How to Become a Genetic Counselor

If you are interested in becoming a genetic counselor, your primary function will be to help your clients find out if they or others in their family have a genetic disease. If it is determined that your client or your client’s family has a genetic disease, then your responsibility, as a genetic counselor, will be to educate your client about the disease, discuss how the disease will impact your client’s life and provide support and counseling services.

As a genetic counselor, your main duties will be to assess and interpret the family’s history, educate your client on possible health risks and discuss treatment options. In addition, you may work as a part of a multidisciplinary team of physicians, registered nurses, social workers and psychologists.

According to Payscale.com, the average genetic counselor makes between $45,000 and $67,000 a year. Genetic counselors that work in hospitals, clinics, social services, cancer research facilities and medical laboratories tend to make the highest salaries (approximately $50,000 to $67,000 a year).

Payscale.com (2013) also states that those who work at hospitals and clinics tend to make the highest salaries (approximately $50,000 to $67,000 a year), while those that work in research facilities and medical laboratories tend to make the lower salaries (approximately $45,000 and $58,000).

Here are the steps that you will need to take to become a genetic counselor:

  • Enroll in an undergraduate degree program at an accredited college or university. Select a major in the field of psychology, sociology, counseling, biology, genetics or chemistry. Sign up for the following courses: public health, abnormal psychology, biochemistry, genetics, sociology, anatomy, research methods and nursing.
  • It is important that you maintain at least a 3.0 GPA (grade point average) every semester. Your GPA will determine what graduate schools you are admitted to and what jobs you will be offered after you graduate.
  • Complete your program requirements (courses and internships) and graduate from your undergraduate degree program. Once you have received a bachelor’s degree, you will need to decide whether or not you want to pursue a master’s degree in genetic counseling.
  • If you are interested in pursuing a master’s degree, then your next step will be to research accredited graduate schools that offer a graduate degree program in genetic counseling. Make sure that you also research your state’s certification requirements in case you decide later to become certified in genetic counseling.
  • Once you have chosen two or three graduate programs that you would like to enroll in, you will be ready to schedule the GRE (graduate record examination). Some genetic counseling programs may require you to take the GRE in biology, chemistry and psychology. You may also be required to score in the 70th percentile or higher if you want to attend a specific program. (It is important to note that a master’s degree in genetic counseling is not required in order to work as a genetic counselor, but some employers prefer an advanced degree).
  • Successfully pass the GRE test(s) and apply for admission to your chosen graduate program. Once you are admitted to the program, your next step will be to successfully complete your program’s course and internship requirements.
  • Many genetic counseling programs require that you complete a 1-year counseling internship before graduate. Your internship may occur at a social service agency, hospital, private counseling practice, a physician’s office, group home, clinic, nursing home, church or mental health facility.
  • A genetic counseling graduate degree program may take 2-3 years to complete. According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, approximately 32 American and Canadian colleges and universities offer a graduate degree program in genetic counseling.
  • Once you have successfully graduated with a master’s degree in genetic counseling, you will need to decide to whether or not to seek certification. If you decide that you want certification, your next step will be to schedule the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) certification exam.
  • As part of the certification process, you will need to complete 50-60 clinical counseling hours at an approved agency and successfully pass two computer-based exams (general knowledge and genetic counseling). Once you have completed your requirements and passed the exams, you will be certified as a genetic counselor.
  • Once you become a certified genetic counselor, you will be able to seek employment in a variety of industries such as: genetic research, hematology, prenatal counseling, psychiatric disorders, cancer counseling and pediatric counseling.
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