Genetic Counseling One of Handful of STEM Careers Dominated by Women

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the groundbreaking achievements of women while also reminding us of what still needs to be done to realize gender equality all over the world. There are many ways to celebrate and observe this holiday, and in this moment it feels particularly important to champion women in the workforce and encourage future generations of working women to pursue careers that were once considered non-traditional for our gender. One area where women are vastly underrepresented is in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers. According to a 2016 report from the National Science Board, women make up roughly half of the US workforce but only occupy 29% of science and engineering jobs. There is, however, a silver lining as women now comprise the majority of S&E-related jobs in the field of healthcare. One such field is genetic counseling, where women make up more than 90% of the workforce. Genetic counseling in general is an under-acknowledged field that has become increasingly important as new developments in technology are putting genetics at the forefront of modern medicine.

What does a genetic counselor do?

A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional who works with individuals and families to provide personalized help as they make important decisions about their genetic health. They help interpret family histories and genetic test results, and guide and support patients seeking more information.  As the job title suggests, genetic counseling requires a vast knowledge of genetics in addition to disciplined interpersonal skills.

Genetic counselors are trained in all areas of genetics, but may focus on one specialty for their careers. These specialties include but are not limited to: prenatal, cancer, pediatrics, and adult genomics with many other sub-specialties.

Most genetic counselors work in clinical settings such as hospitals and clinics along with other healthcare settings.  However, a growing number of genetic counselors practice in research, industry, or the public health arena.

Why become a Genetic Counselor?

Demand. Demand. Demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has forecasted a 29% growth rate in jobs for genetic counselors between 2014 and 2024. For genetic counseling students, that means guaranteed job prospects upon graduation.

Solve medical mysteries. One of the greatest rewards of being a genetic counselor is helping a patient or family who is in desperate need of a diagnosis, or specific information to make informed decisions. The information that can be interpreted by a genetic counselor is life-changing for some.

Provide reassurance and support. When a genetic test provides life-altering results, it’s incredibly important to have knowledgeable resources available. While negative test results can provide reassurance to a couple having a baby or an adult with a family history of breast cancer, positive results may garner the exact opposite feelings. Genetic counselors can help determine the next steps and work with other healthcare providers to design a management plan.    

How do you become a genetic counselor?

All genetic counselors are required to obtain a master’s degree from an accredited Genetic Counseling Program. These programs are highly competitive and have multiple prerequisite requirements for acceptance, such as a bachelor’s degree in the arts or science coursework in biology, genetics, statistics and other related areas of study. Upon graduating from a Master’s program, candidates take the Certification Examination and in some states obtain licensure.