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How to Become a Genetic Counselor
Alternate Career Titles:
Licensed Genetic Counselor, LGC, Certified Genetic Counselor, CGC, Genetic Consultant, Gene Counselor
Genetic Counselor Job Description: Genetic Counselors assess the risk of inheriting conditions including birth defects and genetic disorders.
Genetic Counselor Salary (Annual): $81,880
Genetic Counselor Salary Range: $61,310 to $114,750
How Long To Become a Genetic Counselor: 6 years
Genetic Counselor Requirements: Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling
Become a Genetic Counselor
As a Genetic Counselor, professionals are responsible for assessing the risk that an individual or family may inherit a variety of conditions, including genetic diseases, disorders and birth defects. Often, patients will seek out genetic counseling when they are expecting children to determine if their child is likely to be born with a hereditary disorder.
To determine a patient’s risk, Genetic Counselors must first interview patients to document their family health histories. Next, they will evaluate family health history information and have DNA testing conducted to identify if their patients are in fact at risk of inheriting any disorders or diseases.
Furthermore, to express the results of their genetic counseling, Counselors will create detailed consultation reports to explain their findings or to refer patients to Family Physicians or Surgeons. In addition, Genetic Counselors will help patients make decisions about their genetic health. This includes understanding their risks, explaining the testing that is available and supporting informed decision making about whether genetic testing is the right choice for each patient. Not all patients who go to a genetic counselor end up getting a genetic test.
Lastly, Certified Genetic Counselors (CGCs) frequently participate in professional organizations and conferences to stay up-to-date on all the advancements in the field of genetics. There is a great deal of practice for Genetic Counselors outside of just prenatal care. These professionals often work alongside Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses and Phlebotomists.
“The best way to describe a career in genetic counseling is multi-faceted,” Andrew McCarty, MS, CGC, a Genetic Counselor practicing in Pennsylvania, said. “Everyday is a different challenge and learning something new. We obviously work a lot within the field of genetics, but there are many directions a career as a Genetic Counselor can take.”
He explained that, a career as a Gene Counselor can involve working in a clinical space, commercial lab, research facility, pharmaceutical company, academic training center, private practice, consulting or even policy setting.
“The role I perform is a hybrid clinical and laboratory role where I see patients half the time and the other time assist the lab in determining the appropriateness of genetic testing,” McCarty said.
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Education & Training
To become a Genetic Counselor, professionals must first obtain their Bachelor’s Degree, ideally in a genetics or a related science. Next, they must apply to a Genetic Counseling Master’s Degree program. These programs typically take two years to complete and include courses in genetics, psychology, epidemiology, public health and developmental biology.
“A two year graduate degree in genetic counseling is required for this position, and there are only a limited number of schools that offer a Master’s Degree in genetic counseling. So, enrolling and being accepted into a program can be challenging,” McCarty, who obtained his Master of Science degree in genetic counseling through Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, explained. “I would be lying if I didn’t say the program was difficult, however they are putting a lot of information regarding medicine, counseling, academics and professional issues into just 2 years of schooling.”
Supervised clinical rotations are another element of a Master’s Degree program in genetic counseling. These rotations serve to provide learners will real-life patient experience in different professional environments (pediatric hospitals, cancer centers, prenatal diagnostic centers, etc.). Learn about other medical lab sciences careers.
“Overall, the biggest challenges of a genetic counseling Master’s Degree program were learning all of the material while staying caught up with assignments, homework, and while also maintaining my other life responsibilities,” McCarty noted.
Upon graduating from a Master’s Degree program, Genetic Counselors are expected to become certified by passing an exam administered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). To maintain this board certification, Certified Genetic Consultants must take continued education courses periodically. Additionally, some states now require that Genetic Counselors be licensed.
“Taking the ABGC allows you to place the ‘CGC’ after your name,” McCarty explained. “The board itself helps to legitimize the profession as well as protect the individuals we see.”
To advance in a career as a Genetic Counselor, many of these professionals seek to gain more career responsibilities, setting themselves up for overall career growth. To take on more responsibilities, Genetic Counselors may request increased responsibility from their manager or supervisor, or may simply work extremely hard and wait for a promotion of some sort.
For those who are more action-driven, some Gene Counselors choose to open their own private practice and begin working for themselves. In addition, these professionals can seek out more experienced Genetic Counselors and request mentorship, helping them to seek out and pursue other advancement opportunities.
“There is also the potential to obtain a PhD in genetic counseling if one were to desire additional schooling,” McCarty said. “However, given the limited availability of such programs, obtaining additional skills via work experience and applying this to obtain additional responsibilities for a position with more advanced requirements is more commonly pursued.”
Experience & Skills
“Although the profession is not math heavy, a basic understanding and ability to calculate probabilities is required,” McCarty said. “I would argue overall interpersonal skills are a must as each day you will generally interact with many different types of people and personalities.”
So, to be a successful Genetic Counselor, these professionals must also possess strong communication skills, allowing them to effectively communicate with their patients. Furthermore, communications skills are needed to explain complex findings to patients in ways which the patients can better understand and interpret them. Additionally, decision-making skills are imperative in this career, helping Genetic Consultants determine which tests, if any, need to be conducted to come to the most accurate results.
“Experience in or exposure to the healthcare field prior to entering this career in healthcare, especially the mental health or critical care side, I feel is very useful,” McCarty added. “Beyond the required schooling, a breadth of skills, including the ability to appropriately empathize and be present with a family during a trying time, are ideal.”
Lastly, critical-thinking skills are important in the career of a Licensed Genetic Counselors, as these professionals must assess a patient’s genetics and apply their knowledge and genetic skill sets to helping patients determine and assess their genetic risks.
“Above all, Genetic Counselors should have a flexible personality,” McCarty stressed. “This is because each day presents a new, exciting challenge so being able to adjust to each individual task is key.”
As a Genetic Counselor, professionals must also be kind, considerate and empathetic. Many patients seeking genetic counseling fear that they or their children may be at risk of inheriting a genetic disorder. Thus, Genetic Counselors must be sensitive and offer compassion when communicating findings and offering insight.
Furthermore, these professionals should be driven to find accurate results, and genuinely want to help their patients. They should also be patient, friendly and approachable. Depending on a patient’s family history, discussing health-related issues may be a difficult subject, and Gene Counselors should help their patients feel comfortable sharing this information with them.
Being able to offer insight into potentially inherited conditions, disorders and diseases can be very rewarding, as this offers professionals the fulfillment that comes from genuinely helping their patients. Additionally, in terms of lifestyle, most Genetic Counselors work full-time schedules, with “standard” (9 am to 5 pm) hours. This is because these professionals are not needed in emergency situations, and thus all of their appointments are scheduled in advance. Thus, this career in healthcare is often sought out for the work / life balance which the role can offer.
“I would say that the lifestyle of a Genetic Counselor can really vary,” McCarty explained. “Most positions work your typical 9 am to 5 pm schedule and some after-work hours. However, there is not too much expected regarding overtime.”
McCarty continued that, regardless of these “standard” hours, Genetic Counselors must still remain flexible, as some patient care cases may present themselves as urgent. Thus, the professional must be ready to address the case in a speedy manner, potentially working outside the 9 am to 5 pm hours if needed.
“Overall, I’d argue that these circumstances are the exception rather than the norm.”
During a typical day at work, Genetic Counselors can expect to receive and interpret laboratory results, write detailed consultation reports, analyze genetic information and provide counseling to patients and potentially their family members. In addition, GC also need to stay up on current trends by reading literature or attending conferences. Some GC engage in research activities.
Now is a great time to consider a career as a Genetic Counselor! Why? Over the next decade, this occupation is projected to grow 27 percent. This is a rate much faster than the average for all occupations! So, what is this growth attributed to? Well, as technology continues to advance, as a result there are greater developments in healthcare including genetic testing, more patients wish to determine their inherited risks. For example, today, patients are able to seek genetic counseling to determine whatever or not they are at risk for certain types of cancer. To some, this knowledge is valuable, and can better prepare them to take the necessary measures of prevention.
The majority of Licensed Genetic Counselors are employed by state, local or private hospitals, followed by the offices of Physicians, medical and diagnostic laboratories and post-secondary educational settings. These professionals may also choose to be self-employed. The state with the highest level of employment in this occupation is California, followed by New York, Massachusetts, Ohio and Florida.
“Currently, the demand for Genetic Counselors is outstripping the supply,” McCarty explained. “If someone is willing to move, or not be particularly picky about their specialty, there is a surplus of positions available. Also, if a particular position within the field is desired, I’d recommend trying to contact someone in the same profession at that site and network.”
The median annual wage for Genetic Counselors was $81,880. While the lowest 10 percent of Genetic Counselors were recorded to have earned less than $61,310, the highest 10 percent earned more than $114,750. Additionally, the highest paying employers of these professionals are medical and diagnostic laboratories, the offices of Physicians, state, local and private hospitals and post-secondary educational settings. The top paying states for this occupation are Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina, New Jersey and Washington.
“The earning potential for Genetic Counselors is growing given the explosion in the industry in terms of utilization and demand,” McCarty noted. “There is a strong ability to advance in the profession. A starting salary greatly depends on region, but can range anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 depending on the role and location.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) is a society designed to advance the various roles of genetic counseling in healthcare by fostering education, public policy and research to ensure the availability of quality genetic services. The NSGC also promotes the professional interests of Genetic Counselors, while providing a network for professional communications.
The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) is an organization dedicated to human genetic specialists worldwide, and which is dedicated to sharing research at annual meetings, advancing and advocating for genetic research support and promoting genetic services and support. This society additionally works to enhance genetic education by preparing future professionals and informing the public.
The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) is an organization dedicated to certifying and recertifying Genetic Counselors. The ABGC administers certification exams twice per year.
- Enter a Bachelor’s Degree program, preferably in a science
- Thoroughly research the career of a Genetic Counselor
- Shadow a Genetic Counselor
- Educate yourself on the requirements to apply for a genetic counseling Master’s Degree program
- Apply to a program and enroll
- Network with other professionals in the field
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Andrew McCarty, MS, CGC
Practice: Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
Location: Pittsburg, PA
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest suggestion I could offer is to get experience in any way possible in the healthcare field, and in particular genetic counseling, prior to entering the workforce by shadowing, assisting or otherwise.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The number one mistake people make when attempting to become a Genetic Counselor is underestimating the amount of coursework and dedication required during schooling.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Although there are many enjoyable parts about every career, I do think asking what the most challenging parts of any career are of value. In this career I would say giving bad news can be challenging, but the ability my colleagues and I have to support these patients during a difficult time makes the process overall very rewarding at the end.”
Why did you choose to become a Genetic Counselor?
“Starting in sixth grade, when we learned about Punnett squares and all the other interesting advances in genetics I knew that I wanted to work in the field. However, I also knew working in a lab all day without interaction was also not my cup of tea. After graduating from an undergraduate degree program at the University of Pittsburgh, I worked as a Clinical Research Associate and, during my time at this position, mention of becoming a Genetic Counselor came up a few times. I looked into the profession and discovered genetic counseling was the ideal balance of what I was looking for in a career: inclusion of a strong science component and genetics, as well as rewarding interaction with patients on a day to day basis.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would that be?
Credentialing organization: The American Board of Genetic Counseling