What Is a Genetic Counselor? Skills, Salary, and Getting Started

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 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. 

What exactly is a genetic counselor?

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

They work closely with patients to educate them on types of hereditary conditions following assessment, discussing whether they need genetic testing and the various options available, including any ethical considerations. People enter genetic counseling for many reasons, including when they are pregnant or thinking of starting a family and want to know the risks to their unborn child, 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, or new information about their family history. 

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 counseling specializations

Genetic counselors can work 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 a particular group of people, 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. You would 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. You would work with patients to decide whether they want to undergo testing and the implications of doing so and support them through the process, helping them understand the results.

Oncology 

Oncology specialists look for inherited risks of all types of cancer. You would support patients to understand the risks of having children and passing on heredity cancer genes and the risk to those seeking help after discovering they may have a hereditary cancer gene. You would 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 or at risk of an inherited condition. You would work hands-on to advise families of their options and offer emotional support.

Preconception

Preconception genetic counselors work with couples looking to conceive to assess any genetic predispositions and support a low-risk pregnancy, with 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 old.

Steps to becoming a genetic counselor

Genetic counselors are highly qualified and undertake a lot of education and training to do their job effectively, which takes a minimum of six years.

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, as long as you have a degree. This step typically takes four years.

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

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

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.

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 you wish to work to establish whether you need a license. 

Develop knowledge and skills

As a genetic counselor, you will be knowledgeable in your field, having studied genetics, biology, general science, and ethics. You'll also have technical skills that include research methods and lab skills. Additionally, other people skills are vital to the role genetic counselors must be able to demonstrate. These 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 to 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. 

What salary do genetic counselors earn?

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, salaries vary across industries, but the difference isn’t significant, according to the BLS. Genetic counselors employed in medical and diagnostic laboratories receive the highest levels of pay, followed by, in descending order, those employed in the following industries [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 expects employment opportunities to grow 26 percent between 2020 and 2030, with 300 job openings expected per year [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. 

Next steps

If a career as a genetic counselor sounds interesting to you, but you're not sure if it's the right career path for you, consider taking an introductory course, such as An Introduction to Genetics and Evolution offered by Duke University. If you're ready to start on this career path but haven’t yet earned your bachelor’s degree, that’s the best place to start. 

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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 June 8, 2022.

2. US News. “Best Health Care Support Jobs, https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/rankings/best-health-care-support-jobs.” Accessed June 8, 2022. 

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Genetic Counselors,  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/genetic-counselors.htm#tab-6.” Accessed June 8, 2022.

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