What is a Genetics Degree?

Genetics is concerned with how traits such as hair color, eye color, and risk for disease are passed or inherited from parents to their children, and how these inherited traits differ from person to person.

At the center of the study of genetics is the genetic code or ‘genome.’ This genetic information is made up of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is stored in almost every cell in the body. Every human genome contains 20,000 genes. The human body contains between 75 and 100 trillion cells. And every human cell contains 46 chromosomes that provide the genetic instructions for a body to live, grow, and develop.

These numbers alone speak to the complex work of geneticists and to the fascinating subject matter tackled by students of genetics.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Genetics – Four Year Duration
The typical Bachelor’s Degree in Genetics is designed as a stepping stone to further study at the graduate level. Career opportunities in the field for undergrads are decidedly limited, normally to laboratory assistant jobs.

The bachelor’s curriculum is founded on courses in biochemistry, molecular chemistry, microbiology, physics, mathematics and statistics, botany, zoology, and of course introductory level genetics. Here is a snapshot of a typical program:

  • Introductory Applied Statistics for the Life Sciences – introduction to modern statistical practice in the life sciences; exploratory data analysis, probability, and random variables; one-sample testing and confidence intervals, role of assumptions, sample size determination, and two-sample inference; experimental design, analysis of variance, linear regression, and goodness-of-fit; biological applications
  • Introductory Organic Chemistry with Laboratory – fundamental aspects of organic molecular structure, including stereochemistry; basic themes in organic reactivity
  • General Physics – introduction to physics at the non-calculus level; principles of mechanics, heat, and waves, with applications to various fields; principles of electricity and magnetism, light, optics, and modern physics, with applications to various fields
  • Evolution, Ecology, and Genetics – fundamental principles of ecology and interrelations between individuals, populations, communities, ecosystems, and their environment; transmission genetics and introduction to population genetics; origin of life, evolutionary mechanisms, ancestral relationships among species, and the diversity of life
  • Cellular Biology with Laboratory – cellular and molecular basis of life; the structure and function of cells and organelles, the flow of energy in cells, and the storage, expression, and regulation of genetic information
  • Principles of Physiology with Laboratory – independent student experiments to investigate their own questions about animal and plant physiology; designing and conducting experiments, analyzing and interpreting data, and communicating finds orally and in writing
  • Principles of Genetics – genetics in eukaryotes (cells with a membrane-bound nucleus) and prokaryotes (cells without a membrane-bound nucleus); transmission genetics, molecular genetics, evolutionary genetics, genetic engineering, and social issues associated with genetics; principles are illustrated with bacteria, plants, insects, and vertebrates
  • Human Genetics – principles, problems, and methods of human genetics; medical genetics, biochemical genetics, molecular genetics, cytogenetics (the branch of genetics that studies the structure of DNA within the cell nucleus); quantitative genetics, and variation as applied to humans
  • Introduction to Biochemistry – chemistry, nutrition, and metabolism systems
  • Genetics Laboratory – classical and molecular genetics laboratory techniques using plants, animals, and fungi; topics include gene mapping and PCR (polymerase chain reaction, which is a method used to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample, allowing scientists to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study in detail)
  • Advanced Genetics – principles of classical and modern genetic analysis taught through scientific literature readings and group projects
  • Neurogenetics – the genetic basis of nervous system development, structure, function, and dysfunction; survey of findings on the genetic basis of various neurological disorders; genetic methodologies and experimental approaches
  • Epigenetics – introduction to epigenetics, the study of how our behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way our genes work; how humans can control their epigenetic destiny by lifestyle, diet, and other environmental factors
  • Plant Genetics – the basic concepts of genetics and genomics as applied to plants; the course objective is to provide students with an understanding of the principles and methodologies of plant genetics so that they can adopt them in their research projects
  • Cancer Genetics – introduction to the genetic and epigenetic alterations in cancer; DNA sequencing of human cancers; major issues in cancer research; evaluating cancer genetics literature
  • Plant Cell Culture and Genetic Engineering – theoretical and practical training in plant cell and tissue culture, and plant genetic engineering

Master’s Degree in Genetics – Two Year Duration
Genetics graduates with a master’s degree are prepared for careers in science and/or health. Opportunities exist in laboratory / research and academic settings or in the field of genetic counseling, which is focused on providing information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions.

To work as a genetic counselor requires graduation from a program accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. Coursework for master’s students is typically undertaken in the first year of the program. The second year is dedicated to research activities in laboratory genetics or genetic data analysis, leading to the development of a thesis project.

Sample Curriculum

Human Genetics Courses

  • Human Population Genetics
  • Molecular Basis of Human Inherited Disease
  • Bioinformatics Resources for Geneticists
  • Human Genetics
  • Chromosomes Structure and Function
  • Genetics of Complex Disease

Public Health Courses

  • Statistical Methods
  • Principals of Epidemiology
  • Essentials of Public Health

Research Courses

  • Research Ethics
  • Responsible Conduct of Research
  • Conflicts of Interest
  • Human Subject Research
  • Animal Research

Doctoral Degree in Research Genetics – Five to Six Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Medical / Clinical Genetics – Six Year Duration
At the doctoral level, two kinds of programs are offered. The first is targeted at students who want to become research geneticists. As the name suggests, these scientists conduct genetic research and development. They defend a dissertation topic and earn a Ph.D. in the field. Their training also includes laboratory rotations, coursework in teaching theory, and a teaching practicum.

The second option is for those who wish to pursue careers as medical or clinical geneticists, who diagnose and treat genetic diseases including inherited diseases like hemophilia, and diseases causes by DNA alterations, such as familial breast cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma.

These practitioners work at the intersection of research and medical care. After earning a bachelor’s degree, they must graduate from an accredited medical school with either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Following completion of med school, they must complete a two-year residency in clinical genetics and genomics. In addition to the clinical genetics certification, the American Board of Medical Genetics also certifies physicians in:

  • Clinical Biochemical Genetics – a graduate certified in biochemical genetics directs and interprets biochemical analyses relevant to the diagnosis and management of human genetic diseases, and acts as a consultant regarding the laboratory diagnosis of a broad range of biochemical genetic disorders
  • Laboratory Genetics and Genomics – a graduate certified in laboratory genetics and genomics directs and interprets both clinical cytogenetic and molecular genetic analyses relevant to the diagnosis and management of human genetics diseases, and act as consultants in laboratory diagnoses for a broad range of molecular and chromosomal-based disorders, including both inherited and acquired conditions

While the two genetics educational tracks are decidedly different, they are of course inextricably intertwined. Genetics medicine and counseling are guided by the discoveries of genetics research, which in turn is driven by the evolving needs and challenges faced by the clinical field it serves.

Here is an overview of some doctoral level genetics coursework common to both the medical and research tracks:

  • Medical Gross Anatomy
  • Neurobiology of Learning and Memory
  • Experimental Design and Statistical Methods
  • Neurobiology of Aging
  • Clinical Anatomy
  • Professional Skills for Students in the Biomedical Sciences
  • Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Methods in Neuroscience
  • Cellular Organization of Tissues
  • Human Body Structures
  • Advanced Neuroanatomy
  • Fundamentals of Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Neurobiology and the Visual System
  • Laboratory Research Practicum

Degrees Similar to Genetics

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.

Botany is the study of the physiology, structure, genetics, ecology, distribution, classification, and economic importance of plants. Degree programs in the field include courses in biochemistry, microbiology, photosynthesis, and plant evolution.

Chemistry is the science that deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Cytotechnology is the study of cells and cellular anomalies. Cytotechnologists use a microscope to examine slides of human cells to uncover evidence of abnormalities that may reveal inflammation, infection, or disease.

Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.

Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.

Forensic Chemistry
Forensic chemistry applies the principle and techniques of chemistry to the testing of evidence from victims and crime scenes.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Molecular Biology
The field of molecular biology is concerned with genetics, with the structure and the relationships between four molecules in the body: proteins, fats, carbohydrates, nucleic acids.

Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Pathologists are the medical doctors who analyze organs, tissues, blood, and body fluids to search for medical conditions and diagnose disease and illness. In other words, their job is to solve often complex medical mysteries.

Pathologists typically do not have direct contact with patients, but they work closely with primary care physicians and other medical specialists. This unique position in medical practice has earned them the moniker of the ‘doctor’s doctor.’

Pharmaceutical Science
Pharmaceutical science is concerned with the discovery and development of new drugs and therapies. The main categories of the field are drug discovery and design, drug delivery, drug action, clinical sciences, drug analysis, cost effectiveness of medicines, and regulatory affairs.

Zoology students learn about animals, their evolution, anatomy, physiology, and natural habitats. Graduates may be employed by zoos, veterinary clinics, or labs. Their work may involve monitoring and writing reports on animal behavior, analyzing specimens to test for diseases, and/or working in the areas of ecology and conservation.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Visual aptitude / the ability to build pictures in your mind
  • Pattern recognition
  • Ability to work both independently and in teams
  • Observation
  • Investigation and interpretation / analysis
  • Patience
  • Methodical approach
  • Conviction, imagination, an open mind, and capacity and willingness to question
  • Synthesizing and communicating information
  • Stress management
  • Organization
  • Problem solving
  • Ability to combine science and fact with art and intuition
  • Thoroughness
  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Information technology
  • Understanding statistical data

What Can You Do with a Genetics Degree?

The American Society of Human Genetics identifies career options in the field and related fields based on their minimum required degree. Below is a summary. Careers shown in italics indicate additional certification / licensure or further education required.

Bachelor’s Degree

  • Biotech Sales and Marketing
  • Clinical Research Associate / Assistant
  • Dietician / Nutritionist
  • Forensic Scientist
  • Genetics Clinical Nurse
  • K-12 Science Teacher
  • Laboratory Technician
  • Research Compliance Officer
  • Science Outreach
  • Science Writer
  • Scientific / Medical Illustrator

Master’s Degree

  • Bioinformatician
  • Community College Professor
  • Genetic Counselor
  • Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs Administrator
  • Physician Assistant
  • Program Officer
  • Public Health Researcher
  • Public Health Program Analyst / Evaluator
  • Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Technical / Medical Writer
  • Technology Transfer Associate (technology transfer, also known as tech transfer or technology commercialization, is the process by which valuable research, skills, knowledge, and/or technology is delivered from government, colleges and universities, and other research institutions into the corporate environment where it can be nurtured and developed into a commercial product or service with wider application and distribution)

Doctoral Degree – Ph.D

  • Biocurator (biocuration involves the translation and integration of information relevant to biology into a database or resource)
  • University Professor
  • Field Application Scientist
  • Independent Basic Researcher
  • Scientific Editor

Doctoral Degree – MD / DO

  • Independent Clinical Researcher
  • Physician / Clinical Geneticist
  • Clinical Laboratory Geneticist
  • Medical / Science Liaison
  • Science / Health Policy


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