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Science Careers Blog

February 17, 2009

Alternative Career: Genetic Counselor

For life scientists with good people skills looking for an alternative to basic research, work as a genetic counselor may be to your liking. According to today's Career Journal, an online supplement to the Wall Street Journal, genetic counselors are in demand and the pay isn't too shabby.

Genetic counselors work for hospitals, private physicians, and genetic-testing companies. Sarah Needleman, a Career Journal writer, says genetic counselors conduct genetic tests and study patients' medical and family histories to uncover risks of contracting genetic conditions, particularly in prenatal medicine and oncology.

Cathi Ruben Franklin, a genetic counselor in Madison, New Jersey, tells Needleman that the work lets her be both a scientist and a teacher. This interaction with patients, which requires strong person-to-person communications skills, provides both the highs and lows in the job. Talking with families, some counselors say, lets you learn the details of their stories. Peter Levonian, a genetic counselor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin says, "It's that daily glimpse into the good and bad of human experience that makes the job fascinating and rewarding."

The other side of that coin, of course, is that genetic counselors must break bad news to some of the same patients. "You can't guarantee success" in preventing or treating a genetic disorder, says Elizabeth Leeth, who serves with a maternal health service in Evanston, Illinois.

Becoming a genetic counselor often requires at least a masters degree in genetic counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) lists 33 graduate programs on its Web site. A certification examination (PDF), also from ABGC, is required by many employers.

Needleman says demand for genetic counselors remains strong despite the slumping economy. Pay ranges upwards from a starting salary in the upper $40,000s to the $100,000 neighborhood, with a median salary of $63,000. The number of opportunities in the field is expected to grow by 20% over the next 7 years.

The National Society of Genetic Counselors Web site tells more about the profession, and offers listings of employment opportunities through a list-serve subscription.

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