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Genetic counsellors work as part of the health-care team.

PHOTODISC

Job: Genetic counsellor

Role: The role of a genetic counsellor is to advise patients about concerns related to a wide range of inherited diseases and conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome, and hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Genetic counsellors must have a thorough understanding of such conditions in order to assess a person's risk of developing a genetic disorder or passing it on to their children. They typically provide options for genetic testing and assist in a patient's decision-making process, working in a variety of practice areas that may include adult, prenatal, cancer, paediatric, metabolic or cardiac genetics.

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"They work as part of the health care team, and meet with people and families to talk about genetic conditions and how they can occur," said Lauren Higgins, an Ottawa-based genetic counsellor and secretary of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors. "We discuss diseases and how they can be inherited, how they can be diagnosed, and how they're managed. We also review options with people and help facilitate and interpret results of their genetic tests and support informed decision-making."

Ms. Higgins adds that the role has expanded in recent years, and while many genetic counsellors continue to work in a hospital setting, others are increasingly branching out into research, academia, administration, and policy-making within educational, government and private institutions.

Salary: In consulting with the board of the CAGC, which includes genetic counsellors working in almost every province in Canada, Ms. Higgins concluded that salaries range widely between location, employer, level of experience and role. They estimate that salaries start between $60,000 and $65,000 a year, while more experienced genetic counsellors can earn between $100,000 and $125,000.

By the numbers: According to a CAGC professional status survey of 120 genetic counsellors across all provinces in 2011, the average salary was $72,700. The survey also found that genetic counsellors typically earn a higher salary in the central and western provinces.

Education: Upon completing an undergraduate degree, most commonly an honours in science or psychology, students are required to enroll in a specialized masters of science degree in medical genetics and counselling. The two-year program, which includes a clinical rotation, is offered in Canada by the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of Montreal.

"Each of these programs only accepts a handful of students every year, so the competition is very high because there are usually a lot of applicants," Ms. Higgins said.

Following the completion of the masters program, most genetic counsellors write an exam to earn certification by the CAGC, which is not a legal requirement but widely expected among employers in the field. Furthermore, genetic counsellors must demonstrate continued education and practice in the industry in order to have that certification renewed every 10 years.

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Job prospects: With the role of a genetic counsellor constantly expanding along with the emergence of new technologies, there are new opportunities for those with training to work outside of clinical practice.

"The meaning of what a genetic counsellor is is always evolving, but we all have the same skills that we can bring to these different roles," Ms. Higgins said. "As the importance of the genetic contribution to disease is increasingly recognized, genetic counsellors are also being employed directly by other hospital medical departments such as cardiology, neurology, ophthalmology, obstetrics and oncology."

Job prospects are plentiful in Canada for genetic counsellors, so long as they're willing to be flexible, Ms. Higgins said.

"When you graduate from school you may say 'I want to work in cancer genetics in Vancouver.' Well, there may not be a job available. If you want to stay in Vancouver, maybe you're going to have to work in prenatal genetics," Ms. Higgins said. "Most new graduates are able to find jobs if they're flexible with both the location and the specialty, but many do begin on maternity leave and contract positions before landing permanent work."

Challenges: Like many healthcare professionals, genetic counsellors are at an increased risk of developing compassion fatigue. Ms. Higgins said this is an unfortunate risk for any professional who is required to provide bad news on a daily basis.

"Compassion fatigue differs from burnout, but it's a version of that," she said. "The risk for that would vary depending on the area of practice, obviously being reduced for genetic counsellors working outside the realm of direct patient care."

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Why they do it: Ms. Higgins says that the career is highly rewarding, and ideal for those who love science as well as working with people.

"It provides endless and varied opportunities for learning, teaching and personal growth as it continues to expand, so there's a lot of opportunities to work in all sorts of different areas," she said.

Misconceptions: A lack of public awareness surrounding genetic counsellors has led to widespread misconceptions regarding their role and purpose, Ms. Higgins said.

"People often think we work with people who are pregnant or family planning only, when in fact we meet with individuals who may be at risk for a genetic condition at any stage of life," she said.

"Many people believe the purpose of genetic counselling is to advise people as to whether or not to have children, when in reality what we do is we help support people in making decisions that reflect their own personal and cultural beliefs, values and goals, based on the options that are available to them."

Give us the scoop: Are you a genetic counsellor? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

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