Spotlights

Job Description

Genetic Counselors work with individuals and families to look at risk factors for developing certain disorders, based on family medical histories. Many medical problems are passed down through DNA from parents, grandparents, or other ancestors. These hereditary issues can often be identified before they begin to present symptoms. 
 
Counselors can also test parents to assess the likelihood of their own children or potential children developing a disorder. Common genetic issues include Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and many others. Multifactorial genetic inheritance disorders can create a predisposition for problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer, and more. 
 
Workers typically choose an area to specialize in, such as prenatal, pediatrics, psychiatry, or other options. Some may opt to select more than one specialty field. Counselors work with other professionals to share discoveries, such as with clients’ primary care doctors or other medical staff as needed. Although genetic counseling isn’t a large career field, it’s certainly an important one which helps patients prepare for potential upcoming medical problems. It’s also a great method of uncovering information that can help with family planning decisions. 

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Helping patients discover possible future medical issues based on family histories
  • Providing parents with information they can use to make family planning choices
  • Broadening the medical community’s understanding of common and rare disorders 
2018 Employment
3,000
2028 Projected Employment
3,800
The Inside Scoop
Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule
Standard 40-hour, Monday through Friday, workweeks usually apply
 
Typical Duties

  • Work with clients to understand their medical backgrounds and those of their relatives
  • Arrange for medical testing to screen for hereditary genetic disorders
  • Analyze DNA test results to scan for clues of potential genetic disorders, syndromes, or risk of diseases that may be linked to hereditary factors
  • Outline expectation management and explain risks and benefits of testing
  • Collaborate with other members of the clients’ healthcare team and share data
  • Discuss evidentiary findings with patients and make suggestions for prevention and treatment
  • Provide a range of counseling and emotional support services 
  • Offer services related to their area(s) of specialization
  • Additional Responsibilities
  • Stay apprised of trends and changes through professional organization membership
Skills Needed on the Job

Soft Skills

  • Ability to explain complicated findings in understandable terms
  • Able to advise and instruct others through verbal and written guidance
  • Active listening skills and attention-to-detail
  • Analytical and objective
  • Aptitude for critical thinking and problem solving 
  • Compassionate and sensitive to the concerns of others
  • Curious and always learning
  • High degree of integrity
  • Professional demeanor
  • Research skills
  • Strong technical reading skills
  • Understanding of basic human psychology

Technical Skills

  • Familiarity with analytical/scientific software applications, database user interfaces, and query software
  • Knowledge of job-related software such as:
  • Benetech PRA
  • BRCAPRO
  • MapChart
  • MS Office or comparable software, including spreadsheets
  • Relevant medical expertise in biology, psychology, therapy, and counseling 
Different Types of Organizations
  • Hospitals and medical laboratories    
  • Private clinics or doctors’ offices    
  • Academic institutions
  • Some Genetic Counselors maintain private practice    
Expectations and Sacrifices

Genetic counseling is a sensitive field, in which workers may have to deliver difficult news to patients. Patients can have varying emotional and behavioral responses to test results, which can be stressful at times for their counselors, too. Over time, this can take an emotional toll on some workers. 
 
This remains a small field, with only one qualified worker per 100,000 Americans according to Forbes. In order to service certain parts of the country, counselors may need to become comfortable with meeting clients online. At times, such distance interactions are less than ideal. It is vital that counselors become proficient in offering telehealth service in a manner that conveys their compassion and interest in their patients’ issues, even at a distance while facing each other in monitors.  

Current Trends

As the science behind the testing continues to evolve, so does the technology used to communicate the results. Artificial Intelligence startups like Clear Genetics have begun to make inroads into certain stages of the process, filling in the gaps when human counselors aren’t available. While human Genetic Counselors may never be replaced by programs, it is important to note which faucets of the process customers need from human interaction with, compared to dealing with software.  

What kind of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were younger…

Genetic Counselors serve in a social occupation. They are usually “people persons” who have always enjoyed working with and helping others with an attitude of sincere caring. That said, it’s important to be objective and not let emotions rule behavior. For this reason, people in this field may have also exhibited strong leadership traits early on, able to make difficult decisions while still keeping the welfare of people in mind. 
 
They’re inquisitive, focused, and most likely enjoyed reading, studying biology and psychology, and digging into their own family’s history. Due to the highly sensitive nature of the work, people in this field likely always had a strong moral compass and felt a desire to do “the right thing.” 
 
Many consider this field to require a certain artistic aptitude. The ability to see designs and patterns is not unlike the creativity displayed by all manner of artists. They may often seeing the fruits of their labor, whether it's finishing a portrait or helping a patient to learn more about themselves so they can make well-informed decisions about their healthcare. 

Education and Training Needed
  • Bachelor's and Master's degree
  • Typical course topics include:
    • Public health
    • Epidemiology
    • Psychology
    • Developmental biology
  • Programs generally require supervised clinical rotation periods (see Rutgers’ website for an example)
  • The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) offers a post-graduate certification program which is a requirement for licensure in some states
    • Requirements vary by state and employer
    • Some states require certification prior to licensure (state medical boards are the best place to check for current information)
    • Some employers require certification even if their state does not
Things to look for in a program
  • A master’s program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling
  • Check if the program leads to ABGC certification (such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s program)
  • Many schools are offering new programs in this growing field. Don’t discount a program for being new, since it could have a more up-to-date curriculum
  • Look at a program’s job placement rates for graduates, and any links to industry
  • Always scan for school tuition discounts, scholarships, or paid Graduate Teaching or Graduate Research Assistantships  
  • There aren’t many online program options for this master’s, but carefully weigh the pros and cons of attending an online program versus in on-campus one
  • Remember even online programs have certain on-campus visit requirements
List of Genetic Counseling Programs

The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling lists Genetic Counseling Training Programs in the US offering Master of Science degrees and in some cases PhDs. 
 
Note, some universities are in various stages of building new programs or awaiting review, so you’ll want to check their status periodically if there’s a program you’d like to attend in the future. Pending programs include: 

  • Washington University in St. Louis    
  • Wake Forest University    
  • Medical College of Wisconsin

The American Board of Genetic Counseling’s international, post-graduate certificate is also a popular option, as more states begin to require it as part of a licensure process (the National Society of Genetic Counselors publishes a list of states that issue licenses). Most master’s programs are designed to help prepare students for that certification exam. 

Things to do in High School and College
  • Due to the relatively small number of working Genetic Counselors, and the requirement for a graduate degree, it’s important to get started early
  • Take plenty of college prep courses in high school related to biology, psychology, epidemiology (the study of “the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations”), and applicable topics
  • This field requires a significant amount of writing, so English and writing courses are encouraged
  • Read books related to principles and methods of counseling
  • Check out Busted Cubicle’s “DIY Skill Building” resource links
  • Think about the setting you may want to work in, such as pediatrics, working with cancer patients, etc. Find volunteer opportunities to help people in your target speciality area
  • Review grad programs for prerequisite courses, and ensure your undergraduate degree sufficiently prepares you for the challenges ahead in graduate school
  • If you’re able to work as you attend school, take jobs that are as closely related as possible to what you want to do after graduation
  • Ask if your school offers Graduate Teaching or Graduate Research Assistantships
  • Any work or teaching experience related to your future career can give you a competitive edge over peers after graduation 
  • Pick your professors’ brains for advice on courses to take. Academic advisors are very helpful but may not have the expertise of professional faculty
  • Keep up on news from the American Board of Genetic Counseling, National Society of Genetic Counselors, and American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics
  • Start writing and getting published in peer-reviewed journals and professional magazines or websites
Typical Roadmap
Gladeo Genetic Counselor roadmap
How to land your 1st job
  • Genetic Counselors look at the past to predict the future, so apply those skills to getting your first job
  • Talk with workers in the field to ask what steps they took, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel
  • Maintain a high GPA during college, and try to earn academic accolades
  • Impress your teachers by studying hard and going above-and-beyond
  • When the time is right, ask former professors and instructors if they would serve as references or write letters of recommendation
  • Always keep notes of your work, academic, and volunteer accomplishments for use on your resume, cover letter, or other application materials
  • Ensure all written materials are properly formatted and error-free; attention-to-detail is a critical component of this career field, so let your application reflect your work ethic
  • Confirm whether your state issues licensure or requires certification
  • Remember, certain employers may require certification even if your state does not
  • As a future counselor, your ability to listen and speak professionally will be major attributes, so polish them in advance of attending interviews
  • Ask friends or family to assist with conducting mock interviews for practice
  • Review job portals like Indeed, Monster, and NSGC’s job portal
  • Ask your college’s career center or the program department for help connecting to employers and recruiters
  • Refresh your LinkedIn profile to include any new work or educational achievements
  • Stay professional across all social media channels 
How to Climb the Ladder
  • Map out your career well in advance, so you can lay the foundation for all work and educational requirements
  • Let it be known to your employer that you have ambitions to achieve certain things in your career and for their organization
  • ABGC-certified practitioners, also known as Diplomates, must refresh certification every few years
  • Maintain the highest level of integrity and confidentiality when dealing with clients and their sensitive information
  • Demonstrate leadership traits and set the standard for others to follow
  • Join professional organizations, as listed in the Recommended Resources below
  • Consider completing a dual degree in grad school, or a PhD after your master’s 
  • Keep up with advances in techniques and technologies, as well as all applicable medical policies
Recommended Resources

Websites

  • About Genetic Counselors
  • Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling
  • American Board of Genetic Counseling
  • American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics
  • American Society of Human Genetics 
  • Association for Genetic Counseling Program Directors 
  • Minority Genetic Professional Network
  • National Society of Genetic Counselors

Books

  • A Guide to Genetic Counseling, Second Edition, by Wendy R. Uhlmann, et. al. 
  • Genetic Counseling Practice: Advanced Concepts and Skills, by Bonnie S. LeRoy, et. al.
  • Facilitating the Genetic Counseling Process: Practice-Based Skills, by Patricia McCarthy, et. al.
Plan B

For those looking for a career that is medical-related but with broader job opportunities, the Bureau of Labor Statics lists the following similar occupations:

  • Epidemiologists
  • Health Educators and Community Health Workers
  • Marriage and Family Therapists
  • Medical Scientists
  • Physicians and Surgeons

O-Net Online also recommends: 

  • School Psychologists
  • Psychology Teachers, Postsecondary
  • Family and General Practitioners 
  • Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nurses 
  • Naturopathic Physicians

Newsfeed

Jobs by

Online Courses and Tools