Career exploration: becoming a genetic counselor

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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. Asiya posing with her mentor on the neonatal ward in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 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!

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