Becoming a Genetic Counselor – Schooling and Genetic Counseling Degree Guide

What is Genetic Counseling?

Genetic counseling provides information to people who are at risk for developing disorders that are inherited through the genes. People who can benefit from genetic counseling include those who have a family or personal history of a genetic disorder, those who have a child with a birth defect and women who have suffered multiple miscarriages.

Genetic counseling is also recommended for women who become pregnant over the age of 35, and when a screening test such as an ultrasound indicates that there is a potential genetic disorder.

Genetic counseling can diagnose genetic disorders and provide support to people with a positive diagnosis. Genes are considered the building blocks of heredity and are passed along through the generations from parent to child.

DNA within the genes holds the instructions for manufacturing proteins at the cellular level. Sometimes a mutation changes the DNA and proteins do not work as expected, causing a genetic disorder. A gene mutation causing genetic disease may be inherited from one or both parents.

During a genetic counseling session individuals meet with a professional genetic counselor who provides accurate information about genetic risks. The genetic counselor may then recommend blood tests to diagnose a person with symptoms, or to find out if a person is carrying a gene for a disease that may be passed along to a child.

Genetic counseling can also help people decide whether or not to be tested. Some genetic conditions cannot be treated, even if the genetic test comes back positive.

What is a Genetic Counselor?

A genetic counselor helps individuals to find out if they or others in their family have a genetic disease. If it is determined that the client or the client’s family has a genetic disease, then a genetic counselor’s responsibility will be to educate the client about the disease, discuss how the disease will impact the client’s life and provide support and counseling services.

Genetic counselors also asses and interpret the family’s history, educate their client on possible health risks and discuss treatment options. In addition, they may work as a part of a multidisciplinary team of physicians, registered nurses, social workers and psychologists.

What is Prenatal Genetic Counseling?

Prenatal genetic counseling is a service offered to discuss inherited genetic conditions or birth defects. This counseling is offered to those who are planning a pregnancy but have an elevated risk or particular concern about conceiving a child with a genetic condition.

Prenatal genetic counseling is also offered to those already expecting when it has been discovered that the baby has a birth defect or genetic condition or there is deemed to be an elevation of risk of that occurring. Counselors in this field explain the often complex medical terminology to these individuals in addition to supplying realistic estimations of risks.

For pre-conception clients the work can cover available tests, treatments and alternative options – such as assisted conception techniques – so that clients are fully informed about their choices.

For parents already expecting, prenatal genetic counseling can also outline screening tests or discuss particular details of their child’s condition if it has been established, what the long term outcomes are likely to be and how they can prepare for looking after a child with special needs as well as discussing other options.

In addition to providing factual information, prenatal genetic counseling is intended as a service to assist people in working through their thoughts and feelings about the issues. Ultimately, prenatal genetic counseling provides information upon which individuals or couples then make their own decisions.

What Does a Genetic Counselor Do?

The role of a genetic counselor is to provide information and emotional support to individuals who: have been diagnosed with a genetically inherited illness, or who are at a high risk for developing a disease or condition according to their genes, or who possess any type of genetic mutation or birth defect.

When people are diagnosed with diseases that were passed down to them genetically, it is advisable that they seek assistance from a genetic counselor. In one’s capacity as a genetic counselor, he or she can help the patient to determine next steps in terms of the patient’s healthcare treatment plan.

The genetic counselor can assist the patient in considering various surgical procedures and other types of treatment, depending on the options available to them, and the likelihood that the patient will respond well to that particular course of treatment. As such circumstances are often difficult, the genetic counselor is also there to provide emotional support and treatment.

At times, people will notice that they have lost several family members to a specific condition, and through modern genetic testing that is now available, those patients will discover that they possess a genetic predisposition to inheriting that condition. At that point, should they choose to seek assistance from a genetic counselor, that counselor can help them to attempt to predict, and plan accordingly, for any and all possible outcomes.

When patients present with birth defects that are caused by a genetic predisposition for said defects, they stand to potentially face ridicule and isolation, as well as potential increased challenges to living their day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, society is not yet in a place where everything is accessible and accommodating to cognitively or physically differently able people.

Genetic counselors can provide significant emotional support for patients and families in those situations. They can also assist in exploring the probability of treatment options succeeding, and help to navigate and select various avenues available for treatment.

Genetic counselors provide an invaluable resource for individuals and families who face genetic predispositions for all manner of potential difficulties. Choosing this path will make a positive difference.

Where Does a Genetic Counselor Work?

Genetic counselors are generally employed by:

  • Private practices
  • Nursing homes
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Mental health facilities
  • Hospitals and healthcare centers
  • Social service centers
  • Psychiatric clinics
  • Medical laboratories
  • Academic and research institutes

What are the Requirements to Become a Genetic Counselor?

Step-1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

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. Complete your program requirements (courses and internships) and graduate from your undergraduate degree program.

Step-2: Earn a Master’s Degree

Your next step will be to research accredited graduate schools that offer a graduate degree program in genetic counseling or related field.

Many genetic counseling graduate 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, 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 colleges and universities offer a graduate degree program in genetic counseling.

Step-3: Apply for Licensure

Make sure that you also thoroughly research your state’s licensure requirements. However, almost in every state, you will need to obtain a masters degree and complete a specific number of supervised hours before you can apply for your license.

Optional Step: Certification

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 may be able to seek employment in a variety of industries such as: genetic research, hematology, prenatal counseling, psychiatric disorders, cancer counseling and pediatric counseling.

What Skills are Required to be a Genetic Counselor?

  • Scientific Understanding – To be able to effectively discuss genetic conditions with patients and answer any questions they have, a genetic counselor must have an excellent understanding of the underlying science and medicine of the conditions they’re discussing.
  • Outstanding verbal communication – In addition to knowing a lot about genetic conditions, a genetic counselor has to be able to explain these conditions to patients who may have difficulty understanding the technical aspects. Similarly, they have to be able to effectively communicate statistics and probabilities to patients to ensure that they fully understand the situation they are facing.
  • Patience – The concepts being discussed may be difficult for some patients to understand fully upon the first explanation, the counselor must have the patience to explain the same things several times, and in several different ways, until they are sure that the patient completely understands.
  • Empathy – While a lot of the job relates to discussion of medical facts and figures, the genetic counselor has to be able to do this in a way that is respectful of the potentially difficult situation their clients face. They also have to be able to effectively discuss the thoughts and feelings of the patients in a kind and compassionate way.
  • Impartiality – The role of the genetic counselor is to provide patients with the facts of their situation and help them to interpret and understand them. Clients will often be making decisions based on the information given and genetic counselors have to be able to let them come to the decision that is right for them. They have to be able to help guide patients through the decision making process without letting their own personal thoughts or feelings have any impact on that process.
  • Problem Solving – The role of a genetic counselor can involve detailed discussion of a patient’s family tree. It can also involve working out risk levels based on various pieces of information. For these, and other similar tasks, excellent problem solving skills are a great asset to a genetic counselor.

What are the Advantages of Genetics Counseling?

  • Patients can discuss a genetic condition and fully understand what its consequences are.
  • It can be explained how likely some conditions are based upon patient history.
  • Results of a genetic test can be discussed fully and at great length.
  • Patients are made aware of all of their options regarding the outcome of a genetic test.
  • As a result, patients can make fully informed decisions and be confident that they are the right decisions based upon all the relevant facts.
  • There is a fully trained professional there to guide someone through the decision making process, making sure that all points are considered and all queries addressed.
  • It gives patients an outlet to discuss their concerns and fears as well as the facts and figures of their situation.

What is the Salary of a Genetic Counselor?

According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a genetic counselor in February 2024 was $87,816. Annual mean salary for genetic counselors working in general medical/surgical hospitals and offices of physicians is $83,170 and $82,240 respectively.

Related Reading

Useful Resources

Copyright © 2024 All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.