By: Coach Kristine
Genetics is a relatively new area of study that is generating a variety of new careers. One of the fastest-growing of these is genetic counselor. By studying your genes, genetic counselors can determine whether you are at risk of developing a certain disease or condition. There are now thousands of genetic disorders that can be tested for. According to a 2016 NPR.org article, genetic testing has taken off in the past 10 years because the Supreme Court decided that genes could not be patented. This allowed room for many companies to produce genetic tests, and the competition has made the testing process more affordable.
Genetic counselors assess individual or family risk for a variety of inherited conditions, including genetic disorders and birth defects. First, they help people choose appropriate genetic tests based on family history. They then counsel patients before testing, review the tests, and discuss any gray areas with patients after testing. This allows them to facilitate patients’ decisions regarding predisposition to disease. Genetic counselors might also screen and counsel patients in clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies.
One genetic test recently in the news is the one for the BRCA gene. Those who carry a mutated version of this gene are at risk of developing cancer. You may have heard that actor Angelina Jolie had a preventative double mastectomy when genetic testing revealed she was at risk of developing breast cancer. According to the NPR.org article, Erika Stallings of the D.C. area was 22 when she found out that her mother tested positive for the mutated BRCA2 gene, and Erika had a 50% chance of inheriting the same gene. However, Erika waited until her late 20s to be tested. When she tested positive, she too decided to have a preventative double mastectomy. These kinds of preventative surgeries are starting to become more commonplace, thanks to the work of genetic counselors.
Students who are interested in this career should be comfortable with the ethical implications. For example, amniotic fluid can now be tested to discover risk factors that could affect fetuses. People then make decisions about the pregnancy based on the results of these tests. Also, genetic counselors often advise those who have the possibility of developing breast cancer or another disease whether they should have preventative surgery or not. These types of decisions have ethical implications as well as an emotional impact. Students interested in this career should also be skilled in science, working with people, communicating, problem-solving, and have empathy and tact.
Although genetic counseling is still a small field, there is currently a shortage of genetic counselors because the career is growing rapidly, at a rate of 29% over the next decade. The average annual salary for genetic counselors is about $72,000. If you are interested in genetic counseling, you should earn a bachelor’s degree in biology, genetics, nursing, psychology, public health, or social work. Then you should pursue a master’s degree in genetic counseling and pass the American Board of Genetic Counseling’s certification exam.
Feel free to contact your coaches if you have any questions about your career options. We’re here to help!