Do you like genetics and working with patients? Do you want to be a genetic counselor? Are you interested in learning more about the field? These are a few of the first things individuals interested in the career often think about. The second is often figuring out how to get a starting foot into the process. Either way, genetic counseling is an exciting field that is rewarding in many ways.
What is certified genetic counseling?
The National Society of Genetic Counselors defines the “professional as having specialized education in genetics and counseling to provide personalized help patients may need as they make decisions about their genetic health” (NSGC). As a profession, genetic counseling is exciting, booming, and overall boasts a high satisfaction rate. In terms of a career profile, in 2016, NSGC’s Professional Status Survey quoted genetic counselors’ average salaries at around $81,000. The most exciting prospect is that this is an ever-growing field, with opportunities to do work in clinical, industry, research, and educational settings. The potential for growth was marked at 29% by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the demand for genetic counselors just keeps growing and growing. As genetics becomes more integrated with the field of personalized medicine, larger amounts of patients wish to know about their genetic makeup. The demand for someone with both the ability to interpret genetic results as well as communicate it effectively is definitely rising.
What about the field?
The field of genetic counseling has been around since the early 1940s and has only continued to expand as the years have gone by. Now, there are 36 accredited programs in the United States as well as 3 in Canada to which interested individuals can apply (ACGC). Application dates typically open early in the Fall and have varying closing dates, depending on the program.
What is the general application process?
Applying to a genetic counseling program is a multi-step process that involves a series of requirements as well as recommended activities. When applying, every program has different classes that are required, so a good tip is to keep track of which schools require specific biology, chemistry, psychology, or additional courses. Additionally, programs often recommend gaining experience working with people in crisis. This can be through volunteering for crisis organizations, working in various shelters, through mentoring youth—there are many options as to what kind of work this can be.
More so, the programs also generally recommend some kind of shadowing exposure to the field. Whether this is through shadowing clinical genetic counselors or working with industry/laboratory genetic counselors, any interactions with the field are sure to be a gain in knowledge about the profession. A few more standard and general requirements such as obtaining a Bachelors of Science or a Bachelors of Art, submitting college transcripts, taking the GREs, and obtaining letters of recommendation are important to finish out the application process. Again, it is important to note that each program has a different set of requirements, but many of them overlap with each other. Always feel free to reach out to the programs if you have any questions regarding the application process. Someone will get back to you and try to answer your questions if you have confusion about prerequisites or would like some advice.
An excellent resource (that I wish I would have had) is the following spreadsheet created by Tia Moscarello & Erin Syverson of the Prospective Students Task Force Leaders 2016. They compiled all the information regarding each program as a useful tool for individuals applying for genetic counseling programs.
Why become a genetic counselor?
With some general knowledge now of how to apply to a genetic counseling program, let us talk about the wonderful benefits that come along with being a genetic counselor. One of the main attributes involves the intersection of genetics and patient care. A few quotes from some fellow first years can better explain why they were interested in pursuing a career in genetic counseling:
- “I loved the prospect of a career that merged my love of genetics with the ability to help patients.”
- “The fluidity of the field was so compelling. I could potentially teach, work in a lab, or even see patients. I might be able to even do a combination of all the aspects.”
- “I’ve been research heavy for years and felt removed from direct interactions with people. I wanted to do something that more directly benefited people.”
- “I left college and worked in a genetic testing laboratory. I talked to some GCs and got their perspectives about my career choices. Next thing I knew, I applied!”
- “What I really liked about it was the concept of being able to directly apply what we’ve learned in doing research on these diseases to a clinical setting.”
- “I love that genetic counseling incorporates a strong psychosocial piece into the practice of medicine; I think that it is so important to understand how science can impact the lives of people and their families beyond surface-level medical decisions.”
There are definitely a variety of ways to get involved with the genetic counseling field first hand, and an even larger variety of reasons as to why people got involved. These are just a few tips to consider when considering a career in genetic counseling!
Alice is a first-year graduate student at the Northwestern University Graduate Program in Genetic Counseling (http://www.cgm.northwestern.edu/education/graduate-genetic-medicine/index.html). Prior to entering the program, she interned at an industry laboratory and volunteered at a DV hotline in San Diego. She is a transplant from the California Bay Area and is currently enjoying her time living, learning about genetic counseling in depth, and exploring all the sights in Chicago.
Pathway Genomics is an ethically based genetic testing lab and generously supports ihavelynchsyndrome.org’s mission. Most genetic counselors in the United States are listed on www.nsgc.org in the search function on the home page. To learn more about Pathway, its hereditary cancer products, the genetic testing process, and help finding a certified genetic counselor, please go to: https://www.pathway.com. Or please reach out to me and I will help you!
Georgia M. Hurst
Founder and Executive Director of ihavelynchsyndrome.org