How to Become a Genetic Counselor


I grew up in a rural setting and the only medical providers we knew were physicians and nurses.  So, like many genetic counselors, I originally attended undergrad thinking I was going to become a physician.  It wasn’t until after graduation that I learned about genetic counseling and decided to pursue it as a career. Genetic counseling appealed to me because it combines the communication and research components of healthcare that I desired with the cutting edge field of genetics. 

Genetic counseling has evolved over the 10 years I have been in the field, and will continue to change. I love that genetic counselors have the opportunity to grow our profession and make it all that it can be.  At my institution, Sanford Health, I am the director for a large genetic counseling group that spans multiple states and institutions.  Our group has expanded every year with virtually no end in sight.  Uniquely, my institution is one of the few in the world that uses genetic counselors as a part of our primary care practices, similar to the way most practices may have a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. 

UAMS students
Jay Flanagan, top left, with genetic counseling students and his colleagues.

It certainly is an exciting time to consider a career in genetic counseling.  Genetic counselors are now employed in diverse settings and the respect for our knowledge and our earning potential has never been greater.  Even though our profession is growing rapidly, we are often asked two questions:

  • What is a genetic counselor?
  • How do you become a genetic counselor?

If you’re interested in becoming a genetic counselor, keep reading for my tips on how to do so.

What is a Genetic Counselor?

There are many different explanations for what genetic counselors do.  At our core, genetic counselors are experts in genetics.  Uniquely though, we are also experts in making complex concepts easy to understand. Genetic counselors often have undergraduate majors in pre-medicine, psychology or even statistics, and it is our continued training in communications and counseling that sets us apart in the healthcare field. I believe this is why our field is growing exponentially.

It is our continued training in communications and counseling that sets us apart in the healthcare field. I believe this is why our field is growing exponentially.

In the past, most genetic counselors worked in a clinical setting.  For example, some genetic counselors discuss cancer risk and genetic testing with patients one-on-one, similar to the way one visits a doctor.  While a large percentage of genetic counselors still work directly with patients, many are now working with the industry side of genetics.  For example, a genetic counselor may work with a genetic laboratory to develop reports that are understandable to most consumers. 

How do you know genetic counseling is right for you?

One of the best ways to know if genetic counseling is a good fit is to spend time with a genetic counselor.  Most graduate programs will want some level of shadowing or time spent working with a genetic counselor.  It is to your benefit to shadow a few different genetic counselors as their jobs can be vastly different depending on the clinic or industry they work in.  If you don’t have the opportunity to shadow a genetic counselor in person, you can visit the NSGC website to watch videos of genetic counselors working with patients.

What else should I do to boost my resume?

Genetic counseling is about understanding yourself.  It is also about understanding the needs, desires and background of the clients you work with.  The best way to develop your cultural competency is to volunteer.  Volunteer for a crisis hotline, a local shelter or a local hospital. Try to find a summer internship or get involved in summer camps like the MDA camp

Since science is a huge part of our profession, spending time working in research is helpful.  The more you understand the research that went into a discovery, the easier it is to explain it to a client. 

How do I know what is required for graduate school?

The first place to start your search is to visit the NSGC website for more information about what a genetic counselor is and how to become one.  Next, visit the websites of the institutions that you would be willing to consider.  All of them will have a list of prerequisites and information about what kind of students they are looking for.

How do I find a genetic counselor to shadow?

The best and easiest way to find a local genetic counselor is to use NSGC’s free Find a Genetic Counselor tool.  Here, you will find a list of the genetic counselors in your area, and can even search by those who welcome student contact.  Reach out to one to see if you can shadow on the job or sit down and talk about the profession to discover if you have a passion for this career.

It is a wonderful time to consider a career genetic counseling.  The opportunities continue to grow and the impacts you can make are great.  Genetic counseling is now listed as a top 25 job in healthcare  and is one of the fastest growing jobs in America.  I’m excited that you’re considering the field for yourself!

Jay Flanagan, MS, CGC, is a preconception and prenatal expert for the National Society of Genetic Counselors and is a genetic counselor at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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