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

Duties

Genetic counselors typically do the following:

  • Analyze genetic information to identify patients or families at risk for specific disorders and syndromes
  • 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 and families
  • Interview patients to obtain comprehensive medical histories and document the findings
  • Interpret laboratory results and communicate findings to patients or physicians
  • Counsel patients and family members by providing information, education, or reassurance regarding genetic risks and inherited conditions
  • Determine patient treatment plans by reviewing laboratory work, literature, and patient histories
  • Participate in professional organizations or conferences to keep abreast of developments in genetics and genomics

Genetic counselors identify specific genetic disorders or syndromes 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 can also test whether an adult is likely to develop chronic disease, or cancer. Counselors identify these conditions by studying patients’ genes through DNA testing. Counselors often perform the lab tests themselves, although sometimes they have medical laboratory technologists perform the tests, which they then interpret and use for counseling. They share this information with other health professionals, such as physicians, and with patients and their families. For more information, see the profiles on medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians and physicians and surgeons.

According to a 2012 survey from the National Society of Genetic Counselors, approximately two-thirds of genetic counselors work in traditional areas of genetic counseling: prenatal, cancer, and pediatric. The survey noted that the number of specialized fields for genetic counselors has increased. More genetic counselors are specializing in fields such as cardiovascular health, genomic medicine, neuropsychiatric genetics, and assisted reproductive technologies.

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Work Environment

Genetic counselors held about 2,100 jobs in 2012. Genetic counselors work in university medical centers, private and public hospitals, physicians’ offices, and diagnostic laboratories. They 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 at least a master’s degree in genetic counseling or genetics. Although most genetic counselors have a master’s degree, some earn a Ph.D.

Education

Genetic counselors typically need at least a master’s degree in genetic counseling or genetics, and some earn a Ph.D.

Coursework in genetic counseling includes public health, epidemiology, psychology, and developmental biology. Classes emphasize genetics, public health, and patient empathy. Advanced courses focus on clinical observations, review of previous genetic research, and health communication strategies.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

The American Board of Genetic Counseling provides certification for genetic counselors. To become certified, a student must first complete a master’s degree program that is certified by the board. There are currently 31 certified programs in the United States. Students then must pass a comprehensive exam and continue to accrue continuing education units throughout their careers. Some states currently require a license in genetic counseling, and other states have pending legislation for licensure. Certification is typically needed to get a license.

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 $56,800 in May 2012. 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 $25,540, and the top 10 percent earned more than $85,790.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for genetic counselors in the top four industries in which these counselors worked were as follows:

Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse)
hospitals; private
$67,480
General medical and surgical hospitals; local 63,590
Colleges, universities, and professional
schools; state
63,240
Offices of physicians 47,790

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

Job Outlook

Employment of genetic counselors is projected to grow 41 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 900 new jobs over the 10-year period. Ongoing technological innovations, including lab tests and developments in genomics, are giving counselors the 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 interpret has increased over the past few years.

Most growth over the next 10 years for genetic counselors is expected to be in hospitals.

Job Prospects

Genetic counselors can generally expect favorable job prospects. Ongoing innovations in genetic testing are likely to create demand for certified genetic counselors.

For More Information

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

Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).