How to Become a Genetic Counselor

April 25, 2024


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

If you’re interested in becoming a genetic counselor but aren’t sure where to begin, read on to find out everything you need to know about genetic counseling

Genetic testing has come a long way since its first introduction in the late 1960s. What started off as a test that could detect limited deadly inherited diseases in parents and newborns has since evolved to be able to test for thousands of genetic disorders. 

Due to this progression in genetic testing, people are able to make better decisions about their healthcare and gain a sense of control in otherwise uncertain situations.

If this essential medical profession sounds like the perfect career for you, this guide will break down exactly how to become a genetic counselor, what genetic counselors do, their career outlook, and more!

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Steps to Becoming a Genetic Counselor

To become a genetic counselor, you should follow these steps:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first step to becoming a genetic counselor is obtaining an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. 

While the specific degree you choose to pursue doesn’t matter, most students choose to complete science degrees since you will need to complete courses in biochemistry, genetics, psychology, and/or statistics, depending on the genetic counselling programs you apply to. 

While completing your undergrad, ensure you maintain a high GPA to be considered competitive. A 3.5 or higher is recommended.

Step Two: Gain Relevant Experience

Most genetic counseling programs will not require you to have specific experience to be considered for admission, but having this experience can significantly boost your candidacy, and better prepare you for your career.

Students should aim to gain experience in settings where they can practice patient advocacy and counseling, or gain experience in a scientific lab or completing other healthcare work. This experience can either be traditional paid employment or volunteer experience. 

Step Three: Obtain a Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling 

The third step is obtaining a master’s degree in genetic counseling from an accredited university. 

These programs are typically two years long and will provide you with clinical experience in various genetic specialties and teach you the fundamentals of human genetics, genetic testing, bioethics, psychosocial counseling, research methodology, and more. 

There are currently over 55 accredited genetic counseling programs in the US for students to choose from. Harvard University currently ranks as the best school to attend for graduate-level genetics programs. 

Step Four: Get Certified

After completing your master’s degree, the final step before you can practice as an independent genetic counselor is getting certified through the American Board of Genetic Counselling (ABGC). 

To do so, you will have to pass the ABGC national exam that proves you have met the necessary standards to provide competent genetic counseling. Test takers are given four hours to answer 200 questions. Of these 200 questions, only 170 are scored, and students must answer at least 125 correctly to pass.

What Does a Genetic Counselor Do?

Genetic counselors are responsible for giving you information about genetic conditions that can affect you or your family members.

Genetic counselors are typically used in the following stages of life:

When Planning Pregnancy

If you’d like to address any concerns about genetic factors that will impact your pregnancy, ability to get pregnant, or child, genetic counselors can ease these concerns. 

Counselors can address genetic conditions that run in your family, a history of infertility, miscarriages, or stillbirths, previous pregnancies affected by genetic conditions, or give you assisted reproduction technology options to increase your chances of pregnancy.  

During Pregnancy

Genetic counselors can perform certain tests during your pregnancy to detect genetic problems that might affect your baby. Common tests done by genetic counselors for this purpose include:

  • Maternal Blood Tests: the mother’s blood is tested to find the baby’s risks for certain conditions like Down Syndrome
  • Ultrasounds: allow genetic counselors to see the baby, measure its development, and look for signs of genetic conditions 
  • Chorionic Villus Sampling: a tiny piece of the placenta is collected to test for chromosomal or genetic disorders in the baby
  • Amniocentesis: a small amount of amniotic fluid surrounding the baby is collected to measure the baby’s protein levels and test for chromosomal disorders like Down Syndrome

There are certain screens recommended for all pregnant women, such as those testing for cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, that genetic counselors also perform. 

When Caring for Children

Genetic counselors can also address concerns you might have about your child if they are showing signs of having a genetic condition. Counselors can conduct abnormal newborn screens, find birth defects, intellectual or developmental disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, and vision or hearing problems.

When Managing Your Own Health

Genetic counseling can also be beneficial for adults to determine their risk of inheriting genetic diseases or to address symptoms of certain conditions. Determining the risk for certain cancers is a popular reason adults visit genetic counselors.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Genetic Counselor?

It will take at least six years to become a genetic counselor. Your undergrad will take four years, and your master’s degree in genetic counseling will likely take two. 

For students interested in teaching or researching genetic counseling in-depth, a PhD might be the right option for you. If you decide to pursue a PhD in genetic counseling, it will add two to four more years on top of these six years.

Genetic Counselor Salary and Career Outlook

Genetic counselors make $89,990 per year on average. There has been an explosive growth in the demand for genetic counselors. Their employment is expected to grow 18 percent within the next decade, which is much faster than any other occupation!

Despite the number of genetic counselors increasing by 100% since 2006, currently, there is more demand than there are genetic counselors. Accordingly, it’s the perfect time for aspiring genetic counselors to enter the field as they’ll have high job security!

FAQs: Becoming a Genetic Counselor

We’ve gone over the basics of how to become a genetic counselor and what to expect once you’re in this role. But, you may have remaining questions about genetic counseling! You can find the answers to common genetic counseling questions below!

1. How Hard is it to Get Into Genetic Counseling?

Genetic counseling programs often have a very limited number of seats each year. As such, these programs are highly competitive. Students must demonstrate excellent academic potential and personal achievements to maximize their chances of acceptance.

2. What Do I Need to Be a Genetic Counselor?

You will need to complete an undergrad and a master’s degree in genetic counseling to become a genetic counselor. You will also have to pass a national exam to become certified.

3. Is Genetic Counseling a Good Career?

Yes! Not only is it rapidly expanding, meaning it is in high demand, but it is also a very rewarding career.

4. Is Genetic Counseling a Stressful Job?

Like most careers in the healthcare industry, genetic counseling can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. You will often deliver bad news to your patients and will have to complete each genetic test accurately to ensure you can help your patients make the most informed decisions about their health.

5. How Much Do Genetic Counselors Make?

 Genetic counselors make around $89,990 per year.

6. Do Genetic Counselors Only Test Babies?

No, genetic counselors also test adults who are either interested in getting pregnant or learning more about their own risk or diagnosis of genetic disease. 

7. Where Do Genetic Counselors Work?

Genetic counselors typically work in hospitals or genetic clinics. Some may also work in laboratory or research settings if they wish to study genetics.

Final Thoughts

The field of genetic testing has already advanced greatly and is projected to continue to grow in the future. Becoming a part of this progressive health profession will allow you to help patients navigate through what would otherwise be very stressful, uncertain, and difficult situations!

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