Genetic counseling is a relatively new career that many people have never heard of. Genetic counselors are experts in helping patients understand how genetics can affect their health. In addition to being well versed in genetics, they have the necessary interpersonal skills to guide patients through the emotional journey of making genetic discoveries.
With new technologies improving our understanding of genetics and genomics, the career is growing fast. Genetic counselors not only earn big salaries, but they are also rewarded by the joy that comes from helping people make the best decision for their health future.
In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about genetic counselor education and how to become a genetic counselor.
What Is a Genetic Counselor?
A genetic counselor is a professional that specializes in the human genome. The human genome is the DNA sequence that determines everything about ourselves from how we look to the diseases we are predisposed to. By studying the DNA, genetic counselors can analyze a person’s genetics and assess their risk for genetic disorders and other conditions.
What Does a Genetic Counselor Do?
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Genetic counselors do genetic testing for individuals and families to determine how the composition of their genomes affects their risk for various genetic ailments. They also offer emotional support to help patients make better decisions for their future health and the health of their children. Here is a full breakdown of their responsibilities.
The main responsibility of a genetic counselor is patient support. In every session, a genetic counselor questions patients about their family medical history. They go into specifics about birth defects, intellectual disabilities, genetic disorders, previous pregnancy issues, and so on. Genetic counselors then help patients decide if they want to do genetic testing.
Genetic testing could discover many things that will require patients to make difficult and emotional decisions. The genetic counselor has to explain all the possibilities to patients, so they can make the best decision for their future health.
After the genetic counselor gets familiar with an individual’s medical history, they can determine which genetic test has to be done. Genetic testing is a complex process, with different tests for detecting different diseases. If a patient’s family history puts her at risk of cancer, for example, the counselor has a specific testing regimen for that.
Although a genetic counselor’s main tasks involve contact with patients, they can also participate in scientific and psychological research. The bonds they form with patients and their insights into family histories enable them to make unique research contributions.
Essential Genetic Counselor Skills
Genetic counselors are the bridge between science and patients. They have to have technical and interpersonal skills to do their jobs right, which is why genetic counselor education includes both.
They make all the technical information available and easy to understand for the patients. Below are the essential skills needed for genetic counseling.
Genetic counselors have to know a lot about biology. They are familiar with how the human body works and how its systems are interrelated. They know about organs, tissues, cells, and how these interact with the environment. Using all of this knowledge, genetic counselors can assess how a person’s genetics affects their present and future health.
Because genetic counselors can identify diseases, they have to be familiar with procedures for diagnoses, preventive measures, disease treatments, how drugs interact with the body, and more. They have the same theoretical knowledge that a physician has, but a different set of practical skills.
A huge part of a genetic counselor’s job is to help patients manage the emotional journey of making discoveries through genetic testing. Imagine that you are preparing to have a baby and decide to do a genetic test before getting pregnant. The results could show that your future baby has an 80 percent chance of inheriting a genetic disorder. What would you do?
Genetic counselors working with individuals and families have to have empathy, emotional intelligence, strong communication, social perceptiveness, active listening, and many other soft skills that allow them to build an emotional bond with the patient.
After gathering information like family history and test results, genetic counselors have to analyze all of it and make risk assessments. In other words, they have to turn lab results into information that can be useful for the patient. Analytical skills are essential for giving the best counseling for a patient’s health.
Genetic Counselor Salaries and Job Outlook
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for genetic counselors is $84,310. The highest-paying industries for genetic counselors are outpatient care centers, medical and diagnostic laboratories, and specialty hospitals.
Genetic counselors in California, Connecticut, Nevada, New York, and Colorado make more than their counterparts in other states. California offers a median salary of $103,840 and Connecticut offers $101,130.
Jobs for genetic counselors are expected to rise by 21 percent over the next eight years, which is much faster than average. This increase in opportunity is due to the new technologies that are allowing genetic counselors to do even more specific testing and diagnosis.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Genetic Counselor?
Becoming a genetic counselor isn’t easy. You need at least a bachelor’s degree in a science field like genetics or biology and a master’s degree in genetics or genetic counseling from an accredited graduate program.
The bachelor’s degree takes four years and the master’s degree takes two additional years. In other words, you will need six years of formal education.
How to Become a Genetic Counselor: A Step-by-Step Guide
Becoming a genetic counselor requires a lot of dedication and study. It takes six years of higher education to even reach the minimum requirements. Once certified, professionals also need to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. In five easy steps, here is how to become a genetic counselor.
Step 1: Bachelor’s Degree
The first step to becoming a genetic counselor is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a science field. Any science major is acceptable, but it helps if you choose something related to genetics and biology. For example, you can enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in biomedicine, biotechnology, or even wildlife biology.
In the course of your major, you should try to take classes related to genomics like cell biology, population genetics, genetic techniques, and the like. It will make the path ahead easier when it comes time to start your master’s.
Step 2: Master’s Degree
All genetic counselors have at least a master’s degree. These degrees have different names like prenatal or cancer genetic counseling. Before enrolling in your graduate program, make sure that the degree is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).
These programs last around two years and include clinical rotations and other fieldwork. In this degree, you will learn about genetic testing, clinical genetics, counseling techniques, ethical issues, and more. After completing any of these programs, you will be qualified to apply for the certification.
Step 3: Certification
After completing a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in genetic counseling, the next step is to get the certification. The certification isn’t a requirement for some jobs, but it shows that the genetic counselor is capable of treating patients.
Also, some states require genetic counselors to be licensed, and you must be certified to get your license. The ABGC offers the examination to get the certification, which genetic counselors have to renew every five years.
Step 4: Continuing Education
For recertification, genetic counselors have two options. They can either take the examination again or enroll in a continuing education program. These programs are accredited by the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) and offer curricula specific to genetic counselors.
The NSGC also counts other activities towards continuing education. Certified genetic counselors can do clinical supervision, genetic education outreach, teaching, or patient education publishing to meet the requirements for renewal.
Step 5: Apply to Jobs
Genetic counselors are in high demand. Because it requires so many years of education, not many people choose this career. Thus, you should have many job opportunities. You can start by applying to jobs in the states where genetic counselors have more job opportunities.
Required Education to Become a Genetic Counselor
Now that we’ve looked at the education and certification requirements in general terms, let’s look at some specific options for getting the training you need.
Best Programs and Courses to Become a Genetic Counselor
Genetics is a very complex science. On the topic of genetic disorders and diseases alone, there are dozens of subfields.
That’s why genetic counselors can use their master’s to specialize in different areas like cancer neurology, hematology, prenatal, pediatrics, gynecology, or take a more general approach.
Below is a brief list of schools with the best accredited genetic counseling programs.
This genetic counseling course is the perfect mix of clinical experience and theoretical knowledge. The curriculum includes classes like molecular genetics, molecular basis human disease, cancer genetics, and plenty of opportunities to apply them on clinical internships.
The University of Michigan also offers a dual degree. When completed, you will have a Master of Science in Genetic Counseling and a master of public health.
The genetic counseling course at Indiana University has a duration of two years and costs $21,350. The curriculum includes cancer, cardiovascular, pediatrics, and prenatal genetics.
It also includes counseling and communication techniques. The clinical practices are in areas like metabolic genetic, cardiovascular, cancer, and neurogenetics.
The Emory genetic counseling course includes clinical internships that focus on research experience. Tuition for students in the first year is $38,700 and it goes down to $25,800 for the second year. The program has a duration of 21 months and students graduate with a master’s degree in human genetics and genetic counseling.
Genetic Counselor Certificates
You can only go for the genetic counseling certification once you have completed an accredited master’s program in genetic counseling. The only valid certificate for genetic counselors is the one offered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) Certification
This certificate is valid internationally. The examination is computer-based and you can take it at official testing centers worldwide. You have four hours to complete the test, which consists of 200 questions. It is the best way to show you have the knowledge and skills necessary to be a genetic counselor.
Should You Become a Genetic Counselor?
Becoming a genetic counselor in 2020 is an excellent option for people who want to go into a career in the medical field. The profession is growing, genetic counselors earn excellent salaries, and you can make as much as doctors in some states.
Most importantly, you will be making a difference in people’s lives by helping them through their genetics-based decisions. If you want a healthcare career but would rather avoid the more demanding education requirements and heavy workload of physicians and surgeons, genetic counseling is the option for you.
Genetic Counselor FAQ
There are three major groups of people who go to see genetic counselors. The first group is expectant parents who want to follow up on something unusual that came up on the ultrasound. Or perhaps they have a history of genetic disorders in their family and want to understand the risk of their future babies inheriting them.
The second group is children who have some kind of unidentified health problem. Parents take their kids to genetic counselors to know whether the source could be genetic.
The last group is adults that will benefit from knowing their risks of various heritable diseases. They could take preventive measures before the first symptoms present.
You need to get the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) certification to become a certified genetic counselor. Before taking the certification exam, you need to complete a master’s degree in genetic counseling from an accredited program. The body that accredits master’s programs is the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).
Genetic counselors have to recertify every five years. They can retake the examination or get equivalent credit through continuing education programs approved by the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).
This career is very much in-demand these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for genetic counselors is expected to grow by 21 percent by 2029.
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