So You Want to Become a Genetic Counselor?

How did I get there?

I have been asked many times over the years how I became interested in genetic counseling. For me, the lightbulb moment came while I was in high school.  Early on, I had thought about several different future careers, including something in the healthcare field, but then I developed a special interest in genetics during my second year of biology and decided that I wanted to pursue some type of career in this field.

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I started looking at colleges that offered genetics as a major, and it all clicked one day as I was visiting my future alma mater.  While touring the school, I had the opportunity to meet with a professor in the Genetics Department, and he shared a booklet with me that described many different careers one could pursue with a genetics degree, one being genetic counseling.

As I read through this information, I learned that:

a genetic counselor is a health care professional who works closely with individuals who are undergoing evaluation and testing because there is concern for a possible underlying genetic condition, and they help to provide education and support to these individuals and their families during this process.

 

I was intrigued that genetic counselors could work with a variety of patients, including pediatric and adult patients, and they could practice in both the clinical and research settings.  I quickly realized that genetic counseling would be the perfect fit for me given my affinity for genetics and my interest in working in healthcare.  The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Well, there were actually a few more steps in there.

 

To practice as a genetic counselor, one must complete a Master’s training program.  Most genetic counselors enter their training program with an undergraduate degree in a biological science and/or psychology.  There are currently 37 accredited Master’s training programs in the US and several outside the US. Most programs have a two year curriculum along with a thesis requirement. The second year of the program is typically spent in clinical rotations where the student gains experience in seeing patients while being supervised by certified genetic counselors.  Once in practice, most employers require that a genetic counselor pass the board certification exam administered by the American Board of Genetic Counselors and maintain certification through completion of continuing education.

 

Because admission to a genetic counseling Master’s program can be competitive, I always encourage interested students to investigate several different programs to ensure they understand all of the prerequisites and suggest that they consider applying to multiple schools. Observation with a genetic counselor and volunteer work in a related area are also very helpful experiences when applying to graduate schools for genetic counseling.  The Greenwood Genetic Center offers a summer internship program in which undergraduate students can spend time in one of our clinical settings and learn about the field of genetic counseling. I was very fortunate to have this opportunity when I was in college and can say that this experience not only helped reinforce my decision to become a genetic counselor, it was also invaluable to me as I prepared to apply to graduate schools.

 

How can I learn more?

If you have interest in the genetic counseling profession, please reach out to a genetic counselor in your local area to learn more about opportunities that may be available for shadowing and observation.  We are happy to share our stories and answer your questions. You can find a local genetic counselor along with a wealth of other information at the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ website. The American Board of Genetic Counseling also has great information about the profession and Master’s training programs.

 

Good luck!

Brooke Smith

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