Genetic counseling is an evolving field in the age of genomic medicine. A unique medical specialty that combines the disciplinary fields of clinical healthcare, education, and psychology, genetic counselors provide support beyond the borders of traditional medicine to individuals and families facing the risk of genetic and inherited health conditions and diagnoses.
Genetic counselors determine disease risk for all ages by inquiring about family medical and environmental history, interpreting genetic test results with patients, offering disease prevention and care management resources, and providing emotional and ethical guidance to help people make informed decisions about their individual and reproductive health. One of the fastest-growing careers in the United States, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) has predicted a 26 percent growth in openings between 2020 and 2030—adding nearly 2,500 new genetic counseling positions nationwide.
Why is the field of genetic counseling experiencing so much growth? One reason is the increased number and availability of genetic tests. In previous decades, genetic testing was typically reserved for at-risk pregnant women via amniocentesis. Nowadays, several types of tests are available to predict the likelihood of disease onset for people of all ages and stages of life. Examples of modern-day genetic testing and their purposes include:
The popularity of direct-to-consumer DNA tests such as 23andMe is widely credited for the increased demand for genetic counselors. These at-home tests, also known as “spit kits,” require individuals to send a saliva sample to the company, and their genetic test results are delivered a few weeks later. However, these tests lack contextualized data about family and environmental history, resulting in potentially revealing misleading health histories. Therefore, people who want a more nuanced interpretation of their genomic data are seeking genetic counseling to interpret their DNA test results.
It’s important to note that direct-to-consumer DNA tests on ancestry and family lineage often provide incomplete information on inherited genetic mutations. As a result, spit kit results can give clients a false sense of security (or doom) regarding the risk for potential severe health conditions—believing the results to be a diagnosis or a clean bill of health. Individuals with health concerns about their inherited risk for specific diseases should follow up with a healthcare professional for further testing.
Genetic counseling is a rewarding career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). Professionals in this field divide their time between interacting with patients, communicating with laboratories, and advocating on behalf of their patients in various settings. Typical work environments include hospitals and clinics, laboratories, colleges and universities, and private practices. In fact, the BLS shows the nation’s top three employers of genetic counselors are general medical and surgical hospitals, offices of physicians, and medical and diagnostic laboratories (BLS 2020).
Many genetic counselors partake in breakthrough research in genetics, which makes it an ideal career option for those wanting to contribute their scientific and social talents to the world. Most genetic counselors hold bachelor’s degrees in biology, social science, or a related field, pursuing master’s degrees in genetic counseling. Certification through the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) is available and is required by some hospitals and clinics.
Read on to learn more about fast facts, mentors, educational programs, and DIY resources to explore genetic counseling.
Bay Path University (Hybrid)
Bay Path University offers a 59-credit hybrid master of science (MS) degree in genetic counseling. Led by a dedicated faculty and with two to three required face-to-face weekend campus visits to supplement online learning, students can experience mentored independent research, community engagement, and professional development in educational, laboratory, and healthcare industry settings.
The curriculum prepares students to engage with emerging research and current healthcare challenges. It features four clinical rotations totaling 800 hours at numerous clinical genetics centers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. The program is designed for students with strong scientific backgrounds and requires high-level interpersonal skills.
Boise State University (Hybrid)
Boise State University offers a hybrid master’s of science in genetic counseling (MSGC) with a mission to expand access to the profession and integrate the innovative online learning standards set by the ACGC. Students applying to this program need to show completion of pre-med coursework in biology, chemistry, and genetics, and psychology courses with statistics or biostatistics components. Prerequisite courses must be completed before applying for admission.
Students learn in a fully online environment in the first year of the program, while the second year comprises face-to-face clinical rotations. Students must earn a minimum of 675 clinical hours in order to graduate and can expect to spend three to four days per week at their clinical rotation sites. Courses are offered online in an interactive working environment.
Enrollment for this program is full-time. Students can expect to spend approximately 30 hours a week on coursework, including asynchronous classes that can be completed any time and real-time pair and group work.
Indiana State University (Hybrid)
The College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana State University offers a hybrid (in-person and online) master of science in genetic counseling. The first year of the two-year program is on-campus courses, and all the second-year courses are offered online. Students can expect to take online courses in genomic science, medical genetics, population genetics, bioinformatics, and cytogenetics. This program aims to prepare students with a theoretical and practical framework in genetics, genomics, and psychological counseling.
Accepting only eight students every academic year, this program offers a high faculty-to-student ratio. In the first year of the program, students learn through patient simulations and observe and begin counseling in the genetic counseling clinic. Hands-on learning during the second year features multiple clinical rotations in pediatrics, prenatal, cancer, adult, and other specialty areas of genetic counseling. Students in the program’s second year must provide transportation to reach clinical rotation sites off-campus.
The University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have teamed up to offer a graduate genetic counseling program. Since its establishment in 1982, this program has provided a comprehensive academic and clinical experience partnership for its students. Students take classes at the university campus and can easily access their workspaces and clinical rotations at the adjacent Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, one of the top three pediatric medical centers in the United States.
The curriculum in this program features clinical rotations, research, and online didactic courses in human genetics, embryology, epidemiology, teratology, clinical genomics, ethics, and counseling. Given the cutting-edge nature of this career, students are encouraged to submit suggestions for online courses.
Dr. and Mrs. Carl A. Huether endow this program and funds from the endowment are used to defray student expenses for attending national professional meetings and conducting research projects.
University of South Carolina (Online)
The University of South Carolina School of Medicine offers a 12-week graduate-level online course titled: “Genetic Counseling: Career for the Future.” Comprising lectures given by genetic counselors, readings from scholarly literature, and practical activities, students in this course can expect to understand the profession and prepare for graduate school. New classes are offered each fall, spring, and summer semester.
Topics include genetic counseling and its applications in healthcare settings, and an introduction to the specializations of genetic counseling: prenatal, pediatric, cancer, and adult. It also covers clinical, laboratory, and research roles; the counselor-patient relationship; ethical issues; and strategies to prepare students for graduate-level education.
Students can expect to spend two to three hours of self-paced study each week. Upon completing coursework, students receive a continuing education certificate upon completion of the course, demonstrating their commitment to and interest in the field. Internships for genetic counseling are also available through this program.
University of South Florida (On-campus)
The College of Public Health and the University of South Florida offers a 42-credit master’s program in genetic counseling. Although this program is delivered on-campus in Tampa, students who are accepted into the program must fulfill the embryology prerequisite course, which can be completed in-person or online the summer before the program begins. Other strongly recommended prerequisite courses include one to two semesters of biology, genetics or genomics, psychology or counseling, and statistics.
Students in this program can expect an equal mix of didactic and skill-based courses, clinical rotations, and field experience beginning the first semester. Upon completion of the master’s in science in public health with a concentration in genetic counseling, graduates are eligible to sit for the national board certification exam given by the ABGC.
A desire for learning is essential in the ever-evolving field of genetic counseling. As new discoveries and breakthroughs emerge, professionals in genetic counseling must keep pace to ensure that their knowledge is relevant. Those wanting to learn more about the field and seasoned genetic counseling professionals can expand their understanding of genetics with some free and low-cost resources listed below.
Coursera is an online learning platform serving university-level courses to students worldwide. Each course is taught like an interactive textbook, complete with videos, quizzes, and projects. Many of the courses are designed and taught by faculty at major universities worldwide.
In addition, students can connect with thousands of other learners to discuss and ask questions about the course material. There are over 100 courses offered in genetics subjects ranging from epidemiology, public health, introduction to evolution, biotechnology, and epigenetics. In addition, courses are offered in a variety of languages.
An online learning platform founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), edX is where over 20 million learners, top-ranked universities, and industry-leading companies come together to transform traditional education by removing location, cost, and access barriers. Learners of all ages and career stages have the support of their online communities.
Participants can partake in signature MicroMasters programs, explore new interests, and earn certificates of completion in a wide range of topics and marketable skills. With over 35 courses and certifications in genetics, edX allows students anywhere to build skills and advance their career opportunities.
The highly ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers a free massive open online course (MOOC) in genetics. This undergraduate course is offered free online and covers the basics of genetics as it applies to the biological functions of molecules, cells, and multicellular organisms. Topics in this course include chromosomes and genomes; natural variation; population genetics; analysis of protein functions; gene regulation; and inherited disease.