Genetic Counseling

The National Society of Genetic Counselors defines genetic counseling as “the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.” Genetic counseling involves helping patients understand how inherited diseases and conditions might affect them or their families, how family and medical histories may impact the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence, which genetic tests may or may not be right for them, and how to make the most informed choices about healthcare conditions.

Requesting Letters of Recommendation

Exposure to the Field

Shadowing & Volunteering

It is suggested that you contact local genetic counselors to request the opportunity to help get exposure to the field. Plan to ask well ahead of the time you are hoping to shadow. Be prepared to discuss your reason for the request and your availability. For those genetic counselors who may not be able to offer shadowing opportunities but who do welcome student contact, consider requesting an informational interview, either in person, by telephone, or over video conferencing. Be prepared with a specific list of questions you are hoping for the genetic counselor to answer during the interview.

Contact a Genetic Counselor

The Application Process

It is important that you review the websites for the genetic counseling graduate programs to which you are interested in applying to make sure you have taken the necessary prerequisites for admission into their programs. One must earn a Master's degree from an accredited program to work as a genetic counselor in the U.S. and Canada. To obtain a license (required to practice in many states), applicants must graduate from an accredited program and pass a national certification examination. A list of accredited programs in the U.S. and Canada can be found at the Program Directory on the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling website.

Undergraduate Experience:
Applicants to genetic counseling graduate programs must have a Bachelor’s degree (or equivalent if from a foreign college or university). Most applicants will have majored in Biology or a related field (e.g. Biochemistry or Genetics) or in Psychology. Specific prerequisites vary by program. The Program in Genetic Counseling at WU requires the following:

  • Undergraduate GPA at least 3.0
  • Undergraduate coursework in:
    • Genetics
    • Biochemistry
    • Statistics
    • Psychology

Most programs also highly recommend that applicants have obtained the following types of experiences:

  • Exposure to the field via shadowing and/or informational interviewing
  • Advocacy and/or counseling experience including but not limited to
    • In-person, phone, and/or text crisis counseling
    • Patient counseling/advocacy work at community or health organizations (e.g. Planned Parenthood, domestic violence center, etc.)
    • Working with individuals or families affected with genetic conditions or disabilities (e.g. Special Olympics, ARC, etc.)

Some programs require that students submit GRE scores. The Program in Genetic Counseling at WU does not require GRE scores and will not review them.

Degree Offerings:
A Master’s degree in Genetic Counseling is considered a terminal degree. There are no institutions offering a PhD in Genetic Counseling, although some genetic counselors may obtain doctoral degrees in fields related to the areas in which they plan to focus their careers, such as in Public Health or Education.

In the United States, genetic counselors are generally recognized as individuals who have obtained a Master’s degree (either M.S. or M.A.) from a genetic counseling graduate program accredited by the Accreditation
Council for Genetic Counseling. Genetic counseling graduate programs are typically two-year programs which are composed of medical genetic- and counseling-focused curriculum, clinical rotations, and a research project.

All graduates of accredited genetic counseling graduate programs are prepared for entry-level genetic counseling positions, regardless of the area of specialization. Common areas of specialization for genetic counselors include Oncology, Prenatal, Pediatrics, Neurogenetics, and Cardiology. Specializing in one area of practice would be something you would pursue after you graduate and become employed. Many genetic counselors do select a specialty area of practice that they focus on throughout their careers. Others change their area of practice many times. The field of Genetic Counseling provides a great deal of career flexibility.

Professional Opportunities

Professional Opportunities:
Genetic counselors most often work in a clinical capacity, providing services for patients and their families. Clinical genetic counselors typically work in academic medical centers, private clinics, and hospitals. They often work as part of a healthcare team alongside medical geneticists, oncologists, and high-risk obstetricians as well as nurses, social workers, and other healthcare providers. They may provide general care or specialize in one or more areas. Some of the more common areas of specialization include:

  • Oncology – for people with personal and/or family histories of cancer
  • Prenatal/Preconception/Fertility – for individuals who are considering becoming pregnant or are already pregnant and are facing potential genetic risks to offspring
  • Pediatric – for children who have medical or developmental issues possibly due to a genetic diagnosis or for children with known genetic diagnoses
  • Cardiology – for individuals with personal or family histories of congenital heart defects or other cardiac disease
  • Neurology – for individuals with abnormalities of the brain and central nervous system

Some genetic counselors focus on research instead of clinical service. Research genetic counseling positions involve collecting and managing data on patients with genetic disease and/or individuals undergoing genetic testing. Research genetic counselors are crucial to helping advance care for people with genetic conditions.

Finally, many genetic counselors work in laboratory settings. Most often, this involves working for a genetic testing laboratory, which could be academic or commercial. Laboratory genetic counselors may help develop and market genetic tests, write results reports, and communicate with patients and ordering physicians’ offices to help them understand the implications of genetic test results.

In addition to the many specialties and practice options, genetic counselors have multiple opportunities in administration and education.