Online Master’s Degrees in Genetic Counseling
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Genetic counseling is an important medical field in which a trained professional evaluates a person or family’s risk of inherited genetic conditions. Despite the word “counseling” in the name, genetic counselors are not mental health providers, although they can provide support and education related to the risks of disease that may have been uncovered during a genetic evaluation.
Genetic counseling is a medical specialty that is central to healthcare and patient outcomes. It also combines education, research, and support that goes beyond a typical patient-doctor relationship. A person’s genetic makeup can affect their lives in many ways beyond what is obvious on a daily basis. If a person inherited a genetic trait, they may wish to know their chances of developing a specific disease or condition later in life. Or, if they are considering having children, they may want to know what the potential risks are of their children inheriting certain genetic conditions and how that risk may impact their lives.
Genetic counselors determine the risk of inherited health conditions for all ages of people. They do this by having direct conversations with patients to create a thorough family medical and environmental history. This family health history can reveal much about disease risk assessment. The genetic counselor can also help the patients understand the management and possible prevention of certain conditions. Genetic counselors also actively participate in research and can share many resources about common and rare conditions with their patients.
Completing an online master’s degree in genetic counseling is a way to enter one of the fastest-growing careers in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) predicted a 21 percent growth in job openings for genetic counselors between 2019 and 2029.
Part of the reason for this explosive growth in this healthcare field is an increased awareness of genetics and family history due to the increased availability of at-home genetics testing kits. Many professional genetic counselors say that these at-home genetics testing kits can be confusing and upsetting when the results are viewed without talking with a professional counselor about what the risks actually mean. As more people are taking at-home genetics tests, the need to be able to talk over the results with a professional becomes even more important.
Keep reading for more about what jobs are available to genetic counselors and how to find accredited online master’s degrees in genetic counseling.
Typical Admissions Requirements for Online Master’s Degrees in Genetic Counseling
Genetic counselors must have a deep understanding of genetics, biology, and biomedical ethics, in addition to strong interpersonal skills. Because genetic counselors work directly with patients who are curious about their physical and mental health risks, counselors must be able to successfully communicate with culturally diverse people.
An online master’s degree in genetic counseling is ideal for a student with a strong desire to work in a science field who also wants to work directly with people of all ages. Given those two needs, most applicants have a bachelor’s degree in a biological science, which would include biology, genetics, or biochemistry. Others may have backgrounds in psychology, public health, or nursing.
GPA requirements vary per school but a minimum undergraduate grade-point average for admitted students at most schools would be 3.00. The student should demonstrate completed coursework in statistics, biochemistry, and genetics. Chemistry and biochemistry are typically central to scientific education. Many schools consider a strong applicant to have completed as many relevant genetics and biology courses intended for science majors as possible to strengthen their application (for instance, having only one introductory genetics course intended for non-science majors would likely not be sufficient for many schools).
GRE exams are typically required for many graduate school programs, although many schools are waiving this requirement during the Covid-19 pandemic. For non-native English speakers, high scores on a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam is required. Part of this need is that successful genetic counseling is highly dependent on excellent verbal communication skills and written fluency.
Many schools will place a higher premium on applicants who have taken the time to observe or job shadow a genetic counselor. Not only is this an excellent way to learn more about the profession, it is helpful for the student to know ahead of time if the field of genetic counseling is a good fit.
A personal impact from a genetics counseling experience could also go a long way on a master’s degree application. Having experience with counseling also is of significant value because it allows the prospective student to appreciate and develop some of the necessary skills for the profession. For instance, the student could have a family member with a genetic disorder, or have personal experience with the healthcare system or other community support environments such as volunteering at a domestic abuse shelter or crisis hotline.
Courses in Online Master’s Degrees in Genetic Counseling
An online master’s program in genetic counseling will include a sequence of classes to introduce the student to science topics and genetics-related topics as they prepare to discuss a wide variety of inheritable disorders with patients. Common courses include:
- Foundations of Genetics and Genomics
- Introduction to Genetic Counseling
- Reproductive Genetics
- Cancer Genetic Counseling
- Social and Cultural Foundations
- Counseling Theory and Practice
- Advanced Clinical Genetics Concepts
- Clinical Embryology and Prenatal Diagnosis
- Clinical Communication Skills for Genetic Counselors
- Interviewing and Counseling for Genetic Counselors
- Contemporary Professional Issues in Genetic Counseling
- Mendelian and non-Mendelian Inheritance
- Human Variation and Disease Susceptibility
- Normal/abnormal Human Development
- Human Reproduction
- Biochemical Genetics
- Molecular Genetics
Supervised Fieldwork Requirements & Internships – Online Master’s Degrees in Genetic Counseling
In addition to academic coursework, most online master’s programs in genetic counseling include supervised hands-on work experience. These practicums and internships typically take place after some core courses are completed. Some schools offer a lot of support from the staff in helping online students find suitable environments for their practicums and experiences in their own communities.
Other schools are more hands-off and expect the student to find the work environment on their own. Typically, these practicums (a supervised period of observation and documentation) last 100 to 200 hours, and internships (a supervised work experience with traditional job responsibilities) last 600 to 700 hours.
The accrediting body, the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling, approves programs in which the fieldwork requirements are a minimum of 50 cases, with at least 40 of those 50 cases with individuals being evaluated for risk of or affected by diverse genetic conditions across the lifespan (i.e., patients, not individuals who are involved in research). The 50 cases described must be supervised by an experienced ABGC/ABMGG/CAGC certified genetic counselor. All cases, not just the required 50, must be a mix of prenatal, pediatric, cancer, and other adults without being dominated by one specialty.
At Boise State University‘s accredited online master’s degree in genetic counseling, for example, students are entirely remote/online the full duration of the first academic year. However, in the second year, face-to-face clinical rotations will be required. They recommended that students spend three to four days per week in their clinical rotation sites. The total minimum required hours in clinical rotation settings by graduation is 675 hours.
Program Accreditation for Online Master’s Degrees in Genetic Counseling
In order to become a Certified Genetic Counselor by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC), the student must obtain a master’s degree in genetic counseling from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).
There are currently 34 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada with master’s degree programs in genetic counseling, according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors.
There also are four accredited programs in Canada, and one developing program in the United States. Developing programs are not yet accredited by ACGC, but have demonstrated sufficient curriculum development to apply for candidacy status as a new program. Once a new program application is submitted, it takes eight to 12 months for accreditation to be either approved or denied.
Featured Online Master’s in Genetic Counseling Programs
Bay Path’s master of science in genetic counseling is an online program with two to three campus visits twice a year. Students complete the 59-credit program within two years typically, with the first year of coursework that focuses on general genetics, counseling, and laboratory skills.
During the first semester, students select a capstone project topic and commence their research. In year two, students undertake actual clinical experience, capstone project development, and advanced topics.
- Location: Longmeadow, Massachusetts
- Duration: 21 months
- Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
- Tuition: $1,135 per credit ($66,965 tuition) plus fees
Boise State’s online master of science in genetic counseling program is full-time for 21 months over five semesters—fall and spring in the first year and summer, fall, and spring in the second year.
Boise’s online coursework is delivered in an asynchronous format, which means students can access resources and assignments and complete work on their own schedule provided due dates are met. The estimated time commitment is at least 30 hours per week.
- Location: Boise, Idaho
- Duration: 21 months (no part-time option)
- Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
- Tuition: $59,000 to $62,000, plus fees; tuition is the same for in-state and non-resident students
Indiana State University – First Year In-Person / Second Year Online
Indiana State’s two-year program offers training in all aspects of medical genetics and basic psychological counseling. Hands-on clinical experiences cover all aspects of genetic counseling including pediatric, prenatal, adult, and specialty genetics clinics such as cardiology, neurology, industry, and ophthalmology, among others.
This program is structured differently than most others, which require intensive 21 to 24 months of on-campus learning. The first year of Indiana State’s program is on campus and the second year consists of online courses. The program accepts approximately eight students per year.
- Location: Terre Haute, Indiana
- Duration: Two years, 62 credits
- Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC); the university is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission
- Tuition: $426 per credit, Indiana residents; $554 per credit, eligible out-of-state online students; $837 non-resident and international students; plus fees
Please note that Cincinnati Children’s Hospital also offers several genetic counseling courses and continuing education opportunities online, including instruction in:
- Cardiovascular genetics
- Clinical embryology
- Laboratory genetic counseling
- Genetic counseling case studies
Professors to Know in Online Master’s in Genetic Counseling Programs
Matt Burgess, MAPP, FHGSAS
Bay Path University
Matt Burgess has more than 15 years of experience working as both a clinical and laboratory genetic counselor. He has worked with multiple public institutions as a clinical genetic counselor in various subspecialties and founded a successful private genetic counseling practice in Melbourne, Australia.
Burgess has lectured in the genetic counseling program at Charles Sturt University in Australia and presented at a number of international conferences. He is a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors; a member, past treasurer, and past state representative of the Australasian Society of Genetic Counselors; and a founding member of the Professional Genetic Counselors Society in Asia.
Anne Spencer, MS, CGC
Boise State University
Anne Spencer graduated from the MS in genetic counseling program at the University of California, Berkeley and earned an MA in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. From 1991 to 1994, she worked as a pediatric genetic counselor at Children’s Hospital Seattle, where she also worked on the Epidermolysis Bullosa Registry.
In 1994, she moved to Idaho where she was the first genetic counselor in the state. She worked at St. Luke’s Maternal-Fetal Medicine primarily doing prenatal counseling but as the only genetic counselor in Idaho, Anne was frequently called upon to assist in other areas such as cancer, hemophilia, neurology, and public health, as well as offer multiple education programs for medical professionals and the general public.
In 2001, Spencer moved to the Idaho State Department of Health, where she provided pediatric genetic counseling in the Idaho State Genetics clinic and assisted with the state newborn screening follow-up programs. She began offering counseling for presymptomatic testing for Huntington’s Disease in 1996 and in 2004 she founded a support group for families dealing with Huntington’s Disease, which she continues to lead. The support group became officially affiliated with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America in 2012 and Spencer served as chair of the Idaho Affiliate from 2014 to 2016. In 2009, she oversaw the transition of the pediatric genetics program from the State of Idaho to St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital.
Spencer has held leadership positions at the National Society of Genetic Counselors, serving on the Board of Directors as the Social Issues Chair and as the chair of the Diversity Special Interest Group. She also has served on the program committee for regional and national genetic counseling conferences. Notably, her publications include a book chapter on cultural diversity, and peer-reviewed articles in the fields of genetics, genetic counseling, and sociology of religion. Spencer is certified by the ABGC and holds a current State of Idaho Genetic Counseling License.
Jobs for Those With a Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling
As a genetic counselor, you have many career options.
Become a Clinical Genetic Counselor
Jobs for those with an online master’s degree in genetic counseling include working in a clinical environment dealing directly with prenatal patients, pediatric patients, or adults who are seeking genetic counseling services due to medical or genetic conditions, or a family history of a condition such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or Alzheimer disease.
Work in a Public or Private Laboratory
Genetic counselors who work in labs or industry interpret results of samples that are sent to laboratories and write result reports. They may advise physicians or other staff on the most appropriate genetic test or test interpretation. They may coordinate with insurance to approve covered testing.
There are also many research opportunities related to genetics. These jobs would require finding patients to participate in research studies, collaborating with researchers, and overseeing the ethics and appropriateness of research studies.
Pursue Opportunities in Public Health
A genetics counselor in the field of public health may work to improve access to genetics services or develop public policy related to genetics.