Career guide: Genetic counselor

  • Genetic counselors provide education and support to patients.
    Genetic counselors provide education and support to patients.

    Career guide: Genetic counselor

    If you have a background in the sciences and possess deep knowledge of biology, and specifically genetics, you could be well-suited to a career as a genetic counselor. A fledgling field, in the U.S. and Canada, there are currently only 4000 individuals with the requisite training needed to work in this rewarding profession, the American Board of Genetic Counseling reported, according to an article from Science Magazine. Still, with growth in employment forecast and a number of institutions now offering master's degree programs in genetic counseling, pursuing this career path could be a shrewd professional move. Read on to learn more. 

    What do genetic counselors do?
    As detailed in an article from Purdue University, genetic counselors work with families to discuss the risk of genetic illness. For example, if a woman becomes pregnant and there is an elevated risk of illness, a genetic counselor may work with the expectant couple to analyze the risk of certain genetic conditions or birth defects, helping them to come to a decision that best suits their family. A genetic counselor may also work with individuals who themselves have undergone testing for certain illnesses, providing emotional support, information, and guidance as it pertains to treatment and other significant decisions.

    These professionals also provide individuals with education and detailed analysis of test results in a way that can be easily understood. Purdue University further noted that genetic counselors tend to serve as intermediaries, helping to connect individuals and families with other forms of support as necessary. Genetic counselors may also be called upon to educate other health care professionals who may have less nuanced knowledge about certain medical conditions. In addition to helping and supporting patients, many genetic counselors also engage in academic research, Science Magazine explained.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics outlined how genetic counselors can work in a range of health care settings, from small private clinics to large hospitals. Science Magazine elaborated that, although less common, some genetic counselors work for non-profit groups as well as in diagnostic laboratories that are for-profit.

    What education is needed?
    According to the University of California, Santa Cruz, to work as a genetic counselor candidates need to earn a master's degree in an accredited program. There are around 33 of these advanced degree programs in the U.S., according to Science Magazine. The field is also expanding, with master's programs in countries such as France, Norway, the Netherlands and the U.K., among others. Purdue University explained how candidates looking to gain entry into a master's program for genetic counseling typically need a strong background in the sciences along with some experience in counseling. There is high competition for places in these programs. Consequently, those with undergraduate GPAs below 3.0 are rarely if ever accepted.

    After graduating from a master's program, before gaining employment individuals must pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling certification exam, UC Santa Cruz elaborated.

    Salary prospects
    The BLS reported how the median nationwide salary for genetic counselors in the U.S., as of 2016, stands at a little over $74,000 per year, which translates to close to $36 per hour. Higher salaries are common, with U.S. News & World Report noting that, in 2015, those in the 75th percentile of salaries earned close to $90,000 per annum on average. 

    Job Outlook
    As mentioned, significant growth in the field is expected and job prospects for new graduates are promising. The BLS predicts an expansion in employment between the years of 2014 and 2024 that amounts to around 29 percent. 

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