How To Become a Geneticist: Schooling, Skills and Salary

Updated March 10, 2023

Geneticists work in many fields such as medicine, agriculture, education, law enforcement and government agencies. The most common jobs for geneticists are laboratory geneticists, medical geneticists and genetic counselors. One of the greatest benefits of working as a geneticist is the opportunity to help people experiencing challenges, either by discovering new remedies or treating patients. In this article, we discuss what a geneticist is and does, what geneticist schooling involves, how to become a geneticist and the skills, job outlook and salary for geneticists.

What is a geneticist?

A geneticist studies how genes interact, evolve and duplicate in humans, animals and plants. They focus on genetic inheritance and how traits pass through multiple generations. They review the data and results from genetic laboratory tests and attempt to treat or diagnose genetic diseases. Geneticists work in a scientific field that is always changing and highly technical, which means staying current on the latest scientific advances and research is very important. Biologists, chemists and geneticists often work together as their fields are similar in many ways, though geneticists put a greater focus on clinical applications.

What does a geneticist do?

Geneticists study genetic material in laboratories using equipment like DNA scanners, microscopes and other advanced equipment for gene manipulation and gene therapy. They analyze massive amounts of data using computers with special software.

Some of the responsibilities and duties of geneticists include:

  • Managing a team and monitoring their work

  • Researching how substances affect tissues and processes

  • Writing research papers, technical reports and recommendations

  • Preparing grant applications and securing funding

  • Planning and executing complex projects using basic and applied research

  • Taking molecules and isolating, synthesizing and analyzing them

  • Attending conferences and reviewing literature and research

  • Presenting their findings to colleagues, scientists and engineers

What are geneticist schooling requirements?

Geneticists have two career paths to choose from: researcher or medical doctor. For either career path, they typically need either a medical degree or a Doctor of Philosophy. However, it is possible to find some geneticist jobs with a master's degree. Geneticists with a medical degree are physicians and typically work with patients, although they can use their medical background for research as well. Geneticists with a Ph.D. typically work in laboratories doing diagnostic genetic testing and research.

Whether a geneticist chooses laboratory research or medicine, they usually take part in several years of specialized genetic training through a postdoctoral program, concentrating on either a laboratory-based study or medically focused study. Geneticists can have a broad education and be a generalist or specialize in a particular area of genetics.

Related: How To Become a Research Scientist

How to become a geneticist

Here are the steps for becoming a geneticist:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

A geneticist's career starts with earning a bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry or genetics. Common coursework includes general education classes like English, history and math, and science classes like biochemistry, molecular chemistry, microbiology, horticulture, botany, zoology and genetics. During your program or once you graduate, you can pursue internships or part-time jobs at laboratories to start gaining experience. Try to specifically seek genetic labs to gain relevant experience.

2. Earn a master's degree

It's possible to be a research geneticist with a master's degree in genetics. This program takes about two years to complete and involves coursework in molecular biology, chromosomes and genomes, DNA technology and genetics of different life forms. Most programs also include a semester of hands-on clinical work in a lab setting.

If you're interested in working with patients, you can use a master's degree in genetics to be a genetic counselor. Similar to a geneticist, these professionals help patients understand their genetic history and how to manage risks associated with inherited diseases.

Related: What Is Genetic Counseling?

3. Earn a Ph.D., M.D. or D.O.

To have more advanced career opportunities, you need a Ph.D., Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). One of these three doctoral degrees is mandatory to treat patients or lead research and developments projects.

A Ph.D. is adequate for research positions, and a M.D. or D.O. is necessary for medical research positions. Medical geneticist physicians who work with patients need a M.D. or D.O. After graduating from an accredited medical school, they complete another four years of residency to become a board-certified medical geneticist. Another career opportunity is working for a law enforcement agency as a forensic genetic pathologist, which also requires the completion of a medical degree.

Related: 9 Types of Forensic Scientist Careers

4. Determine your personal requirements

Geneticists need certain personal attributes depending on their role. Laboratory geneticists need characteristics like critical thinking and perseverance to follow logical chains of information and analyze large amounts of data. Medical geneticists who work with patients need attributes like empathy and compassion so they can comfort and relate to their patients. Take your own personal attributes into consideration when deciding whether to focus on research or treating patients.

Related: Skills Every Doctor Needs: Definition and Examples

Skills for a geneticist

There are many soft skills and hard skills that geneticists need, including:

  • Time management: Geneticists have deadlines to meet while conducting research, so they need to prioritize tasks and manage their time while still producing quality work.

  • Problem-solving: Geneticists find solutions to complicated scientific issues using experiments and analyzing data.

  • Perseverance: Geneticists use trial-and-error methods and need to be thorough in their research, which takes perseverance to continue working and trying new processes.

  • Mathematics: These professionals regularly use complex formulas and equations, and they need an understanding of statistics, calculus and general math.

  • Interpersonal skills: Many geneticists work with interdisciplinary teams on a common goal, serve as team leaders and direct and motivate their team members.

  • Critical thinking: Geneticists use judgement and reasoning to draw conclusions from the results of their experiments.

  • Communication: Geneticists need to communicate clearly with their team members, publish reports, write research papers and give presentations, making verbal and written communication important.

  • Dexterity: Geneticists need precision and accuracy when conducting experiments and scientific analyses. They may operate equipment that requires precise movements, making dexterity a key skill to develop.

What is the job outlook for a geneticist?

While the BLS doesn't have information specifically for geneticists, it does have information for biochemists and biophysicists, who work with geneticists in the same industry and whose work often overlaps with geneticists. According to the BLS, biochemists and biophysicists can expect an employment growth rate of 4% from 2019 to 2029. This growth rate is as fast as the average growth rate for all occupations.

Related: Job in Genetics: Salaries and Description

How much do geneticists make?

The salary for a geneticist varies depending on the level of education, amount of experience, geographic location, specific field and job market demand. Although the following salary information isn't specifically for geneticists, these broader job categories include geneticists within them. In the United States, the average salary for a scientist is $95,365 per year, and the average salary for a data scientist is $121,858 per year.

Related: How Much Does a Geneticist Make? Average Salary and FAQs

FAQs about geneticists

Here are some frequently asked questions about geneticists:

What types of medical geneticists are there?

Medical geneticists are physicians who treat and diagnose genetic diseases like hemophilia, leukemia, lymphoma and other illnesses caused by DNA alterations. Medical physicians can also work in a laboratory research role. There are four types of medical geneticists certified by the American Boar of Medical Genetics:

  • Clinical molecular genetics: Laboratory-based role that focuses on DNA mutations

  • Clinical biochemical genetics: Laboratory-based role that focuses on inborn errors of metabolism

  • Clinical cytogenetics: Laboratory-based role that focuses on abnormalities in chromosomes

  • Clinical genetics: Physician-based role that focuses on treating and diagnosing patients

What types of laboratory research geneticist positions are there?

Laboratory research geneticists study inherited characteristics and use data to experiment and analyze genetic diseases. They are many different types of laboratory research positions, such as:

  • Genetic laboratory directors: These geneticists develop drug treatments, larger-growing crops and disease-resistant livestock.

  • Forensic geneticists: These geneticists use DNA samples to identify suspects for law enforcement agencies.

  • Academia and private research geneticists: These geneticists apply for grants and raise funds to support projects.

What is the salary and job outlook for genetic counselors?

According to the BLS, genetic counselors can expect an employment growth rate of 21% from 2019 to 2029. This growth rate is much faster than the average 4% growth rate for all occupations. The BLS also states that the median pay for genetic counselors in 2019 is $81,880 per year.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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