Category Archives: tips’n’tricks

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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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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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-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

Mid-Interview Soul Searching ((by Olivia))

By now, interview season for genetic counseling programs is in full swing.   Many of you  likely have one interview under your belt (if not, then it’s coming up shortly; as if you needed reminding!). This time of year can give a new meaning to “March Madness,” so here are some tips from myself and the other M&G bloggers to help you stay sane and on your game:

Pre-Interview Prep

GC program interview questions can cover a wide range of topics, including general genetics, the genetic counseling profession, legal and ethical dilemmas in genetics/genetic counseling, current events in genetics, as well as some of the more typical questions that help interviewers learn about you and your personality.  Each program puts their own unique twist on the interview process, so anticipate that there may be surprises both in type of questions as well as the way interviews are conducted.  Thinking on your feet is good practice for being a real genetic counselor!

So how do you prepare?

1. Practice, practice, practice. As Jade C. puts it “professionals practice for interviews.” And she is SO right.  In no way is it nerdy, lame, or overkill to work through your answers to interview questions, even if that means writing out word-for-word responses.  Have a friend ask you random questions or talk to yourself in the mirror; this type of “out loud” practice can help ensure clarity when you respond, with less distracting “um’s” and “likes.” Having solid responses to common questions will also help calm your nerves when the big day arrives, because you’ll feel ready and confident.

2. Know how to share your story – concisely. The “elevator speech” is a 1 minute spiel that everyone should have up their sleeve as a way to introduce themselves and break the ice on interview day. Carla suggests working in your hometown, educational background, relevant experience, accomplishments, and finish with hobbies or personal interests.  Think about what drew you into the genetic counseling career and find a unique way to answer this question that will almost certainly be asked. Side note: I still use the 1 liner I developed for my GC interviews to answer patients who ask me how I got interested in genetic counseling.

3. Own your strengths & your weaknesses. While it’s important to play up your strongest assets and proudest moments on your resume, programs will also be on the look out for areas of past difficulty.  Everyone has a few skeletons in the transcript closet, and I think it’s reasonable to anticipate questions about why those areas were challenging and how you have worked to improve. Keep your answer short and end on a high note: explain how the experience has helped you succeed in a future endeavor. This will show that you understand failure happens, you are mature enough to reflect on the situation, and brave enough to try again!

4. Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself to your favorite things during this time of stress and vulnerability. As the week of/night before your interview approaches, make sure you are doing lots of things that allows your mind to clear and makes your soul smile.  A few suggestions: get good sleep, buy some great music, Jade T. suggests deep breathing or yoga- whatever works for you! On the day of the interview, strike up a conversation with the other interviewees; they are probably just as nervous as you are.  Who knows, you might even make friends (that’s how Jade C. and I met all those years ago)!

Post-Interview Wrap Up

The hard part of the interview process may end once you answer your last question and head back home, but assessing each program is equally important as them assessing you!  It’s best to do this soon after your visit, while the details are still fresh in your memory. How this program mesh with you as an individual and as a student?  Sometimes developing a visual aid to compare and contrast is useful.  You could also develop your own ranking system and make a spreadsheet to keep track. NSGC has a spreadsheet here to get you started (scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page). Carla recommends creating a short list of questions that would influence your decision and pose them to each program during your interview day.

Points to consider:

  • What’s most important to you in a program? Emotional support, innovation, reputation, sense of closeness between faculty and students?
  • Do you have any long-term career goals (work in a university, start a company? specialize?) How does this program fit into that goal?
  • What financial pros/cons are there about this program? What financial aid exists for GC grad students (like scholarships)?
  • Which program did you like best overall and why?
  • Still have final questions? Most programs have a current students or alumni that you can ask about day-to-day campus life and area living.  Send the program an email to ask; it will show your interest and give you a chance to thank them after your interview.
  • Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut instinct!

Take home Message: it’s important to make the effort to prepare before your interview, organize your thoughts and emotions after,  and to take time for yourself in between so you can continue to be your most confident, happy self during the interview mania.  Good luck!

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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Getting Into A GC Program: A Follow Up ((By Melissa))

Maps & Genes received a personal email from a prospective GC applicant in response to the latest post of “Getting Into A GC Program:  10 Things TO DO!” by Sarah.  The prospective student was currently an undergraduate in her sophomore year.  Her main question was “how hard is it to get into a GC program?” with her concerns centered around GPA/GRE weighting and shadowing/gaining experience related to an acceptance rate that did not seem too favorable.  Another concern she addressed was where to find a site that ranked the genetic counseling programs.  As she is definitely not the only one to have these questions, we wanted to make our response available for all to read.

First, I’d like to start off by thanking you so much for your interest in the blog… you are our target audience!  It’s even better to hear your thoughts and questions that come to mind as you are considering genetic counseling.
In terms of your main question of “how hard is it to get into a program?”…it seems as though you have been doing great research on programs.  It sounds as though genetic counseling is something you are strongly considering, and I would encourage you to continue in this pursuit.  Although we cannot give you exact answers or know exactly what programs will be looking for during admissions, we can give you advice on how to best prepare yourself to be a good candidate!  Our latest blog post talks about it in detail, but I wanted to address your comments and tailor the advice specifically to your concerns!
I think that the fact that you are just a sophomore gives you a great advantage and a jump start on getting involved.  It is true that the GPA and GRE averages are not ridiculous, but they are competitive enough to let the program know that you are capable of performing well academically.  With the vast number of applications received, it seems as though these concrete values are factored into the “weeding out” process.  What is refreshing to see and what sort of embodies the role of a future genetic counselor would be involvement in extracurriculars related to the field while still maintaining a good academic standing.
The reason I use the word “extracurriculars” is because there are students in genetic counseling programs who never got the opportunity to shadow a genetic counselor prior to applying.  The importance of this aspect just lies within the fact that you know what it means to be a genetic counselor and what it entails.  One of the only guarantees I can tell you is that during the interview process you will have to answer the question “why do you want to be a genetic counselor?”. Should you choose to pursue volunteering at a crisis center or somewhere else, you can take the opportunity to demonstrate how you will use your experiences and apply them in the genetic counseling session.
Lastly, there is no site that ranks genetic counseling programs.  All programs are excellent training and education opportunities for future genetic counselors, and the programs differ more so on geographic location and character than X being better than Y.  When choosing where to apply, it is a very personal decision and you should determine what factors are the most important to you, whether it be staying close to home, finances, curriculum focus, etc.
Sorry for the length, but I hope this gave you some of the answers you were looking for!  Again, you are young in your undergrad and it is great to see that genetic counseling is an interest of yours, so please do not be discouraged by this “low” acceptance rate…just make some contacts to get involved and keep up your grades!  Please let us know if you have any more questions!
And thanks for reading 🙂
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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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