What is a Genetic Counselor?

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: November 8, 2021  •  8 min read  •  Mental Health
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The career of a genetic counselor is rather new. It’s one you might want to understand better if you like working with people. But, on the other hand, this medical career can be rather rewarding.

Understanding what a genetic counselor is and what they do is the first step towards this career path. You will also want to understand the type of education you will need. So let’s look at what genetic counselors do and how you can become one.

What is a Genetic Counselor

Job Duties of a Genetic Counselor

One of the main duties of this type of healthcare professional is to determine the risk a person may face of specific disorders or diseases. They use genetics to look at what may have been passed down. Some of the common duties of a genetic counselor include:

Genetic counselors help to educate patients and counsel them through the emotions of a genetic condition. They can advise patients when it comes to genetic test results, as well.

Steps for Becoming a Genetic Counselor

Step #1 – Do Well in High School

Genetic counselors are a part of the medical community. If you want to enter this career, it starts with a high GPA in high school or equivalent. You should also make sure to score well on the SAT or ACT. Using a good SAT or ACT prep course can help you gain a higher score.

Getting into a good college or university is the key to becoming a genetic counselor. You want to take as many AP science and math courses as you can in high school.

Step #2 – Complete Your Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree comes next. You will need to get a bachelor’s degree with the right major. Many genetic counselors will major in social sciences, biology, or another science major. Make sure your major will get you into a genetic counseling program.

During college, you will likely take many science-related courses. Make sure you do very well, as you will need a high GPA to graduate school. It’s also important to score high on your graduate school exam.

Step #3 – Get Your Master’s Degree

A Master of Science degree is the next step. If you want to become a genetic counselor, this is an important step. Finally, you need to enter a graduate program in genetic counseling to enter into this career path.

During graduate school, you will get the opportunity to specialize. The clinical portion will likely introduce you to each of the major areas of genetic counseling. This can help you decide which career path you want to follow.

You will study many topics during graduate school, including:

Along with these topics, you will need to complete a clinical internship to gain experience. Most Genetic Counseling programs will take two years to complete.

Step #4 – Become Certified or Licensed

You will need to obtain certification through the American Board of Genetic Counseling. This requires you to complete the master’s program and pass an exam. In addition, most employers will require you to hold a certificate or license. Not all states will require you to be licensed as a genetic counselor, however.

Step #5 – Complete the Necessary Continuing Education

After you’ve become certified as a genetic counselor, you will need to complete continuing education. This is usually done on a five-year or ten-year cycle. Therefore, it’s important to keep your American Board of Genetic Counseling profile up to date.

Reasons Genetic Counseling is an Important Career

Planning for Your Pregnancy

A genetic counselor helps future moms plan for what they could be dealing with when they have a baby. This may include genetic traits, such as a history of infertility or miscarriages and genetic conditions that run in your family.

Working with You During Pregnancy

Genetic counseling can help by providing specific tests to detect problems early on. In addition, this type of career can help address any maternal infections and provide genetic screening for moms.

Caring for Your New Child

A genetic counselor can help you address any potential conditions your child might have. This may include autism, vision or hearing issues, intellectual disabilities, or congenital disabilities. In addition, they can help you plan for what is coming.

Help Manage Your Health

Genetic counselors don’t just work with pregnant moms. They can also work with adults to help manage some of the genetic conditions they might go through. This could include cardiovascular issues, psychiatric problems, or even cancer. Some of the common things genetic counselors help with include:

As a genetic counselor, you can specialize in a specific type of disorder or condition.

Common Specializations for Genetic Counselors

As a genetic counselor, you will likely specialize in one of six areas including:

It’s also possible to stick with general care, but most genetic counselors will specialize.

Professional Organizations to Join

If you want to become a genetic counselor, you will want to join the right professional organizations. The American Society of Human Genetics is a popular choice. Another good choice is the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Of course, you will also need to join the American Board of Genetic Counselors if you become certified.

All three of these organizations offer benefits for genetic counselors. They offer opportunities to network, gain continuing education credits, and stay up-to-date.

Frequently Asked Questions About Genetic Counselors

How much can I make as a genetic counselor?

The average salary of a genetic counselor is around $178K per year. However, it’s possible to earn more than $100K per year in this position. As a genetic counselor, the range goes from about $64K per year to $108K per year.

Your location and the actual employer will play a factor in how much you make. California has the highest average salary for genetic counselors. Connecticut isn’t far behind. Nevada, New York, and Colorado also pay above the average salary for genetic counselors.

What is the work environment like for a genetic counselor?

It’s common for genetic counselors to work in private practice, hospitals, labs, clinics, and universities. The job is typically a full-time position with a 40-hour workweek. Genetic counselors don’t work much over time and are not required to work on weekends or evenings.

How long does it take to become a genetic counselor?

You will need a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree to become a genetic counselor. Most students will complete both in six to seven years. It’s also important to become certified. As long as you pass the exam, this will not slow you down.

Most students can become genetic counselors in about six to seven years. However, some may take up to eight years to complete the requirements.

Is the field of genetic counseling growing?

Yes, and it’s expected to keep growing. For example, job growth for genetic counselors is expected to be about 21% over the next ten years. This is much higher than the average for all occupations.

What is the cost to become a genetic counselor?

You will need to start with a bachelor’s degree program. This degree can cost you anywhere from $10K to $50K per year. It will depend on the school you choose. In-state schools tend to be less expensive than out-of-state schools.

Along with a bachelor’s degree, you will need a master’s degree. This will be a two-year program costing you between $23K and $60K. These are just the tuition costs and don’t include room and board, typically.

Do I need a degree to become a genetic counselor?

Yes. Not only do you need a bachelor’s degree, but you will also need a master’s degree. It’s not possible to enter into this career without getting your master’s degree.

What skills are most necessary for genetic counselors?

You will gain most of the skills you need through your training and education. However, if you want to be a genetic counselor, you should be a good communicator and very compassionate. It’s also important to have an aptitude for science.

Genetic counselors often have to have good decision-making skills, as well. This is a great career path for critical thinkers that want to help others.

Is Becoming a Genetic Counselor Right For You?

If you’re looking for the right career path, understanding what a genetic counselor is can help. This is a fast-growing career field with a high salary. However, those willing to go to college for six years can enjoy a rewarding career as a genetic counselor.

While it might be about the benefits for you, most choose this path to help others. You will counsel those struggling with the reality of a health condition in their future. If you want to help others, becoming a genetic counselor might be the perfect career path.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.