Confessions of a TA ((Camille))

With out-of-state tuition costs swimming through my mind, I quickly accepted that what was once just a “busy” semester might now entirely overwhelm me. In addition to the mounting coursework and clinical rotations, I had decided to squeeze a 20-hour per week teaching assistantship into my already overflowing schedule. A small price to pay, I thought, for complete tuition remission and a monthly stipend. However, as the semester wore on, I soon recognized teaching for the university to be an invaluable part of my graduate education and growth as a genetic counselor.

Founded in communicating complex information with finesse and clarity, genetic counseling is a profession that truly relies upon an ability to educate others. Teaching six discussion sections for an introductory zoology course afforded me countless opportunities to hone these essential skills.

First and foremost, teaching requires you to understand material well enough to explain it to others. To survive as both a teaching assistant and graduate student, you quickly learn how to be efficient in gathering information on a topic. Distinguishing what is and is not essential for you to know is a critical component of quickly acquiring familiarity with a subject. This is a skill similar to what I have observed clinical and laboratory genetic counselors do as they juggle countless patients and side projects. As an individual prone to getting hung up on technical details, learning to focus my efforts and manage my time more efficiently has become an indispensable skill.

In working with students, I have also found a platform to exercise my core counseling abilities. As with patients, students may have variable styles of learning and differences in understanding. To be an effective educator, it is important to first assess how a student may be approaching the material. By discerning an individual’s current level of understanding you are then able to operate within their frame of reference. This is a skill that directly applies to working with patients and their families. Ultimately, teaching has afforded me frequent opportunities to practice effective communication and refine my counseling techniques. This has resulted in greater confidence in my abilities and permitted me to dive into patient interactions with less hesitation.

Additionally, working as a teaching assistant has allowed me to practice my presentation skills almost daily. An asset in any profession, public speaking and presenter skills are best maintained through consistent use. Class and case presentations are no longer quite so nerve-wracking with teaching as a part of my weekly routine. Undoubtedly these skills will continue to serve me as a practicing genetic counselor.

What I once thought would overwhelm me has become instrumental to my training and provided endless opportunities for counseling and professional skill-building. Without the flexibility and support provided by my training program, a teaching assistantship might not have been a possibility during my graduate education. It is with great appreciation for the professional and financial benefits that I look forward to teaching again next semester.

Article soon to be published in the Perspectives in Genetic Counseling online magazine.

It is NEVER too late to become a GC.

Hello dear readers.  All of us here at Maps & Genes are very excited to bring you this fantastic post– I hope you enjoy the inspiration from our esteemded colleague panel as much as we did!

1. How did you decide to make a career move?

Genetic counseling was my career choice when I was an undergrad student over 30 years ago, however my life went in a different direction.  Instead, I worked in research and academia.  Additionally, for 10 years I was a “stay at home mom”.  As my children got older, I began reconsidering my career.

I have always considered myself a lifelong learner. The first step in my decision to change careers was realizing that although I had many years before retirement, there were no further growth or leadership opportunities on my current path. The second step involved a long reflective period in which I inventoried my dreams, skill set, strengths, challenges and barriers.  The dream of becoming a genetic counselor resurfaced during this period.  I researched the career and decided it was a perfect fit.  The third step was addressing the challenges and barriers, namely cost and being decades removed from a higher education environment (not to mention the field changed dramatically in that time period).  I established a plan to pay for tuition and enrolled in classes to update my knowledge. The final step was the hardest:  taking a deep breath and jumping away from the comfort zone.

I had always had an interest in human anatomy, biology and medicine and intended for a career in this area when I first went to college. But, I lost my way and stumbled out of my major in biology into other majors. I also fell into a different career, which was exciting in my younger years, but I knew it wouldn’t remain a stable career so I began to think about going back to school for my original interest.

My story is a bit complicated. I completed a B.S. in Biology and M.A. in Biology, after which I taught middle/high school and community college biology courses for several years. I then made my first career switch and worked as a financial planner for almost five years. I found that to be unfulfilling and decided to go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in Genetics, with the intention of pursuing an academic career. When I learned more about genetic counseling, I felt that it would be a better fit for me, since it would allow me to spend more time working directly with patients. Rather than spending most of my time behind the scenes doing basic research and teaching undergraduates, I decided I wanted to apply my research and teaching skills in a different way. The fact that genetic counselors have the opportunity to pursue a variety of different types of positions is also very intriguing to me.

2. How did it feel being a GC student?

  It was exciting, terrifying and exhausting! I literally got goosebumps while sitting in lectures and hearing about the advancements in this field. However, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit to doubting myself occasionally. In those moments, I remembered the mantra of a famous, blue fish, “Just keep swimming”.

There are days where it feels weird sometimes because I am one of the oldest students amongst several young women. But then there are also days where I do not feel the age difference at all, but instead just see fellow classmates that I am on this journey together. There is also a humbling effect of being in school again after having a previous career.

I am really enjoying being a GC student because there is so much interesting information to learn!  I am especially enjoying my rotations, particularly my interactions with established genetic counselors, who have all been wonderful teachers.

3. What are your tips for the GC program interview process?

I sincerely believe your age and life experiences are assets, don’t downplay them.  However, you will also have your own unique challenges.  Know what they are.  Determine how you will or have addressed them. Finally, GC training programs are very competitive. If you are not accepted the first time you apply, don’t give up.  Apply again.

Be presentable, dress appropriately, maintain professional composure, take notes, and do not ask the current students questions about other schools’ interview process.

I would say that you should emphasize what draws you to the field of genetic counseling and why you believe you would be a good GC. Everyone who is being interviewed has already shown that they have the qualifications on paper, so you don’t need to prove that you have those. Show the programs that are interviewing you that you are passionate, professional, and willing to put in the work.

4. Do you have any Grad school survival recommendations?

Be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.  Take one day at a time. Decide to learn from your younger classmates, they have a lot to teach you. Take care of yourself.  Embrace the experience and remember you are living a dream.

Be proactive and do not wait until the last minute. Be detail oriented, responsible and mature.

Lean on your classmates for support. They will be an invaluable resources in helping you get through your program. Even if you are at different stages in your life, you will find that you have more in common than you think. Make sure you stay organized and try to keep up with the work.

5. Would you do it all over again?

Absolutely!

Yes! Completing the GC training program was the biggest metaphorical mountain I’ve climbed.  I had a great group of classmates who helped me reach the top. It is a challenge worth taking

Definitely — deciding to apply to a genetic counseling program has been a wonderful decision so far.

6. What advice would you give a person who is just thinking about a second career as a GC?

Making this change is undoubtedly one of the bigger decisions in your life.  It will affect you and your family. You may consider waiting until the timing is better, until you are more prepared, etc. However, there likely will not be a time when all the circumstances are perfect.  I think the final analysis boils down to your willingness and ability to be move away from what is known and comfortable. Growth lies outside the comfort zone.

Conduct an informational interview with a practicing GC. Do the research, get as much exposure as you can before you make the decision. You have to make sure you are fully informed of what you are getting yourself into.

I think it is very important to think about your motivations and why you are changing careers. What are you looking to get out of the career? Do the requirements of the job match your personality? Will genetic counseling provide you with what your old career did not? For me, this was a great decision, but for you, things might be different. A graduate program is an investment, and a career change is a major decision, so I would recommend putting a lot of thought into it and speaking with at least one working genetic counselor to see if you think the job might be right for you.

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So You’re Interested in Becoming a Genetic Counselor?

opportunity

We hear from many of you asking how you can become a better applicant.  After hearing this question many times over, I started noticing some concrete opportunities out there.

In the last post, I sent a quick announcement on the GeneDx Prospective Visitors Day.  This date has now passed, but consider checking the GeneDx website for an opportunity in 2017.

NOTE (6/8/2016): The following list was composed in 2016 and has been edited per reader comments and information from colleagues. It is probably not a complete list – and some of the dates are probably past – but we’re happy to continue adding. I imagine we will create a new list for 2017. In the meantime, if you have an opportunity you would like added here, please comment below!

  • Sarah Lawrence College also hosts a Genetic Counseling Career Day.  According to their website, this day will be held in June 2016, though agenda and registration are still in development.  You’ll want to check here: https://www.sarahlawrence.edu/human-genetics/career-day.html
  • The University of South Carolina (alma mater shout out) also offers an online course with both Spring and Fall enrollment.  The course is called Genetic Counseling: Career for the Future.   The course is offered online over a twelve week period with 2-3 hours of self-paced activity.  Read more details here: http://geneticcounseling.med.sc.edu/onlinecourse.asp
  • Wayne State is offering an open house on two dates in 2016 (one in June and one in August).  The open house gives potential students the chance to learn more about the GC field and the Wayne State program.  The flyer is here: http://www.genetics.wayne.edu/sites/default/files/docs/Open%20House%20Flyer%202016.pdf
  • Indiana University opens applications May 2, 2016 for their graduate program open house: http://www.ingc.info/site/indiana-university-genetic-counseling-graduate-program-open-house/
  • The University of Cincinnati/Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Genetic Counseling Program has a DNA sample day every year as well as an Open House. The DNA Sample Day is an overview of genetic counseling as a whole. The Open House features the UC/CCHMC program itself. The next DNA Day is on August 12, 2016 (http://www.geneticcounseling4u.org/prospective_students/DNA%20Day%202016.pdf). The Open House is usually in the fall, around Thanksgiving.
  • The Genetic Task Force of Illinois and the Northwestern University Graduate Program in Genetic Counseling is hosting a genetic counseling workshop. This will occur August 12, 2016 at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center. Additional details and registration information is available here: http://www.illinoisgenetics.org/event-2251863

 

Prospective GC Visitors Day -Deadline Extended to April 15th

Interested in pursuing a career in genetic counseling?

This is great opportunity to learn more about the field.  Deadline has been extended to 4/15/2016.

Option to join remotely by video:)

http://www.genedx.com/whats-new/prospectivegcvisitorsday/

 

GC Visitor's Day

Laboratory Genetic Counselor Q+A ((By Jade M.))

mad-science

A day in the lab.

I wanted to write a post about life as a lab counselor, but I wasn’t making much progress.  Luckily, Sarah posed some questions to help get the wheels spinning!

A little background: I work remotely as a report writer for cardiology testing and have been in this position for about 8 months.
Would you make the transition again?

Yes! However, I was always drawn to a laboratory position.
During graduate school, we had a laboratory counselor speak to us about her job – I loved the idea of flexibility in your work schedule along with the option to work remotely. Apart from these perks, I was always academically fascinated by the molecular aspect of genetic counseling and how the gene/protein level corresponded to the outward phenotype.  Combine this with a love for writing and research – and lab counseling was a perfect fit for me.
Is it more stressful or less stressful?

Much less stressful. However, I came from a busy clinic where we were short a genetic counselor for 50% of my employment. Furthermore, I had to navigate the stickiness of insurance authorization for commercial and medicaid providers – I do not miss that.

Do you spend more hours working or fewer?

Fewer.  But I was working a lot at my previous job.  Like, a lot. The whole crew was, so it’s not like I over-carried the burden.  But if I didn’t start working fewer hours, I would have all gray hair by now.

If you were to give advice to a senior GC student, would you recommend first taking a clinical position or do you wish you would have gone straight into working for a lab?
I would absolutely recommend working in a clinic first.  My thought is that if you want to be a great lab counselor, you need to put your brain through GC training camp.  You need to work out your clinical muscles and tone up your patient-centered thinking.  You need to do some heavy lifting in clinical note-writing and strengthen your core in clinical diagnoses.  You need to bench-press empathy and take a long, slow run through family histories.  Are you nervous that this explanation is becoming way too cross-fitty?
In other words: when you work in a laboratory, you tend to switch your brain to the molecular side of things.  But I am far better at variant interpretation when I call upon my clinical skills – for instance (1) how to read physician notes (2) how syndromes/conditions are identified clinically (3) how a variant call will affect a person/family (4) bearing in mind the “fight” the GC undertook for insurance authorization or the burden the family incurs for paying more than they can afford (5) recognizing the impact of turnaround times (6) feeling confident that I can speak to GCs/doctors who call with question from the clinic, because, hey, I’ve been there.

Best perk of the job?

No more “Sunday night blues.”  My Sundays are full, happy, beautiful days.  As opposed to the previous 3pm anxiety onset when you realize you have to do yet another workweek.
Also, I don’t have to run into people on the elevator who say stupid things like “Happy Humpday.”
Least favorite job duty?

I love reading scientific articles and digging deep into literature.  But sometimes, ugh.
Did anything surprise you about your new lab position?

I am surprised how transparent we are.  For instance, I assumed laboratories hid their classification calls and supporting evidence.  It’s quite the opposite – we upload all of our calls to ClinVar and make an effort to root out any inconsistencies with other labs.  This is excellent for patient care.

Rejection and how to handle it ((Camille))

Let’s face it, nobody really likes to talk about rejection but for those of you in the middle of interview season or anxiously awaiting program emails it is an important consideration. Genetic counseling programs as well as most other graduate programs are small and I mean seriously small. However, with genetic counseling in particular there is a disconnect. The field has grown by 75% since 2006 and is currently one of the fastest growing STEM careers. Programs have struggled to keep up with this rapid expansion – my program in particular enlarged its class size two years ago by an entire one person. This unparalleled growth has also created professional concerns – with programs graduating fewer genetic counselors than the mounting number of available positions, who will end up filling these posts? Specially trained nurses and other healthcare professionals may be brought in to satisfy a demand that the limited number of program graduates is failing to meet. So what does this mean for applicants?

Current applicants and interviewees are in between a huge expansion of the profession and the graduate programs that are struggling to produce more qualified, competent genetic counselors. This boils down to a lot of talented and qualified people who end up without an offer at the end of the final matching day. So if you are one of these people, whether you weren’t offered an interview or you didn’t move off of the waitlist, what are your next steps?

First off, try your best not to get too discouraged. There is a huge volume of competitive applicants. Thus, offers for interviews can come down to truly nitpicky details. I have had program directors specifically mention my “B” where other applicants had an “A”. Don’t take this personally, they have to narrow down the number of applicants they’re interviewing somehow. Once you make it to the interview stage, look around you, everyone there is qualified! Successfully matriculating into a program becomes more about being the “right fit.” Do you mesh well with the current program staff and students? Would you be able and willing to relocate? How will you fit in to the new class? Programs generally have a certain dynamic that they’re looking to find, sometimes you just won’t be their cup of tea and that’s okay.

Now, to get back on the horse… Self-care is an incredibly important part of the genetic counseling profession and dealing appropriately with rejection is an excellent way to practice or hone this ability. This could mean watching a movie with your friends, taking a trip somewhere nice, spending a day out of doors – remember nothing needs to happen immediately, so spend some time getting yourself brushed off and picked up before you begin moving forward.

Here’s what you can do:

    • Contact the program directors of the schools where you applied. Remember, this is a counseling profession and the people who are drawn to this type of work are people who genuinely want to help others! Program directors are fantastic, wonderful people who have a lot experience and are generally more than happy to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your application with you. Understand however that application and interview season is a tremendously busy time, if you do not receive a response try contacting them or other program personnel again in May.

 

    • Read the biographies of current students. Most, if not all, programs have a website. Make sure you are paying attention to the language used in program and class descriptions as well as reviewing the bios of current students. Not only can this tip you off to the types of experiences and background a program values but it can also give you ideas on how to beef up your resume.

 

    • Make greater time commitments. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to mean more hours – trust me, we all understand you have work, school, friends and family, as well as yourself to take care of… What I mean by greater time commitments is greater stretches of time. If I have two applicants in front me, one with six months of advocacy experience and another with over a year of advocacy experience, who would you imagine gets the interview? I’m speaking from experience on this one. You’ve been given time until the next round of applications, use it. Even if that means volunteering once or twice a month, you’re gaining experience and building your skills.

 

    • Focus on advocacy and crisis counseling experiences. There is no denying that shadowing looks great on a resume and it is where you first get the chance to evaluate the profession and ask questions of practicing genetic counselors. However, although informative, shadowing does not make or break an application. Many programs understand that student access to a counselor or a clinic can be limited (phone interviews or online counseling videos can fill in some of these gaps). On the other hand, advocacy and crisis counseling experience is a must. Not only does it put you in a position to work directly with clients, allowing you to practice and develop certain counseling skills, but it also helps programs assess your ability to deal with the realities of a field such as genetic counseling. Focusing more time and energy on these experiences strengthens your application and gives you a greater background to pull from during interviews.

 

    • If possible, seek out genetic counseling internships or other types of field experience. This may not be possible for many applicants to achieve but if you are able to find a clinic or a genetic counselor who is willing to pull some strings for you, this is absolutely ideal experience. It never hurts to ask! Oftentimes program directors may be able to point you in the proper direction or connect you with a former student. The Northwestern Program actually offers a one-week summer internship and begins accepting applications in February. (http://www.cgm.northwestern.edu/education/graduate-genetic-medicine/summer-internship.html)

 

    • Revisit your personal statement. A lot of things can change between one application cycle and the next. It is important for your personal statement to reflect your most current feelings and attitudes so yes, you should be writing another one. Make sure to have a few readers look it over. If you’ve developed a good relationship with any of the counselors you’ve connected with or shadowed, ask them to give it read! They may not have a lot of time but they still might be able to offer some useful suggestions. If you received any feedback from programs regarding your personal statement, make sure you are addressing these concerns.

 

    • Reconsider your references. Again, this comes back to any feedback you received from programs. Now that you are free to discuss your application with program directors, they may tell you which letters of recommendation really stood out and which ones did not. Many recommendations can be good but not glowing. Is there something you can do to further your relationship with one of your letter writers? Or should you be looking for someone else? Letters from individuals who really know you can have a greater impact than letters from people with impressive titles.

 

    • Tell programs you are applying a second time around. As you may have guessed from this post, I chose to apply a second round for genetic counseling programs. I struggled a good deal with whether or not to discuss applying a second time. In my experience, mentioning this in my applications and interviews was actually beneficial. Programs like to know that they would be investing their resources in a committed student who can take their feedback seriously. So in short, if you’re applying again, say so, making sure to discuss what changes you’ve made to improve your skills and increase your experience.

 

    • Apply to more schools. Lastly, applying to more schools gives you more opportunities for success. In such a competitive field, this really is one of the best ways to increase your odds of getting invited to interview or accepted into a program. Most students, genetic counselors or program staff will tell you that generally speaking all genetic counseling graduate programs are well-rounded and offer great educational opportunities. With such consistent “hireability” for program graduates, you really can’t go wrong, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on some other schools. There are also advantages to applying to newly founded programs – being one of the first classes at a new program can mean greater time spent with supervisors and program staff as well as quick adjustments in response to student concerns. New programs are set to open at Baylor University, University of Iowa, Rutgers University and others.

 

In conclusion, be persistent, be patient, be professional.

Before You Say “Yes” to Your First Job ((by Sarah))

Dear second year GC students, this one is for you!

You get your first job offer.  Or with the way the genetic counseling profession is going, you get multiple job offers.  You are ecstatic.  You landed the dream job and are using your degrees.   Success.  A stressful week or more of deliberations and debates. [take your time, ball is in your court!]  You accept.  This time is much like a new relationship.  Rose colored glasses are on and you are are being wooed.

Several months into the relationship, much of the excitement wears off.  And you are left with what you negotiated.  For many it all works out well, which it did for me and my GC friends.  But there are a few things I wish I would have known.

  • ALWAYS negotiate.  It does not hurt to ask.  Have a plan, or very specific things you want to ask for.  Have concrete reasons why your employer should include the things you ask for in your offer.  (i.e. Asking for a higher starting salary because you already have experience working with cancer patients before and during graduate school, and have developed a unique skill set)   If you have not read it yet, try the book Lean InKeep in mind that the ball is in your court.  You have the job offer.  They are not (likely) going to suddenly take that away, they already have decided they want you.

My biggest job negotiation surprise:  I had a plan (like most of my fellow OCD… or should I say “detail oriented” GCs).  I knew the salary range I wanted.  I knew the benefits I wanted.  But when it came down to it, I didn’t know what to say.  I had done a lot of reading and I knew it was key to always ask for a bit more, just to see.  I knew that it was also key to start at a salary that was a good level, because all future raises, etc would be based off this starting amount.  I have had two jobs since graduation.  For each, I asked for a bit more above base salary offer.  I was told “This is the level we start all newly hired genetic counselors at.  We are unable to negotiate this.”  Each time, it was a surprise.  This is not something they seem to warn you about in job hunting books or blogs. For job two, I even sent my sweet HR lady to double check- just to be sure this was their final answer-  I did have additional career experience now.  In the end, the answer was still a no.  But hey… still never hurt to ask!   

  • Get it in WRITING.  This is what I (almost) learned that hard way.  And what one of my dear friends did learn the hard way.  This is where the rose-colored glasses came in for me.  You think you did a great job.  You love the salary.  You were able to negotiate a signing bonus.  Benefits look good.  Your new employer will cover the cost of the boards review course, board certification exams (pending you pass), per-approved CEU’s, and one conference per year with travel costs.  But do you have the proof?

Fast forward about one year into job number two.  I find a conference I am dying to attend.  ((For cancer GC’s or students with a love of cancer genetic counseling, the buzz in GC world is that this is an amazing, one of a kind opportunity.))  Well, several exciting leadership changes and one boss change later, I hear the dreaded words, “well, we will see if it is approved.  I am not sure, budgets are really tight.”  In my head, I nearly implode.  No.  I negotiated this.  This is my one conference.  I really need to attend and learn.  Hello, I mostly see breast cancer patients and its all about BRCA!  Outwardly, I calmly inform my delightful new boss that I had negotiated one conference of my choice per year.  Doing her job, she let me know: “Well, we will see if I can find that in your contract, but I do not recall it being there.”  Turns out, many contracts are very generic.  I had my salary, insurance, retirement, and the other common job benefits clearly documented.  But all the other, more genetic counselor specific things were not.  Myself and my former boss had talked though all the special GC benefits in person and via phone.  I did not even have one single email about conferences, boards, or CEU’s.  In the end, my old boss came through.  I am fortunate to have/have had wonderful bosses.  Canada here I come, but lesson learned!

  • Taxes Suck.  While this is not a surprise, for some reason I did not think about this when negotiating my signing/relocation bonus.   Myself and my now-husband had a big move and we were still going to be paying rent on our apartment that we left before our lease was over.  So, I (clearly not thinking), asked for a specific amount that would help ease the transition.  When the check arrived, it was much less than anticipated.   Taxes took away a good chunk.  I quickly realized I would have asked for just a bit more if I had to do it all over again.
  • The PSS is the Negotiating Bible.  If you are not even sure where to start, the PSS is for you.  The PSS or professional satisfaction survey is amazing, and genetic counseling specific.  It is put out for NSGC members.  Before you go to your job interviews, get familiar with this.  Know average benefits people have.  Know what kinds of salary to expect from your geographic region and for your experience level.  Keep in mind that salary varies greatly state to state, or even city to city.  If you are not tied to a specific geographic region, you may want to keep this in mind if student loans are large.

Happy job hunting!

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Job Shadowing: The Do’s and Don’ts ((by Sarah))

DO

Take notes.

Tip:  Please come with notepad and pen ready.

Come with questions.

Tip: Multiple questions, prepared in advance.

Wear business casual attire.

Tip: When it doubt, keep it professional.  Or better yet, ask what attire is preferred.

Handwritten thank you cards.

Tip: Thank you cards are not a dying art, rather an art form.  Your effort will be duly noted.  No matter how terrible your scribbling may be, handwritten always adds that personal touch.   

Pro Tip: Get a business card from the GC.  That way, you have a mailing address.  Keep it in a safe place, as you never know when you may need it!  (Sometimes, it may not be until after graduate school!)

Keep in contact.  

Pro Tip: If you do not go the thank-you card route, try a thank-you email.  Then, send a follow email again once you are accepted to a program (this is always appreciated).  Then, if you want to be a super-duper star, you can even consider sending an even later follow up email once you are halfway through your program or accepted a job.  Who knows, someday you could be coworkers! 

Be highly courteous to those at the front desk.

Tip: Treat the lady (or gentleman) at the front desk the same as you would the genetic counselor.  Introduce yourself.  Thank them for their time too!

 

Don’t

 

Arrive late.

Fix: Hospitals are a challenge to navigate.  Be prepared for it to take longer than anticipated to arrive at your destination.  If you arrive over 20 minutes early, stall and get some coffee.  There is such a thing as being too early as well!

Ask to shadow last minute.

Fix: Ask at least a week in advance.

Write informally in emails.

Fix: Do not use contractions. Keep it professional.  Try using “control find (f)” for the words “like” and “very”.  These are typically fluff and can be eliminated with ease. Keep things short and to the point.     

Surprise the genetic counselors with guests.

Fix:  Even if your best friend or your mother would LOVE to see what a genetic counselor does, this does not mean that you should bring them with you.  You will someday be an independent adult, and shadowing is the first step.  You must do this solo.  Feel free to later call your mom and BFF to dish (without breaking HIPAA, of course).

Interrupt during patient sessions. 

Tip: Remember that you are truly a discreet fly on the wall.  Unless a patient speaks to you specifically, do not talk in the session.  If the genetic counselor leaves the room, follow them like a shadow (pardon the pun).  Feel free to jot some notes so that you can ask all of your questions afterwards.

Shadowing should not be used as a free genetic counseling session.

Tip: If your passion for the genetic counseling profession was sparked by your siblings diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, that is perfectly fine to share.  However, do not use your valuable time face to face with a GC to try to determine if your mother is a risk for hereditary breast cancer or early onset Alzheimer disease.  This is not the place to ask for a risk assessment, stay focused on your future career aspirations.

Getting anxious when a genetic counselor does not remember you.

Tip:  GC’s have TONS of students shadowing them.  If they do not remember you, this does not mean that you did a bad job.  In fact, it likely means that you met or even exceeded expectations.  Many genetic counselors will admit that they only remember the students who left a negative impression.  Conveniently, we have made this list so you do not end up being “bad email girl” or “the guy who brought his mom.”   

 

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M&G FAQ ((Jade M.))

Vintage image of boy raising hand in classroom

So anyway…we checked our m&g email account recently *insert embarrassment emoji*…

Yowzers, apparently we have not responded to email messages in over a year.  And some of you posed some really good, important questions.  We sincerely apologize for our oversight.  Your questions did not deserve the cyber snub treatment.

After reviewing about 50 emails, some common themes emerged.  This is great because it means we can draw some statistically significant FAQs (thesis much?) that can be addressed on this larger platform.  

So thank you for your questions!  Without further ado:

How did you choose which programs to apply to?

To answer this, you have to (1) consider and (2) pick your priorities.  Go ahead: seriously brainstorm all the factors that appertain to graduate shool-ing.  Here are some ideas to get you started: location, number of students accepted, where the rotations occur, cost of program, when you start clinical rotations, whether classes intermix with medical students, option to pursue a concurrent public health degree, whether there are housing options for rotations, public/private university, etc., etc., etc.  

After you brainstorm, step 2 is to prioritize which ones are most meaningful to you. Of course, there is no right answer, and this necessitates some soul-searching on your part.  

A couple pointers….

Before you begin, I would recommend spending time perusing all the program websites and getting a feel for each.  

Here they are (US and Canada): http://gceducation.org/pages/accredited-programs.aspx

International: http://tagc.med.sc.edu/education.asp

Do not be afraid to write down notes.  Or type up notes.  Or create crazy excel sheets like a super weirdo (you’ll eventually find out that you’re not that weird and everyone does it).

Another trick is to just start applying.  The application process is distinct for each school and therefore grueling.  You will probably subconsciously start with your favorites.  After the process wears you down, and you’re wondering whether you should apply to that last school, any motivation mustered will reflect your true interest in the program.

What happens if I do not get in the first time?

If you do not get in the first time, eat an entire carton of fro-yo, cry/journal/jog, then pick yourself up, and apply again.  Because I promise you that this scenario is not that uncommon.  I don’t have any numbers, but anecdotally, it is just not that uncommon to to not get in the first time.  Ouch, double-negative.  Plain English:  Many people do not get into a program on the first round.

The important thing here is to ensure that the “not getting in” does not drastically harm your sense of self-worth.  You are a smart, good person and this does not mean you shouldn’t be a genetic counselor!  Maybe you had an “off” day of interviewing.  Maybe you had an awful semester and did poorly in a class.  Maybe you need some more experience.  This is all OK.  Roll with the punches.  Take a year off.  You’ll be fine.

More practical advice: Sometimes lack of acceptance is a matter of gaining more solid volunteer/shadow/work experience.  Check out our resources page, but some good ideas include shadowing a GC (find one here: http://nsgc.org/p/cm/ld/fid=164), working for a crisis center, volunteering for a center for individuals with disabilities, working for a laboratory (if qualified), finding a position as a genetic counselor assistant, taking a relevant research positions, and so on.

Chin up and continue to chase your dream.  I promise that a one-year delay is irrelevant in the grand scheme.

I’m confused about the job description of a Genetic Counselor vs. Geneticist…

Ah. yes. OK.

Genetic Counselor and Geneticist are distinct professions.  Different but definitely collaborative.  Let’s begin with training.  GCs hold 2-year masters degrees.  Geneticists are MDs and therefore attend 4 years of medical school, followed by residency and then a fellowship in genetics (often more than one fellowship).  If we use pediatrics as an example, both specialties often work directly with patients to make a diagnosis.  While not always true, GCs tend to do more of the counseling and psychosocial component of the diagnostic process.  MDs are qualified to perform physical exams, treat, and order tests (GCs that are licensed can also order tests).  Sometimes GCs work very closely with Geneticists (like in pediatrics), other times they work separately.  Each can hold non-traditional (non-clinical) roles if that is what is desired.  

As I type this out, I realize it is difficult to paint a really good picture of our different and overlapping roles due to contingency on specialty/facility/location.  So I would recommend two things: (1) Go ‘head and Google your heart out for more specifics (you know, like internet homework) and (2) Spend time shadowing both geneticists and genetic counselors (you know, like real life homework).  That will give you the best sense for each!

How easy is it to spread out your time over different fields of genetic counseling? AKA – are you pigeon-holed or what?

This is a wonderful question.  Because I’m proud to say that No, you’re certainly not pigeon-holed.  It is very possible to make a career out of multiple subspecialties.  Not everyone does this, but there are many GCs who fill their career with focuses in prenatal, pediatrics, cancer, cardiology, laboratory, public health, newborn screening, inborn errors of metabolism, sales/marketing, research, etc. etc. etc.  Many people will hold a job that combines two or three specialties at once.  Others prefer to spend an entire career in one niche area.  

Once you achieve board certification, you’re technically qualified to do it all.  Naturally, work experience plays into this. If you work 30 years as a prenatal counselor and want to make the switch to cancer, you can.  However, you’ll likely have to do major catch-up learning and potentially compete against applicants who have more experience in the cancer realm.  Alternatively, if you work 30 years as a prenatal counselor and then want to take a position for a laboratory that performs research on prenatal testing technology…well, congratulations, you’re hired!

I’m in middle school/high school.  I totally have my act together and know without a doubt that I want to be a genetic counselor.  What’s next?

Ummmmm.  Why you gotta make the rest of us look like our 16-year-selves were just infants in disarray? But, hey, you go Glen Coco.

Honestly though, it is steller that you have an ideal career path before you even enter college, and you’re certainly a step ahead of the game. I encourage you to both (1) chase this goal and (2) give yourself some wiggle room if you find that perhaps a different career suits you better – you’re so far ahead that it’s even OK if you change your mind. I grant you that magical permission.

At this point, one thing you may want to consider is your major in college/university.  Here’s the fun part:  You can major in anything under the sun, as long as you fulfill prerequisites for graduate school.  

Prerequisite classes = The bare minimum classes that you must take before eligible to apply for GC graduate school.

Each program may have just ever-so-slightly different prerequisites, but for the most part, they are aligned.  You will have to visit each program’s website to know for certain what you need and whether you’re eligible.  But, basically, if you enroll in the following classes, that will get you where you need to go:

  • One year of general biology
  • One year of general chemistry
  • One semester of biochemistry
  • One semester of genetics
  • One semester of statistics

Additional courses may include: Developmental Biology, Counseling Psychology, Developmental Psychology … but don’t beat yourself up if your school does not offer these.

Now, it is certainly easier to fulfill these courses if you are a science major.  I have met many GCs who majored in Biology or Genetics or Psychology….or perhaps double-majored.  Alternatively, you could do a Public Health, Anthropology, or Kinesiology major, or any subspecialities of Psychology that your school offers.  These are just ideas.  All are good.  You can major in Underwater Basket Weaving as long as you fill your prerequisites….and uh, are able to defend your choice of major when asked during interviews.

Here are links to graduate programs: http://gceducation.org/Pages/Accredited-Programs.aspx

I think I sound like a broken record with this suggestion, but you’ll also want to shadow a genetic counselor(s).  Some potential students get anxious about the AMOUNT/TYPE of shadowing that is advisable! This is not one-size-fits-all.  If you live in a city that has no opportunities to shadow a genetic counselor, well, hey, it is a little more difficult for you and also out of your hands.  You may have to think outside the box a little: try contacting genetic counselors and asking to interview them by phone.  In general, strive to obtain at least a few weeks of shadowing, spread across different facilities and subspecialties.  Find opportunities to shadow for a few days over school breaks.

Other resources that you may find helpful:

NSGC for prospective students:

http://nsgc.org/p/cm/ld/fid=43

Day in the Life:

http://allhealthcare.monster.com/training/articles/236-career-profile-genetic-counselor

Robin Bennett MS Interview:

https://www.nwabr.org/sites/default/files/pagefiles/IntroGeneticCounselor.pdf

Vignettes from US News & World Report:

http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2007/12/19/genetic-counselor-a-day-in-the-life

My grades right now are not so hot (mostly Bs), will that hinder my acceptance into a program?

Probably not!  It is apparent that so many of you are your own worst frenemies.  You’re stressing me out, so I can only imagine how stressed you all must feel!

Remember, you are a whole human, composed of more than just your grades.  You are not a report card.  You are a person with experiences, extracurricular activities, time spent volunteering or coaching or mentoring; you are a person with a compassionate personality and a passion for the field; you are a person that has something to offer that someone else may not; and you also have some grades sprinkled on top.  You are a bolstered applicant.  Again, you are more than just your grades.

What’s that – You want a more concrete answer?  This is what I think:  A grades are super fantastic! A/Bs are really great too!  If you get a C, can you justify why that is the case?  Did you take 20 credits that semester?  Did you have something going on in your personal life that dampened you academically? If the grade is really nagging you, do you have the option to retake the course?

It is worth mentioning: One of the most compelling questions I was asked during a graduate school interview was “How do you practice self-care when you’re stressed/anxious/worn down?”

Let me ask you: How do you practice self-care?

Think hard about this.  Journal your answer, or write a little memo on your phone.  Return to your answer when you’re in need.  Ensure you’re taking care of yourself.  If you’re stressed now, can you handle the continued and concentrated burden of graduate school? I am positive that you can, but you need a plan, man!

Have a plan for self-preservation so that you can enjoy the journey.

I am a last-semester senior OR I have already graduated…and I just decided I want to be a genetic counselor!  Help! Am I too unconventional to apply to GC programs? Does it look bad if I go back now and take prerequisite courses?

I love this question!  Congratulations on deciding you want to be a genetic counselor!  

NO, you are not unconventional.  In fact, you may even be the norm.  And No, you will not look bad – you will look like a person that puts in the extra work/time/money to enter a career you care about.

This “non-traditional” path includes myself.  I graduated from college  and then spent a year taking chemistry, biochemistry, and genetics at a local college.  I totally moved back in with my parents and worked part-time at Target as a coupon-passer-outter while having awkward run-ins with former high school classmates (ahh, the glamor of working towards a goal, am I right?).  I felt lonely and behind the eight ball as I watched friends enter professional careers or graduate programs.  But here I am, years later, working as a GC and smiling fondly to myself when I shop in Target.

As I said above, I sincerely promise that a one or two year delay in “getting where you want to go” is completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

Use the resources above and on our resource page to make yourself the most bomb.com applicant you can be, and go get ‘em!  BOOM SHAKALAKA

A New Meaning for Pink & Blue ((BY OLIVIA))

Looking for something to do this Sunday? A new documentary called Pink&Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer will be showing across the country this weekend. If you are interested in inherited cancer syndromes and the patient experience  you should definitely check this out.  This film aims to redefine inherited breast cancer as a problem that affects women AND men  (a constant soapbox issue for yours truly).  The knowledge that BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations  can affect males by increasing the risk for certain cancers (namely male breast and prostate) is an important counseling point for genetic counselors.  Check out the trailer below and click here to see if there is a movie screening near you this weekend! Hopefully the showings will continue into next year.

 

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