Obscure Careers: Genetic Counselor

Among careers in health care, that of a genetic counselor is relatively obscure, despite the fact that genetic counseling first emerged more than 50 years ago, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, many people don't know what a genetic counselor is until they need one. Genetic counselors are often the knowledgeable, compassionate medical professionals that families turn to when they need help understanding or diagnosing a genetic condition or disorder in their family.

What is a genetic counselor?

To put it simply, genetic counselors are medical professionals who have specialized training in the area of genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors look at the genetic history of a person or family to determine what genetic conditions might be passed down through generations, then explain the risks of inheritance, analyze the disorder for that particular family and discuss the available options. For those families who are already dealing with the reality of genetic disorders or birth defects in the family, genetic counselors provide information and counseling to help them understand and cope with the issue.

The work of a genetic counselor goes further than counseling and test results. Genetic counselors also serve as advocates for their patients, helping them find state or community support services. They serve as educators who dispel myths about genetic disorders for other health care practitioners and the general public. Some might move into research, where they search for the reasons behind certain genetic defects or disorders.

Genetic counselors might often specialize in a particular area of genetics in order to focus their care, counseling and knowledge. For instance, a genetic counselor who helps women determine their risk of breast cancer through family genetics might focus only on familial cancer risk counseling. Other genetic counselors might work closely with doctors providing prenatal care to women who have an abnormal ultrasound or abnormal blood test results.

How to become a genetic counselor

In most cases, those who want to pursue a career in genetic counseling might prefer to earn a bachelor's degree in medical sciences, psychology or health care; however, those with a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field can still apply for the master's degree program in genetic counseling. Those who have already pursued a career in nursing, psychology, public health, social work and the like might choose to expand their career horizon and pursue their master's degree in genetic counseling. Some careers, such as those in research or education, might require a doctorate in the field.

According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there are 32 colleges and universities in the United States that offer graduate programs in genetic counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling oversees certification for genetic counselors; certification can be obtained only after earning a master's degree in genetic counseling and sitting for the Certification Examination. The period of certification is limited, and can be renewed by taking the test again or by keeping up with continuing education requirements.

A day in the life of a genetic counselor

Most genetic counselors work in health care institutions, but some work for non-profit organizations or in private practice. Depending upon the practice, genetic counselors might meet face-to-face with patients, talk at speaking engagements, read over or conduct research, or consult with other medical professionals on various cases.

When a genetic counselor works with individuals or families, the sessions can be both informative and emotional. Therefore, the genetic counselor must be able to condense complex information into a form that individuals without a medical background can easily understand. They must also have the ability to console and counsel those who are facing enormously personal, emotional decisions. Many professionals find that genetic counseling offers the opportunity to make the most of their medical science skills while allowing them to be counselors and advocates at a time families desperately need their help.

Some genetic counselors might choose to tweak their qualifications to work behind the scenes in related positions that allow them to focus on research and development of new technologies. For instance, a bacterial geneticist might look at the role bacteria plays in genetic makeup, while a bioethicist might study how new advances in genome science affects the way the public views health and morality, or a clinical cytogeneticist might study chromosomal abnormalities.

According to the National Human Genome Research Center (NHGRC), genetic counselors may now be in more demand as medical professionals focus on genetic science.

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.

Refine School Matches
Hide filters
  • SUBJECT Clear All

    See More


    See More



    Please enter valid US or Canada Zip.
            Results open in new window

            Searching Searching ...

            Matching School Ads
            Doctor of Health Science
            • Allows students to transfer credits from non-U.S. colleges and universities after evaluation.
            • Has students attend one class at a time to ensure easy access to faculty and a more hands-on education.
            • Its main campus is located in Fort Lauderdale, with campuses located throughout the State of Florida and internationally. 
            • Provides a Department of Student Services and Resources that assists students with résumé preparation, interviewing skills coaching, mock interviewing, professional development workshops, and more.
            Show more [+]
            • Online Courses
            PhD - Addictions
            • Ranked among the Best Online Bachelor's Programs in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report.
            • Implements a one-to-one teaching model, partnering one student with one faculty member in each course.
            • 100% of faculty members hold doctoral degrees.
            • No physical residency requirements, allowing students to pursue their degree online.
            • Committed to innovation, diversity, excellence, and accountability since its founding in 1996.
            • Offers several programs in business, education, psychology, and more.
            Show more [+]
            • Online Courses
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits
            Allied Health Management - Bachelor of Science
            • Part of the Delta Career Education Corporation.
            • Each campus features a public spa and/or salon where students can gain real-world experience.
            • 17 campuses across the United States, with online options as well.
            • Accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent colleges and Schools (ACICS), with programmatic accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
            • Originally founded in 1916 in Wilmington, North Carolina by Judge Leon Motte.
            Show more [+]
            • Online Courses
            Master of Science in Nursing: Nursing Administration
            • • Liberty University’s online programs ranked in the top 10 out of more than 2,100 colleges & universities for academic quality, affordability, and accessibility.*
            • 100% online programs at associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level.**
            • Transfer up to 90 credits into an undergraduate degree program.
            • Up to 50% of your master’s degree can be transferred in to help you get the most out of your hard work and maximize the credit you previously earned.
            • *BestColleges.com Gold Medal of Distinction
            • **excludes licensure, certification, and some doctoral programs
            • Accredited
            • Online Courses
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits
            B.S. in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care
            • Why Earn Your Degree from GCU?
            • Options: Choose from a variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in Business, Nursing, Psychology, Education & more!
            • Convenience: Complete courses online, on campus, or a combination of both!
            • Earlier Graduation: Our 4-credit courses allow you to complete your degree program in less time.
            • Transfer Friendly: We will request your transcripts, evaluate your graduate coursework, and determine your anticipated graduation date within 24 hours.
            • Quality: Grand Canyon University was founded in 1949 and is regionally accredited. Learn more today!
            • Accredited
            • Online Courses
            • Flexible Scheduling
            • Accelerated Programs
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits
            Executive Master of Health Administration
            • Earn your Master of Public Health Online from GW in 12 months.
            • GRE waivers available for qualified applicants.
            • Advance your career in a range of industries, including epidemiology, public health and biostatistics.
            • Accredited
            • Online Courses
            • Accelerated Programs
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits
            Vocational Nursing
            • Offers accelerated programs w/ flexible schedules & professional instruction
            • Multiple accredited campuses across 9 states including CA, TX, NV, & PA
            • 10 + programs including Practical Nursing, Dental and Medical Assisting
            • Provides professional development training & career planning resources
            • Military Student Center (MSC) is committed to the success of military students
            Show more [+]
            Diploma - Medical Administrative Assistant

            • Career Training Online: Ultimate Medical Academy is committed to helping you succeed in a healthcare career. That’s why we offer assistance from the very beginning, throughout training, and even after you graduate.
            • Get personalized attention with UMA: One-on-one tutoring, pre-interview coaching, job search assistance, alumni services—they’re all included in Ultimate Medical Academy’s competitively priced tuition.
            • Engaging Online Learning: You’ll get individual feedback from your instructors, watch educational videos, participate in discussion boards and have access to live study group sessions.
            • Career Services: UMA has a relationship with more than 100,000 employer locations across the country and we use that network to search for job opportunities and schedule interviews for our graduates.
            • Let’s Talk: As a nationally accredited school, we provide quality career training online and at our Clearwater, Florida campus. Let’s talk about your needs, your career goals and how UMA can help you succeed.
            Show more [+]
            • Online Courses
            • Flexible Scheduling
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits
            Certificate - Medical Administrative Assistant
            • For more than 45 years, PMI has been dedicated to quality healthcare education
            • 17 campuses across 9 states including Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado & more
            • Accredited by the ABHES with multiple accreditations per specific program
            • Certificates, associates, and bachelor’s programs in leading healthcare fields
            • PMI offers financial aid to students who qualify for assistance
            Show more [+]
            Certified Nurse Assistant
            Platt College , Alhambra
            • A Los Angeles-based private college offering programs in medical sciences, legal studies, and graphic design since 1985.
            • Has weekend programs, including certified  veterinary technology, nurse assistant, and hemodialysis technician.
            • Showcases visual communication students’ artwork and design through campus magazine.
            • 3 campuses in Southern California.
            • Accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
            Show more [+]
            • Accredited
            • Flexible Scheduling
            • Accelerated Programs
            • Financial Aid
            • Transferable Credits