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Geneticist: Career Information and Education Requirements

Geneticists treat and counsel patients with hereditary conditions, develop pharmaceutical and agricultural products and research inherited diseases. Earning at least a master's degree is common, though several leadership and clinical positions require additional education.

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Career Information for a Geneticist

Research Geneticist

Research geneticists study the inherited characteristics of humans, animals and plants. Their experiments and analyses contribute to knowledge of human behavior, genetic diseases and the development of crops, among other topics.

Genetic laboratory directors lead development of new products, such as drug treatments, disease-resistant livestock and larger-growing crops. Additionally, those working for law enforcement organizations use DNA sampling to positively identify suspects.

Geneticists also work in academia and at private research institutes, where laboratory time must be supplemented with grant applications and other fundraising activities required to support projects. University researchers are typically faculty members who supervise the work of students in advanced degree programs.

Clinical Geneticist

Clinical geneticists are physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of genetic diseases. They deal with inherited diseases, such as hemophilia, or illnesses stemming from DNA alterations, like leukemia and lymphoma. The American Board of Medical Genetics certifies physicians in four specialties:

  • Clinical genetics
  • Clinical biochemical genetics
  • Clinical cytogenetics
  • Clinical molecular genetics

Unlike clinical genetics, the other three specialties are laboratory-based. Biochemical geneticists evaluate and diagnose inborn errors of metabolism. Cytogeneticists detect abnormalities in chromosomes. Molecular geneticists focus on DNA mutations.

Genetic Counselor

Genetic counselors provide information and support for a variety of health issues of genetic origin. They can coordinate treatment for those with birth disorders, as well as counsel patients who might have inherited conditions or are concerned about passing a condition to a child.

Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for biochemists and biophysicists working in scientific research and development, such as research geneticists, was $92,150 in May 2012. The BLS reported the average salary for physicians and surgeons who work in physicians' offices, like clinical geneticists, were paid an average of $215,650, and those working in hospitals averaged $140,060 in 2012.

According to 2012 data from the BLS, the average annual salary for genetic counselors was $55,820. The BLS states the highest percentages of genetic counselors worked in hospitals, physicians' offices, outpatient care centers, colleges and universities and laboratories in 2012.

Education Requirements for Geneticists

Research and Academia Requirements

Some high school teaching or laboratory assistant positions might only require the completion of a bachelor's degree program. Research geneticists can complete an undergraduate program in biology or supplement another physical science program with biology courses before accruing research experience through an advanced genetics degree program. Research directors and postgraduate faculty typically complete a doctoral degree program.

Clinical Geneticist Requirements

Aspiring clinical geneticists must complete a bachelor's degree program, as well as earn a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at a medical school. After earning a doctoral degree, geneticists participate in a medical residency in genetics to gain specialized training. Optionally, a clinical genetics fellowship can follow a residency in obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine or pediatrics. A clinical geneticist must also pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination before practicing.

Genetic Counselor Requirements

Genetic counselors typically complete a master's degree program. According to the 2010 NSGC survey, genetics and genetic counseling master's degree programs are most common; however, counselors can enter the field from any number of programs that are supplemented with genetics, psychology and counseling courses.

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