How to become a genetic counselor

How Long Does It Take, What Degree Do You Need, and More

How to become a genetic counselor

Genetic Counselors

Genetic Counselors assess individual or family risk for a variety of inherited conditions, such as genetic disorders and birth defects. Provide information to other healthcare providers or to individuals and families concerned with the risk of inherited conditions. Advise individuals and families to support informed decisionmaking and coping methods for those at risk. May help conduct research related to genetic conditions or genetic counseling.

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Table of contents

Summary

Degree Master's degree
Degree field Genetics and Genetic Counseling
License or certification Many states and most employers require Genetic Counselors to become certified through the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
Duration to become one Six years
Difficulty to become one Very Hard

Aspiring Genetic Counselors typically need a Master’s degree to pursue this career. Genetic Counselors often earn a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Genetics and a Master’s degree in Genetic Counseling.

Many states and most employers require Genetic Counselors to become certified through the American Board of Genetic Counseling.

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Genetic Counselors Requirements

Step 1: Excel at Science in High School

The first step in becoming a Genetic Counselor is to explore the biological sciences. High school students should take science courses each year instead of stopping after meeting their state’s science requirements.

Most states require high school students to complete Biology and two additional science courses. After completing the required science credits, take the highest level of science available to enhance your college applications. You may complete Chemistry, Physics, or advanced placement (AP) science courses.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Before earning a degree in Genetic Counseling, you need to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. When selecting a Bachelor’s program, ensure that it fulfills the entry requirements for your preferred Master’s program. You may need to complete specific coursework during your undergraduate studies.

Some Master’s programs require applicants to complete undergraduate courses in Biochemistry, Statistics, and Advanced Genetics. Most Master’s programs do not require a specific major. However, aspiring Genetic Counselors typically major in a biological science such as Genetics, Biology, or Biochemistry.

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling

Becoming a board-certified Genetic Counselor requires you to earn a Master’s degree in Genetic Counseling or Genetics. Most Masters of Science (MS) in Genetic Counseling programs are two years in length.

Master’s programs contain a combination of classroom learning, clinical internships, and fieldwork. Internships and fieldwork provide hands-on training in clinics and hospitals. You will interact with patients and assist with diagnosing genetic issues.

During an MS program for Genetic Counseling, students learn more about genetic testing, counseling techniques, ethics, prenatal genetics, and clinical genetics. You may also explore various specializations within the Genetic Counseling field. Subspecialty areas include cardiology, neurology, hematology, pediatrics, cancer, and obstetrics.

The Master’s program that you complete should be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). There are about 40 ACGC-accredited programs in North America. If the program is not accredited, you may not qualify for board certification.

Step 4: Become a Board-Certified Genetic Counselor

About half of the states in the US require Genetic Counselors to become licensed. The licensing requirements vary but you typically need to obtain certification through the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Even if your state does not require licensing, employers typically prefer to hire board-certified Genetic Counselors.

Becoming certified requires you to pass an exam. The exam is computer-based and administered at an approved testing center. You have four hours to complete 200 multiple choice questions, including 170 scored questions. You need to answer a minimum of 125 questions correctly to pass the exam.

Step 5: Apply for Genetic Counseling Positions

After earning your certification, start looking for Genetic Counseling positions. About 43% of Genetic Counselors typically work in hospitals. Other common employers include physician offices, medical labs, outpatient care centers, and universities.

Genetic Counseling is a relatively new field compared to other healthcare professions and is more in demand in certain regions. As of 2019, a total of 2600 Genetic Counselor jobs existed in the US.

If you cannot find employment in your home state, you may need to consider relocating. Some of the states with the highest employment opportunities for Genetic Counselors include Washington, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.

Step 6: Continue Your Education

To maintain your Genetic Counseling certification, you need to complete certain continuing education requirements. The ABGC requires Genetic Counselors to complete Continuing Education Units (CEUs) every five years. You may also take an exam as an alternative to completing CEUs.

Certified Genetic Counselors are called “Diplomates” by the ABGC. Each Diplomate is responsible for recertification within the allotted time frame. You must also maintain your contact information and keep current with the latest ABGC policies and regulations.

What degree do most Genetic Counselors have

We did a survey to ask other Genetic Counselors what degree they had when they first became one. Here are the results.

How to become a genetic counselor

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The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:

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How to become a Genetic Counselor

A bachelor’s degree in biology or a healthcare-related field typically is a requirement for enrolling in a genetic counseling master’s degree program. These programs provide students with the science and math knowledge needed for a career in genetic counseling. Some schools offer internships or summer programs for students interested in genetic counseling. These programs provide students with a chance to gain experience at clinics or hospitals and prepare them for a graduate degree program.

A master’s degree in genetic counseling helps students develop the skills needed to research, counsel and consult with patients, their families and members of the healthcare community to provide information on genetic conditions. Some schools require applicants to have performed some type of counseling work.

The American Board of Genetic Counselors (ABGC) offers a certification program, which is voluntary; however, some states require it for licensing, and some employers prefer it. In addition, some states require genetic counselors to become licensed before performing work with the public. ABGC certification can serve as proof of competency and give job candidates an edge in employment.

What does a genetic counselor do?

Genetic counselors are health care professionals who have specialized education and training in the field of medical genetics. Using family history, a genetic counselor will assess individual or family risk of an inherited condition, such as a genetic disorder or a birth defect.

Genetic counselors educate patients and professionals about genetic diseases and genetic testing options. They also advise patients on the social and ethical issues associated with a genetic disorder or genetic test result, and help patients cope with a diagnosis of a genetic disease.

Scope of practice

As members of the health care team, genetic counselors serve as educators to patients, physicians, other health care providers, and society. In a typical day, genetic counselors:

  • Determine risk for certain diseases or disorders
  • Analyze family health history to look for inherited health risks
  • Educate individuals regarding their chance for inheriting genetic diseases
  • Guide and support individuals that are adjusting to the medical, psychological, and familial effects of genetic diseases
  • Advocate on behalf of a patient with their insurance company to ensure genetic testing is covered

Specializations

Genetic counselors might choose to specialize in a particular area or they may provide general care. Some areas they might specialize in include:

  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Preconception
  • Prenatal

Work environment

Employers of genetic counselors include hospitals, universities, private practices, labs, and a variety of clinical settings. Forty-hour work weeks are typical for genetic counselors and they generally are not required to work evenings or weekends.

Becoming a genetic counselor

Genetic counseling is a great career path for someone that is interested in a rewarding career with a high degree of patient interaction. Due to the limited number of accredited genetic counseling programs, it is recommended that individuals interested in genetic counseling prepare for a highly selective admission process with high school and undergraduate classes in chemistry, biology, genetics, and psychology. Prior experience either through paid work or volunteer experience is recommended (and may be required) when enrolling in the graduate program.

Higher education requirements

Common higher education requirements for a genetic counselor include:

  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree; many genetic counselors choose to major in biology, social sciences, or a related field (but these majors are not necessarily required for entry into a genetic counseling program)
  • Completion of a Master of Science degree from an accredited graduate program in genetic counseling

Certification of a genetic counselor

To become certified as a genetic counselor, you must complete an accredited master’s program in genetic counseling. This program is typically two years in length and includes courses such as molecular genetics, counseling ethics, and research methods; as well as clinical training experience and a research project. After completing the program, students must take and pass a certification exam in order to become a certified genetic counselor.

Career opportunities and outlook

Genetic counselors typically earn between $66,000 and $126,000 a year depending on their position, level of expertise, and area of the U.S. or world where they practice.

Job growth for genetic counselors in the U.S. is expected to grow much faster than average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The emphasis on personalized medicine and ongoing technological innovations will increase the demand for genetic counselors who can translate complex medical and scientific information for families and other health professionals.

In terms of career advancement, some genetic counselors become professors, and others find opportunities to conduct and publish research.

How to become a genetic counselor

Genetic counseling gives you information about how genetic conditions might affect you or your family. The genetic counselor or other healthcare professional will collect your personal and family health history. They can use this information to determine how likely it is that you or your family member has a genetic condition. Based on this information, the genetic counselor can help you decide whether a genetic test might be right for you or your relative.

Reasons for Genetic Counseling

Based on your personal and family health history, your doctor can refer you for genetic counseling. There are different stages in your life when you might be referred for genetic counseling:

  • Planning for Pregnancy: Genetic counseling before you become pregnant can address concerns about factors that might affect your baby during infancy or childhood or your ability to become pregnant, including
    • Genetic conditions that run in your family or your partner’s family
    • History of infertility, multiple miscarriages, or stillbirth
    • Previous pregnancy or child affected by a birth defect or genetic condition options
    • History of infertility, multiple miscarriages, or stillbirth
    • Previous pregnancy or child affected by a birth defect or genetic condition
    • Abnormal test results, such as a blood test, ultrasound, Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS), or amniocentesis
    • Maternal infections, such as Cytomegalovirus (CMV), and other exposures such as medicines, drugs, chemicals, and x-rays
    • Genetic screening that is recommended for all pregnant women, which includes cystic fibrosis external icon , sickle cell disease, and any conditions that run in your family or your partner’s family
    • Caring for Children: Genetic counseling can address concerns if your child is showing signs and symptoms of a disorder that might be genetic, including
      • Abnormal newborn screening results or developmental disabilities or hearing problems
      • Managing Your Health: Genetic counseling for adults includes specialty areas such as cardiovascular, psychiatric, and cancer. Genetic counseling can be helpful if you have symptoms of a condition or have a family history of a condition that makes you more likely to be affected with that condition, including
          syndrome (hereditary colorectal and other cancers) and other muscle diseases
        • Inherited movement disorders such as Huntington’s disease external icon
        • Inherited blood disorders such as sickle cell disease

        Following your genetic counseling session, you might decide to have genetic testing. Genetic counseling after testing can help you better understand your test results and treatment options, help you deal with emotional concerns, and refer you to other healthcare providers and advocacy and support groups.

        There are various ways to access genetic counseling services, including in person, by phone, and by video conference.

        Find a genetic counselor external icon using the National Society of Genetic Counselors directory.

        Find a genetics clinic external icon using the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics Genetics Clinics Database.

        Disclaimer: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not provide counseling, diagnoses, or personal medical advice. Please see your healthcare provider for these needs. Linking to a non-federal site does not constitute an endorsement by CDC or any of its employees of the sponsors or the information and products presented on the site.

        How to become a genetic counselor

        A genetic counselor assesses and counsels families and individuals on their genetic risk for diseases and health defects. You can work with couples who are experiencing fertility problems or who have a family history of genetic disease, individuals who need to confirm whether they have a genetic disorder or possess the genes to pass them along, and people who experience health problems, birth defects, developmental delays, or other issues related to genetic factors. You will examine research findings and test results, and communicate with patients and family members regarding medical history or health conditions.

        How to Become a Genetic Counselor

        If you want to work as a genetic counselor, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology or a health care-related field. Minimum qualifications for this role include a master’s degree from a genetic counseling program. You also need to pass a board examination to earn certification as a genetic counselor. Your education for this career involves coursework, clinical training, and research. An interest in genetics, experience working in a lab or performing research, and customer service skills are all helpful for completing medical counseling duties.

        Where Do Genetic Counselors Work?

        Genetic counselors work with patients in health care settings. You can work in a public or private hospital, university medical center, doctor’s office, diagnostic laboratory, or health care clinic. You may work with families at a fertility clinic, consult with professionals in pediatrics, offer services to cancer patients, or work in another health care specialty or area that serves a specific population. Clinical responsibilities may require you to visit patients in health care facilities, in hospital rooms, or an off-site office. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, genetic counselor careers will see much faster than average growth in the coming decade.

        What Tools Do Genetic Counselors Use?

        Genetic counselors use both medical tools and equipment in their daily work. Genetic counselor jobs require you to communicate with patients and health care professionals, order tests and analyze the results, operate laboratory equipment, and create documentation for patient records. You use email, phones, computers, research databases, medical records and tests, physical examinations, and communication strategies to find and summarize information related to patient conditions. Familiarity with technology is also a helpful skill in a genetic counseling career.

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        Genetic counseling is a highly controversial medical career which relies on advances in medical technology and genetic testing to help people make lifestyle and health-related decisions. If you want to be involved in a medical profession that supports families during a tough decision-making process and you have the capacity to be sensitive and decisive during a critical period in a patient’s life, then a career as a genetic counselor may be right for you!

        Training and education needed to become a genetic counselor

        The education and training needed to pursue a career as a genetic counselor is not as rigorous as that of becoming a board-certified physician, but you should expect to spend up to six years in college: four years at the undergraduate level and an additional two at the graduate level. Genetic counselors must have a Master’s degree to practice. While it typically does not matter which major you pursue at the undergraduate level, you must pursue a Master’s degree in genetics or genetic counseling to become a board-certified genetic counselor through the American Board of Genetic Counseling. There are only 31 programs in the US that offer such a career path. You’ll take classes in biology, epidemiology, genetics, public health, and genetics as a part of any program. You’ll need to decide on a specialization within genetic counseling – pediatric, prenatal, and cancer are among your choices of specialization. Settling on a specialization within genetic counseling will make your job search that much easier, as you will have an area of focus.

        Duties and responsibilities of a genetic counselor

        Genetic counseling involves a significant amount of client interaction, so it is imperative that you are a compassionate professional who can explain medical terminology in layman’s terms so that your clients understand the full scope of their individual situations. You’ll work with couples, families, and individuals, so you’ll need the ability to communicate with groups and in one-on-one settings. Clients rely on you to recommend the appropriate testing to help them make medical decisions. For example, couples planning to have children may want to know whether they will pass inherited diseases onto their offspring, so you’ll need to take a family history and make the necessary test recommendations. Individuals at risk for certain diseases, such as cancer, will depend upon you to explain genetic test results in a sensitive and compassionate manner, since thinking about future medical problems can be a traumatic experience. Your ability to communicate effectively and clearly is key, as you’ll be interpreting lab diagnostic results and making recommendations to clients who may be sensitive about receiving bad news.

        Salaries and employment outlook for genetic counselors

        Genetics counselors are rare in the medical profession, with under 2,500 counselors currently practicing in the US. Because this career path is new and cutting-edge, it is expected to have a positive employment outlook, growing faster than most other careers as awareness about the benefits of genetic counseling grows and families become empowered to manage their own health outcomes. For your compassionate work counseling families and couples about genetic health, you can expect to earn an average salary of $69,000. The more education you have earned beyond your Master’s degree, the higher your salary will be.

        Genetic counseling was once a thing of science fiction. Technology has advanced so that science fiction has become science fact. You can make a difference in the lives of patients by becoming a genetic counselor!

        There is more than meets the eye when it comes to being a prenatal genetic counselor. For example, did you know that they make an average of $25.79 an hour? That’s $53,640 a year!

        Between 2018 and 2028, the career is expected to grow 27% and produce 800 job opportunities across the U.S.

        What Does a Prenatal Genetic Counselor Do

        When it comes to the most important skills required to be a prenatal genetic counselor, we found that a lot of resumes listed 44.7% of prenatal genetic counselors included patient care, while 23.7% of resumes included irb, and 19.6% of resumes included community agencies. Hard skills like these are helpful to have when it comes to performing essential job responsibilities.

        How To Become a Prenatal Genetic Counselor

        If you’re interested in becoming a prenatal genetic counselor, one of the first things to consider is how much education you need. We’ve determined that 56.5% of prenatal genetic counselors have a bachelor’s degree. In terms of higher education levels, we found that 39.1% of prenatal genetic counselors have master’s degrees. Even though most prenatal genetic counselors have a college degree, it’s impossible to become one with only a high school degree or GED.

        Choosing the right major is always an important step when researching how to become a prenatal genetic counselor. When we researched the most common majors for a prenatal genetic counselor, we found that they most commonly earn bachelor’s degree degrees or master’s degree degrees. Other degrees that we often see on prenatal genetic counselor resumes include associate degree degrees or None degrees.

        You may find that experience in other jobs will help you become a prenatal genetic counselor. In fact, many prenatal genetic counselor jobs require experience in a role such as genetic counselor. Meanwhile, many prenatal genetic counselors also have previous career experience in roles such as social work internship or tutor.

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