The career of genetic counseling is growing, and you may be thinking about whether to go back to school to get a master’s degree to become a genetic counselor (GC). As a 2nd year genetic counseling student, I think that genetic counseling is a great field, and I’m excited about the job prospects. However before pursuing this degree, it’s important to consider your own needs and goals. Here are five questions to consider before embarking on a career as a GC.
Note: These questions are focused on a career as a traditional, clinical genetic counselor. Because the roles for GCs continue to grow and expand, some of these considerations may not be as relevant to genetic counselor working in research, industry, or teaching.
1. Do you like working on a team?
Genetic counselors work closely with a Geneticist, a specialized physician, and don’t necessarily have autonomy in making decisions for a patient. Genetic Counselors are certified but not yet licensed in every state. Only genetic counselors with licensure in their state have the ability to order tests on their own. So in states without licensure, GCs are supervised by a physician who signs off on the test order, for billing purposes. This is something to keep in mind, because the role of a genetic counselor is very much within a team.
2. Do you enjoy helping people?
Part of the genetic counselor’s training is learning to interact with people who are dealing with life-changing news. This requires empathy and compassion as you convey information to the patient. The emotional demands of the role can be challenging—as well as rewarding. Your genetic counseling training should help you develop competence and confidence in your counseling skills, which you’ll continue to develop throughout your career.
3. Are you comfortable with less robust career growth?
One of the major challenges currently in the genetic counseling profession is career growth. Because there is a shortage of GCs, finding a position is relatively easy. Once you are in the field, there is less upward mobility than in other medical professions. This may change in the future, as the roles for GCs expand and develop, but keep it in mind.
4. How do you imagine spending your workday?
Some careers in the sciences, such as research, have a lab-based focus where you work at the bench, which allows you to work independently and requires minimal paperwork. Clinical genetic counseling typically requires a lot of verbal communication with patients and written communication to document each clinic visit. Genetic counselors have to do a lot of the legwork to figure out which tests are covered by insurance companies and document test results in medical records. This is something to consider when thinking about your work/life goals.
5. How do you feel about venturing into a new and evolving field?
Unlike the work of a nurse, physician, or dentist, whose career paths and roles are long-established, the roles for genetic counselors are continually growing and expanding. The evolving field of genetics can certainly be exciting, but keep in mind that the role of a GC may look very different in twenty years.
These are some of the considerations that I made when I decided to pursue a career in genetic counseling. It was the right choice for me, but it may not be for everyone. I hope these questions can help in your own decision-making process!