Ph.D. program will require you to pass a comprehensive written and oral exam as well as write and successfully defend a research dissertation. Some Ph.D. programs also require you to demonstrate an ability to read in at least one language in addition to English.

Licensing and Certification

You may also want to look into becoming a Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC) through the ABGC, since most employers will require it. Certification indicates that you have met competency requirements and are qualified to work as a genetic counselor. Requirements for state licensure vary by state, and some require you to hold professional certification as part of the licensing process.

Required Skills

You'll need strong communication skills and an ability to empathize with your clients, since you'll have to explain complicated, and sometimes distressing, DNA results in a manner that's comprehensible to your clients.

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