American biologist and geneticist Sheldon Clark Reed first coined the term, “genetic counseling" in 1947 to describe the advice he and his colleagues would offer physicians about genetic conditions such as Huntington disease, Down syndrome, and cleft palate. That same year, he released “Counseling in Modern Genetics," a book designed to present the concept of genetics and advice related to genetics in a manner that the typical family could comprehend.
Through his work, Reed helped usher in the growth in knowledge of genetic disorders and a pathway for medical genetics to become a distinct specialty in the 1960s. The first master's degree genetic counseling program in the U.S. was founded in 1969 at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. In 1979, the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) was founded.
Flash forward several decades, and the field of genetic counseling continues to grow steadily. Certified genetic counselors work alongside teams at hospitals, universities, laboratories, and private clinics across the U.S. According to the NSGC, most specialize in general genetics, prenatal and pediatric care, family planning, cardiology, and neurology, among a range of other areas.
While med school or a Ph.D. isn’t a requirement for becoming a genetic counselor, the process is highly selective. Most typically get their start with an undergrad major in a science field like chemistry, biology, or genetics before gaining a master’s degree in human genetics or genetic counseling. The final step is to become a certified genetic counselor through the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Still, the opportunity to support patients facing the challenges of hereditary conditions and diseases—combined with a median annual pay of $80,370 and an estimated 27 percent job growth—may make the effort more than worth it.
For those looking for salaries that outearn the national median, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that these five states may be the place to start.
As the fourth most unequal state in the nation when it comes to income distribution, it’s somewhat surprising that Nevada-based genetic counselors pull in a higher average salary than any other genetic counselors in the country.
What’s more, a few findings may indicate that the employment of genetic counselors in Nevada makes up the lowest rate on this list. For one, the state manages to have the smallest healthcare sector as a percentage of its workforce in the continental U.S., with just 8 percent of Nevada workers employed in the healthcare industry. Though the BLS doesn’t provide data on the number of professionals employed in the state, a 2019 NSGC study reports that patients had the most limited access to in-person genetic counseling services in Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nevada.
As stated by a 2017-2018 report from the School of Medicine and the University of Nevada - Reno, there were less than 10 job listings for genetic counselors in 2017. Additionally, there are no degree-granting programs for genetic counselors in Nevada.
The BLS reports that in 2018, 100 certified genetic counselors were employed in the Lone Star State, equating to 0.01 percent of workers for every thousand jobs. It may sound like a significantly low ratio, but according to the Texas Society of Genetic Counselors (TSGC), Texas has the fifth largest population of genetic counselors in the U.S.
When searching for work, genetic counselors may be most successful in North Texas, where cities like Abilene, Dallas, and Fort Worth boast the highest concentration of genetics services providers with specializations in cancer genetic counseling and metabolic disease. A number of area providers also focus on generalized care.
Two masters-level genetic counseling programs operate in Texas. The College of Medicine at Baylor University is one, offering training that provides students with an integrated approach to genomic medicine and genetic counseling practice.
The genetic counseling program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston is well-known for offering students clinical access to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the U.S. To date, the program has graduated 138 students, with 70 percent of graduates staying in-state to practice over the last three years.
It’s almost a given that California ranks among the list of destinations for lucrative genetic counselor salaries. According to the BLS, the state employs more practitioners and healthcare-related technical occupations than any other state in the U.S. It also ranks second among the top-paying for workers in this job category, offering a mean annual wage of $98,910 in May of 2018.
In the case of genetic counseling specifically, two cities may help drive the state’s reputation for above-average salaries in the field. U.S News and World Report notes that two of the top-five U.S. cities paying the highest genetic counselor salaries are in the Golden State: San Francisco, offering an average salary of $102,780, and San Jose, offering an average $100,050.
With 490 genetic counselors working in California, the state is home to more professionals in the field than any other state in the U.S. According to NSGC, that equates to roughly one in ten U.S. genetic counselors overall.
The four existing California-based graduate programs in genetic counseling include:
Similar to Texas, Colorado data reveals that genetic counselors comprise 0.01 percent of every thousand jobs. With scarcity may come desirability, as genetic counselors earn substantially more than the average $65,506 annual salary linked to Colorado’s overall healthcare industry.
On the other hand, the Denver Metro Area may be on its way to becoming a healthcare up. According to a 2019 report from commercial real estate services firm Jones Lang LaSalle, job growth in the fastest-growing life sciences clusters far outpaces the overall U.S. job growth of 11 percent, with Denver reporting a 16 percent growth rate in 2018.
Ten higher education institutions in the Denver area run life sciences research programs. The area also houses the only graduate-level genetic counseling program in the state at the University of Colorado - Denver.
Boosted by the powerhouse of New York City, New York State offers one of the highest concentrations of healthcare professionals, with 13 percent of its workforce currently working in the healthcare sector. According to the BLS, 160 genetic counselors work in The Empire State.
Genetic services providers are typically located in academic health centers across the state, including institutions like the UBMD Pediatrics Division of Genetics at the University at Buffalo and Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester, among others.
The four existing New York-based genetic counseling masters degree programs include:
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