What Is a Genetic Counselor? Skills, Salary, and More

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Genetic counselors assess the risk of genetic disorders for people and families. Learn what a genetic counseling job involves and steps to entering this impactful health care career.

[Featured Image]: A male genetic counselor, wearing a blue shirt and glasses, is consulting with a female patient with blonde hair.

Genetic counselors are experts in medical genetics that support families and individuals looking to undertake genetic testing to assess the risks of developing certain inherited disorders, given their family history. Genetic counseling is a growing field, and innovative technologies continue to give genetic counselors new ways to analyze genetic data and help people.  In this article, you'll learn more about genetic counselors, including what they do, how much they earn, and different specializations in the field. You'll also learn the steps you'll need to take to join the profession and explore cost effective, online courses that can help you get started today.

What is a genetic counselor?

A genetic counselor advises people on genetic conditions that might affect them or their relatives through an assessment of their family history. These conditions may include chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome, multifactorial disorders like cancer and diabetes, or monogenic disorders including cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. 

Genetic counselors work closely with patients to educate them on types of hereditary conditions following their assessment, discussing whether they need genetic testing and the various options available, including any ethical considerations. People enter genetic counseling for many reasons, such as when they are pregnant or thinking of starting a family and want to know the risks of their child developing a specific genetic condition, or when managing their own health or that of a family member.   

What does a genetic counselor do?

Genetic counselors work with various people concerned with genetic predispositions at all stages of life. This may include prenatal screening to determine whether a baby is likely to be born with a hereditary disease or condition, working with adults to assess whether they are likely to develop genetic diseases following the onset of certain symptoms. 

They also provide counseling and support following testing, helping people adapt to the implications of results on their physical, mental, and familial well-being. 

Typically, as a genetic counselor, you will do the following:

  • Interview patients to understand their medical and family history

  • Assess whether patients are at risk from genetic disorders using the information on family history

  • Discuss testing options with patients, including risks, social and ethical considerations, and benefits

  • Support patients and their families with counseling and education following results and before testing

  • Refer patients to necessary medical professionals

  • Perform prenatal genetic screening and pregnancy counseling

  • Support couples through premarital genetic screening and help families care for affected children

  • Provide counseling in cases of exposure to teratogenic drugs

Generally, genetic counselors work in hospitals or clinics but can also work in laboratories, clinical settings, and private practices. 

Genetic counselor salary

The median salary for genetic counselors in the US is $80,150 as of May 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. Genetic counselor salaries generally range from $49,120 to $121,070. Salaries vary according to experience, location, type of employer, and industry. 

Salary range in different industries

Typically, the amount you can expect to earn as a genetic counselor will vary based on the industry in which you work. According to the US BLS, here are the highest paying industries for genetic counselors in the United States [1]:

  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $95,870

  • Private and state hospitals: $79,810

  • Physician offices: $79,360

  • Education institutions such as colleges and universities: $79,100

Job outlook and related roles

US News Best Jobs of 2022 ranks genetic counseling eleventh for health care support roles [2]. The BLS, meanwhile, expects employment opportunities to grow 18 percent between 2021 and 2031, adding approximately 300 new job each year throughout the decade [3].  

Career progression is positive, with plenty of options for specializing in a particular area, such as oncology and prenatal. There are also some niche specializations, such as psychiatric genetic counselors and chromosomal disorders counselors, as well as the opportunity to move into more senior positions with management responsibility. 

Genetic counseling specializations

Genetic counselors can practice generally, or they may choose to specialize in a single area that relates to a type of condition or group of conditions. As a genetic counselor, you can also specialize in working with a particular population, such as children. 

Cardiology 

Genetic counselors specializing in cardiology work with people to establish a genetic risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as sudden death syndrome, hypercholesterolemia, and cardiomyopathy. In this specialization, you might collect information on family history, make recommendations for screening when necessary, and support patients through genetic testing, diagnosis, and options available.

Neurology

A specialization in neurology means that a genetic counselor is qualified to establish a genetic link for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and epilepsy. In this specialization, you might work with patients to decide whether they want to undergo testing, helping them understand the implications of doing so, and support them through the process after they've received their results.

Oncology 

Oncology specialists look for inherited risks of all types of cancer. By specializing in oncology, you would support patients and help them understand the risks of having children and passing on heredity cancer genes. You would also have the opportunity to offer cancer screening and discuss treatment options and risk reduction strategies.

Pediatrics

Genetic counselors specializing in pediatrics work with families of children diagnosed with, or at risk of developing, an inherited condition. You would work hands-on to advise families on their medical options and offer emotional support.

Preconception

Preconception genetic counselors work with couples looking to conceive to assess any genetic predispositions they may have and support a low-risk pregnancy by offering advice and guidance on lifestyle and health. 

Prenatal

Genetic counselors specializing in prenatal offer screening to expectant parents to determine the risks of their baby having genetic disorders. This can be a standard part of pregnancy care for patients considered at high-risk — generally those over 35 years of age.

Steps to becoming a genetic counselor

Genetic counselors are highly qualified and undertake many years of education and training to do their job effectively, which generally takes a minimum of six years. Here's what you can expect to do to join the profession:

1. Complete a bachelor’s degree.

The first step to becoming a genetic counselor is to earn a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a relevant subject such as biology or social sciences. However, the subject isn’t always a prerequisite for the next step, so long as you have a bachelor's degree. This step typically takes four years.

Read more: Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree: What It Is and How to Earn One

2. Earn a master’s degree in genetic counseling.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next step is enrolling in a master’s in genetic counseling degree program. Programs must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Your master's degree program usually takes two years to complete. 

The course covers areas such as molecular genetics, research methods, and ethics, as well as clinical experience on rotation, to cover various areas in the field. You must also undertake a research project or thesis.

Read more: How to Get a Master's Degree

3. Pass the board certification test from the ABGC. 

Genetic counselors must gain certification to practice by passing a certification exam accredited by the ABGC. You must keep your certification up to date with ongoing professional development activities.

4. Apply for state licensure if required .

Many states require certified genetic counselors to apply for a license to practice. Licensing requirements vary, so check the requirements of the state in which you wish to work in order to establish whether you need a license. 

5. Develop relevant skills.

As a genetic counselor, you'll use technical skills, like knowledge of research methods and lab techniques, alongside people skills that are vital to working with patients and other medical professionals. These people skills include:

  • Interpersonal skills: To simplify complex medical information for patients and caregivers to understand

  • Compassion: When dealing with people who have found out worrying or upsetting information about their health or that of someone with whom they are close 

  • Critical thinking: To work out how best to present information to patients and how best to analyze risks

  • Decision making: Essential skill when considering how best to share knowledge with patients and their families. 

Next steps

If a career as a genetic counselor sounds interesting to you, then you might consider taking a cost-effective, online course to better familiarize yourself with the field. Duke University's An Introduction to Genetics and Evolution gives course takers a basic overview of some of the primary principles behind fundamental areas of biology and prepares them for more advanced coursework in the field.

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Introduction to Genetics and Evolution

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Article sources

1

US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Genetic Counselors,  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/genetic-counselors.htm#tab-5.” Accessed December 2, 2022.

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