To practice as a genetic counselor, one must have a master's degree as well as board certification. Master's degree programs exist that allow students to complete coursework online. Outlined below are common admission requirements as well as typical classes required by these programs.
Common Admission Criteria for Genetic Counseling Master's Degrees
In order to qualify to sit for a board exam, a prospective master's student should seek a program authorized by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling. In general, application to these schools requires prospective students to hold a bachelor's degree from an accredited undergraduate program and have a minimum GPA of 3.0. Transcripts can be uploaded and attached to the application, as can required supplemental material, such as a CV and personal statement. Most programs ask for GRE scores from exams taken within the past five years and at least three recommendation letters. Some schools require that applicants complete prerequisite science and statistics classes before admission. An interview, which can be occur onsite or via online videoconference, is the final step in the process.
Online Genetic Counseling Master's Degree Coursework
Some schools offer all genetic counseling lecture coursework online, while other programs require students to be on campus for one year of study but allow them to complete required classes online in the other year. All programs include some sort of in-person counseling training; for example, a prenatal counseling course might be paired with a rotation working with prospective parents.
To supplement students' experience, these programs might include online journal clubs, case conferences, and seminars that allow students to interact collegially with their classmates while also increasing their knowledge. Finally, for required theses and capstone projects, students can both perform research and interact with their mentors online.
Some common classes for a master's in genetic counseling follow.
Foundations of Genetics
This introductory class presents the basics of genetics, starting at the cellular level. Topics include cytogenetics and epigenetics. The laboratory techniques used in discovering chromosomal anomalies and genetic testing are explored. Sessions covering population genetics and epidemiology acquaint students to such topics as the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and theories of genetic variation and distribution.
In this course, also taught as reproductive genetics, students are introduced to prenatal screening methods and the interpretation of genetic testing results. Other aspects of the course include learning about embryo development and types of genetic diseases. Instruction is also given regarding how to manage a patient's case and discuss care or treatment options.
Sometimes called medical genetics, this course defines and explores the physiology of chromosomal aberrations and inherited physiological disorders. Instruction is given in the identification of hereditary traits, and students are familiarized with symptoms and disease manifestation. Students can also explore potential treatments.
Although genetic testing is often thought of in relation to prenatal diagnoses, cancer genetics represents another aspect of genetic counseling. Students explore an individual's predisposition to cancer, such as the inheritance of a specific abnormal gene or mutation. They learn how to take a detailed family history and assess patients' risk for cancer. Additionally, students could review techniques for explaining diagnostic testing to patients and reviewing the results.
In an ethics course, students are exposed to topics ranging from test result confidentiality to informed consent. Issues of bioethics are presented as well as professional standards. In many ethics' classes, students read about and discuss cases that they may face in practice as well as participate in role-playing scenarios.
Once the basic biological and genetic foundations have been presented, students take classes about the actual practice of counseling. These classes include information on conducting initial workups, explaining diagnostic procedures, conveying results, discussing treatment options, and providing follow-up. In online forums, students could discuss the duties of counselors, act out potential counselor/patient scenarios, and receive feedback on these simulated interactions. These activities can help students gain the crucial skills of communicating clearly, listening empathetically, and addressing patients' concerns in an educated yet compassionate manner.
While practical fieldwork must be performed in a clinical setting, online coursework is available at some schools offering master's degree programs in genetic counseling. Courses cover topics ranging from prenatal and cancer genetics to counseling skills and techniques.