Genetic counselors assess individual or family risk for a variety of inherited conditions, such as genetic disorders and birth defects. They provide information and support to other healthcare providers, or to individuals and families concerned with the risk of inherited conditions.

Duties

Genetic counselors typically do the following:

  • Interview patients to get comprehensive individual family and medical histories
  • Evaluate genetic information to identify patients or families at risk for specific genetic disorders
  • Write detailed consultation reports to provide information on complex genetic concepts for patients or referring physicians
  • Discuss testing options and the associated risks, benefits, and limitations with patients, families, and other healthcare providers
  • Counsel patients and family members by providing information, education, or reassurance regarding genetic risks and inherited conditions
  • Participate in professional organizations or conferences to keep abreast of developments in genetics and genomics

Genetic counselors identify specific genetic disorders or risks through the study of genetics. A genetic disorder or syndrome is inherited. For parents who are expecting children, counselors use genetics to predict whether a baby is likely to have hereditary disorders, such as Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, among others. Genetic counselors also assess the risk for an adult to develop diseases with a genetic component, such as certain forms of cancer.

Counselors identify these conditions by studying patients’ genes through DNA testing. Medical laboratory technologists perform lab tests, which genetic counselors then evaluate and use for counseling patients and their families. They share this information with other health professionals, such as physicians and medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians.

According to a 2016 survey from the National Society of Genetic Counselors, most genetic counselors specialize in traditional areas of genetic counseling: prenatal, cancer, and pediatric. The survey noted that genetic counselors also may work in one or more specialty fields such as cardiovascular health, genomic medicine, neurogenetics, and psychiatry.

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Work Environment

Genetic counselors held about 3,000 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of genetic counselors were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 36%
Medical and diagnostic laboratories 16
Offices of physicians 14
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private                             11
Self-employed workers 7

Genetic counselors work with families, patients, and other medical professionals.

Work Schedules

Most genetic counselors work full time and have a standard work schedule.

Education and Training

Genetic counselors typically need a master’s degree in genetic counseling or genetics, and board certification.

Education

Genetic counselors typically need a master’s degree in genetic counseling or genetics.

Coursework in genetic counseling includes public health, epidemiology, psychology, and developmental biology. Classes emphasize genetics, public health, and patient empathy. Students also must complete clinical rotations, during which they work directly with patients and clients. Clinical rotations provide supervised experience for students, allowing them to work in different work environments, such as prenatal diagnostic centers, pediatric hospitals, or cancer centers.

The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling accredits master's degree programs.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

The American Board of Genetic Counseling provides certification for genetic counselors. To become certified, a student must complete an accredited master’s degree program and pass an exam. Counselors must complete continuing education courses to maintain their board certification.

About half of the states require genetic counselors to be licensed and other states have pending legislation for licensure. Certification is typically needed to get a license. For specific licensing requirements, contact the state’s medical board.

Employers typically require or prefer prospective genetic counselors to be certified, even if the state does not require it.

Personality and Interests

Genetic counselors typically have an interest in the Thinking, Creating and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Thinking or Creating or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a genetic counselor, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Genetic counselors should also possess the following specific qualities:

Compassion. Patients seek advice on family care or serious illness, so genetic counselors must be sensitive and compassionate when communicating their findings.

Critical-thinking skills. Genetic counselors analyze laboratory findings to determine how best to advise a patient or family. They use their applied knowledge of genetics to assess inherited risks properly.

Decision-making skills. Genetic counselors must use their expertise and experience to determine how to disseminate their findings properly to their patients.

Speaking skills. Genetic counselors must communicate complex findings so that their patients can understand the magnitude of a health problem.

Pay

The median annual wage for genetic counselors was $81,880 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $61,310, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $114,750.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for genetic counselors in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Medical and diagnostic laboratories $94,290
Offices of physicians 81,400
Hospitals; state, local, and private 81,230
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private                  76,440

Most genetic counselors work full time and have a standard work schedule.

Job Outlook

Employment of genetic counselors is projected to grow 27 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 800 new jobs over the 10-year period.

Ongoing technological innovations, including lab tests and developments in genomics, are giving counselors opportunities to conduct more types of analyses. Cancer genomics, for example, can determine a patient’s risk for specific types of cancer. The number and types of tests that genetic counselors can administer and evaluate have increased over the past few years. Many types of genetic tests are covered by health insurance providers.

Job Prospects

Genetic counselors who graduate from an accredited program and pass the board certification exam can generally expect the most favorable job prospects.

For More Information

For more information about genetic counselors, certification, and schools offering education in genetic counseling, visit

American Board of Genetic Counseling

For more information about genetic counseling career requirements and developments in genetics, including licensure, visit

National Society of Genetic Counselors

For more information about accreditation and schools offering education in genetic counseling, visit

Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling

CareerOneStop

For a career video on genetic counselors, visit

Genetic Counselors

 

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