A hard field to break into
Genetic counselors say they love their work, and the field appears to be on the rise. But breaking in isn't easy.
Would-be genetic counselors need to earn a master's degree from an accredited genetic counseling program — if they can get into one. There are only 30 such programs in the United States and three in Canada, and most accept just a handful of candidates per class. Most years, only about 225 people graduate from genetic counseling programs nationwide, says Karin Dent, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.
At UC Irvine, which has one of the oldest genetic counseling programs in the U.S., program director Pamela L. Flodman this year fielded about 100 applicants for only five spots in the fall 2011 class. Successful candidates at UCI need to have "significant coursework in biology," including genetics, and an undergraduate GPA around 3.5, she says.
Many who go into genetic counseling have biology degrees. Some previously had considered becoming doctors.
And getting into a master's program is just the beginning. The typical genetic counseling student spends most of her first year learning the science of genetics, and the rest of her time completing hundreds of hours in clinical rotation. She must take a test for certification and, in eight states (with at least five more soon to follow), also must get a license to practice.