Genetics Counselor Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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A genetics counselor's average annual salary is around $69,540, but is it worth the lengthy education requirements? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about career options to decide if becoming a genetics counselor is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a Genetics Counselor

Genetic counselors advise patients and families about the potential risks and diseases that might be hidden within a person's genetic coding. Read about pros and cons to help you decide if becoming a genetics counselor is the right career move for you.

Pros of Becoming a Genetics Counselor
Meaningful job helping others deal with genetic diseases*
High rate of job growth (41% in 2012-2022)*
Part-time positions may be available (18% worked part-time in 2010)**
Decent pay (approximate average salary was $69,540 in 2010)*

Cons of Becoming a Genetics Counselor
Can encounter highly emotional situations*
Education requirements are extensive*
Certification is necessary for many positions*
No concrete job outlook statistics*

Source(s): *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Society of Genetic Counselors.

Career Information

Job Description

Genetic information, such as DNA profiles and family histories, is becoming an accepted way to assess and predict certain health conditions. Someone is needed to translate this scientific data for patients and their families. As a genetics counselor, you provide clients with their genetic profiles and discuss the meaning of their genetic test results. You'll employ your scientific knowledge of genetics to determine the probability that a condition will occur and the effects that a mutation may have. You'll also take into account the psychological and social stresses that may be placed on your patients.

While meeting with patients and other family members, you have to take complex genetic data and communicate it in a way that can be understood by the common individual. The ability to interact with sensitivity and compassion is essential, and you must be highly skilled in research methods and scientific interpretation.

Career Paths and Specialties

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most genetics counselors work in hospitals or medical offices, although some may work for non-profit organizations, research laboratories, government agencies and other institutions. You can focus on a medical specialty, such as pediatric, prenatal or cancer genetics. New areas that are emerging include neuropsychiatric, cardiovascular and reproductive genetics. Not all genetics counselors meet with patients. Many teach, conduct research or work in areas of business development and marketing. In 2010, the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) found that 17% did not work with patients.

Employment Outlook and Salary

According to the BLS conducted by this organization, the field of genetics counseling has a mcuh-faster-than-average growth (41%) from 2012-2022. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) states that because of the reliance on genetics to diagnose and treat illnesses, genetics counselors should be in high demand. The average salary for these professionals, based on BLS figures from May 2014, was estimated to be about $69,540, with pay reaching upwards of $99,980 for top earners.

Education and Job Requirements

According to the BLS, if you want to work as genetics counselor, you must earn a master's degree from an accredited genetics counseling program. The BLS has determined that there are only 30 of these programs in the country. You'll need to have a strong background in biology to compete against other applicants. Coursework in a genetics counseling program will not only include genetics and biology courses, but also counseling techniques. While enrolled in the program, you'll also be required to complete a clinical rotation at a medical facility or research center. These programs can usually be completed in two years.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has noted that only six states require genetics counselors to obtain a license to practice. If you are required to earn a license, you'll need to check with your state for specific eligibility requirements. Below are additional skills and characteristics that genetics counselors need to have:

  • Strong written and verbal communication skills
  • Computer knowledge
  • Self-motivation
  • Compassion
  • Ability to keep emotions in check
  • Solid research skills

What Do Employers Want?

Job postings show that employers typically want a candidate who has a master's degree and has obtained board certification. The abilities to work independently and communicate effectively are essential. The following samples of actual job postings found in April 2012 on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com will give you an idea of what employers desire in a candidate:

  • A children's hospital in Phoenix is looking for a genetics counselor who can plan and organize care for patients with genetic disorders. The employer requires candidates to possess a master's degree in genetics and have two years of experience in the field. The Certified Genetic Counselor credential is preferred.
  • A genetics business in Philadelphia wants to hire a part-time, temporary genetics counselor to arrange testing for patients who are pregnant or want to become pregnant. The counselor will analyze results and communicate the information to patients. A master's degree and board certification are required, and while experience is preferred, recent graduates will also be considered. Candidates must be able to travel locally and work with little to no supervision in addition to having great communication and documentation skills.
  • A medical center in New Jersey is seeking a part-time genetics counselor to work in an outpatient cancer clinic. Not only will the candidate assist patients and supervise genetics students at the hospital, he or she will attend tumor board conferences and give presentations at events. A master's degree and board certification are required, as is proficiency in Progeny, Powerpoint, word processing and spreadsheet software. Candidates must have the ability to work independently and possess strong presentation and writing skills.

Standing out in the Field?

Genetics counselors who want to have more job opportunities should focus on the specialties that are most popular. The National Society of Genetic Counselors estimates that two-thirds of genetic counselors specialize in pediatric, cancer and prenatal counseling. Taking courses that teach methodology in one of these areas may help you qualify for more opportunities. Many genetics counselors are also called upon to write articles in scientific journals and speak at conventions. These skills can be perfected by attending public speaking and research writing classes.

Get Certified

The BLS states that most employers prefer candidates who have acquired board certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). The ABGC offers the optional Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC®) credential for counselors who want to prove their competence and knowledge to patients and employers. To qualify for certification, you must earn a master's degree from an accredited program and pass a board certification exam.

Career Alternatives

Genetic Nurse

If you're interested in genetics and want to work with patients but prefer a more hands-on job, becoming a genetics nurse may be an alternative you want to consider. While genetics counselors deal with interpreting data and communicating information to patients, nurses actually perform treatments and administer medications. These nurses record medical histories, assess risk for certain genetic conditions, analyze lab results and administer appropriate medications and treatments. The BLS predicted that employment of registered nurses (RNs), including genetics nurses, would increase by 26% between 2010 and 2020, which was faster than average. The BLS also reported that RNs earned an average salary of $69,000 in 2011.

You may not need to complete as extensive training to become a genetic nurse as you would to become a genetics counselor. The NHGRI states that to become a genetic nurse, you'll need a bachelor's degree in nursing and an RN license.

Genetic Epidemiologist

If you find the field of genetics fascinating but are not comfortable working with patients, you might be interested in becoming a genetic epidemiologist. As defined by the NHGRI, genetic epidemiologists determine the cause of a disease and track how it is spread from one person to another. They also analyze the relationship between the environment and DNA characteristics, using the information to prevent illnesses from becoming prevalent in the general population.

Obtaining a master's degree in epidemiology or genetic epidemiology is usually required to work in this field, but many employers prefer candidates with doctoral degrees. Although the level of education needed is high, the BLS projected a 24% rate of growth in the employment of epidemiologists during the 2010-2020 decade. If you choose to pursue this career, you may enjoy a higher salary than you would as a genetics counselor. The average annual salary of epidemiologists was close to $70,000 in May 2011, according to the BLS.

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George Mason University

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American University

  • Master of Science in Healthcare Management

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Kaplan University

  • Master: Psychology/General Psychology
  • Master: Psychology/Applied Behavioral Analysis
  • BS in Psychology in Addictions
  • Bachelor: Health Science

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The George Washington University

  • Graduate Certificate in Clinical Operations and Healthcare Management

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Northcentral University

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  • PhD in Marriage & Family Therapy - Couple Therapy
  • M.A. in Marriage & Family Therapy
  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Health Administration
  • MS in Criminal Justice Behavior Analysis

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Baker College Online

  • Healthcare Management - MBA (Master's)

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Grand Canyon University

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision
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  • BS in Counseling - Addiction, Chemical Dependency, and Substance Abuse

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