How to Become a Genetics Counselor
Genetics counselors help people learn whether they could pass on a genetic condition to a child. Others consult these professionals to discover whether a condition may affect them later in life. Genetics counselors uncover this information by analyzing clients' DNA samples. The career requires extensive education and training.
This article explores careers in genetics counseling and their education requirements. The following sections answer frequently asked questions and provide tuition information. The final section offers links to resources for experienced professionals and individuals interested in becoming a genetics counselor. Individuals can use this article to begin researching the top undergraduate and graduate programs in the field.
Questions About Genetics Counseling
How do you become a genetics counselor?
To become a genetics counselor, individuals need at least a master's degree. Relevant majors include genetics and genetics counseling. Programs should hold accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).
What skills are needed to be a genetics counselor?
Careers in genetics counseling require technical and scientific knowledge. Professionals also need advanced communication, critical-thinking, and decision-making skills to work with clients.
Do genetic counselors go to medical school?
Genetics counselors do not need an MD to practice. However, graduate programs in the field require many of the same classes other healthcare professionals take.
What degree do I need to be a genetics counselor?
Most careers in genetics counseling require a master's degree. Most full-time students complete their master's program within 24 months. Part-time degree-seekers may need an additional year.
What Do Genetics Counselors Do?
Much of a genetics counselor's job involves working with clients. Counselors begin by discussing clients' concerns and medical histories. Clients then provide a DNA sample, which genetics counselors analyze to look for illnesses and conditions.
Genetics counselors discuss DNA results with clients. They may need to consult with physicians or other healthcare professionals to provide clients with the best information and advice.
When not working with clients, genetics counselors take professional development classes to stay up to date on research and best practices. They network with peers, and some perform original research and publish the results.
Genetics counselors can work at various job sites. Nearly half of these professionals work in a state, local, or private hospital. Others work in a physician's office or a diagnostic laboratory. Colleges and universities also employ genetic counselors.
How to Get Hired as a Genetics Counselor
Job applicants must meet the employer's education and training requirements. Applicants to genetics counselor positions should have complete graduate coursework in patient empathy, genetics, and public health. Many employers prefer candidates with a strong background in epidemiology and psychology. Students can improve their resume by earning top grades, completing an internship, and joining a professional organization.
In addition to a solid academic background, prospective genetics counselors should have strong interpersonal skills. Top companies and government agencies want genetics counselors who can connect with patients on a personal level. Interviews help employers assess applicants' ability to empathize with clients from different backgrounds.
Some employers require a criminal background check. Prospective genetics counselors with a criminal record may want to research other professions. However, employers may consider applicants with minor offenses that did not occur recently. Individuals can contact companies' human resources departments for more information.
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What Are the Education Requirements for Genetics Counselors?
Associate and bachelor's programs provide the academic foundation learners need to succeed at the graduate level. Master's degree-seekers take classes necessary to meet state and employer requirements. Genetics counselors with extensive experience can earn a doctorate and teach at the college level.
Some aspiring genetics counselors begin their education by earning an associate degree in an area such as biology. Graduates can transfer this degree to a bachelor's program. Community colleges typically offer state and district residents the most competitive tuition rates. Biology students generally complete lower-division classes in psychology, communication, and microbiology. Associate programs usually require general education classes and electives.
In addition to pursuing further education, associate degree-holders can secure entry-level positions as medical assistants, biological technicians, and plant science technicians. Other potential careers include pharmaceutical sales agent and research assistant. These roles require strong problem-solving and analytical skills.
Master's programs consider applicants with academic backgrounds in various science fields. This allows learners to select an undergraduate major they find interesting. Students majoring in the biological sciences often concentrate in genetics. Typical upper-division classes include animal physiology, functional genomics, and developmental biology. Some schools offer bachelor's programs in fully online or hybrid formats.
Graduates with a bachelor's degree in genetics can access more jobs than associate degree-holders. Typically, these positions also feature higher starting salaries. Bachelor's degree-holders can become high school teachers and clinical trial managers. However, these and other careers may require additional training and education.
Master's degree-seekers majoring in genetics counseling choose from on-campus and hybrid programs. Most master's programs in the field require approximately 60 credits of coursework in areas such as psychosocial applications in genetic counseling, pathophysiology, and reproductive genetics. Learners also complete clinical rotations, during which they work under experienced genetics counselors.
Many master's programs require an in-depth capstone experience during the final semester or term. A typical capstone involves gathering research data and writing an analysis proposal. Graduates may need to meet state licensure or certification requirements before they become a genetics counselor.
Some Ph.D. programs in human genetics offer a genetics counseling concentration. Admission requirements include a master's degree. Some schools prefer applicants with professional experience. Curricula often require classes in the genetics of complex disease, the molecular basis of human inherited disease, and statistical methods.
Second-year doctoral students take research classes to prepare for the dissertation process. Generally, they must also pass a comprehensive examination. Students may need many years to complete their dissertation. Graduates often become postsecondary teachers and researchers. These professionals can make a lasting impact on the genetics counseling profession and the genetics field.
How Much Does a Genetics Counseling Degree Cost?
Individuals interested in becoming a genetics counselor can save money on their undergraduate education by choosing an in-state public school. These savings may reduce the financial burden of later earning a master's degree. According to 2021 data from the Education Data Initiative, a master of science costs an average of $62,300, including tuition, fees, and expenses. This figure is $10,500 less than the average cost of a master of arts.
Master's degree-seekers can save money by enrolling in public schools. A master's degree costs an average of $81,100 at private institutions, according to the Education Data Initiative. High tuition costs often lead to increased student debt. Degree-seekers with financial need can submit the FAFSA to qualify for grants and scholarships from the federal government.
Online learners often save on costs associated with relocating or commuting. Distance degree-seekers in asynchronous programs often work full time and earn an income while in school. Some institutions charge lower tuition rates for out-of-state enrollees studying online.
Career and Salary Outlook for Genetics Counselors
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that genetics counselors earn a median salary of $80,150 annually. This figure is nearly double the median salary for all occupations. Some employers pay significantly more. For example, genetic counselors at medical and diagnostic laboratories earn a median salary of $95,870 per year.
Additionally, geographic location can impact earning potential. Genetics counselors in California, Connecticut, and New York earn the highest average salaries, each exceeding $102,000 per year. However, these states' costs of living exceed the national average.
The BLS projects employment for genetics counselors to increase 26% from 2020-2030, much faster than the average of 8% for all professions. This growth may lead to more open positions for master's program graduates. The high number of job openings may allow candidates to negotiate higher starting salaries.
Certifications and Licensure for Genetics Counselors
Most states require genetics counselors to hold a license. However, licensure requirements vary by state. In Tennessee, these professionals need a master's degree from an ACGC-accredited program. To maintain accreditation, programs must offer specific coursework and meet set standards.
Tennessee licensure candidates must also pass a criminal background check and pay an initial licensure fee. Like professionals in other healthcare professions, Tennessee genetics counselors complete professional development to meet licensure renewal requirements. Renewal also requires a fee.
Genetics counselors can earn professional certifications to advance professionally. The American Board of Genetic Counseling awards the certified genetic counselor credential to licensed professionals who pass an exam. The board offers a free 100-question practice exam. Certification lasts five years. Genetics counselors maintain their certification by taking approved professional development classes.
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