Category Archives: alied health interviews

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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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.

2 Things to Improve on Before Interview Season. ((by Sarah))

There are two MAJOR interview don’ts you can start working on NOW.  This way, but the time interview season rolls around they start feeling “old hat” to you.  ((aka you are comfortable!))  ((I wish I would have known more about #2 pre-interview!))

1. Stop with the LIKE.  This one is huge and can be hard to improve on.  However, for experienced professionals (such as your interviewers) this can be a huge distraction.  Were they listening to the wonderful response you gave to a question or counting the number of times you said “like” in one sentence?

Overcoming this:  Get your friends, relatives, significant others, etc involved with helping you end the “likes.”  I had my friends and mother point out when I would overuse like.  At first for me, this involved slowing down my speech.  The main thing is to practice, practice, practice.  Find a career center and do some mock interviews as well.

2. Do not play with jewelry, watches, hair, etc.  Beware of these common interview faux pas.  This applies to you men out there as well.  Playing with class rings, watches, or ties– bangles, rings or even shirt sleeves can distract an interviewer from the one and only thing they should be focusing on– YOU!  Hair twirlers and nail/cuticle biters this one is for you.

Overcoming this:  Often times– you may not know you do this.  Or it may only emerge in high stress situations.  Asks friends/family to kindly point out your nervous tics or habits.  It is best to recognize these now so that they can be minimized come interview season.  For example, I opted to eliminate jewelry and spurge for a gel/shellac manicure pre-interview.  I knew I would be all too tempted to pick at my nail polish under stress.   For some this can even be nervous yawns or clearing of the throat.  (I am guilty of both!)

nervous-interview

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3 things professional 20 somethings should be doing ((by Sarah)).

For all you new or prospective GCs out there… Here are a few tidbits I am ((slowly)) learning about professional life…

My Must Haves:

1. A well-curated LinkedIn.

From professional networking to finding future jobs– you should get a LinkedIn stat if you do not currently have one.  And– keep it up to date! You never know who may see it! ((I have had several companies email me about potential jobs via LinkedIn too!))

2. A proper email AND twitter.

A proper email may seem obvious– but is important to note.  By proper email– think a professional email account free of any hobbies/interests/etc ((ie. “cheer_girl_fo_life@” or “girl_crazy_soccer_stud@” require an upgrad)).  Likely stick with some form of your name.

Now a professional twitter is something I have been thoroughly enjoying//had not thought about much before.  I now have GC friends who I primarily if not exclusively know via twitter.  It is an amazing way to keep up with new occurrences in your field as well.  ((Always be thinking about networking!))

3. Keep that CV updated. ((And references list!))

Whenever you do something new– update that CV right away so you are never caught unprepared.  This also goes for those young professionals who are already employed– you never know when someone may ask for a copy!  ((Thanks to my NSGC mentor for this tip!))

When thinking professional references– build a diverse list of 3-5 complete with emails, phone numbers, and work addresses.

Best of luck!

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Must Read Interview: Psychiatric Genetic Counseling. ((Anna & Sarah))

Interview with Anna: Psychiatric Genetic Counseling 

Sarah: How did you become interested in psychiatric genetic counseling?

Anna: I have a BA and an MA in psychology, and was always fascinated by psychopathology. After I completed my MA in Vancouver, British Columbia and started looking into genetic counseling, I came across Dr. Jehannine Austin’s research group. In her research, she uses a clinical genetics approach to understanding mental illness. I found that her research allowed me to incorporate my interest in psychology with my interest in genetics.

S: How were you able to obtain a psychiatric genetics rotation last summer?

A: Dr. Austin had launched the psychiatric genetic counseling clinic a few months before I moved to New York to complete my genetic counseling degree, so unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to observe any sessions. They had taken 2 summer students just as I was leaving, and I was told to keep my eyes open for the following summer. When I found out about the position, I jumped at the chance to work with the team again and to learn more about the clinic.

S: What was one of the biggest differences you noticed when counseling in a psychiatric genetics clinic?

A: For one, they don’t offer genetic testing. Second, the session is extremely psychosocial driven, which makes it longer. I also saw the amount of guilt and shame people experienced when discussing their mental illness, or the mental illness of a loved one. There is so much stigma people face so it’s not something many people talk about. Maybe some think that if no genetic test is offered than what point is having a clinic like this? But I got to see some dramatic changes in peoples’ beliefs about what causes mental illness and how they can protect themselves. I also got to witness a ton of weight lifted off people’s shoulders as they came to terms with the fact that they did not cause their child’s mental illness. That is huge!

S: What are some the mostly “highly genetic” psychiatric conditions?

A: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think with mental illness in particular it’s very multifactorial. However, I don’t think people realize that we all have the capacity to develop a mental illness. This is because we all have some genetic predisposition that we are born with- some more than others- and it’s the different experiences we go through that can determine whether one person goes on to develop a mental illness or not. Someone with a strong family history of mental illness may have a greater vulnerability than someone with less of a family history. But genetics is not destiny and there are things we can do to protect ourselves from getting sick. We do have control and I think that’s an important message for people.

If we see someone with developmental delay and psychosis genetic testing is offered for 22q11 deletion syndrome (DiGeorge), because 22q11 is the greatest risk factor for developing schizophrenia.

S: What other types of health care providers are vital for a Psychiatric Genetics Clinic?

A: Many of the patients we saw were referred by their psychiatrist or psychologist. But the nature of the clinic accepts self-referrals as well, so any health care provider could refer their patients. But it’s really important to have other medical professionals on board because there is a genetics component to mental illness and this clinic really helps people understand that involvement.

S: What did you enjoy most about a multidisciplinary clinic environment?

A: I think working in a multidisciplinary environment is great because you can learn so much from your colleagues. It also allows me to appreciate what patients go through when they see all these specialists; I can be more compassionate because it can be frustrating having to coordinate and attend a bunch of appointments.

S: What is it like to counsel someone with a psychiatric condition? Are there some unique strategies you use/saw utilized in clinic?

A: Honestly, it didn’t feel any different than counseling someone without one. The biggest thing for me though was trying to break down their misconceptions about mental illness and all the internalized guilt and shame. I also very much appreciated that people were willing to discuss their mental health with me- a complete stranger. It’s such a sensitive topic but when you give someone a safe atmosphere to open up, it’s amazing how liberating it is for him or her, and for yourself.

I found it really beneficial for patients when we used diagrams. The flipbook we used illustrates “mental illness jars,” which help explain everyone’s genetic predisposition.  ((S: This “mental illness jar” illustration can be found in Dr. Austin’s book, which is noted below… at the top of page 91!))  It helped people visualize what having a genetic vulnerability means and how environment contributes to one’s risk. Also, we allowed the patients to explain their story to us. Why did they think they got sick? What do they think caused their mental illness? And what are some things they do to protect themselves from having a relapse or getting sick in the first place? The sessions were very patient driven, which was nice.

S: What are some “take away points” people should keep in mind if they want to go into counseling patients who have a personal or family history of a psychiatric condition. Or some pros and cons regarding the field, in your opinion?

A: I think it’s really important for counselors to know that it isn’t difficult to counsel people with mental illness. And it is very important not to brush over or skip the psychological assessment on patient intakes. We can’t be afraid to go there with our patients. Our brain is an organ like any other organ in our body. And when our brain doesn’t work as it should, we take medication or go for therapy. That shouldn’t be any different than taking insulin for diabetes or heart medication etc.

I think a big pro of discussing mental health with patients is creating that dialogue about mental illness and creating a greater awareness. Hopefully that will reduce the stigma, shame and guilt people experience. Unfortunately, I think that it has been somewhat of an uphill battle because the genetics of mental illness is so complex. There is no quick fix, easy answer or blood test we can offer, and that can be hard for some people.

I think that it is important for health care professionals to understand that we all have our patients’ best interests in mind and that takes a multidisciplinary approach. And sometimes it’s not about what test we can administer or what drug we can prescribe. Sometimes all it takes is just someone to listen, and as genetic counselors, I think that’s one of the things we do best.

Those who are interested in learning more about counseling people with mental illness can read Dr. Austin’s book: How To Talk With Families About Genetics And Psychiatric Illness.

((Huge thanks to Anna for the interview, very enlightening!  Hope you all enjoyed this post and her answers as much as I did! –Sarah))

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Genetic Counseling Thesis: An Interview with Olivia ((Interviewed by Jade))

Tweeted... document from X-Men: Days of Future Past (Copyright: Twitter/@bryansinger)

Tweeted… document from X-Men: Days of Future Past (Copyright: Twitter/@bryansinger)

A whole lotta blood, sweat, and tears goes into graduate school, but, to a certain extent, the workload is relatable.  We have been accustomed to exams for ages now.  We know how to work a library. We are not afraid of extracurricular opportunities, and even PubMed searches are becoming like an old friend.
However, at least for those of us earning our first master’s degree, Thesis is uncharted territory. It is not required by all GC programs, but it is by most, and finished projects range from 50 to well over 100 pages of scientific goodstuff. I decided to interview Olivia to provide some insight into the process, as well as a better understanding of the immense amount of work and re-work that the project demands.
1. Olivia, summarize your thesis in 3 sentences or less.
Fertility technologies such as sperm, oocyte, or embryo cryopreservation have recently been applied to assist cancer patients at risk of infertility due to cancer treatment or for gene positive individuals for whom removal of reproductive organs is indicated (think: BRCA carriers).  Because genetic counselors often see patients who are of reproductive age who may be candidates for these procedures, termed fertility preservation, I surveyed counselors for their interest and education needs regarding this topic. Overall, counselors were open to incorporating this subject into their sessions and wanted to learn more so they can be prepared to help guide an interested patient.
2. Why did this topic interest you?
 I really am intrigued by the application of new technology in the clinical setting. I used to work in a translational lab where the goal was to carry bench science findings into  eventual development as drug therapies for cancer patients and the curiosity has continued!
3. Were your results significant/What was learned?
Oncofertility is entering the realm of treatment and management of cancer care, the oncologist’s zone usually, so I wasn’t sure how open counselors would be to incorporating this discussion into their sessions. However, they were incredibly curious and eager to learn more, especially regarding subtopics that would help them identify who was most at risk and where to find resources. Developing an educational tool for any counselor to access when needed would be the next step in the project but it would also be interesting to hear the patient’s perspectives as well.
4. What part of thesis-writing made you want to pull your hair out?
I think thesis is difficult because it requires that you are aware of not only details (citations, making coherent sentences) but that you don’t lose sight of the big picture (goal of the thesis/hypothesis, take home message). It can be tiring zooming in and out again. Plus, it’s like a marathon. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project that long, ever.
5. What part of thesis-writing made you think maybe it was worth pulling your hair out?
 It felt really great to hear the responses to my survey and to my final paper. I’m a newbie to the field but I really am eager to show that I can contribute in some small way. It was a great introduction to research and to professional issues.  I look forward to continuing this project and doing a pilot of an educational tool in the (near) future.
6.  Impart some words of wisdom for future thesis writers.
 Be dedicated and try not to be discouraged. Set a writing schedule and a no-writing schedule (aka time to recharge) and STICK TO IT. Also, get someone who knows stats programs really well and become best friends.
Get more info here and here and, hey, here, here, here.  {These links provide examples of past student works from different programs.}
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What Brings You Here? ((By Jade))

I didn’t hear about genetic counseling until my senior year of college.  I had heard about medical school, and physician assistant school, and nursing, and occupational/physical/speech therapy.  I had heard about pharmacy and dental school.  I even wanted to be an audiologist at one point.

I loved science and I still do, but sometimes I didn’t know which science direction to take.  Let’s face it, I was Alice in Wonderland for most of my undergraduate career:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where-” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

And then I took two years off.  And that was fantastic, but I still wanted to return to that one “other” health science career I had heard about.  My short and simple reason for latching onto GC is that it’s my happy-medium science.  I’m not in a lab, I’m not doing research, and I’m not in the blood & guts.  I am explaining inheritance, metabolic pathways, and risk figures.  I am at the forefront of exciting new research.  And I am interacting with people.

And since GC is still a relatively “hidden” career choice, I interviewed my classmates to find out how they got here.  Here’s the verdict:

“I wanted to be a GC because of my younger sister.  I remember attending my mom’s AMA appointment, and that experience really stuck with me.”

“I learned about GC in a medical genetics class in undergrad.  I thought it was a great middle-point between clinical work and research.  You’re in that middle area between being attached to a beeper or buried in paper.”

“I liked people, and I wanted to build relationships.”

“Well, I majored in zoology because I wanted to protect the wild animals in Africa.  But then I realized that GC might be more practical.”

“I always liked genetics, and I wanted to work with people, rather than be stuck in a lab.”

“I wanted to enter an emerging field in science, where a lot is about to happen and I can continue to learn.”

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