As the name of this profession indicates, this is a highly specialized vocation involving genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors provide a critical service to individuals and families by helping them identify their risks for certain disorders, investigate family health history, interpret information and determine if testing is needed. These counselors help people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.
Genetic counselors are present at high risk or specialty prenatal clinics that offer prenatal diagnosis, pediatric care centers, and adult genetic centers. Genetic counseling can occur before conception (i.e. when one or two of the parents are carriers of a certain trait) through to adulthood (for adult onset genetic conditions, such as Huntington’s disease or hereditary cancer syndromes). Therefore, genetic counselors work as members of a health care team and act as a patient advocate as well as a genetic resource to physicians.
There are 30 schools in the United States with genetic counseling programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). The students enrolled in this program usually come from a science background in their undergraduate degree. Most of the accredited universities refer to the degree as a Masters of Science in Genetic Counseling. Some of the programs have prerequisite courses. The University of Michigan is one example-it requires the baccalaureate to have science courses, including biochemistry, at least one upper level human genetics course, and a general statistics course.
The coursework (59+ graduate hours) provides students with a comprehensive understanding of the medical, scientific, counseling and ethical aspects of human genetics. Since this profession is in the realm of medicine, the majority of the curriculum involves the sciences:
- Reproductive Genetics
- Medical Embryology
- Cancer Genetics
- Metabolic Genetics
- Genetic Counseling Skills
- Death, Loss and Grief
- Human Cytogenetics
- Clinical Training
The last course on the above list may be the most crucial. One on one supervision by highly experienced genetic counselors ensures that students are ready to take on clinical responsibilities with competence and confidence. Clinical training is an integral part of the curriculum and is structured to provide students with increasing counseling responsibilities in a variety of genetics and multidisciplinary clinics. The clinical work may begin in the first semester with 8-10 weeks of clinical rotations. These sessions increase in the second year, for example-the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has a 15-16 week “clerkship.”
Those graduating with the Master’s of Science in Genetic Counseling may want to consider certification by the American Board of Genetic Counseling, Inc. (ABGC). This organization was incorporated in 1993 as the credentialing body for this profession. In order to receive this voluntary professional certification, an exam must be passed as administered by the ABGC. A prerequisite for the exam is the applicant must first have met the criteria to attain ACS or Active Candidate Status.
Another organization called the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), incorporated in 1979, promotes the professional interests of the members and promotes a network of professional communications. No examination is required-only an annual membership fee ranging from $100 for students in training to $265 for a Full Member.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2012 that the median annual salary was $56,800 with a Master’s degree. The projected job growth/change rate is 41% which is higher than most occupations. However, the employment pool is relatively small at 2,100 in 2012 per the BLS.
A profile of this profession seems to blend the science of genetics with the empathy necessary to effectively counsel.