Genetic counseling is a small but rapidly growing health profession that started approximately 30 years ago. There are about 3,000 genetic counselors practicing in North America, and 32 two-year master’s degree training programs enroll about 200 students per year in the United States and Canada.
Genetic counselors work with patients, families, healthcare providers and other members of the general public to assess and explain genetic risks, including family history and genetic testing results, and to psychologically adapt to this genetic information.
Genetic counselors work in a variety of roles, including as part of healthcare teams with patients and families in obstetrics, pediatrics, oncology and other specialty areas.
Also, many genetic counselors perform research, create educational materials and work for commercial laboratories. Some of the roles of a genetic counselor include taking a detailed family and medical histories, assisting geneticists or other physicians in developing “differential diagnoses” and determining the best genetic tests (if available), interpreting genetic testing results, and helping individuals and families adjust to information about their genetic risks.
An ideal genetic counselor is a person who loves science and working with people. Many genetic counseling applicants have degrees in biology, microbiology, molecular biology/genetics or psychology, although applicants from all backgrounds are considered.
The most competitive applicants will have completed all academic course requirements, maintained a GPA of better than 3.0, and have GRE scores in or above the 70th percentiles.
Applicants should also have experience with the genetic counseling profession (e.g., job shadowing or internships) and have experience and training in a volunteer counseling setting, such as a crisis center or peer counseling center.
|One semester of genetics||BIO 140 – Genetics|
|One semester of statistics||MATH 18 – Statistical Analysis of Scientific Data or
MATH 32 – Statistics or
PSY 10 – Analysis of Psychological Data
|One semester of organic chemistry with lab||CHEM 8/L – Principles of Organic Chemistry with lab|
|One semester of biochemistry||BIO 101 or CHEM 111 – Biochemistry I|
PSY 130 – Developmental Psychology
*Specific course prerequisites may vary for each school so please see individual school websites/catalogs for current information.
Training and Licensure
Numerous training programs offer master's degrees in genetic counseling in the United States. Coursework typically includes clinical genetics, population genetics, cytogenetics and molecular genetics coupled with psychosocial theory, ethics and counseling techniques.
Clinical placement in ABGC-approved medical genetics centers is an integral part of degree requirements. Additional programs accept nurses seeking post-graduate degrees with specialty training in genetics.
After earning their degrees, genetic counselors become certified by sitting for a certification exam administered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC).
Testing and Application Process
For most programs, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is required. Be sure to check each school's specific requirement regarding exam scores. Also, each school's application process is slightly different. In most cases, an application including a statement of purpose with fees, transcripts and three letters of references are required. It is each student's responsibility to know and understand each school's requirements.