Category Archives: inspiration

How to know if genetic counseling is right for you…

Hi Everyone,

We recently did a morale event among my department’s GCs. We asked each other how/why we decided to enter this career. I thought the answers might be helpful for others wondering whether he/she also wants to be a GC.

You’ll notice a few of us say something along the lines of wanting to be a scientist, but one who doesn’t touch people or sit in a lab all day.  🙂

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  • “Initially I was on the pre-veterinary medicine track at my undergrad when I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to do something in genetics since those classes and labs were my favorite. However, I hated sitting at a bench doing experiments and trying to come up with hypotheses! I really wanted to incorporate some level of education into my career so my advisor suggested genetic counseling. I did a google search and voila!”
  • “I got into genetic counseling because I enjoyed genetics and psychology and didn’t want to do anything involving infectious disease!”
  • “I always thought I’d be a therapist, or a doctor. When I heard about genetic counseling essentially being a combination of both (in a high school textbook), I knew this was for me. I feel very fortunate that I heard about it so early and could prepare myself through college to get to grad school!”
  • “I got into genetic counseling because I wanted a career with both medical and scientific components (sounds like the canned interview response, but it’s true!) and something that would be constantly evolving. I also wanted to know that I’d be working in a field with good work-life balance so that I could actually see my family!”
  • “I was a psych major in college and knew I’d end up going to grad school, but did not want to be a psychologist.  I took a few career assessments online and genetic counseling kept coming up at the top of list – I had no clue what it even was, so I researched it and it was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for… I applied for a local internship and the rest is history.”
  • “I got into genetic counseling because I wanted to be a scientist, but wasn’t keen on touching people. I also like the work-life balance part of the career.”
  • “I was as senior Bio major in college and stumbled across a poster about Genetic Counseling outside my professor’s office. I knew I didn’t want to “look under a microscope” as a career, so genetic counseling seemed like a good combination of people contact and science. It was November, so I had 2 months to decide if I wanted to be a GC, and get my applications in by the January deadline! The rest is history.”
  • “I was initially interested in becoming a physician and had planned on doing so up until my sophomore year of college. I really enjoyed the genetics course I took, but after doing some research I realized I did not want to be a geneticist. I decided that I still wanted to work in the field of genetics, so I researched other professions within this field and came to genetic counseling. Although fewer GCs were in roles outside of clinic, I knew the degree would give me a variety of job options should I decide that I didn’t want to stay in clinic.”
  • “I always loved science and genetics in school, but didn’t learn about the profession of genetic counseling until my junior year of college. After spending time working in both research and pharmaceutical labs during college, I realized I wanted more interaction with people. I shadowed some local genetic counselors and decided being a genetic counselor would be the perfect combination of science and interpersonal interaction.”
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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-old selves were just infants in disarray? But, hey, you go Glen Coco.

Honestly though, it is stellar 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

Today is the day!

Today marks the start of the decision period for Genetic Counseling programs and GC applicants.  We all wish you the best of luck today and throughout the remainder of the week!

Hope things are going smoothly– or at the very least you are taking steps to stay sane through this process.  Here are three last words of wisdom for you all:

1. Do not give up on your dreams.

Will get in

2. Take time from your day to do something fun.  Take a break– go to dinner– get some ice cream– anything to take your mind off a crazy day ((or to CELEBRATE a crazy day)).

3. Make the best decision for YOU.  Only you know how you truly feel– follow your gut instincts.

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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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Francis Crick Interview (1993)

Thinking in a scientific way is not necessarily a natural way, it just happens to be a very effective way.  It’s not even very effective for one person, it must be groups of people.  Otherwise you get trapped in your own errors…One person is fallible.

Francis-Crick-Quotes-3

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Guest Post: How to Get Into (and Thrive in) Genetic Counseling Graduate Programs ((By Sarah))

The following is a guest post by a First-Year in my (Jade) program.  We’re glad to hear from you, Sarah —  take it away:

 

Graduate School.  Sounded intimidating.  Sounded like something that would be impossible to get into and that would then consume my life.

Well, that is what I thought when I was going through the application process anyway.  After numerous applications (I applied to 8 schools) and interviews (I chose to interview at 4), I remember feeling like I would never get accepted.  And, after reading the student biographies some schools posted (including my own) I was CONVINCED I would not get in.   However, I made it, and I am so glad that I did.

 

So, how do you get in?  That is the question I am sure every student applying would love to have answered.  Here are 3 tips you might find helpful:

 

  1. Be Genuine.  It is important for you to be who you are.   And, you will be happier in your program if you are.  Every program has its differences and similarities.  You want a program that fits who you are.  I knew I wanted to be able to relate to people well, so a strong psychosocial aspect was key for me.  But it’s not for everyone and you will “feel that out” through the interview process.  And of course, make sure who you are is reflected in your application.

 

  1.  Dress the Part.  This may sound less-important, but allow me to explain.  Graduate schools want someone who is serious about being a Genetic Counselor, which is why it is crucial to demonstrate your professionalism through appearance.  First impressions are crucial, and your attire is part of that first impression.  So, dress professionally [blazer/jacket + skirt/dress pants].  Dressing the part makes you look like you really want a place in a program.  Also, I would recommend a portfolio, so you can take notes, or write down questions to review for yourself pre-interview.  This will also help your feel more prepared and organized.

 

dress

Sarah’s Interview Picks: Long skirt at least to the knee, shoes with low heels, simple bag and minimal jewelry, shirt with a non-revealing neckline, and a professional blazer.  Remember, if you wear a watch, do not keep peering down at it during your interview – you do not want to appear bored or uninterested!

 

3. Prepare a LOT OF QUESTIONS.  Nothing was more difficult than running out of questions to the question: What questions do you have for us?  Particularly since you’re trying not to ask every interviewer the same questions.  You need to get as much information as you can, so prepare a variety of questions that also reflect the specific program.

 

My favorite question:

How did you get into this profession?

 

Another helpful tip:

If you meet anyone you love, or really “hit it off” with while at an interview, GET HIS OR HER CONTACT INFO!  I am currently roommates with one of the girls I met, only once, at our interview.  She was able to remember my name and find me online.  And, of course, it is GREAT to know someone when you move 14 hours away from home to a strange place and find yourself having to make friends all over again!

 

Recommended Undergraduate Experiences: 

  1. Anything in a healthcare setting (including volunteer work!)
  2. Any laboratory experiences ( biology or psychology are very helpful)
  3. If available, consider taking these courses: developmental biology, embryology, any classes related to cancer, cell biology, and an array of psychology courses [in addition to your prerequisites… of course]

 

Best of luck in your application journey!

-Sarah

 

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15-year-old Invents New Method of Diagnosing Cancer #PancreaticCancerResearch

Instead of taking ‘duck-face’ pictures of yourself online…or posting food on Instagram…you could be changing the world.

The following video is an immensely inspiring story about a 15-year-old’s quest in cancer research.  This is especially pertinent as he is investigating early detection of pancreatic cancer — a notoriously sneaky cancer that is often found too late due to few or non-overt symptoms.

Pancreatic cancer is also linked to BRCA1/2 gene mutations associated with Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) syndrome.  While the HBOC risk for pancreatic cancer is increased above that of the general population, it is often disheartening to admit to patients that we are not that great at detection with our current science.

Some will also remember that Carnegie Mellon professor, Randy Pausch, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer.  He is the speaker/author of the inspirational Last Lecture.

 

COMING UP NEXT MONTH: A guest post from a first-year classmate of mine regarding tips & tricks for interviewing with genetic counseling programs.  Many of our “m&g fans” have requested that we discuss How to Get In to Programs ….well, we hear you!

What’s Up Down Under ((By OLIVIA))

Sunrise at Waiatarua, where I’m currently staying.

I can’t promise that I won’t use anymore puns about the Southern Hemisphere while I’m here! As Jade mentioned in her last post I am doing my summer clinical placement at hospitals in New Zealand. I first went to NZ in 2009 on a ‘working holiday’ for a year after I graduated from undergrad- you can read about those adventures here if you are so inclined. I’ve been lucky enough to network with several interesting and extremely helpful people in the Kiwi genetics community and it has been through them that this opportunity became reality! I’m most looking forward to learning about the medical system, cultural differences, and how a smaller genetics service manages to take care of the country’s needs.

I don’t start for a couple of weeks so Ive been resting up, adjusting to the time change, winterizing, prepping my thesis proposal (EEEK!) and catching up with friends. I was watching TV the other day and found this wonderful show called Attitude that I just had to share. It features people with various disABILITIES and their challenges and successes. By now you know how much I love this learning about people’s experiences from their perspective and this show is no exception. I especially love the name! Not sure if the episodes will play in the US, but I hope so. Now that it’s summer, you can spend as much time watching these without feeling guilty!

“She Knew He was a Fighter” ((By Jade))

Check this kid out! Seven-year-old Cody McCasland.

On giving hope to families and patients:

After being examined, the doctors told Mike, ” Your child has bladder syndrome, you should say goodbye to him because he won’t make it through the first 24 hours.”  He was in shock at that point, all of this was new to him and then, he also had to find a way to tell Tina.

 

Because of her experience as a social worker, helping to get medically fragile babies adopted, Tina knew that doctors tend to give, “a worst case scenario” often times because of liability and mal practice law suits.

 

Tina just couldn’t believe it, there was something about Cody, she knew he was a fighter.  She firmly believed that he was going to make it.

Athletic Prowess:

Cody McCasland

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