What Is the Best Degree Path for Becoming a Genetic Counselor?

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If you have an interest in the science of genetics and the compassion to help patients understand the risk of inherited genetic disorders, then a career as a genetic counselor might be for you. These highly skilled healthcare professionals:

  • study genetic disorders and syndromes
  • analyze genetic information
  • assess the risks of inheriting genetic disorders

Genetic counselors work closely with families and other healthcare providers to test for, treat, and educate about these inherited medical conditions. The career is not only personally rewarding but also in high demand. The first step to attaining a career as a genetic counselor is a college education.

Below, we discuss how to become a genetic counselor, what kind of degree you’ll need to go to work, and how much money you can expect to earn.

How Do You Become a Genetic Counselor?

To work in this profession, you’ll need a genetic counseling degree. Genetic counselors typically hold master’s degrees in:

  • genetic counseling
  • genetics
  • closely related disciplines

An undergraduate degree is essential to work as a genetic counselor. However, there’s no single major that students must pursue. According to the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC), the only requirement is that the student must have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.

Once the undergraduate genetic counseling education requirements are met, you must earn a graduate degree. Look for master’s degree programs that have been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. This is the accreditation board for graduate programs in genetic counseling.

After you earn a master’s degree, you must acquire certification and licensing. This is discussed in more detail below.

What Degree Does a Genetic Counselor Need?

Bachelor’s Degrees
The first step toward becoming a genetic counselor is to earn a bachelor’s degree. Typically, there’s no single genetic counseling major, but there are plenty of options available for those aspiring to become a genetic counselor. Some of the best degrees for genetic counselors, as an undergraduate, include:

Biology: The core curriculum in most biology programs reflects the latest advancements in biological sciences. Students gain a broad understanding of many biological concepts. Courses cover topics in:

  • cell biology
  • evolution and ecology
  • experimental design
  • statistical analysis

These classes are aimed toward:

  • biologists
  • genetics
  • molecular genetics

Students learn how to read and interpret scientific literature, design and execute their own experiments, and write research proposals. All of these skills are helpful for work as a genetic counselor.

Chemistry: As a chemistry major, you’ll explore the different ways that elements on the periodic table combine and react. You’ll learn how to:

  • solve complex problems
  • conduct experiments
  • carry out research

Courses cover topics like:

  • biochemistry
  • inorganic chemistry
  • organic chemistry
  • physical chemistry

The skills acquired in a chemistry program can be carried over to a successful career as a genetic counselor.

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Psychology: A surprising number of social science majors become genetic counselors. Psychology majors are prepared for graduate school, as well as for careers in areas like human services and research. Some of the courses in an undergraduate psychology program are:

  • cognitive science
  • research methods
  • social psychology
  • theories of personality

Statistics: Statistics programs prepare students for graduate school by ensuring they know how to analyze, gather, and interpret data. Through coursework, statistics majors become familiar with:

  • data analysis
  • probability
  • the theory of statistics

As a statistics major, you’ll take plenty of math and computer science courses. Also, concentration options in areas like biology and health science are available in some programs.

Master’s Degree
Once you earn your undergraduate genetic counseling bachelor’s degree, you can apply to Master of Science in genetic counseling degree programs. Make sure that the program you choose has earned specialized accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling and is among the more than 50 programs certified by the ABGC.

In a Master of Science in genetic counseling degree program, you can expect to study subjects like:

  • Counseling eEthics
  • Developmental biology
  • Epidemiology
  • Health communication strategies
  • Molecular genetics
  • Patient empathy
  • Psychology
  • Public health
  • Research methods

Students enrolled in master’s degree programs in genetic counseling will complete clinical observations and reviews of existing genetics research. There are also classroom-based lecture courses and laboratory-based experiments. Clinical rotations provide supervised experiences for graduate students as they work in different environments, such as:

  • cancer centers
  • diagnostic centers
  • pediatric hospitals

What Does It Take to Be a Genetic Counselor?

You’ll need a degree to become a genetic counselor, both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Once you complete your genetic counselor schooling, you’ll need to acquire certification and licensing. In addition to the right education, candidates for genetic counselor jobs also need the right certification and licensure credentials. Graduates of certified, accredited Master of Science in genetic counseling programs can sit for the comprehensive exam to earn certification. While not all states require genetic counselors to be licensed, certification is a precursor to getting a license in the states that do.

About half of the states in the U.S. require genetic counselors to be licensed. Some other states have pending legislation for licensure requirements, so it may be critical for a genetic counselor to be licensed no matter where you live. Even if your state does not require licensing or certification, employers generally require that new hires be certified.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Genetic Counselor?

Becoming a genetic counselor is no short journey. Since you need a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, plan on spending about six years in college. Traditional bachelor’s degree programs take four years to complete. Master’s in genetic counseling programs take about two years to complete.

You will need to attend genetic counseling school at the undergraduate and graduate level. There’s no way around these education requirements. To become a genetic counselor, you must have both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Both degrees should be fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling, as previously discussed.

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Other Important Qualities to Become a Genetic Counselor

In addition to the degrees required to become a genetic counselor, you’ll want to assess your fit for the career. According to the BLS, there are certain qualities and skills that make a person a successful genetic counselor. These skills are not always taught in the classroom, so it’s important to examine yourself to see if you’re a good fit for the career. Important qualities include:

  • Analytical skills: Analytical skills are important for genetic counselors because they allow them to make informed decisions about complex findings. They understand problems and analyze different outcomes to determine viable solutions and inherited risks. Analytical skills are very important to the role of genetic counselor.
  • Compassion: Genetic counselors work closely with patients and family members. Patients seek advice about serious illnesses and diseases. A genetic counselor must be sensitive, patient, and compassionate when communicating their findings to the people they treat.
  • Critical-thinking skills: As a genetic counselor, you’ll analyze and interpret laboratory findings and results. You will then communicate these findings with patients and their family. You’ll apply your knowledge of genetics to assess inherited risks. These tasks require strong critical-thinking skills.
  • Effective communication skills: When a genetic counselor gathers complex findings, they must be able to communicate them clearly to their patient and the patient’s family. Good communication skills help patients to understand the findings and inherited risks.
  • Quick decision-making skills: There are times when a genetic counselor must make quick decisions on how to share their findings with patients and family. Genetic counselors should be able to use their scientific expertise and experience to determine how to deliver complex information to their patients.

How Much Money Does a Genetic Counselor Make?

Genetic counselors earn a median salary of $85,700 per year. Like other professionals in the healthcare industry, they stand to earn millions over the course of their professional lives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the lowest 10% of earners in this occupation make $66,930, while the highest 10% make more than $126,350.

Certain factors impact earnings potential for genetic counselors, including industry type and geographic location. The BLS reports four top-paying industries for genetic counselors. The top-paying industry offers wages higher than the median annual wage. These industries are:

  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $87,400
  • Local, private, and state hospitals: $84,680
  • Physician’s offices: $82,900
  • Local, private, and state colleges, professional schools, and universities: $79,490

Geographic location also impacts earnings, according to the BLS. Top-paying states for this occupation include:

  • California: $119,880
  • Connecticut: $103,790
  • New York: $96,850
  • New Jersey: $91,610
  • Colorado: $91,530

Of the five top-paying states, all offer higher-than-average earnings for genetic counselors. In fact, California offers average wages that are $34,180 more than the national average for this occupation. However, some states have a higher cost of living than other states. This should be factored in when choosing in which area you plan to work. This is also true of certain cities. Many of the top-paying metropolitan areas for genetic counselors are cities in California with higher costs of living. According to the BLS, the top-paying metropolitan areas for genetic counselors include:

  • Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California: $134,590
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California: $133,640
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California: $101,360
  • New York-Newark-Jersey City, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania: $93,950
  • Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington: $90,110
  • Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, Massachusetts and New Hampshire: $88,510

When you make the major decision to pursue a career in genetics counseling, you’re preparing yourself to go into a rewarding career in a fast-growing field.

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What Is the Job Outlook for Genetic Counselors?

Genetic counseling is one career that’s seeing rapid job growth. If you’re interested in becoming a genetic counselor, now is an ideal time. The BLS anticipates employment opportunities in this field to increase by 26 percent over just a decade, which is considerably faster than the job growth rate of 14 percent expected for other healthcare practitioners and the increase of eight percent predicted across all occupations.

While the job outlook is highly favorable, the profession is considered small compared to other professions. And while an increase of 26 percent is projected, only about 300 job openings for genetic counselors are expected each year, on average, for the next 10 years. These job openings are anticipated partially from the need to replace individuals who retire or transfer to different occupations.

According to the BLS, the small occupation of genetic counselors will see a fast growth rate, but this will only result in the addition of about 600 new jobs over the next decade. Still, now is a great time to pursue this highly specialized career, as ongoing technological innovations give rise to continued growth. New developments in genomics and laboratory tests are allowing genetic counselors more freedom to conduct more types of analyses. The type and number of tests that genetic counselors administer has greatly increased over the past several years. These tests are also being covered by health insurances. As a result, demand for these tests has increased and more genetic counselors are needed to administer them.

What Is the Work Environment Like for Genetic Counselors?

After learning about what education for genetic counselor jobs is required, it’s important to understand what the work environment will be like. According to the BLS, the largest employers for genetic counselors are:

  • Local, private, and state hospitals: 46 percent
  • Physician offices: 11 percent
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories: 11 percent
  • Colleges, professional schools, and universities: 10 percent
  • Self-employed workers: three percent

Genetic counselors work with patients, family members, and other healthcare professionals to assess the individual or family risk for inherited genetic conditions. Conditions may be birth defects or other genetic disorders. These highly specialized counselors meet with patients and families in:

  • diagnostic laboratories
  • physician’s offices
  • public or private hospitals
  • university medical centers

Most counselors work full-time jobs with traditional work schedules. Most work Monday through Friday with weekends and holidays off.

BDP Staff
January 2022

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