Today, the role of genetics in medicine, basic research, biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, forensics, agriculture, and animal biology is growing by leaps and bounds. Genetics can lead down many paths: counseling people with inherited diseases; treating patients with inherited diseases; solving crimes; researching plant and animal applications; creating medicines and procedures that identify, treat, and cure diseases; and peering into the fundamental processes of life through basic laboratory research.
The study of genetics has also raised questions and debate about the legal, ethical, and social implications of this vast new knowledge and technology. The news is full of stories involving the dilemmas and controversies around prenatal testing for mutations and inherited diseases, adult testing, discrimination and privacy issues, gene therapy, and stem cell research.
Of the many jobs available in genetics, one of the more prominent is genetic counseling. Counselors work with patients and families whose members either have or are at risk for birth defects or genetic diseases. They identify and research the problem, interpret information for the family, and discuss the options. They provide support to families with genetic concerns.
In a job with less person-to-person interaction, laboratory geneticists work on pharmaceutical or clinical medicine applications, usually for biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. Those with a Ph.D. or M.D. can be a research director. With a relevant bachelor’s or master’s degree, students can become research technicians.
There are also geneticists working in forensics, analyzing samples for law enforcement purposes. Others work with agriculture studying the genetic modification of foods and seeds. Finally, those involved with wildlife management specialize in the identification and protection of endangered species.
People who wish to become genetic counselors typically pursue an undergraduate degree in biology, genetics, nursing, psychology, public health, or social work, followed by a two-year master’s degree in genetic counseling. For other positions in the field, students generally study biology, genetics, or one of the physical sciences as an undergraduate, and then pursue a Ph.D. in genetics.
With the varied positions, students can begin working as a technician with a bachelor’s degree; positions with more responsibility, growth potential, and higher pay require a master’s degree, if not a doctorate.
According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, the field is growing rapidly due to technological advances and increased public awareness. With the variety of jobs, median salaries also differ. To garner a rough estimate, medical technologists earn a median salary of $55,140 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.