Become a Genetic Counselor – Education & Certification Guide
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Americans are getting genetic testing done at an ever-increasing rate. Be it out of curiosity about ancestry or to learn if they are a carrier for a disease, these tests can give people and medical professionals information that cannot be discerned any other way.
As of 2017, there were more than 75,000 different genetic tests available on the market. While the field of genetics has only been around for the past 70 years, the field of genetic counseling is even newer, with the first professionals emerging about 40 years ago and the first being state licensed in 2002.
Genetic counselors help patients and families understand genetic testing and the ramifications of the results. They are skilled allied health professionals who have received extensive training in science, genetics, and counseling. Not only do they have a firm grasp of inherited conditions, birth defects, and other disorders but they have compassion and understanding to counsel patients through extremely difficult decisions.
The average salary for genetic counselors is $80,860 per year (BLS May 2019), although experienced counselors can earn much more. This field is booming and there will be an anticipated 21 percent increase in positions nationally for genetics counselors between 2019 and 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020). Demand for counselors is growing so quickly because of an increase in genetic testing. With more tests available and wider adoption of genetic testing in the medical field, more patients are getting detailed information about their genes and need help making decisions.
Becoming a genetic counselor starts with dedication, compassion, and schooling. A master’s degree is required for certification and licensure. Continue reading to learn more about how to enter this growing and exciting profession.
How to Become a Genetic Counselor
Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)
A career as a genetic counselor begins with graduating high school or completing a GED. Students interested in this career should focus on social sciences, biology, math, and chemistry. If advanced placement classes are available, students should take advantage of them as they can help boost college applications as well as provide college credits prior to completing high school.
Step 2: Complete a Bachelors’ Degree (Four Years)
A bachelor’s degree is necessary in order to become a genetic counselor. While students can pursue most any major and enter this field, the most common majors for this career are psychology, counseling, biochemistry, or health sciences. Students should ensure their program is regionally accredited or accredited by a national accrediting agency as this is often required when applying for a master’s program.
Most genetic counselor master’s degree programs require applicants to have completed prerequisite coursework. Commonly required classes include biology with a lab component, molecular biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, psychology, genetics, and statistics. Often, students are required to pass these courses with a minimum of a B or better.
In the fall of their senior year, prospective genetic counselors will need to register with the National Matching Service (NMS) in order to obtain admission to a master’s program. Students submit all their required documentation to NMS, as well as rank the master’s programs they wish to attend. Programs review applications and conduct interviews throughout the winter and offer admission in April. Most master’s programs typically start the following fall.
Step 3: Obtain an Master’s Degree (Two Years)
A master’s degree in genetic counseling is required to enter this career. The majority of the master’s in genetic counseling programs can be completed in just two years. On-campus, hybrid, and completely online options are available across the country. Students should ensure the program they attend is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC), as that is a requirement for the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) certification.
Boise State, for example, offers a fully online 21-month master’s of science in genetic counseling degree. Students enrolled in this program are required to take courses such as the principles of human genetics, developmental anatomy, research methods, and healthcare principles. Starting during the third semester of studies, students engage in fieldwork where they gain valuable hands-on experience working directly with patients.
Students looking for an on-campus option should consider the 22-month master’s of science in genetics counseling at Rutgers University. This is the only genetic counseling program in the state of New Jersey, affording students unparalleled access to professionals across the state. Faculty in this program are leaders and professionals in the field as well. Students are required to attend lectures, complete labs, participate in clinical rotations, and complete a research project in order to graduate from the program.
Step 4: Pass the Board Certification Test from the ABGC (Timeline Varies)
Certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) is the industry standard for genetic counselors. Candidates must have graduated from an ACGC-accredited program in order to be eligible to sit for this exam. Tests are offered twice a year in February and August. The test is four hours long and consists of 200 multiple-choice questions.
The ABGC offers a 100-question practice exam for $55 which helps students prepare. Topics covered in this exam include:
- Gathering initial client information
- Evaluating medical history
- Family history
- Risk assessment
- Testing options
Immediately upon completing the test, students will receive their score which will inform them if they have passed or failed. If candidates have earned a passing score they can immediately begin using the title of Certified Genetic Counselor, unless prohibited by state legislation.
Step 5: Apply for State Licensure if Required (Timeline Varies)
In about half the states, genetic counselors are required to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state and each year more states are adding licensing requirements. The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) publishes a list of states requiring licensure, as well as links to state requirements.
All states currently requiring genetic counselors to be licensed require applicants to have current ABGC certification and have graduated from an ACGC accredited master’s degree program. One state that requires licensing is New Mexico. The requirements to be licensed are:
- Submit a completed application
- Pay a $150 application fee
- Complete a criminal background check including fingerprinting
- Provide verification of ACGC certification
- Submit official graduate school transcripts
- Submit verification of work experience for the past five years, if applicable
- Provide two passport style photographs
- Have a reference submit a professional recommendation
What Do Genetic Counselors Do?
Genetic counselors work at hospitals, clinics, universities, diagnostic laboratories, and government agencies. Job duties vary based on place of employment, education, and job title but typical day to day responsibilities include:
- Interviewing patients to learn about medical and family history
- Compiling patient genetic information from interviews and tests to get an accurate picture of their genetic makeup
- Writing detailed reports on the findings of genetic tests for both doctors and patients
- Translating medical terminology into layman’s terms
- Discussing with patients about available genetics tests, the risks of the tests, and what the results could mean
- Educating patients and family members about genetic conditions and treatment available
- Meeting with prenatal and conceiving families to advise on pregnancy risks they may face based on their genetic makeup
- Participating in research
- Maintaining careful client records
How Much Do Genetic Counselors Make?
Genetic counselor wages vary based on place of employment, what state they work in, how much education they have, and what kind of experience they have. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, genetic counselors earn $80,860 per year on average. The percentiles for earnings are:
- 10th percentile: $52,750
- 25th percentile: $68,030
- 50th percentile (median): $80,370
- 75th percentile: $96,060
- 90th percentile: $107,450
Genetic Counselor Professional Associations & Resources
Top association and resources for genetic counselors include:
- National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC)
- American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABCG)
- Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
- American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)
- American Board of Medical Genetics (ABMG)
- American Society of Gene & Cell Therapy (ASGT)