Geneticists, Genetic Counselors, and Me with my Bachelor’s in Genetics?

Happy New Year and welcome to the ever scary and exciting interview offer season. As of yet, there is no news. 😂

My husband is a 3rd grade teacher. In the age of scientific and technological advancement, teachers like him are actively encouraged to teach young students about scientific topics and related careers. To my delight, in the next week or so they are going to have a lesson on genetics. The related career is geneticist. But what is a geneticist? Well, I’m still answering that for myself and if you ask the media, you get this…

(I think I’m supposed to say here that I don’t own this video, and merely hit the share button from YouTube).

Now this particular career looks pretty cool. In this scene they don’t say what Dr. Wu’s qualifications are, other than saying he’s a “geneticist”. They are calling him doctor though, so we’ll assume PhD. The funny thing is, when I declared an undergraduate major in genetics, this is the kind of work I assumed I’d be doing upon graduation. At BYU we could pick tracks of our major, then called “animal”, “plant”, “microbial”, and “biobusiness” (animal is now more appropriately called “biomedical”). I thought if I pick plant, I’m creating new GMOs right out of school, pick animal and I’m either making dinosaurs or curing cancer.

This here is not what I imagined in all

IMG_3855.JPG
My first day at Huntsman Hospital. I’m wearing scrubs because I handle human blood all day, and my required job skills are a bachelor’s degree (which I haven’t actually quite finished yet in this pic), Outlook, Excel, pipette, biosafety hood, and common biohazard sense

 

I made this post to go over the real major real-life branches of a “geneticist” career, and the education required to get there. It’s very common for undergrad freshman to be led to believe they will be Dr. Wu right out of school if they major in STEM. Let’s talk about what job prospects are really like.

Bachelor’s in Genetics (or Biology, Biochem, Zoology, Physiology, etc.)

An aspiring geneticist needs a bachelor’s, for certain. But bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma, due to an educational and hiring trend known as credential creep. My friends are I who are currently out working with biology-related bachelor’s degrees didn’t have much of an issue finding a job. But are they dream jobs? Not really. We’re not geneticists or innovative researchers. We work in entry-level clinical and industry lab tech positions. Many of us are applying to graduate school or exploring other career growth options, to escape the fate of 40 years at the lab bench. This reality is pretty terribly under-explained to undergraduates picking a major. In seemed like many students in my major (genetics) were in med-school-or-bust mode by junior year, after they realized what awaited them without graduate school. But med school is just one of a few pathways into the “geneticist” career we were all dreaming of.

Master’s in Genetic Counseling

Today I learned that if you Google “how to become a geneticist”, some of the top results will show you how to become a genetic counselor. This phenomenon occurs because genetic counseling is probably the quickest and most linear path into a clinical genetics career. Applicants can come right from undergrad, and two years later transition right out of graduate school into a high-demand career. This path is right for genetics students who want to be involved in patient care, but don’t see themselves as physicians. The daily work involves meeting with patients and families dealing with genetic disease, helping them understand options for treatment and psychological coping. Genetic counselors can participate in research, though it’s often population science based research, rather than wet lab work. Doctors who work in genetics clinics with genetic counselors are called Clinical Geneticists.

MD / DO Clinical Geneticist

For genetics-minded students who do see themselves in the physician role, there’s the clinical geneticist path. Clinical geneticists go from their bachelor’s training into medical school (MD or DO), and at the conclusion of medical school, attend medical genetics residency, or internal/pediatric/family residency followed by a genetics fellowship. So, lots more school. But also higher pay.

I’ve interacted with clinical geneticists mostly at Primary Children’s while shadowing peds GCs. The reason for that is pediatric genetics has a diagnostic aspect that isn’t as prominent in cardiology, cancer, or lab genetic counseling (I haven’t shadowed prenatal so I don’t know as much about the dynamics there). Cardiology and Cancer consults are often centered around family history of a disease, so there’s no need for patient exams or diagnostics. In peds, however, the genetics team often sees children presenting with interesting symptoms or a distinctive appearance, that might all relate to a genetic disorder. When I’ve shadowed with clinical geneticists, they’ve been seeing patients with the genetic counselor, and basically taking all of the hands-on “doctor work”, while the GC takes family and personal history, counsels about genetic testing options, orders testing, and explains results or possible results. The official diagnosis will be based on exam from the clinical geneticist and genetic test results. Clinical geneticists can spend their time both in clinical roles as described, in a more medical-research facing role, or both.

PhD Geneticist

We’ve looped back around to Dr. Wu. There are many career options for PhD scientists of all specialties, mostly fitting under one of the two umbrellas– academia or industry. The professors I had teaching me genetics in school are probably the closest to pure, laboratory innovators geneticists that I’ll ever work with. Most of the professors in genetics at BYU were plant geneticists working in that GMO-type research sector. Some professors of genetics, biology, or physiology study biomedical genetic topics, like the genetics of Alzheimer’s, autism, obesity, or alcoholism. Sadly, no one is making dinosaurs, although a few are chipping away at cancer.

This career path is right for genetics students who really want to be scientists. Researching and dreaming up research for life! Although I never considered this path, I am so grateful for those who dedicate their lives to research. These types of geneticists make what the rest of us do possible.

Genetics Nursing / PA / etc.

It’s also possible to work in genetics through any number of allied health professions. Clinical geneticists and GCs rely on these partners to accomplish the best patient care. If any of you are a nurse or other allied health professional and you read this blog– yay! You know more about this than me so I’ll keep quiet cause you already know you can work in any specialty you like.

*****

It’s getting harder and harder to get a fulfilling job with a broad bachelor’s degree in something like biology or genetics. That’s one reason genetic counseling interest is growing fast!  These are a few of the careers open to genetics grads. I wish that I had known from the get-go that I would need graduate or professional school to work as a “geneticist”. No one gets rich quick with their bachelor’s in genetics. Yet, earning my degree was fascinating and rewarding, and studying a little longer to be more fulfilled is 100% fine by me.

Did I miss any major branches of genetics careers? Let me know!

Maybe next week there will be grad school news!

-Laura Cooper-Hastings

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