Genetic Counseling is a field which is devoted to the practical guidance, emotional support, and psychosocial care for individuals and families with inherited medical conditions. As the NIH states, Genetic Counseling “refers to guidance relating to genetic disorders that a specialized healthcare professional provides,” such as “information about how a genetic condition could affect an individual or family.” Genetic Counseling is not a branch of another helping field such as Counseling or Counseling Psychology, it is not a specialty within medicine or osteopathy, and it is not the same as being a researcher in the areas of genetics and biochemistry. Rather, Genetic Counseling is its own specialty career which is dually committed to both genetics advising and psychotherapeutic care. Common activities of a Genetic Counselor would include: meeting with patients adjacent to genetic testing to guide and support their search for information about an inherited disease or condition; interpreting genetic testing results and helping people understand them; assisting individuals or couples with adjusting to the ways in which their genetics affects family planning; and supporting individuals as they learn about their risk levels for various conditions throughout the lifespan. Common topic areas include fertility, prenatal, pediatric, cancer, cardiology, neurology, issues related to aging, and others. Genetic Counselors are part of the medical care team, and the profession prides itself on a high standard of technical knowledge delivered in a caring and empathic manner. While a relatively recent career specialty, the National Society of Genetic Counselors explains that this field is growing quickly due to its importance in the bigger picture of medical and mental health care.
Genetic Counselors are people who are passionately interested in both genetics and psychosocial counseling. If you have always felt compelled to study both the ‘natural’ and ‘social’ sciences, then this may be a great fit for you! An important skill in Genetic Counseling is communication—specifically the ability to take one’s highly technical and complex knowledge of genetics and share it with clients in a manner that is accessible to everyday people seeking your services. Those who care for and aim to empower others, enjoy working as advocates, and have a desire to be part of the “helping professions,” while also retaining a specialized interest in medical issues, are a wonderful match to this field. It is also important to note that certain counseling skillsets are especially crucial in Genetic Counseling, such as working with grief, anticipation of loss, disability issues, and navigating challenging family relationships. Embodying the spirit of a “lifelong learner” is necessary, because research on genetic conditions continues to evolve rapidly. And finally, this field has a special opportunity to shape the future of genetics and genetic testing, so one must possess critical thinking and place a high value on ethics!
Genetic Counselors most commonly work in a medical clinic of some kind, and in fact that is the workplace of about 50% of the field’s professionals. Preparation for eventual placement in a medical clinic is the primary training orientation. The three major specialties are cancer, pediatrics, and prenatal care, but as noted above there are other fields as well. One need not train with the expectation of permanently staying in one specialty, rather there is flexibility and variability throughout the average Genetic Counselor’s career. Of those not working in medical clinics, common alternatives include telehealth, genetic testing companies, research centers, education, industry, marketing, and others.
Degree: Becoming a Genetic Counselor requires a Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling (typically a Master of Science or “M.S.”) from an accredited program. One would first need a Bachelor’s degree, and a common route would be to major in Psychology and either double-major or minor in Biology. Next, one would attend a Master’s program in Genetic Counseling and complete the M.S. Strong candidates for these graduate programs are those with undergraduate specialization in psychology, genetics, biochemistry, and statistics, as well as experience with patient advocacy, lab work, and healthcare volunteerism.
Certification/Licensing: To practice in the state of Michigan, one needs to be certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and earn the title of Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC). This involves completing the M.S. degree, passing the ABGC Certification Exam, and accumulating/maintaining the ongoing required amount continuing education units. Licensing is also required in the state of Michigan, which involves registration as a licensed healthcare provider with the state Licensing and Regulatory Affairs office (LARA).
Training: As Genetic Counseling is still a relatively young profession and a specialized topic, there are somewhat fewer training programs than other topics in the mental health helping professions—and admission to these programs can be rather competitive. To search for options, consider reviewing this list of accredited programs compiled by the ACGC. Locally, there are M.S. programs in Genetic Counseling offered by Wayne State University as well as the University of Michigan. But remember, one need not attend graduate school in Michigan in order to eventually build a career here; spending time elsewhere can be good for one’s professional development. New programs are being added yearly, and training directors strongly recommend reaching out even if just considering the profession!
Genetic Counselors love their work in large part due to the important relationships they are able to build with patients. Whether it be a long-term connection with a pediatric client or the support offered to a family during difficult times interpreting genetic testing results, the opportunities to contribute one’s specialized knowledge and psychotherapeutic skillset simultaneously is extremely rewarding to these professionals. Other noteworthy factors include career flexibility (e.g., hopping between patient specialties, or shifting into a research role), positive team atmosphere (e.g., collaborating with other clinicians and scientists), job security (e.g., anticipated significant growth of the field over the next decade), and working on the cutting edge of science. There are many reasons to find such a career enjoyable and meaningful!
Relevant State-Level Organizations
Michigan Association of Genetic Counselors
Consider joining the UMGCP mailing list!
Check out Wayne State’s info page!
Relevant National/International Organizations
National Society of Genetic Counselors
Genetic Counseling Prospective Student Network
Minority Genetic Professionals Network
National Human Genome Research Institute
American Board of Genetic Counseling
Transnational Alliance for Genetic Counseling