Overview of Genetics Counselor Career

An Overview of a Career as a Genetics Counselor

If you have (or know someone who has) a genetic condition, you may be wondering: just what is a genetics counselor?

As researchers learn more about genetic disorders, people have more access than ever to information about heritable medical issues. Today, pregnant women can opt for testing that can indicate whether their child might be born with a condition such as Down syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease. While such information is becoming increasingly available, some people wonder whether they truly want to know about potential risks and what they should do if they do find that they are susceptible to a particular health issue. Faced with such questions, many people turn to a genetics counselor for advice.

Close up of autoradiograph used in researching genetics
Andrew Brookes / Getty Images

What Does a Genetics Counselor Do?

Prospective parents might consult a genetics counselor to determine if they want to find out if their potential offspring might be at risk for being born with an inherited disorder. Genetics counselors also help people determine if they want to know their own risk of developing a genetic condition such as heart disease and breast cancer.

A genetics counselor is a professional who helps people make decisions based upon genetic information.

Genetics counselors also work alongside other health care professionals, including doctors, geneticists, nurses, and social workers. The goal is to help individuals and families make informed decisions about their health and to assist clients in finding the services that best serve their needs.

During a session with a client, a genetics counselor might:

  • Gather a family history, including past health problems, surgeries, and family illnesses
  • Explain how genetic disorders are passed down
  • Discuss risk factors and the likelihood that a particular condition will reoccur within a family
  • Recommend diagnostic tests
  • Explain the results of genetic tests
  • Discuss congenital disorders and describe environmental variables that can cause such conditions
  • Explore treatment options
  • Counsel clients experiencing emotional distress
  • Refer clients to other health care professionals and community resources

In the past, genetic counselors primarily worked in prenatal areas. Today, we know more about the human genome than ever before, so it is possible to better determine a person's risk of developing a specific health condition. People working in this field may also counsel people at risk of developing inherited diseases later in life, such as breast cancer or heart disease. Genetics counselors are sometimes hired by pharmaceutical companies to help screen potential participants in clinical drug trials.

Who Needs a Genetics Counselor?

MedlinePlus suggests that there a number of different reasons to seek out genetic counseling, which include:

  • A family history of inherited health problems and disorders
  • Ultrasound or screening tests suggesting that a disorder may be present
  • Becoming pregnant after age 35
  • Already having a child with a genetic disorder
  • Experiencing repeated miscarriages, stillbirths, or infant deaths

Training and Educational Requirements for Genetic Counselors

To become a certified genetics counselor in America, you must have a minimum of a master's degree in genetics counseling from an accredited U.S. program. Most states and employers also require that you pass examinations administered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. As part of their training, students learn about inherited diseases, the types of tests available, and preventative steps that people can take to minimize their risk. Prior to entering an accredited master's program, many students opt to earn undergraduate degrees in subjects such as psychology, biology, social work, public health, genetics, or nursing.

Benefits of Being a Genetics Counselor

The U.S. News Best Job Report of 2020 ranks genetic counselors as #2 for best healthcare support jobs and #25 on the list of top jobs overall. Helping people understand their options and explore their healthcare options can be very rewarding.

Downsides of Being a Genetics Counselor

In many cases, your clients may be facing very difficult and painful decisions. Counseling people in such situations can feel meaningful, but it can also be very stressful and emotionally draining.

Promotions can be limited. Once you have become a counselor, you are likely to stay in the same position over the course of your career unless you choose to move into another position, such as becoming a professor or pharmaceutical consultant.

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  1. Field T, Brewster SJ, Towne M, Campion MW. Emerging genetic counselor roles within the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries: As industry interest grows in rare genetic disorders, how are genetic counselors joining the discussion? Journal of Genetic Counseling. 2016;25(4):708-719. doi:10.1007/s10897-016-9946-9

  2. MedlinePlus. Genetic counseling. Updated December 31, 2019.

  3. American Board of Genetic Counseling. Why get certified?

  4. U.S. News and World Report. Genetic counselor overview. Best Jobs Rankings Report. Published 2020.

Additional Reading
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Genetic counselors. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Updated September 4, 2019.