Genetic Counselor

Learning about your genetic make-up from at-home tests has become all the rage. Over 30 million people have taken direct-to-consumer geneaology tests since they were introduced to the public in the early 2000s (CNBC Feb. 2020). 

These tests started out with providing genealogical information, but over time, they have begun to include more and more disease predisposition information, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and heart disease. The increased prevalence in at-home testing has come because of the wider availability of genetic tests available from a physician. Currently, there are over 77,000 tests for more than 2,000 different conditions.

Receiving a genetic disease diagnosis can be incredibly hard. As tests have become more prevalent, so has the crucial support role of genetic counselors. Genetic counselors provide advocacy, education, and expertise to patients and clients who are pursuing genetic testing or have received a genetic disease diagnosis. They are empathetic individuals with strong listening skills who can help people facing difficult choices think critically and make necessary decisions. 

Genetic counselors have generally graduated with a master’s in science in genetic counseling. The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC) is the leading accrediting agency and they ensure programs have met minimum standards. Completing an accredited program qualifies students to sit for the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) certification exam. 

Continue reading to learn more about educational requirements, job duties, licensing, and career outlook in this high-growth career.

Genetic Counselor Specializations & Degree Types

Genetic counselors certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) have completed a master’s degree in genetic counseling from an accredited institution. Students pursuing this career path typically earn undergraduate degrees in science, sociology, biology, counseling, and genetics. There are many specialization areas professionals can pursue, including infertility genetics, cardiovascular genetics, cystic fibrosis genetics, and pediatric genetics.

Admissions Requirements for Genetic Counselor Programs

Genetic counseling programs are master’s degrees and require students to have completed a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. Some programs also require students to have completed prerequisite courses before applying. These may include chemistry, biochemistry, statistics, psychology, and genetics. Students are often required to submit all undergraduate transcripts along with statements of purpose, letters of recommendation, and a resume. Many schools also require GRE scores.

Genetic Counselor Program Accreditation

The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC) oversees accreditation for genetic counselor programs. Students must complete an ACGC-accredited program to be eligible to sit for the certification exam from the American Board of Genetic Counseling. 

There are currently 52 universities and colleges across the country, and four in Canada, that have received this accreditation, as of December 2021. New programs are emerging, with a total of 18 added since December 2019. 

On-Campus Genetic Counselor Degree Programs

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai – Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is ranked as the 17th best medical school in research in the country by US News & World Report (2021). Faculty in their master of science (MS) in genetic counseling program are world-renowned for their research and contributions to diagnosis, treatment, and counseling of genetic disorders. Students receive both clinical and laboratory training. The patient pool for the clinic is multiculturally diverse, allowing students to gain experience working with a variety of clients.  

This outstanding program has a 100 percent placement rate for its graduates and an over 91 percent student success rate in passing the board certification test on the first try. The 21-month program places an emphasis on clinical rotations. Students can expect to begin observing genetic counseling sessions in the fall of their first year. To graduate, students must complete an in-depth thesis on a genetic counseling topic or issue. 

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: 21 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $55,000 for the entire program

Rutgers University – School of Arts and Sciences

The only genetics counseling program in the state of New Jersey is found at Rutgers University. As such, students in this program are afforded an excellent opportunity to network with professionals in the genetic counseling field in the state. Housed within the microbiology and molecular genetics program, the master of science in genetic counseling has outstanding faculty who are leaders in the field. 

As a collaboration between the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Graduate Studies, students are trained to help patients make decisions when faced with challenging genetic test results. The program boasts intense classroom learning, varied clinical rotations, and a required master’s thesis project. 

Students need to complete prerequisite courses in genetics, statistics, and biochemistry prior to applying for admission. Job shadowing and previous counseling experience increase the chances of being admitted.  

  • Location: Newark and Camden, NJ 
  • Duration: 22 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $15,444 per semester

University of Arizona – College of Medicine

The master’s of science in genetic counseling at the University of Arizona College of Medicine is housed in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Faculty and students also work closely with the Center for Applied Genetics and Genomic Medicine, allowing for interdepartmental collaboration. This allows students to get an education with varied course content and clinical rotations, preparing them for entry-level work as genetic counselors. 

This is a 22 month long, 63 credit hour program. Students must complete three practicums in order to earn this degree, including an eight-week-long summer practicum. In addition to the practicum, students will complete clinical rotations every semester, helping them gain hands-on experience in varied settings. 

  • Location: Tucson, AZ
  • Duration: 22 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $33,600 per year

Northwestern University – Feinberg School of Medicine

The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University offers a master’s of science in genetic counseling that can be completed in just 18 months. This rigorous and faced paced program required courses such as research methodologies, principles of medical genetics, psychosocial aspects of genetic counseling, and medical communication. 

In addition to didactic courses, students must complete clinical rotations every quarter. Other learning opportunities outside the classroom include conferences, grand rounds, and lab courses.

Each year more than 300 students apply for the 20 spots available in this program. To be considered for admission, candidates must have a bachelor’s degree and have completed extensive prerequisite coursework. This program uses the National Matching Service for its application process, which takes into account both the student’s and the program’s preferences for placement.  

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $20,020 per quarter

Johns Hopkins University – Bloomberg School of Public Health

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, in partnership with the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), offers an outstanding Genetic Counseling Graduate Training Program. This program results in a master’s of science in genetic counseling with a strong emphasis on social and behavioral research. 

As part of this program, students must complete 600 contact hours of supervised clinical rotations. To be eligible for admission to this degree, students must have at least two years of experience in working with individuals with emotional distress. Extensive prerequisite coursework and GRE test scores are also required for admission. 

  • Location: Baltimore, MD  
  • Duration: 22 month
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $37,481 per year

Online or Hybrid Genetic Counselor Degree Programs

Boise State – College of Health and Sciences

Boise State’s online master of science (MS) in genetic counseling trains students to be translators and advocates for patients who receive difficult genetic testing results. This flexible distance-based program can be completed on a student’s own schedule. 

Students are required to complete 51 credits in order to graduate from this program. Forty-one credits are academic, 15 are fieldwork, and four are from a final project. Expert-taught classes include instruction in human genetics, clinical genetics, counseling techniques, and epidemiology. Previous experience in counseling and the ability to speak a second language is highly valued for admission, while prerequisite courses in chemistry, psychology, and genetics are mandatory. 

  • Location: Boise, ID
  • Duration: 21 months
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $54,992 for the whole course

Bay Path University – Graduate College 

A master’s in science in genetic counseling from Bay Path University will teach students to be empathetic experts in the field. This online program affords students the flexibility to complete studies on their own time, and also provides community and networking opportunities through biannual on-campus sessions.  

Students gain skills in evaluating, diagnosing, monitoring, and treatment of patients facing genetic disorders through online courses, research, and clinical experiences. An intensive capstone project is required during the final year of studies. For admission, this program requires significant prerequisite coursework to be completed during a student’s undergraduate studies. GRE scores are also required. 

  • Location: East Longmeadow, MA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $1,105 per credit

Indiana State University – College of Arts and Sciences

The master’s of science at Indiana State University College of Arts and Sciences is a hybrid on-campus and online program. The first year of this degree is entirely on-campus while the second is online. This is to allow students the ability to travel for their clinical rotations and have a greater variety in their training than they could get by staying on-campus. 

This program offers students a solid foundation in medical genetics as well as psychological counseling. Applicants to this program have typically completed an undergraduate degree in biology, genetics, psychology, public health, or nursing. Only eight students are admitted each year to this highly competitive program. 

  • Location: Terre Haute, IN
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC)
  • Tuition: $61,188 for the two-year program

University of South Carolina – School of Medicine Columbia

Determining if a degree and career in genetic counseling can be daunting. To help students get a feel for the program and the field, the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia has created a 12-week online course. This course consists of lectures, readings, and practical activities to help students develop an understanding of genetic counseling education. Students who already know they want to complete this degree will also benefit from this program as it can help prepare them for the rigors of graduate school. 

  • Location: Columbia, SC
  • Duration: 12 weeks
  • Accreditation: N/A
  • Tuition: $530 for the course

University of California, San Diego

Aspiring genetic counselors and health care professionals looking to gain an understanding of genetic counseling can complete the online introduction to genetic counseling course at the University of California, San Diego. 

This program is offered through the Extension Service and is taught by certified genetic counselors. All of the course material will be available on the first day of the program so students can complete their studies at their own pace. All modules must be completed within eight weeks. At the end of this course, students will have a better understanding of the field of genetics and counseling as well as the ethical issues in this field.  

  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Duration: Eight weeks
  • Accreditation: N/A
  • Tuition: $675 for the entire program

How Long Does it Take to Become a Genetic Counselor?

Becoming a genetic counselor generally takes six years of postsecondary education plus testing. Some students are able to complete the test and licensure immediately upon graduation, adding no time-to-entry into the career.

How To Become a Genetic Counselor – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Students wishing to pursue a career as a genetic counselor need to begin by completing high school or a GED. Courses in chemistry, psychology, and biology help prepare students for collegiate studies.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree is a necessary step in the educational path of a genetic counselor. Students can major in psychology, biology, biochemistry, genetics, or other health science-related fields. 

Many master’s programs have prerequisite course requirements. Students should research which schools they might want to attend in order to know what courses they need to take. 

Step 3: Apply for a Master’s Degree Program (Timeline Varies)

Many institutions that offer a genetic counseling master’s degree now use the National Matching Service (NMS). Students must submit all their documents and rank the institutions they wish to attend by fall the year before they wish to attend. Students still completing their undergraduate degrees will want to apply during the beginning of their senior year. 

Step 4: Obtain a Master’s Degree (Two Years)

Most master’s of science in genetic counseling degrees can be completed in two years or less. As mentioned above, students are strongly encouraged to seek out programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). Only graduates from an accredited program are eligible to sit for the American Board of Genetic Counseling certification exam.  

Step 5: Pass the Board Certification Test from the ABGC (Timeline Varies)

American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABCG) certification testing happens twice per year. Graduation from an ACGC-accredited program is required; however, students completing an accredited program may apply to take the test as long as they can provide a letter from their school stating their intended graduation date. Candidates should carefully read and follow the exam bulletin published by the ABGC as it details all the requirements as well as advising on test preparation. 

Step 6: Become State Certified If Required (Timeline Varies)

Not all states currently require licensure, but those that do require graduating from an ACGC-approved master’s program and a current ABGC certification. The National Society of Genetic Counselors provides a guide to state requirements.

What Do Genetic Counselors Do?

Genetic counselors work in a variety of locations including universities, hospitals, private clinics, diagnostic laboratories, and government agencies. Job duties include:

  • Meeting with clients with potential or diagnosed genetic disorders
  • Translating medical terminology to layman’s terms for patients
  • Assisting patients in making informed decisions with the medical information at their disposal
  • Interpreting genetic testing results
  • Advising prenatal and conceiving families on risks based on the parent’s genetic makeup
  • Collaborating with oncologist on precision medicine treatments for cancer patients based on the genetic makeup of a specific cancer
  • Cooperating in research studies by collecting and analyzing data from participants
  • Counseling patients on how and when to share information with family about genetic disorders 

Genetic Counselor Certifications & Licensure

The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABCG) is the governing body for genetic counselor certification. Certification is obtained by obtaining a master’s degree from an accredited program and passing the ABGC exam. 

Not all states require genetic counselors to be licensed. Again, the National Society of Genetic Counselors provides a guide to state licensing requirements in this profession.

How Much Do Genetic Counselors Make?

The field of genetic counseling is growing at a very rapid pace. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS 2021) estimates a 26 percent increase in jobs in this field nationally between 2020 and 2030. It is one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. 

The average wages for a genetic counselor are $89,710 per year. According to the BLS (May 2020), the percentiles are:

  • 10th percentile: $66,930
  • 25th percentile: $74,060
  • 50th percentile (median): $85,700
  • 75th percentile: $103,700
  • 90th percentile: $126,350

Genetic Counselor Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a genetic counselor. 

Become an Epidemiologist

Sometimes called disease doctors, epidemiologists are experts in detecting illnesses, researching the causes, and helping to curb the spread. These illnesses can be from viruses or bacteria or can come from environmental factors. Often epidemiologists work in research settings although they are often employed by government agencies or public health offices. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology (CBIC) 

Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

Pathologists’ assistants work under the supervision of a pathologist to perform post mortem examinations, collect and prepare samples for testing, write reports, and photograph specimens. In order to enter this field, aspiring professionals must complete a pathologists’ assistant degree program. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)

Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Licensed mental health counselors work with groups, families, and individuals to address mental health concerns. They can provide therapy in a variety of formats including cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, and psychotherapy. Counselors can work with patients of all ages, from children to the elderly. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.