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How to become a Genetic Counselor

family reviews dna testing with genetic counselor

A genetic counselor has an all-encompassing job in that they work with patients, their families, relatives, and healthcare professionals on the team to understand the impact that genetics plays in their clients’ lives.

They help clients manage and assess inherited and predisposed health conditions or mental issues. As a genetic counselor, you’ll gather family histories, take blood tests for DNA, and study inherited medical and mental conditions in order to provide risk assessments, and proactively help clients prepare for or prevent the same conditions from reoccurring in future generations.

In This Article

Should I become a genetic counselor?

If you want to become part of a career field that is high on helping people, you can’t ask for a better profession than counseling.

It can be an overall fulfilling profession

According to InfoMeddNews, helping others is the number one reason people enter the field, followed by variety. You’ll work with people from all walks of life and have the opportunity to work in a number of different settings. Job satisfaction also ranks high on the list of plusses for counselor jobs, followed by autonomy, financial security, flexibility, personal growth and acquiring the psychological benefits, such as empathy, that come with the territory of the job.

It can also be stressful

Before you start scouting schools, however, take a moment to consider the other side of the spectrum of a counseling career. Despite the fact that job growth is positive and there are many great reasons to consider a genetics counselor career, there are a few downsides to counseling jobs, not the least of which is working with difficult patients and clients to whom you may need to deliver news they don’t want to hear.

Counselors report a lot of stress in their jobs as well, and emotional strain comes with the territory as you work with people who may not be faring well or following the treatment plans you have devised for them.

Advice from a professional Genetic Counselor

Joy Larsen Haidle, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and a genetic counselor with the Humphrey Cancer Center in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, stresses If patients are considering a genetic test consider if it’s information they really want to know and how would it factor into future plans. “This conversation helps a patient feel more empowered with the information rather than a gene or the cancer being in control.”

Genetic counselors do have the advantage of working in environments that don’t deal with people face to face if they choose. The National Society of Genetics Counselors (NSGC) reports there are jobs available in research, industry, education, and marketing if you prefer not to be client-facing, and you may be able to specialize in prenatal, pediatric, oncology, and neurology, among other healthcare areas.


Steps to become a genetic counselor

Earn your bachelor’s in a related field.

genetic counseling masters student talks to couple about family planning

You’ll need to lay the groundwork for specializing in genetics, so earning a 4-year bachelor’s degree in biology, genetics or statistics is a good place to start. Make sure your program is accredited so you can apply for financial aid and take all your course credits with you.

Earn your master’s degree.

woman genetics counselor looks in microscope

A master’s degree is required to practice as a genetic counselor. It would be best if you looked for a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling as entrance into genetic counseling programs is competitive says the NGSC, with acceptance rates at less than 8% because programs are limited and interest is high. Your program should include clinical rotations where you’ll work with different clients in different environments.

Earn professional certification.

laptop and hand with professional certification logo

As a counselor, you may need to be licensed to practice in your state, and licensing generally requires earning professional certification. The American Board of Genetic Counseling offers the ABGC Certified Genetic Counselor (CGC) credential, which is an internationally recognized credential, and requires completion of a rigorous academic program, supervised clinical experience, and passing the ABGC national certification exam.

Complete CEUs and renew your certification.

couple hold hands while hearing test results from counselor

You must complete 12.5 relevant Category 1 and 2 CEUs as an individual genetic counselor every certification period (usually five-year cycles), file annually with the NSGC, and pay the application and filing fees in order to earn recertification.


What you’ll do as a genetic counselor

Working with all kinds of people, their families, and members of their healthcare teams is a big part of a genetic counselor’s role. The job is part counselor, scientist and researcher and you’ll need to be able to adapt to different working conditions and environments. You’ll collect family health histories to determine how likely it is that a client or patient has inherited a genetic condition and based on your research, you’ll suggest genetic testing (or not).

The counselor part of the job happens after you’ve confirmed with a medical team that a client may be susceptible to a genetic condition, and you’ll need empathy, patience and understanding to help them come to terms with a present or future health condition and help provide mechanisms for coping with what may be on the horizon.

Common tasks performed by Genetic Counselors

On any given day you may perform the following duties:

  • Research family histories
  • Study patient genetic inheritance
  • Read genetic and DNA blood tests
  • Create treatment management and prevention plans
  • Perform research and provide resources for coping
  • Provide disease risk assessments
  • Provide counseling services to individuals and families
  • Help patients and relatives make informed decisions and adapt to current or future conditions

Common reasons people seek out genetic counseling

Besides illnesses or diseases, people seek out genetic counselors for other reasons too. Some of these may be:

Pre-pregnancy:
If a patient or their partner has a genetic condition or if they have a history of infertility, multiple miscarriages or stillborn births, you may help assess the condition.
During pregnancy:
If other children have been born with a genetic condition you’ll help assess and monitor the unborn baby.
Multiple children:
You’ll counsel people and families with children that have intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, autism, sight and hearing problems, or other challenges.
Hereditary conditions:
You’ll help manage and counsel people with conditions such as hereditary cancers, muscular diseases and movement disorders, among others.

Clients may also seek out genetic counselors to help them come to terms with—and manage—their conditions or their family members’ conditions. They may need to know for certain what their odds are in inheriting a disease from a parent or grandparent and are looking proactively to prepare and help find solutions to what may occur. Or they may seek a genetic counselor’s input to decide whether or not to have a child in the first place because of a predisposed genetic issue.

Where you’ll work

Genetic counselors work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, university medical centers, and scientific and diagnostic medical laboratories says the BLS. But where are the places that are hiring? Take a look at the cities and metro areas that employ the highest amount of genetic counselors.

Metropolitan Areas Employment
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 190
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH 110
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 110
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 100
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 90

How much does a genetic counselor make?

Because of the wide range of environments where genetic counselors can work, your salary may depend upon where you work as well as location of your workplace, whether you’re in private practice or employed within a health, science, research or medical facility, and how long you’ve been practicing. That said the BLS cites a median annual salary of for genetic counselors. Take a look at what you can earn in different states and at the upper and lower ends of the pay scale:

Genetic Counselors

National data

Median Salary: $80,150

Projected job growth: 18.2%

10th Percentile: $49,120

25th Percentile: $76,300

75th Percentile: $100,200

90th Percentile: $121,070

Projected job growth: 18.2%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
California $116,550 $79,810 $164,710
Colorado $98,030 $80,020 $120,750
Connecticut $100,870 $76,310 $128,050
District of Columbia $95,870 $75,710 $101,650
Florida N/A N/A N/A
Georgia $31,410 $29,350 $37,460
Illinois $78,920 $69,230 $100,110
Indiana $78,270 $61,790 $100,200
Massachusetts $99,030 $77,740 $102,030
Michigan $75,810 $62,390 $103,130
Minnesota $79,810 $75,440 $101,650
Missouri $78,670 $75,040 $100,200
New Jersey $88,310 $77,450 $100,060
New York $100,870 $78,320 $128,070
North Carolina $77,450 $59,910 $98,680
Ohio $80,080 $74,770 $104,180
Oregon $100,060 $78,320 $101,130
Pennsylvania $79,810 $72,740 $99,760
Tennessee $63,630 $60,550 $100,200
Texas $97,490 $75,600 $109,730
Virginia $78,260 $77,030 $104,690
Washington $98,650 $77,360 $101,330
Wisconsin $80,020 $60,060 $98,680

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Genetic Counselor pay compared to similar professions

If you’re wondering how genetic counselor salaries compare to other types of counselors, you may be pleasantly surprised. Here are the median annual salaries for genetic counselors compared to an array of counseling career fields and related healthcare worker roles:

Career Median Annual Salary
Genetic Counselors $80,150
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $48,520
Marriage and Family Therapists $49,880
Biological Scientists, All Other $82,530
Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists $95,310

Highest-paying metros for Genetic Counselors

And where are genetic counselors paid the best? Here are the top 10 metro areas for salary as provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $129,440
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $128,850
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $128,840
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $101,180
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA $100,070
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $99,640
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH $99,030
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $99,030
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX $98,680
Grand Junction, CO $98,030

The BLS anticipates a 18.2% job growth rate for genetic counselors through 2031, which is much faster than average for all other career fields combined.

Top-paying industries for this profession

As far as pay within the different industries where genetic counselors are employed, here are the top-paying industries and the salaries they command:

IndustryAnnual Pay
Outpatient care and counseling centers$104,460
Medical and diagnostic laboratories$93,940
Specialty hospitals$91,310
Physicians’ offices$87,430
Scientific research and development facilities$86,790

Traits and skills for the job

Because genetic counselors deal with issues that cover the gamut of emotions, it’s essential that they have the right traits to work with clients and relatives sensitively. The BLS suggests these traits are necessary for success as a genetic counselor:

Excellent communication skills:
Not only will you need to be clear about presenting test result options, you’ll need to convey what may be complex information simply and in a way patients understand.
Compassion:
You may be called upon to convey difficult information, so you should be empathetic when dealing with clients and their families.
Critical thinking skills:
You’ll be required to interpret test results and analyze the findings for each individual.
Interpersonal skills:
You’ll not only work with clients and their relatives, but you’ll be interacting with doctors, nurses and other members of a client’s team.
Organizational skills:
You’ll have more than one client at a time, so you’ll need to be able to organize caseloads, test results and health histories and data for every person you work with.

Tools of the trade

You’ll also need to be able to use these tools and technologies:

  • Analytical and scientific software
  • Computers, office and presentation software applications
  • Medical software
  • Benchtop centrifuges
  • Cryostats
  • Darkfield microscopes
  • Automated deoxyribonucleic acid DNA sequencers
  • Microplate readers
  • X-Ray radiography equipment

Helpful resources

Since genetic counseling is still a relatively small field, it’s a smart idea to utilize all the professional resources you can, and network with other professionals who may be able to mentor you and help you problem-solve when you have a difficult case. Some organizations to help you with decision-making around your education and professional development are:

American Board of Genetic Counseling: Learn about schools and professional certification in genetic counseling.

National Society of Genetic Counselors: Find information about careers and developments in the field.

Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling: Find an accredited school or education program in genetic counseling.


Frequently asked questions

How many genetic counselor jobs are anticipated to open each year?

Even though job growth is faster than average, the BLS says there should only be around 300 job openings per year. Some of the reason for limited openings despite faster-than-average growth is the relative newness of the field and the fact that in the wide realm of counseling, genetics is a very small percentage of the occupation.

Can a genetic counselor diagnose conditions?

No. A genetic counselor can present complex information about risks, tests and diagnoses to clients but they cannot make the actual diagnosis and they cannot prescribe medication.

What’s the difference between a medical geneticist and a genetic counselor?

Medical geneticists are medical doctors who specialize in genetics while genetic counselors hold a master’s degree in counseling and genetics.

Do genetic counselors do lab work?

These counselors do some lab work and read DNA test results. It is their job to relay lab results and assessments to clients and help create plans to help them cope with difficult results.

Do genetic counselors travel a lot for work? (Can they work from home?)

They may have a private practice and counsel clients from a home office but more likely they will have an office in a hospital or other facility where they can meet with medical members of a client’s team. They may travel to a patient’s home or a relative’s home to gather information.

Why are genetic counselors important?

Genetic counselors help people cope with sometimes catastrophic diagnoses such as cancer or muscular deterioration diseases or the decision to not have a child in order to stop an inherited genetic disease.

As such, they are a key member of a healthcare team and are responsible for creating plans to help people deal with difficult news. Since mental health can impact physical well-being, genetic counselors are critical to the holistic wellness and empowerment of a client over their circumstances.


Written and researched by:

All Psychology Schools staff