What do Genetic Counselors do?
Genetic counselors are medical professionals who help evaluate medical conditions suspected to have a genetic cause. They take family histories and prepare pedigrees and work with other health care professionals to select appropriate testing and interpret results. They educate patients and families and other health care professionals and often coordinate care for patients with genetic disorders. They may work in large hospitals or clinics or in industries such as companies providing genetic tests. Some direct-to-consumer DNA testing companies also employ genetic counselors and others work as part of a clinical research team or in education of genetic counseling students. Most clinical genetic counselors choose to specialize in one area such as prenatal, cancer, or pediatric genetics or in neurology.
What training is required?
Genetic counseling requires completion of a two-year Master of Science degree in Genetic Counseling following the Bachelor degree. A list of accredited programs can be found here. The degree programs include coursework, clinical experience, and a creative component/research project. Following graduation, a board exam must be successfully completed to become a certified genetic counselor (CGC). States may also have a licensure requirement.
How do I best prepare for admission to a program?
Your required courses in the Genetics major provide a strong framework for acceptance into and success in a Genetic Counseling program. While a minimum GPA of 3.0 is required for admission, a cumulative GPA above 3.5 is recommended. Also strongly consider adding a minor in Psychology (18 credits) including especially Psychology 230 (Developmental Psychology) and Psychology 422 (Counseling Theories and Techniques). While programs do not require a course in anatomy, physiology, or medical terminology for admission, these can be extremely helpful in your graduate coursework. At ISU, we have a very unique campus club started by a Genetics student (now alumna), the Rare Disease Awareness Club, associated with the National Organization for Rare Disorders. Joining this club will give you the opportunity to learn more about rare diseases, many of which have a genetic component. Plan to become a leader in this organization.
As with other intended careers, research and teaching experiences are recommended as you will be interpreting DNA data and explaining genetic information to your patients and colleagues. Most of your future patients will be in crisis upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, neurological disease, or a diagnosis of a problem with a fetus or newborn so being trained and volunteering for an organization doing crisis counseling such as a mental health hotline or a domestic violence shelter is good preparation. You should also plan to job-shadow one or more genetic counselors or participate in a formal internship. Several Iowa State Genetics majors have interned with the Iowa Institute of Human Genetics during the summer after their Junior year. You can find a list of genetic counselors on the website of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. This site also offers extensive advice on preparing for admission. If you plan to take a gap year or two after you finish your undergraduate degree, consider becoming a genetic counseling assistant. Online training programs are now available including one at Johns Hopkins. Although the number of seats in graduate programs has doubled in the past ten years as programs have expanded and new programs have started, it is still a very competitive field. We are pleased to have a number of successful genetic counselors among our alumni.
Education: BS, Genetics minor Psychology, ISU, 2000; MS in Genetic Counseling, University of Texas Health Science Center Houston, 2002.
Current Position: Director of the Boise State University MS in Genetic Counseling Program
My work in Dr. Max Rothschild's genetics lab (Department of Animal Science) afforded an experiential education in laboratory genetic science. Additionally, the undergraduate course work provided foundational knowledge in molecular, population, and clinical genetics that supported me in graduate school as well and in my career as a genetic counselor. I have worked in prenatal, pediatric, cancer, and pharmacogenetic specialties. I am currently the director of the Boise State MS in Genetic Counseling program and continue to see patients in my telehealth private practice.
Education: BS, Genetics, ISU, 2020; entering MS in Genetic Counseling, Vanderbilt University, Fall 2020
Iowa State University's B.S. in Genetics is the perfect degree if you're looking to pursue a degree in genetic counseling. I was able to work in a research lab, do service learning, and attend special genetic counseling related events like Rare Disease Day. I was prepared for the application and interview process as a result of my advisor's dedication to my educational goals. I am so excited to be entering Vanderbilt's Master's in Genetic Counseling program in the fall of 2020.
Education: BS, Genetics, ISU, 2019; MS program in Genetic Counseling, University of Michigan, entered 2019
Iowa State’s Genetics program provided me with detailed insight and resources to plan what I wanted to achieve in four years to best prepare myself for the field of genetic counseling. The program’s connections with the genetic counseling community in the state of Iowa were extremely valuable to be engaged with throughout my time at Iowa State. I felt very equipped going into graduate school with all the experiences this program led me to (research, learning community, internship, clubs, courses, etc). I am currently entering my second year at the University of Michigan Master's in Genetic Counseling Program.