Degrees Without Borders: Online Programs in Genetic Counseling

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 of people 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 has predicted 29 percent growth in openings between 2016 and 2026—adding nearly 1,000 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 there are several types of tests 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:

  • Pre-symptomatic diagnostic tests to identify the probability of developing a disease later in life
  • Genetic carrier testing for couples planning-to-conceive
  • Prenatal testing to determine fetal health
  • Pre-implantation testing done in conjunction with in vitro fertilization to determine embryo viability
  • Newborn screening for congenital heart disease
  • Pharmacogenomic testing to help healthcare providers choose targeted medicines for individual treatment
  • Genetic testing to advance the knowledge of gene-based treatments

The popularity of direct-to-consumer DNA tests such as 23andMe is widely credited for the increased demand of 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. Because these tests lack contextualized data about family and environmental history, consumers who receive specific or unexpected genetic information and want a more nuanced interpretation of their genomic data are seeking genetic counseling to interpret their DNA test results. This is especially important for individuals with concerns about their inherited risk for specific diseases. Direct-to-consumer DNA tests based on ancestry and family lineage often provide incomplete information on inherited genetic mutations, giving clients a false sense of security (or doom) regarding their risk for serious potential health conditions—either believing the results to be a form of diagnosis or that they are at no risk at all.

A rewarding STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career, genetic counselors divide their time between interacting with patients, communicating with laboratories, and advocating on behalf of their patients in a variety of settings, including hospitals and clinics, laboratories, colleges and universities, and private practices.

Many genetic counselors partake in breakthrough research in the field of 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, going on to pursue 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.

Fast Facts: Why are Genetic Counseling Skills Important?

  • A Growing Field – As mentioned above, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 29 percent rate of growth in genetic counseling jobs in the decade preceding 2026—a much faster than average rate of growth.
  • A Rewarding Patient-Oriented Career – Genetic counseling is an ideal STEM career choice for people desiring to work both in clinical and laboratory settings and use their scientific and social skills in a variety of work environments.
  • An Empowering Role – Genetic counselors help people be proactive in predicting and managing their health and the health of their children and family members with research-based results and best practices.
  • A Research-Based Path – By contributing to the rapidly evolving field of genomic medicine, genetic counselors participate in the expanding knowledge of human health.

Mentors: Three Genetic Counseling Gurus to Know

Online Genetic Counseling Degree Programs

Bay Path University

Bay Path University offers a 59-credit online master of science (MS) degree in genetic counseling. Led by a dedicated faculty and with two required face-to-face weekend campus visits to supplement online learning, students can expect to 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 840 hours at numerous clinical genetics centers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. The program takes 21 months to complete and is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC).

  • Location: Longmeadow, MA
  • Estimated Tuition: $23,205 (not including course materials or registration fees)

Boise State University

Boise State University offers a master’s of science (MS) in genetic counseling with a mission to expand access to the profession and integrate the innovative online learning standards set by the ACGC.

Students in this program are trained to become skilled and empathetic healthcare professionals. Enrollment for this program is full-time and the program can be completed in 21 months over five semesters.

  • Location: Boise, ID
  • Estimated Tuition: $24,115 for residents; $66,415 for non-residents (not including course materials or registration fees)

University of South Carolina

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 professional literature, and practical activities, students in this course can expect to gain an understanding of the profession and prepare for graduate school.

Topics include genetic counseling and its applications in healthcare settings, as well as 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 and will receive a continuing education certificate upon completion of the course which demonstrates their commitment to and interest in the field. Internships for genetic counseling are also available through this program.

  • Location: Columbia, SC
  • Estimated Tuition: $530

DIY Skill-Building in Genetic Counseling

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 as well as seasoned genetic counseling professionals can expand their understanding of genetics with some of the free and low-cost resources listed below.

Coursera

Coursera is an online learning platform serving university-level courses to students all over the world. Each course can be thought of as an interactive textbook, complete with videos, quizzes, and projects. Many of the courses are designed and taught by faculty at major universities throughout the world. 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. Courses are offered in a variety of languages.

edX

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 and 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 certificates in genetics to choose from, edX allows students anywhere to build skills and advance their career opportunities.

Rachel Drummond
Rachel Drummond
Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).

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