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What does a genetic counselor do?

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Are you interested in learning more about genetic counseling and what it takes to become a genetic counselor? If so check out my most recent YouTube video (or read below) to gain a quick understanding from me, Katie Lee, CGC, a certified genetic counselor.


What is a Genetic Counselor?

Genetic counselors are experts in medical genetics and counseling.

Genetic Counseling is educating patients and/or clinicians by determining and/or explaining how genetic variants may or may not affect an individual’s health. Providing emotional support & empowering patients to make informed healthcare decisions.

Traditional Genetic Counseling Roles

Traditionally, genetic counselors worked in hospitals or clinics. Many genetic counselors still work in settings like cancer clinics, OB/GYN offices, or pediatric hospitals. In a cancer clinic, a genetic counselor would typically meet with patients with cancer or a family history of cancer to collect their family history, explain possible risks associated with hereditary forms of cancer, offer genetic testing if it is warranted, coordinate the testing if it is desired by the patient, and explain the results of the genetic test and follow-up recommendations for the patient and their relatives based on the results. Similarly, in OB/GYN offices, genetic counselor typically meet with pregnant patients (and their partner/support people) to explain genetic testing that is available routinely in pregnancy or genetic testing that may be available due to abnormalities identified on ultrasound. Prenatal genetic counselors work with an OB/GYN to explain the available testing, order the test, interpret the results, and explain the results and follow-up options to the patient, and provide psychological support. Pediatric genetic counselors have a similar workflow- they meet with pediatric patients and their family, usually alongside a geneticist, to collect a medical and family history for children with birth differences and/or neurological differences.

These are just a few examples of common clinical genetic counseling roles. There are dozens of different specialties including preconception genetic counseling, psychiatry, neurology, cardiology, metabolic disease, personalized medicine, and pharmacogenetics. Genetic counselors can work in many settings beyond university medical centers and private practices.

Expanding beyond the Clinic

Since 2010, more and more genetic counselors have expanded their roles beyond traditional patient facing roles. Genetic counselors may also work for diagnostic laboratories, academia, not-profits such as rare diseases organizations, insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and government organizations, and agencies.

These days, there are many genetic counselors whom never speak with patients. Some GCs interpret the meaning and pathogenicity of genetic variants others are involved in research, study coordination, and grant application. Genetic counselors can be managers, supervisors, or directors in their company. Genetic counselors start their own businesses.

One of the things I find most exciting about holding a degree in genetic counseling, is that there are endless opportunities that vary significantly.

What can this career look like?

During my seven years as a genetic counselors I have identified unique roles to continue building my knowledge and skillset while working with patients and coworkers I am happy to serve and doing a job that fills my bucket. I have also made job changes to serve my personal goals, such as identifying remote roles, flexible schedules, and creating part-time positions.

After graduation from GC school, I worked as a clinical preconception genetic counselor counseling patients utilizing fertility treatment at an IVF center. After three years in this setting, I was ready for a change, more of a challenge and more autonomy and responsibility. I was hired by a genetic testing laboratory. I worked remotely, counseling patients and clinicians on reproductive genetic tests and results. While some of my work was patient-facing, I also had non-patient-facing roles including working with the marketing team to develop and review promotional material and reviewing genetic test reports. I enjoyed this role, my team, and the patients I served in the lab setting. I also loved working from home, but the ~50 hours/week gig, did not fit with my personal goals of being the primary person to raise my son.

After 2.5 years at the lab role, I found a job posting from a personalized medicine start-up looking for a GC. I applied, leveraged my skills, and pitched them 20 hours a week, remote even though they were looking for full-time in California. I was hired. Working for a start-up was exhilarating; the product was still in development, so I weighed in on all genetics and GC service-related topics; there were no patients to counsel (yet). I worked closely with computer scientists, data analysts, physicians, the founder, and marketing. I was responsible for identifying vendors for kits and variant interpretation, and had the opportunity to interview, hire and manage staff independently. I developed the GC delivery model for the company. I loved the autonomy of being the only GC and that I could be creative, solve problems, and work with a diverse team. Ultimately, I was not comfortable with the direction of the product and began to look for a new job. I left with new skills and more confidence in my leadership ability. The reduction in hours, also allowed time to start a side gig, something I had on my mind since graduating. I began my genetic counseling YouTube channel in January 2021.

I am currently working for Seattle Sperm Bank, another 20 hour/week remote job. As the first staff genetic counselor with the bank, I again had the autonomy to develop all GC-related standards of practice and the delivery model. I am excited to begin work (on the days I am "in the office") as I love serving the infertility/recipient population and helping donors understand their family history and genetic results. I have expanded the genetics team from just me to a second genetic counselor, a GCA, and rotating interns. I love working for a small company, the little team we have built, my manager, the work I am doing, and the part time schedule, which allows me to pursue other endeavors. I don't see myself leaving anytime soon.

As you can see from my experience alone, there are many different paths you can take with a MS in Genetic Counseling.

GC Job Market, Salary, and Satisfaction

Even though there are only about 6000 GCs across the US, there are countless genetic counseling job postings at any given time. Almost all recent graduates, secure a position, before they even complete their training or earn their certification.

As of 2021 the average salary for a genetic counselor was $98,000. And the majority of genetic counselors state they are satisfied or highly satisfied with their job.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a science-related/healthcare career or a fulfilling helping profession that offers flexibility, good salary potential, and only requires a 2 year MS degree, I would encourage you to check out genetic counseling. Next week on Wannabe Wednesday, I will share details on how to become a genetic counselor.


Visit my digital download shop for GC-related resources.

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