Genetic Counseling Career Information

What is Genetic Counseling?

  • Genetic counselors (GCs), as defined by the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), are “professionals who have specialized education in genetics and counseling to provide personalized help patients may need as they make decisions about their genetic health.”
  • There are over 5000 certified genetic counselors currently working in the field, and as the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) describes, they are responsible for explaining what genetic tests might be appropriate for patients, what information the tests might provide, and in what situations testing might be helpful. They are also responsible for helping patients understand and adapt to their test results.
  • Genetic testing looks for abnormalities in your genes or DNA which can cause inherited conditions. These tests may involve a blood draw, a cheek swab, or a sample of saliva.
    • Testing results may affect a patient’s health care, health care for their family, and family planning.
  • According to the NSGC, genetic counselors can support patients seeking more information about:
    • How inherited diseases and conditions might affect them or their families
    • How family and medical histories may impact the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence
    • Which genetic tests may or may not be right for them and what those tests may or may not tell
    • How to make the most informed choices about healthcare conditions
  • Genetic counselors have a master’s degree from an accredited training program and have passed a national board exam from the ABGC. These training programs focus on teaching:
    • Genetics
    • How to assess risk in families
    • Communication
    • Counseling
  • The history of genetic counseling in general can be found at the NSGC website here: https://www.nsgc.org/page/nsgc-timeline
  • Traditionally, genetic counselors worked in clinical settings, meeting with patients and medical providers to offer direct patient care. Now, the career has expanded to laboratory and industrial settings, where GCs may not interact with patients at all. As stated by the NSGC, one example of a nontraditional position in a research laboratory would involve “collecting information such as detailed family histories and pregnancy information that helps researchers and advances care for people with genetic conditions.”
  • Despite differences in where genetic counselors work and what they might do, as stated by McWalter and colleagues, whether in clinic or industry, genetic counselors all share “a deep and broad knowledge of genetics; the ability to tailor, translate, and communicate complex information in a simple, relevant way for a broad range of audiences; strong interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and self‐awareness; the ability to dissect and analyze a complex problem; research skills; and an in‐depth knowledge of health‐care delivery.”

Specialties and Work Settings

  • According to the NSGC, the most common genetic counseling specialties include:
    • Prenatal and preconception – for women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant
    • Pediatric – for children and their family members
    • Cancer – for patients with cancer and their family members
    • Cardiovascular – for patients with diseases of the heart or circulatory system and their family members
    • Neurology – for patients with diseases of the brain and nervous system and their family members
  • In a genetic counseling webinar series, the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics (IIHG) also listed neurogenetics, pediatric neurogenetics, and nephrology as newer specialties. The IIHG has also outlined some of the typical work settings and responsibilities of a GC. These include:
    • Taking and interpreting a family history
    • Psychosocial counseling
    • Bioinformatics and next generation sequencing
    • Lab genetic counseling
    • Working with commercial entities (industry positions)
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, GCs work in university medical centers, private and public hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, and physician’s offices.

 

Why Genetic Counseling?

  • You might wonder who would see a genetic counselor and why. According to the ABGC, someone might decide to meet with a genetic counselor if:
    • They know or suspect that there is an inherited condition in their family
    • They would like to know more about their risk for an inherited condition and whether genetic testing might be helpful
  • Like with all medical professionals, it is very important to check the qualifications of the provider and their place of employment. In the case of genetic counseling, one way to ensure that you will receive quality care is to choose a genetic counselor that is board certified. The ABGC states that you should choose a certified GC because:
    • They have met minimum education requirements and showed a minimum level of knowledge, skills, and abilities by completing the ABGC board examination
    • You can be sure that you are seeing the most qualified professional to help guide you through the process of understanding your genes
    • Studies have shown that genetic testing ordered by certified GCs is more cost-effective than testing ordered by non-certified GCs
    • A growing number of independent third-party payers (insurance companies) require genetic counseling prior to genetic testing
    • Genetic counseling and testing is expanding across all medical specialties
  • Genetic counselors typically require a referral but can be located and contacted by using the “Find a Certified Genetic Counselor” tool on the ABGC website.

 

References

National Society of Genetic Counselors. (n.d.). About Genetic Counselors – Who are Genetic Counselors?. National Society of Genetic Counselors. https://www.nsgc.org/page/whoaregcs

American Board of Genetic Counseling, Inc. (n.d.). About Genetic Counseling. American Board of Genetic Counseling. https://www.abgc.net/about-genetic-counseling/

McWalter, K., et al. (2018). Genetic counseling in industry settings: Opportunities in the era of precision health. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part C: Seminars in Medical Genetics. 178(1). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajmg.c.31606

IIHG Genetic Counseling Webinar Series

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Genetic Counselors – Summary. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/genetic-counselors.htm#:~:text=Genetic%20counselors%20work%20in%20university,genetic%20counselors%20work%20full%20time

American Board of Genetic Counseling, Inc. (n.d.). Do I Need Genetic Counseling?. American Board of Genetic Counseling. https://www.abgc.net/about-genetic-counseling/do-i-need-genetic-counseling/

 

 

Guide to Genetic Counseling Graduate Programs

List of Programs

  • There are currently approximately 50 accredited genetic counseling training programs in the United States. A list of accredited programs is available on the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC) website at: https://www.gceducation.org/program-directory/  
  • There are currently two accredited programs in Michigan located at:
    • University of Michigan, housed within the Department of Human Genetics
    • Wayne State University, housed within the Center for Molecular Medicine and Genomics

 

General Program Requirements

  • Referencing the requirements from the schools listed below, a general list of program requirements was created:
    • Wayne State University, University of Michigan, University of South Florida, Indiana University, Ohio State University, Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Utah
  • Online application (typically through the university’s graduate school)
  • Transcripts from post-secondary institutions
  • Applicants whose native language is not English are required to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  • 2-4 letters of recommendation (varies by program)
  • Personal statement
    • Some programs require just one longer statement and might offer a description of topics to write about (although some programs do not)
    • Other programs require several shorter statements with direct prompts
  • Registration through the National Match Service (NMS) at https://natmatch.com/gcadmissions
  • Typically, scores from the Graduate Record Examination are required, but due to the coronavirus, many programs have waived the requirement for this application cycle
  • Bachelor’s degree (typically in a related field, i.e. biology, psychology, genetics, social work)
  • Prerequisite courses typically include:
    • Biology
    • General chemistry
    • Organic chemistry
    • General genetics
    • Biochemistry
    • Statistics
    • Psychology
    • Some programs also require embryology
  • Advocacy experience
    • Usually in a volunteer position in social service agencies or with crisis counseling; must be in a situation where you are helping people cope with an issue or problem
    • Some examples include with Planned Parenthood, suicide hotlines, grief support groups, Crisis Textline, or working with people with disabilities.
  • Some programs require applicants to shadow or interview genetic counselors before applying (most just recommend this so that applicants have a strong understanding of the career before starting a program)

 

General Program Curriculum

An example of what the curriculum of a genetic counseling program might look like is included below, created using the University of Michigan curriculum (as detailed in the 2021 Student Prospectus, which can be accessed here: https://medicine.umich.edu/sites/default/files/downloads/2021%20Program%20Prospectus.pdf)

  • Fall Year 1
    • Molecular genetics
    • GC skills I and peer supervision
    • Reproductive genetics
    • Research skills
    • Student seminar
    • Anatomy/embryology for GCs
    • Clinical internship – spending time observing GCs in the clinic
  • Winter Year 1
    • Molecular Basis Human Disease
    • Research skills
    • Applied GC
    • Cancer GC
    • Pediatric GC
    • GC skills and peer supervision
    • Clinical internship
  • Summer
    • Typically, students will conduct a clinical internship at an external location
    • This could be at another hospital in Michigan, in another state, or abroad
  • Fall Year 2
    • Population genetics
    • GC skills II and peer supervision
    • Medical genetics
    • Death, loss, and grief
    • Independent research
    • Clinical internship
  • Winter Year 2
    • Medical genetics
    • GC skills and peer supervision
    • Independent Research
    • Clinical internship

To learn more about the application requirements or curriculum of a specific program other than University of Michigan, utilize the ACGC list of accredited programs to find program websites. Each program will have extensive information about application and program requirements, matriculation statistics, tuition costs, curriculum, and more listed on their site.

Stepwise Guide to Becoming a Genetic Counselor

This guide was compiled based upon my own experience as a prospective genetic counseling master’s program applicant. The list of tasks is not exhaustive, nor do these things have to be completed the year that I suggest them. As a general rule, it is important to start thinking and planning early, and the sooner you get involved in advocacy and research, the better your application will be.

Freshman Year - Exploration

  • During the first year, focus on exploring the field of genetic counseling. Here are some examples of things you can do to learn more and demonstrate your interest in genetic counseling:
  • Conduct your own research online.
    • The NSGC website is a great place to learn more about genetic counseling
  • Call, meet with, or interview current GC's
    • The NSGC website has a list of GC's in your area who are open to student contact and provides their contact information
  • Attend informational webinars and conferences
  • Join related clubs and activities (for example, GVSU's Genetic Counseling Organization)
  • Meet with an advisor at the Career Center or an upperclassman who is applying to GC programs
  • The CC has tons of useful resources to explore careers, and experienced upperclassmen have great advice

 

Sophomore Year - Involvement

  • During the second year, start to get involved in activities that will allow you to experience genetic counseling firsthand. Here are some examples of activities you can join to gain experience:
  • Advocacy - volunteer with a social service agency, a grief support group, a crisis hotline, or a disability advocates group. It is important to work with people in crisis or in need of advocacy to evaluate whether you like this type of work or not.
    • Examples in West Michigan include: Planned Parenthood, Crisis Text Line, Children's Healing Center, Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, Ele's Place, Gilda's Club, Children's Advocacy Center, and more
  • Shadowing - contact a GC at your local hospital to set up a shadowing experience. This is crucial to understanding how the job works and what the day-to-day looks like for a GC. If you don't like what you see, then you know this is not the career for you!
  • Research - while it is not required for GC programs, it is suggested by most as a way to deepen your understanding of genetics concepts and basic lab techniques. Only some GCs spend time doing wet lab work, yet all have to know how to interpret genetic testing results.
    • Consider joining a professor's lab at GVSU or finding a research internship for the summer after your sophomore year.

 

Junior Year - Strengthening

  • During the third year, focus on doing well in classes, continuing to gain research and advocacy experience, and increasing exposure to genetic counseling. While doing these things, begin to think about which programs you are interested in. Here are some strategies for researching programs:
  • The ABGC website has a program directory that lists all existing genetic counseling programs and their accreditation statuses. It also includes links to each program's webpage. Use this as a tool to discover and learn about programs.
    • Program webpages offer tons of information about the specifics of their program; this may include prerequisites, statistics, tuition costs, student testimonials, and more.
  • Most programs will offer open house informational sessions in the fall. Consider attending these to learn more about specific programs
  • Another important task for junior year is to begin studying for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
    • Scores on this exam are required by most programs, and weigh in to their acceptance decisions. It is important to start preparing for this exam early (even if you do not take it until the fall of your senior year.

 

Senior Year - Applying

  • During the fourth year, determine which programs you will be applying to and focus on preparing these applications. Here are some things to consider when choosing programs to apply for and application strategies:
  • Choose programs that you actually want to go to. GC programs utilize the National Match Service, which will match you to only one program. Make sure every program you express interest in is one you could see yourself attending.
  • Consider the location, cost of living, cost of tuition, curriculum, clinical hours, research opportunities, scholarships, and general culture of each program. No two programs are the same.
  • When applying, it is best to start early.
    • You can register for the Match in September. Most programs will provide a list of applications requirements on their website, so you can begin to draft personal statements and edit your resume before applications even open.
    • Determine who you will ask to write letters of recommendation for you as early as possible so that they have plenty of time to prepare before the application deadline.
    • While most applications are not due until December or January, you can submit them early if you begin preparing early. This reduces stress and boosts confidence!

 

 

Guide created by Jane Beckwell for her Honors Senior Project, Fall 2020



Page last modified December 14, 2020