How to Become a Genetic Counselor

Scientist holding DNA gel in front of samples for testing in laboratory
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Genetic counselors are like the fortune tellers of the healthcare world. However, these prophetic medical professionals do not rely upon a crystal ball or tarot cards. Instead, genetic counselors analyze the genetic make-up of patients to determine their risk of a number of health issues that are inherited, or carried in one's genes. A genetic disorder is one that is inherited or passed on from parents to their children or grandchildren through the genetic code. The genetic expertise of these highly specialized counselors enables them to identify current and future genetic maladies, conditions and issues in patients, and, if applicable, those of their patients' unborn children as well.

As genetic technology and knowledge increases, so does the role of genetic counselors. The more genes that are isolated and identified, the more disorders and diseases genetic counselors will be able to foresee and diagnose for patients and their children, by analyzing their genetic components. For example, various types of cancer genes, such as the one for breast cancer, have been identified so that one's risk can be assessed based on whether or not one carries the specific breast cancer gene in one's genes. Additionally, prospective parents who have genetic disorders in the family may want to consult a genetic counselor before getting pregnant, to determine the risk of passing on a disease to a child.

As part of the counseling process, genetic counselors will meet with the patient and discuss their health background and family history, as well as the purpose of the visit, and the need for the genetic testing being sought by the patient. Once the testing is complete, the counselor will analyze the results and meet with the patient again to discuss the risks identified by the test, as well as the options available to the patient moving forward.

Job Outlook

The field of genetic counseling is relatively small, with only 3,100 practicing in the United States as of 2016, the most recent data available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the field is expected to grow by 28%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is a pace considered to be "faster than average," and constitutes the addition of about 900 new genetic counseling jobs to be added between 2016 and 2026.

According to the BLS, hospitals and health systems employ the most genetic counselors (33%) and medical offices the second most, at 20%.

Degree Requirements, Licenses, and Certifications

A career in genetic counseling requires a Master's degree in genetic counseling or the field of genetics. The master's program must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling, according to the BLS.

The degree program includes classroom teaching and clinical rotations. Subjects and skills such as public health, epidemiology, and biology are studied, with an emphasis in genetics.

Fewer than half of states in the United States currently require a license, but many others are in the process of passing laws to require licenses. If a license is required, typically a certification is needed to obtain the license. A certification for genetic counseling is offered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. As always, check with your state's board to confirm requirements for working as a genetic counselor in your area.

Due to the sensitive nature of the information that genetic counselors are discussing with patients, counselors must have excellent communication skills, and be very compassionate in their communication as well.

Salary Data

Median annual salary (mid-point) is $74,120, according to the BLS, as of 2016.

The top 10% of genetic counselors earned upwards of $104,770 per year, however. Hospitals and medical offices typically pay slightly more than academic or government employers.

About 75% of genetic counselors work in one of three traditional areas of the field: prenatal, cancer, and pediatric, according to the BLS. Newer, less common areas of specialization include cardiovascular health, psychiatry, and neurogenetics.

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  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Genetic Counselors.