The world has entered the precise and customizable era of medicine, which has enabled the adaptation of genetics in everyday clinical practice. Doctors are increasingly reliant on genetic tests to help guide patients’ diagnosis and treatment strategies. In such a reality, the role of a genetic counsellor is crucial.

Who is a genetic counsellor?

A genetic counsellor is a professional that specializes in human genetic information. Human DNA holds everything about ourselves, from how we look to the diseases we are susceptible to. Genetic counsellors can analyze a person’s genetic makeup and assess their risk for genetic disorders and other conditions by studying their DNA. Genetic counsellors have efficient communication skills and knowledge of psychology to address patients’ concerns. They are able to synthesize hard data with anecdotal evidence to properly counsel patients on genetic conditions. Some folks with genetic conditions require special lifelong medical attention, for instance.

Why would someone seek genetic counselling?

  • Parents whose child has a genetic illness might need genetic counselling to predict the risk for certain conditions
  • People with relatives suffering from genetic disorders need care and counselling for the affected
  • Pregnant women who have an abnormal prenatal screening test need prenatal counselling 
  • Women who have multiple miscarriages or delivered a baby with signs of a genetic disorder

What do genetic counsellors do?

Genetic counsellors determine risk for certain diseases or disorders, analyze family health history to look for inherited health risks, and educate individuals regarding their chances of inheriting genetic diseases.

They provide:

  • Patient support – a genetic counsellor questions and supports patients about their family medical history. They detail congenital disabilities, intellectual disabilities, genetic disorders, previous pregnancy issues, etc. Genetic counsellors then help patients decide if they want to do genetic testing.
  • Genetic testing – complex process that could discover many things requiring patients to make difficult and emotional decisions, it has different tests for detecting various diseases
  • Research – although a genetic counsellor’s main job involves working directly with patients, they can also participate in psychological and scientific research. Their bonds with patients and their insights into family histories enable them to make unique research contributions.

The skills of a genetic counsellor

Soft skills: Genetic counsellors working with individuals and families have emotional intelligence, empathy, active listening, strong communication, social perceptiveness, and many other “soft” skills that allow them to build an emotional connection with their patients. 

Analytical skills: After gathering information like family history and test results, genetic counsellors have to examine all of it and make risk assessments. In other words, they have to convert lab results into data that can benefit the patient. Analytical skills are a prerequisite for giving the best counselling for a patient’s health.

Scientific skills: Genetic counsellors should have in-depth knowledge of how the human body works and how it is interrelated. They are familiar with biology – as in cells, organs, tissues, and how these interact with the environment. With this knowledge as a base, genetic counsellors can gauge how a person’s genetics affects their present and future health.

Types of genetic counsellors

  • Cancer genetic counsellors
  • Cardiovascular genetic counsellors
  • Certified genetic counsellors
  • Chromosomal disorders counsellors
  • Genomic medicine genetic counsellors
  • Mitochondrial disorders counsellors
  • Neurogenetic counsellors
  • Pediatric genetic counsellors

Genetic counsellor jobs

There are many jobs for genetic counsellors. Genetic counsellors are hired in many settings such as community clinics, university medical centres, health maintenance organizations, physician offices, advocacy organizations, governmental agencies, public health departments, and biotechnology companies. 

Those appointed in clinical practice provide counselling and education in reproductive genetics, pediatric genetics, newborn follow-up, cancer genetics, neurogenetics, and cardiovascular genetics. Many genetic counsellors are also tirelessly involved in clinical research and teaching.

Genetic counsellor education path

In high school, you can take the first steps to prepare for a career as a genetic counsellor in the following ways:

  • Your school should have vital genetics, biology, psychology, and sociology courses. If your school provides advanced placement classes, take them and try on your exams.
  • Learn more about genetics on your own. Read books on genetics and read news articles both in papers and online about advances in the field.
  • Look for volunteer positions in genetics labs and health clinics. Try to shadow a genetic counsellor. Either of these can give you practical experience and help you discover your interests.
  • Talk to your guidance counsellor about outside opportunities to consider. They can help you plan out your high school career to get the most experience before college.

Get a bachelor’s degree. Becoming a genetics counsellor requires a bachelor’s degree in one of the significant standard fields: medical sciences, psychology, or healthcare. Suppose you do not major in one of those fields. In that case, you should at least complete undergraduate coursework in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, statistics, and psychology.

Earn a master’s degree in genetic counselling. A genetic counsellor is a master’s-level position, so you must be admitted into an accredited master’s program. The master’s program will involve coursework dealing with the study of genetics and counselling techniques, public health, epidemiology, psychology, and developmental biology. You will also get to do fieldwork where you spend time working in a professional setting. You will conclude the program with a thesis or final research project that draws on the information you have learnt in classes.

  • Admissions requirements for master’s programs vary between programs. Usually, you will need to have decent grades in your undergraduate science classes, get a high score on the GRE, and have some practical experience. 
  • You do not need to apply immediately to the master’s program after you complete your undergraduate degree. Between bachelor’s and master’s programs can be an excellent opportunity to get practical and clinical training or volunteer experience.

Developing your unique skills to become a genetic counsellor

Build your knowledge of genetics. The centrepiece of your work will be examining and studying genetic science. You will explore the field and develop a substantial body of knowledge through courses and assignments in high school, college, and postgraduate work. Beyond the coursework, you should continue reading news articles and other sources for new developments in the area. 

Become an active listener. Above learning about genetics, you will need to be comfortable in a counsellor’s role. It would help if you were compassionate and a good listener. Giving your patients your full attention when they talk to you and staying focused on the symptoms or issues they recount will be important. Use welcoming and open body language when patients talk with you. Incline forward slightly to let them know you are listening. Make eye contact while conversing to keep your focus on them.

Be compassionate. Genetic counsellors work with people directly, so they need to be at ease while having delicate conversations about pre-existing genetic conditions or possible genetic disorders. You need to be compassionate and enjoy helping people work through their concerns and anxieties.

Enhance your skills of persuasion. There are several myths about genetic testing, and you will probably need to convince patients of the benefits of getting a test done. You should be familiar with the testing process to help mitigate any fears people may have. Remain confident and calm. A quality of being persuasive is the ability to ease your patient’s concerns. You should calmly attend to their questions.  Positive body language is another key to building rapport and letting your patient know that they can trust you. Match your patient’s positions and subtly mirror their actions to suggest you are on the same page.

Finding a genetic counsellor job

The field of genetic counselling is rapidly growing, so your job prospects are strong once you are certified and licensed. New advancements in genetics mean that new job openings, and even new types of work, are available.

Getting certified from the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC), the gold star in the genetic counselling profession, is essential. The ABGC promotes the growth of genetic counselling and helps to set high standards for the profession. After finishing your master’s program, you must pass the board’s examination to become a certified counsellor.It is a 4-hour exam consisting of 200 multiple-choice questions. The questions cover precise knowledge of genetics and your ability to address problems and situations that you may encounter while counselling. The ABGC imparts content outlines and practice exams to help you get ready. Your certification will be legitimate for five years after qualifying for the exam. You will need to renew your certification at that point. It involves taking a series of continuing education courses and paying recertification fees.

Meet your state licensing requirements. Some states require genetic counsellors to obtain a licence to practise counselling in the state. Licensure ensures the genetic counsellor matches the minimum education eligibility to work in the position. Assure that you know the rules and regulations in your state and have filled out the proper forms to receive a licence.

Figure out your ideal work setting. There are different types of genetic counsellors, and each different type works in various locations. These include clinical practices in doctors’ chambers and hospitals or research for biotechnology companies, government agencies, or university laboratories. Common settings genetic counsellors find work include the following scenarios. Patient-focused counselling. It involves working directly with people and discussing their needs and concerns. Genetic counsellors work closely with different specialties, including pregnant women, children, cancer patients, and heart patients. They generally work in a hospital or doctor’s office.

  • Laboratory-focused counselling. It involves creating a research agenda to study different aspects of genetic science. You may be interested in directing and researching genetic conditions or learning clinical trials. You will work in a lab with a university or a genetic research company. They can do part-time or patient-focused jobs directly with individuals.
  • Community or public health-focused counselling. These fields include working for non-profit organizations and government agencies to reach specific groups of people. You may work with patient support groups or newborn screening programs to get people who may not come directly to clinics or hospitals.

Participate in other professional activities. In addition to your regular job as a counsellor, one can work with other professional counsellors or look for opportunities to teach the next generation of genetic counsellors.

  • Publish articles in professional journals. The most prominent journal for genetic counsellors is the Journal of Genetic Counseling, published by the National Society for Genetic Counselors. Another high-impact journal is the American Journal of Human Genetics. These are great knowledge sources to publish any of your research on genetics or counselling people on genetic disorders.
  • Join professional societies. Apart from the ABGC, consider joining professional genetic organizations, like the National Society of Genetic Counselors based in the US. Others include the American Society of Human Genetics, the Genetics Society of America, and the International Genetics Education Network. 
  • Find opportunities to teach others. In many cases, future geneticists will involve introducing students to the basic science of genetics and making them understand how it fits into the context of broader sciences like biology. Suppose you are interested in teaching genetic counselling in a master’s program. In that case, you will need to earn a doctorate in genetics, neuroscience, biology, or a similar field and publish peer-reviewed research. Typically research professors are the ones who teach graduate-level courses. Apart from pursuing academia, you could also allow future genetic counsellors to shadow you in the field to help give them professional opportunities. There are a few different ways to teach others if you put your mind to it.

Take continuing education courses. To maintain your certification with the ABGC, you need at least 25 hours of continuing education credits during the 10 year period after your most recent certification.1 Some states require additional credits to sustain the state licence, while certain hospitals and laboratories want them as a condition for maintaining the job.

  • Approved courses are accessible through the ABGC and NSGC (National Society of Genetic Counselors) and cover new developments in genetics and patient care. The courses you pursue will depend on your current job status and the type of information you are looking to cover.
  • Professional activities, including scholarly publications, public outreach, teaching, and peer supervision, can qualify as part of your continuing education.

Genetic counsellor salary

The national average genetic counsellor salary in India is approximately five lakhs per annum. The genetic counsellor’s salary also depends upon years of experience and the location of employment.

Additional information

Working as a genetic counsellor is a very time consuming job. Your initial meetings with individuals or families may take some time to explain the processes involved. These meetings will also require considerable preparation, including tracking down medical records, figuring out family histories, and researching possible diagnostic options for your clients.

It is a highly competitive field. You need good grades to get into a program and persistence for one of the specialized jobs. Graduate program assignments require clinical training through internships where scholars learn about the following :

  • Congenital disabilities
  • Counselling ethics and techniques
  • Genetic screening
  • Molecular genetics
  • Prenatal diagnosis
  • Population studies
  • Research methods

To thrive in this career, candidates must accumulate work experience. Entry-level positions allow genetic counsellors to work under supervision to assess patients and provide counselling. More advanced functions enable genetic counsellors to work independently in these duties, perform research, and provide education to the public and healthcare professionals.

FAQs

How long does it take to become a genetic counsellor?

The bachelor’s degree to become a genetic counsellor takes four years, and the master’s degree takes an additional two years. It usually takes six years of formal education. On top of that, many states require you to get certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Preparing for the ABGC certification exam will probably add extra time to your journey.

Is genetic counselling in demand?

There is a demand for genetic counsellors in many areas. As more genetic counsellors are trained, and as genetics counselling becomes more widely used across all areas of medicine, we believe that genetic counselling expertise will be in demand across a range of organizations. 

Why should I become a genetic counsellor?

Genetic counsellors possess the expertise and skills necessary to be critical players in integrating genetics into healthcare and personalized medicine. As a result, opportunities for genetic counsellors continue to grow. 

Who are the people who visit genetic counsellors?

You may want genetic counselling if you think you may, or do, have a genetic condition. Parents of children with genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis or sickle cell disease also visit genetic counsellors. As do parents of children with a congenital disability, like a heart defect, cleft palate or cleft lift.

Genetic counsellors: an essential part of multidisciplinary clinical healthcare teams

Becoming a genetic counsellor puts you in the centre of an emerging profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the genetic counselling field will skyrocket, growing by 21% over the next ten years.2 The diversity of new roles for genetic counsellors is possible because their skills and depth of knowledge are transferable to various environments.

If you are keen to become a genetic counsellor, book one-on-one coaching sessions with the international career success coaches at LaunchMyCareer to get a career plan together and reach your aspirations.

Sources

American Board of Genetic Counseling. Getting Recertified. Accessed June 22, 2022. 

Arjunan, A., et al. Genetic counseling student rotations in industry: How COVID-19 magnified the urgency for virtual learning options in diverse training settings. J Genet Couns. 2021 Oct; 30(5):1316-1324. Published online Aug 30 2021. Accessed June 22, 2022.

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