Genetic Counselor: Executive Summary

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For less than $1,000 and a saliva sample, companies such as decodeme.com and 23andme.com will tell how your personal genome is likely to affect you, for better or for worse. Genetic counselors are being hired to help customers address such thorny questions as: Should I purchase that service? If I do, and I have a gene that says I'm at increased risk for breast cancer and many of my family members have breast cancer, should I have a mastectomy?

Even before it was possible to decode your genome, genetic counselors helped people and their families with critical decisions. Example: You're pregnant. A test reveals that your baby has the gene for a genetic disease that may or may not be serious. Should you abort? Other typical clients include people or families with a history of congenital heart defects, Down syndrome, mental retardation, and hearing or vision loss.

Some 90 percent of genetic counselors are satisfied with their job. And it's not surprising. Compared with other healthcare professions, your work tends to be more rewarding. You're not expected to cure difficult diseases but merely to help a person explore options and provide support. So most of your clients are pleased with what you've done. Also, you're not forced into 12-minute patient appointments. A session with a patient or family member often lasts an hour. Plus, the job market is growing.

And so are the career options. Traditionally, genetic counselors worked mainly on facilitating prenatal decisions. But since the decoding of the human genome, a growing number of tests can predict an estimate of the chance of developing specific diseases through the entire lifespan. In addition, genetic counselors are now used by pharmaceutical companies to screen and counsel participants in clinical trials and to assist with ethical decisions.

This profession's major potential downside is that there's little opportunity for promotion—unless you become a professor, you're going to stay a counselor. However, genetic counselors can add variety to their work by writing articles or speaking to lawmakers and to patient and community groups.

If you'd like to be part of the genomic revolution but are more of a counselor type than a high-powered researcher, this career might fit your DNA perfectly.

Median Pay

National: $71,100

Training

Most people enter training with a bachelor's degree in biology, genetics, nursing, psychology, public health, or social work. To become a certified genetic counselor, you must complete a master's degree from one of the 23 accredited U.S. programs and pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling's examination.

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