Genetic testing (jeh-NEH-tik TES-ting): analyzing DNA to look for a genetic alteration that may indicate an increased risk for developing a specific disease or disorder.

When I was pregnant, life was a whirlwind…tell our families, start getting the baby’s room ready, eat better, visit the doctor, indulge an occasional craving for an apple fritter. What I hadn’t thought about… and something that was not available to my mom when she was pregnant with me, was genetic testing. Advances in technology and the study of genetics allow for prenatal testing to assess the probability that the baby may be born with a genetic disorder such as Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, or spina bifida. Parents may choose not to undergo this testing but if they do, they will likely work with a genetic counselor.

Because of the complexity of the information available—evaluating family history, ordering genetic tests and evaluating results then helping parents understand them—a genetic counselor plays an important role in helping parents navigate genetic testing.

There are a variety of areas where genetic counselors may be employed beyond the prenatal environment:

Hospitals and clinics: clinical genetic counselors work with patients and families and may specialize in prenatal, pediatric, cancer-risk, adult, cardiovascular, hematology (related to blood), or neurogenetics (relating to the nervous system).

Higher education: many genetic counselors teach in medical schools or colleges that offer special genetic counseling programs (this is often an extension of their counseling work).

Biotechnology companies: genetic counselors may help design, sell, market, and administer genetic tests.

Public policy/government: some genetic counselors work as advisors to companies and lawmakers.

Research laboratories: genetic counselors may coordinate research studies that focus on projects involving genetic research.

Diagnostic laboratories: these genetic counselors act as a liaison between the diagnostic laboratory which conducts the tests/produces results and the referring physicians and their patients.

Genetic counselors have completed a Master of Science degree in genetic counseling. This program offers coursework complemented by practical training in genetics departments of hospitals or clinics. A typical program lasts 2 years.

According to Puget Sound alumna, ASK volunteer, and genetic counselor, Katherine “Kit” Clark, certification and licensure (in many states) is essential. “I can’t think of a single job that would hire a new grad without stipulating that s/he would have to obtain certification within 1-2 years.” Certification is available through the American Board of Genetic Counseling.

Other helpful resources:
Career Cruising provides overviews of careers, including salary, education requirements, sample career paths, and interviews with Genetic Counselors
Genetic Counseling Career Overview from the Mayo Clinic School of Health Science
The Alumni Sharing Knowledge (ASK) Network: search for genetic counselors, researchers, individuals working in biotechnology along with many other career fields
The CES team: stop by for drop in advising daily between 2:00-4:00 p.m. or call 253.879.3161 to schedule an appointment.

© 2011 Career and Employment Services, University of Puget Sound
Photo: Kit Clark