How To Become A Genetic Counselor
By Nicole Choy
It was only a couple of years ago when I told my friends and family that I wanted to be a genetic counselor, and most of their responses were, “What is that?” But it seems like in those two short years, genetic counseling had a meteoric rise in popularity and interest. In 2018, CareerCast ranked genetic counseling as the number one “Best Job of 2018,” while it currently sits on U.S. News’ ranking of Best Jobs in Healthcare at number eleven; genetic counseling is undeniably having its moment in the sun. Due, in part, to the rise in popularity of at-home genetic testing, and the efforts of diligent genetic counselors promoting awareness about the field, genetic counseling has finally entered the discussion.
And what a mark it is leaving in the discussion of healthcare and ethical responsibilities of genetic testing! In fact, on August 12, 2019, an article was published on Forbes’ website arguing for the inclusion of genetic counselors, specifically in the area of in vitro fertilization (IVF), but in the span of healthcare as a whole. In the article, the author, a reproductive endocrinologist formerly working in IVF and reproductive medicine, reflects on a former co-worker and genetic counselor by the name of Jill. In his article he explains how Jill’s unique training and role made her indispensable to both patients and other members of their team. The author goes on to explain the great deficit of genetic counselors in proportion to their demand, in the world of reproductive medicine but also in other areas of medicine in which genetic counselors prove to be of great benefit.
According to Amy Strum, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there will be over 5,000 genetic counselors practicing across the US by the end of 2019. Even though the number of genetic counselors is expected to increase steadily over the next ten years, currently there is one genetic counselor for every 65,000 people. This doesn’t even account for the distribution of genetic counselors across the country, underscoring the lack of accessibility to genetic counseling services in more rural areas of the country. However, there is hope.
Each year, a new crop of genetic counselors enter the field, and with each graduating class comes the potential for new and innovative ideas on how to improve accessibility and delivery methods of genetic counseling services. And with the proposal of the “Access to Genetic Counseling Services Act” of 2019 (H.R. 3235), which would improve access to genetic counseling services for Medicare beneficiaries, the field of genetic counseling could become a more lucrative career option.
What does it take to become a genetic counselor?
According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), in order to become a certified genetic counselor (CGC) by the American Board of Genetic Counselors (ABGC), one must obtain a master’s degree in Genetic Counseling from one of the programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). Completion of a master’s program then qualifies the individual to sit for the American Board of Genetic Counselors’ certification exam. Receiving a passing score awards the individual a CGC certification, which serves as the gold standard within the profession. Some states require genetic counselors to have the CGC certification in order to obtain a license to practice.
Applying for a Master’s in Genetic Counseling
There are currently 49 accredited programs in the US and Canada (with three new programs currently applying for accreditation). Typically, a master’s in genetic counseling program is approximately two years long. However, alternate program timelines do exist, with Northwestern University hosting an 18-month long program and Johns Hopkins offering a two-and-a-half-year long program.
Applicants to genetic counseling programs come from a variety of backgrounds. Most applicants have a 4-year bachelor’s degree, however applicants are not required to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biology, genetics, or other related fields in order to apply. While application requirements vary from program to program, meeting the program requirements is more important than the focus of the former degrees you’ve earned. Many graduates have come to the field from a variety of backgrounds such as teachers, social workers, and many other diverse careers.
Each program will require letters of recommendation (usually three) and a personal statement. Most program prerequisites include genetics, statistics, biochemistry, biology, organic chemistry, chemistry, and psychology courses, but the amount of credits earned are variable. You may also be required to take the GRE exam or GRE equivalent (although some programs are in talks to do away with the GRE component of the application). Additionally, some programs may require crisis counseling experience or advocacy work, so it is very important that you research each program’s individual requirements.
Another important aspect often encouraged by programs is job shadowing experience. Job shadowing allows applicants to see what the day-to-day requirements of a genetic counselor are, and gain valuable experience within the field. To find genetic counselors to shadow, the NSGC hosts a Find A Genetic Counselor tool, which allows to specifically search for counselors who are open to student contact in your area. While job shadows are highly encouraged, they can be difficult to arrange, so applicants are also encouraged to speak with or interview genetic counselors either in person or over the phone. Other opportunities to learn from genetic counselors include webinars.
If you are interested in learning more about the field of genetic counseling, or have questions about a career in genetic counseling, Grey Genetics will be hosting a Q&A with genetic counselors for interested students on September 10th. You can register for the webinar here.
For more resources about genetic counseling training programs check out these sites!
NSGC – About Genetic Counselors
AGCPD- GC Admissions Match FAQ
NSGC – Genetic Counseling Prospective Student FAQ
My Gene Counsel – Advice for the Genetic Counseling Grad School Application Process