Genetic counselors typically do the following:
Genetic counselors identify specific genetic disorders or risks through the study of genetics. A genetic disorder or syndrome is inherited. For parents who are expecting children, counselors use genetics to predict whether a baby is likely to have hereditary disorders, such as Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, among others. Genetic counselors also assess the risk for an adult to develop diseases with a genetic component, such as certain forms of cancer.
Counselors identify these conditions by studying patients’ genes through DNA testing. Medical laboratory technologists perform lab tests, which genetic counselors then evaluate and use for counseling patients and their families. They share this information with other health professionals, such as physicians and medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians.
According to a 2016 survey from the National Society of Genetic Counselors, most genetic counselors specialize in traditional areas of genetic counseling: prenatal, cancer, and pediatric. The survey noted that genetic counselors also may work in one or more specialty fields such as cardiovascular health, genomic medicine, neurogenetics, and psychiatry.
Genetic counselors typically need a master’s degree in genetic counseling or genetics.
Coursework in genetic counseling includes public health, epidemiology, psychology, and developmental biology. Classes emphasize genetics, public health, and patient empathy. Students also must complete clinical rotations, during which they work directly with patients and clients. Clinical rotations provide supervised experience for students, allowing them to work in different work environments, such as prenatal diagnostic centers, pediatric hospitals, or cancer centers.
The Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling accredits master's degree programs.
The American Board of Genetic Counseling provides certification for genetic counselors. To become certified, a student must complete an accredited master’s degree program and pass an exam. Counselors must complete continuing education courses to maintain their board certification.
About half of the states require genetic counselors to be licensed and other states have pending legislation for licensure. Certification is typically needed to get a license. For specific licensing requirements, contact the state’s medical board.
Employers typically require or prefer prospective genetic counselors to be certified, even if the state does not require it.