Author Archives: camilleff

The Interview Process: What to Expect and How to Make Your Mark ((Camille))

Interview season is upon us. For those of you booking flights and frantically scheduling visits to graduate programs here are a few pointers to boost your confidence and send you off to your interviews feeling prepared and ready to make an impression.

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First off, what does the interview process for genetic counseling programs really look like?

The night before:

Most graduate programs offer an informal dinner with the current students the night before the interview. This is generally optional but is a great way to learn more about the student experience and get a chance to ask more directly about the relationship with program staff. This is also the time to start keying into the vibe of the program – How do the students interact with one another? Do you see yourself fitting into a similar group? Do the opinions expressed about the program line up with what you hope to gain from your graduate education? Taking advantage of this opportunity to ask questions of the students can also give you some insight into topics you may want to address with your interviewers the following day. While this type of interaction is not meant to be a formal part of your program interview, it is always a good idea to be respectful, engaging and involved in the conversation.

The interview:

Interviews are a blur – long days, meeting a lot of people, being fully engaged in conversation and needing to think on your feet. Generally, programs schedule short 15-30 minute interviews with all available program staff. You should expect to speak directly with the program director as well as the medical director, rotation supervisors, research advisors or other program personnel. Most likely, you will be emailed or given a copy of your interview schedule beforehand. This gives you the opportunity to research the individuals you will be meeting. You might consider looking into their research interests, their role within the program or their professional and teaching experiences. Remember, you may only have 15 minutes with some individuals so prioritize your message and your questions. Some programs vary the structure of their interviews and may have short group discussions where they ask the interviewees to review a case or an ethical problem. This gives the program a chance to evaluate your group interactions and your ability to advocate for your own viewpoints while respectfully acknowledging and responding to the viewpoints of others. In my own experience, one of my interviews even included a timed, handwritten response to a given prompt. Keep an open mind – the program wants to get to know you and any seemingly odd experience or question may really be an effort to do just that!

What do you wear to a graduate program interview?

As many interviews include a tour of nearby clinics or hospitals, comfortable shoes are a must. If you choose to go with a higher heel, carrying flats in your bag can be a great compromise. While keeping professionalism in mind, try to show your personality. You should be considering a blazer, tailored dress or a blouse and pants but don’t feel restricted to the color black. Keep jewelry to a minimum or to pieces you know will not be bothersome or need adjusting during an interview. You want to feel confident, not uncomfortable. Carrying a bag is perfectly acceptable and programs will generally make arrangements to store your luggage or other belongings throughout the day. Finally, a portfolio is a great place to store extra copies of your resume and take notes about the program.

What types of questions will I be asked during graduate program interviews?

This is generally more difficult to pin down as different programs may focus on different things. However, most programs will be looking to assess 1) your understanding of the field 2) if you are the same accomplished and hard-working candidate they saw on paper 3) how your experience and interpersonal skills have prepared you for graduate training 4) if you fit with the current program staff and students.

So, what can you do to prepare?

As standard advice: take advantage of mock interview or other preparatory services offered through your current institution. You should also become familiar with what is unique about the programs where you are interviewing. Familiarity with the program website, rotations and program staff shows your level of interest and can allow you to have more meaningful exchanges with interviewers.

Prepare to talk about the experiences listed on your resume. More than a general overview, consider what was most valuable about each experience and think of examples which highlight your skills or ways in which you have grown. In doing this, think how you could use these examples to answer common interview questions (e.g. When is a time you have worked with a team? Tell me about a time you handled a difficult person or situation. When have you managed multiple time commitments at once?). You may want to make a list of these “highlight” experiences and add to it as you prepare for your interviews. Having a strong stockpile of examples to pull from can help you respond to similar interview questions with fresh insights.

Back up your weaknesses with examples of growth. It is safe to assume that during your interviews you may encounter a question about your weaknesses. It is okay to be honest and upfront when answering this question but make sure you can provide examples of how you have addressed your shortcomings and how you continue to grow and learn from your past experience.

Prioritize your message. In genetic counseling, we often talk about “take-home messages.” I think this concept applies quite nicely to interviews. Consider what it is you want most to communicate about yourself as a program candidate. Are you driven? Curious? Ambitious? Preparing your “take-home message” will make it easier to build upon these themes in your responses to interview questions and give you a quick go-to when offering your final thoughts.

Questions! Don’t forget this is your opportunity to evaluate the program. Think about what is most important to you in a graduate school experience and prepare some standard questions to help you evaluate programs in these areas. Open-ended questions generally get you better responses. These are questions that start with “Tell me about…” or “What do you think about…” or “What is important for…”, etc. As an additional point, don’t run out of questions! The more you ask, the more interested you appear. You can guarantee each interview will end with the question, “What questions do you have for me?”, so come prepared! And finally, don’t be afraid to get to know the person sitting across from you – questions do not have to be restricted to information about the program.

Be genuine. I’m sure you have read this advice elsewhere but it is worth the emphasis. You do not want to come across as anything other than yourself. This might mean feeling free to joke a bit with your interviewer or really answering questions honestly without a rehearsed feeling. Of course, be cognizant of the tone the interviewer sets, but don’t be so afraid of saying “the wrong thing” that you censor yourself. The people who get involved with training programs are generally very nice people. So, try your best not to let nerves get in the way of your authentic self.

You may find lists of interview questions specifically for genetic counseling posted online. I would say that some of these lists have useful information but I would not use an online list as your sole means of interview preparation. You are likely going to get more questions directed at you and your experiences. The interview is about getting to know who you are and that means questions about things you should have complete confidence in answering. Some programs choose to ask questions that might take an interviewee off-guard or might get at their opinion regarding an ethical or contemporary issue in the field. Again, this is likely meant to gauge your response and how you handle a little bit of pressure or unease as opposed to if you can give the exact “right answer.” In this situation, it is okay to feel a little bit flustered or to ask for a second to think through things. Take a breath and remember to be honest and diplomatic in your response.

Is there interview etiquette for genetic counseling programs that I should follow?

Yes. First off, do not try and gather information about questions from students or other interviewees. Beyond being inappropriate, this really defeats the purpose of the interview which is to evaluate your honest responses to questions. Second, play nice with everyone. Programs are small and one bad interaction with the front desk staff might get back to the admissions committee. I assume any person applying to a genetic counseling program is both mature and kind-hearted but it doesn’t hurt to remember that any interaction (big or small) can be a part of your evaluation. This also applies to email. Third, stay off of your cell phone. Obvious – just don’t do it; you have only a day or two to get to know the people and the program, so spend that time engaged and being respectful of others by giving your full attention. Finally, send “Thank you” notes to the programs who invited you to interview. Scheduling interviews can be a difficult process from the program’s perspective so showing your appreciation is a very nice touch. Additionally, it provides you one last opportunity to include a thoughtful detail or remind your interviewers of an enjoyable interaction you shared.

Best of luck on interviews from all of us at Maps & Genes! Have other questions? Just ask!

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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.

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.

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