The essential qualities that people are born with – such as their natural appearance, emotional temperament and body constitution – are heavily influenced by their DNA.
Unfortunately, some individuals wind up with genes that either cause illness or make them more susceptible to becoming sick. This is what is known as a genetic disorder.
People who are interested in combating dangerous inheritable illnesses such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia may want to pursue a career as a genetic counselor or a geneticist. Both professions require education and training in genetics. However, one important distinction is that although a master’s degree is usually sufficient for a career as a genetic counselor, a doctorate is typical among geneticists, with some opting for a medical degree and others choosing to obtain a Ph.D. degree in a genetics-related scientific discipline.
Geneticists and genetic counselors frequently collaborate in order to help people who have genetic health conditions such as a predisposition toward cancer or an intellectual disability, and they sometimes provide guidance to potential parents with a genetic disease who are wary of passing it along to the next generation. Below is a guide on how to become a geneticist or a genetic counselor, along with an explanation of the field of genetics.
What Geneticists and Genetic Counselors Do and How They Differ
A geneticist is someone who has a medical degree or a Ph.D. degree in science and received several years of specialized training in genetics via a postdoctoral program in the field. Some geneticists are physicians while others are not. Geneticists with medical training often see patients face-to-face and sometimes provide personalized therapies, whereas geneticists with a Ph.D. degree frequently work in diagnostic genetic testing laboratories.
In contrast, genetic counselors focus on helping people cope with the hardship of being at risk for or diagnosed with an inheritable health condition. “Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease,” the National Society of Genetic Counselors explains on its website.
What Genetics Is All About
Geneticists and genetic counselors say that although genetics is related to biology and chemistry, it differs from both because of its greater focus on the clinical applications of scientific knowledge rather than so-called “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.”
Marjan Champine, manager of genetic counseling at the Ancestry genealogy company, describes genetics as “the study of inheritance” and “the passing down of traits from generation to generation.”
The genetic makeup of one person often has implications for that individual’s entire family, Champine emphasizes.
Miriam G. Blitzer, a Ph.D.-trained geneticist and CEO of the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics – an organization that certifies genetics professionals and accredits genetics training programs – notes that genetics professionals have the potential to prevent newborns with phenylketonuria – a genetic condition known as PKU – from becoming gravely ill if the congenital health condition is identified early and treated effectively.
Blitzer, a professor within the genetics division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, notes that the field of genetics is evolving extremely quickly due to rapid scientific advancement, which makes working in this discipline challenging and fulfilling.
“A perk is the excitement of a field that is changing all the time,” she says.
Coursework in this field varies depending on the level of education and the type of genetics career desired. Although aspiring genetic counselors and geneticists can expect to take some classes on genetic science, future genetic counselors should expect to take courses where they learn about the art and science of counseling people. Postdoctoral programs for aspiring geneticists will include in-depth lessons about the particular career path that they are concentrating on, whether it is medically focused or laboratory-based.
Job Prospects for Geneticists and Genetic Counselors
Because of increasing demand for medicine that is tailored to individuals based on their DNA, demand for geneticists and genetic counselors is on the rise.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of genetic counselors employed in the U.S. will increase by 21% between 2019 and 2029 and reports that their median annual salary as of May 2019 was $81,880.
Geneticists say that there is growing demand for their skill set. According to a proprietary salary survey conducted in 2017 by the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics – commonly known as ACMG – the median total compensation among physician geneticists who participated in the survey that year was $210,000. The median among responding nonphysician geneticists was $173,000.
Dr. Anthony Gregg, the president of ACMG – a professional organization that represents both geneticists and genetic counselors – notes that some regions of the U.S. have extreme shortages of geneticists and says the nation needs more people to enter the profession. The ACMG offers an abundance of online resources for students training for genetics professions, including a digital guide to careers in medical genetics.
Reasons to Pursue a Genetics Career
One of the wonderful aspects of working as either a geneticist or a genetic counselor, according to people with these jobs, is that the roles offer opportunities to help people in difficult circumstances.
Gregg, who is both an obstetrician-gynecologist and a medical geneticist, says that an excellent geneticist has both the technical expertise and the emotional intelligence to sensitively advise parents of children with birth defects. Talented geneticists can also tailor a patient’s drug therapy to his or her unique genetic profile so that a drug that would be toxic to that patient won’t be prescribed, Gregg says.