Become a Genetics Doctor: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Mar 05, 2020

Research the requirements to become a genetics doctor. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career as a genetics doctor.

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Genetics Doctor Career Info

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.)
Degree Field Medicine
Experience Residency and fellowship accredited by the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ABMGG)
Licensure and Certification All states require physicians to be licensed; voluntary certifications through the American Board of Medical Genetics
Key Skills Problem solving and communication skills, patience and dexterity
Median Salary (2018)* $200,890 (for all unclassified physicians and surgeons)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics

Genetics doctors are licensed physicians who provide diagnostic and therapeutic services to individuals who have genetic disorders or who wish to be assessed of their risks of genetic diseases or conditions. Genetics doctors conduct cytogenetic, biochemical, and DNA tests on patients and provide counseling. There are various sub-specialties in the field, such as clinical genetics and clinical molecular genetics.

The majority of genetics doctors work full-time jobs, averaging around 40 hours per week. The type of work a genetics doctor does will stipulate their work environment: those who work directly with patients will do so in a medical office setting, while those conducting research or developing genetic therapies will spend almost all of their time in a laboratory.

Genetics doctors are required to have extensive education, and they should also have strong problem-solving skills, patience, and dexterity. In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that physicians and surgeons in general earned a median annual salary of $200,890.

Earn Bachelor's Degree

Admission to medical school usually requires possessing a bachelor's degree. Some 4-year schools offer pre-medicine tracks of study, but completing this track is not required to attend medical school. Medical students can hold degrees in biology, physics, and even the liberal arts. Regardless of their main field of study, however, medical schools require that undergraduate students complete classes in subjects like anatomy, biology, physics, and chemistry.

During undergraduate studies, students must take the multiple-choice Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and submit their test scores along with their applications to medical schools. The test can be taken during the senior year of undergraduate study. Because MCAT scores play such an important role in admission to medical school, preparing for the test can make or break an individual's admission to the school of their choice. Questions included on prior exams are available from the Association of Medical Colleges. Completing these test questions can familiarize students with the exam's format and contents and may result in a higher score. Medical schools also encourage undergraduate students to volunteer. Engaging in service in the medical profession demonstrates a commitment to medicine and can help define the student's area of interest.

Complete Med School

Both Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) and Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) programs typically require four years to complete. The first two years of study consist of lectures and lab courses in physiology, ethics, psychology, and pharmacology. In their second and third years of study, students work in medical facilities under the supervision of licensed doctors. Clinical rotations are a time for students to focus their interests and gain experience in an array of specialties, such as general surgery, internal medicine, family medicine, and others.

Complete a Residency

A residency is considered part of medical school, though it's completed after the four years of study. Residencies focusing on genetics can last two to four years and often include research and clinical rotations. During these residencies, students learn to care for adults and children with biochemical or developmental diseases. According to the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ABMGG), prospective geneticists can complete either two years of a residency in another area and two years in a genetics residency or the entire four years in a genetics residency.

The National Resident Matching Program Electronic Residency Service connects recent medical school graduates with schools or hospitals offering residency programs. Many times, schools and hospitals only accept residency applications submitted through this service.

Take Licensing Exam

All physicians must be state-licensed in order to practice. Individuals who attended an M.D. program must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Graduates of osteopathy medical programs take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). After passing the appropriate exam, the individual is qualified for state licensure and can become an M.D. or a D.O.

Complete Fellowship in Genetics

Next, genetics doctors can complete a fellowship. Genetics fellowships generally last two to three years and include laboratory research and clinical experience with patients. They may also include some formal classroom work, seminars, or other educational activities. Topics covered during these fellowships include clinical molecular genetics, cytogenetics, and cancer genetics, to name a few.

The ABMGG offers certifications in clinical molecular genetics, clinical cytogenetics, clinical genetics, or clinical biochemical genetics. After the residency and fellowship, individuals can become certified by passing an exam.

In sum, genetics doctors must become licensed doctors by completing a D.O. or M.D. program, completing a residency and fellowship program, passing a licensure exam, and earning certifications in genetics.

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