Typically, a new couple that wants to start having children may have some inhibitions with regard to the genes they pass on to children. Perhaps one of the parents has a family history of breast cancer or a degenerative disorder. These are risks the parents might want to know and prepare for when beginning a family. Genetic counselors can help parents understand the risks unique to each couple by analyzing their genetic data and predicting possible outcomes for their offspring.
As a genetic counselor, you would learn how to properly read a family history in order to better assess the risk to children. You will also know what steps may help to prevent disorders and diseases children face. For example, if you recognize there is an increased risk of Down syndrome, you may suggest the mother consume certain type of nutrients like folic acid to mitigate that risk.
Genetic counselors are required to go through a long training process. Typically, this starts with an undergraduate degree culminating in a Bachelor of Science in either nursing or biology. In reality, any type of scientific upbringing can be a useful introduction to the language of genetic counseling.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree, you must pursue graduate education that will give more specialized knowledge in disease and genetics. This typically results in obtaining a Master’s degree in genetic counseling. There are approximately 30 graduate programs that offer training in genetic counseling in the United States. They are rather competitive and offer the education you will need to be successful in the field.
Beyond your graduate studies, you may find it necessary to pursue license and certification. Certain states require that counselors have specific licenses before being allowed to practice. A certification through the American Board of Genetic Counseling can make you a more highly valued employee or job candidate.
There are many environments appropriate for the training you receive as a genetic counselor. If you choose to stay in the field, you will likely end up working in a clinical or hospital setting. This is where you would be helping families, and you will likely pick a specialty in this environment. Some specialties include cancer, prenatal diagnosis, cardiovascular disease, and neurological disorders among others.
Biotech labs also have need for genetic counselors due to their expertise in disorders. There are many companies that specialize in the production of tests for genetic problems, and counselors are needed in this development for their abilities to interpret genetic data. Another arm of biotech that employs genetic counselors is diagnostics. Specifically, if a doctor orders a test from a lab, somebody needs to be able to communicate the results the the doctor accurately and clearly.
Genetic counselors are also in demand in the non-laboratory fields. Many counselors will work to influence policy in government, or they will become teachers to educate the next generation. Some counselors even go into research where their specialized skill set makes them valuable in the clinical and basic research areas.
A genetic counselor is not in as high a demand for time as other health professionals. You will not be on call to act at a moment’s notice. You work around appointments of patients so you can give adequate time for discussion. This can afford regular hours that do not shift. This is a rare type of job in a hospital where injuries and disease do not wait for the professionals.
The median salary for genetic counselors in the United States was approximately 55,000 dollars per year as of 2006. This is accurate for counselors working in the hospital setting. This figure increases with experience. The median salary for a counselor with nine years on the job runs nearly 62,000 dollars. In addition to the salary, genetic counselors find themselves in high demand throughout the country. You can find a job in nearly any medium-sized or larger town or city. This can be a major benefit if you would like to lead a relatively quiet life.
Higher salaries can be found in other realms such as industry and research. The median salary for counselors in these fields is 71,000 dollars. Opportunities and geographic flexibility will probably be more limited if you aspire to this higher salary.
National Society of Genetic Counselors: This group promotes the interests of its members who are made up primarily of genetic counselors.
Genetic Counseling programs: This is a list of the different genetic counseling graduate programs accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.