The Genetic Counseling Job Search

Last week, I began my third maternity leave contract position. For the most part, I have been very lucky in my career so far. In 2008, I accepted a 9-month maternity leave contract right out of school. The position was posted as part-time (3 days per week), but on my second day it became full time. So I could breathe easy for a while knowing that I could count on 9 months of a full-time paycheck. Beyond the financial security, I also lucked out in that the clinic in which I work is perfectly suited to my career interests and preferred work culture. A few months after I started working, one of the counselors announced she was pregnant, due only a couple of weeks after my contract was set to expire. And thus I began my second year of my genetic counseling position (maternity leave in Ontario is one full year). And then, a couple months before my second contract was up a colleague again announced she was expecting. And here I am, beginning year three.

Genetic Counseling: The Career of the Future

We have all seen the lists and media reports that consistently put genetic counseling in the category of top careers for the 21st century.  When thinking about genetic counseling as a career, I did my due diligence, as I am sure most of us did, and collected anecdotal information about the availability of positions beyond graduation. I learned that if you’re flexible in your location, you can find a job. But if you’re set on working in a specific region, it might be more difficult.

Any student who graduated in 2008, or more significantly 2009 or 2010, knows first-hand that the global recession has done little to help in the area of job seeking and creation. From my experience, in Toronto since 2008 there have been a handful of genetic counseling contract positions that have become available. However, in the past 2 years, there has only been one Toronto-based full time permanent genetic counseling job posting. This posting came out a couple of weeks ago, and is for a relatively unknown and questionable private genetic testing company.

What’s a new GC to do?

While historically there may have been stigma around genetic counselors taking on non-traditional roles, my sense is that this sentiment is now pretty obsolete. However, I do think there is a big difference between an experienced GC moving to a non-traditional role and a new graduate taking on such a role right out of school. Personally, I’d consider a less traditional opportunity in the future, but I must admit that I feel a lot of pressure to get some solid experience in a traditional genetics clinic before thinking about moving elsewhere. From speaking with friends, colleagues and other new graduates I know I am not alone in this thinking. There is a fear of being stigmatized and a fear that taking on a non-traditional role out of school will make it difficult to get a more traditional GC job down the road.

Perhaps this is the downfall of such a specialized profession. GC students spend 2 years getting prepared for one very specific role, only to find that they aren’t able to secure this very specialized position in their city of choice. These young professionals have no choice but to look beyond the more traditional genetics clinics. On the other hand, perhaps the job limitations are a blessing in disguise for our profession. We have young and bright minds heading into the workforce and creating new opportunities for themselves and hopefully paving the way for others.

For me, even though I have been blessed with two, going on three years of wonderful and challenging full-time work right out of school, I do struggle a little with living from contract to contract. This has prevented me from being able to plan ahead in significant ways, such as buying a house and committing to a mortgage. My hope is that at some point I will be filling my own position, rather than someone else’s.

I write about the Toronto GC job market because that is what I know. But I recognize that the job market varies considerably across North America and internationally. What has been your experience finding a job out of school? Have you had to create your own opportunity? If so, how did you go about doing it?

Do you think it is necessary to have some traditional genetic counseling experience in order to be taken seriously as a genetic counselor?

20 Comments

Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

20 responses to “The Genetic Counseling Job Search

  1. Hi Allie,

    Thanks for your blog. I have just finished my post graduate diploma in Genetic Counselling, and I must admit to having the similar fearful thoughts. I have struggled as a mature age student to study this course, that I am incredibly passionate about, to find that there are very few positions available in Melbourne, Australia. While some positions do become available Australia-wide, you must be prepared to travel interstate to accept a role. This proves a very difficult situation if for some reason you are unable to travel interstate (ie: single mum with a child very settled in school).

    I have actually accepted a role as a Senior Social and Community Services Officer. This role has some genetic counselling as well as community counselling. I was advised by other Genetic Counsellors that this would be a good stepping stone for my career, however, there is a nagging concern that having taken a non-traditional role straight out of the course, that it will decrease my chances of getting a traditional genetic counselling position later down the track. I just have to hope that this is not the case.

    • Bethany

      Emma,
      I am a science undergraduate living in Melbourne, thinking about doing a Master of Genetic Counselling once I complete my Bachelors degree. Any advice? What are the job prospects like in Melbourne currently?

      Thanks.

  2. I think this is probably the case for any very specialized profession, including the physician subspecialties. It’s fairly easy to get a job as a nurse or a lab tech or even a GP in Ottawa, but there aren’t many openings for thoracic surgeons.

    I’m curious if you’ve looked at jobs elsewhere in Ontario/Canada, and if so, what you’ve observed?

  3. Thanks Emma for your comments. It is nice to hear about the experiences of GCs working outside North America.

    Leslie: You bring up a good point about other specialties. Because my focus has been on genetic counseling, I don’t really have any insight into other specialties, beyond the experience of friends finding work as dieticians, teachers etc. And, because Toronto was my first choice of location coming out of school I haven’t really looked beyond the Toronto area so far. I do have friends who have found permanent roles in other southern Ontario cities, and some friends who are also still filling contract positions. There are some cities (Vancouver, for example) that are known to be notoriously hard to secure a GC position in. But to some degree I do think that a lot of the job search comes down to determination (e.g. making as many connections as you can, taking risks) and part luck (e.g. being in the right place at the right time).

  4. Working in a nontraditional role myself, and having had previous clinical experience, I think your concerns are well founded. Even the more experienced counselors worry about leaving this position, and will we then be considered too “specialized” or “nontraditional” that we will be overlooked when trying to return to clinic someday. I can imagine it being even more difficult coming to a nontraditional role as a new grad.

    Unfortunately, our continuing education does not involve patient contact. I wonder if including some clinic visits or patient contact periodically would help us look more “well rounded” for when we are in the job market?

    It appears as though the number of new graduates in genetic counseling is growing, yet the number of genetic counseling jobs in the US is not. Does anyone else get this feeling?

  5. Sarah

    Thank you for your post Allie. It’s nice to hear that other newer GCs have the same concerns that I do. I too graduated in 2008 and took a nontraditional job in lieu of moving far from home. I worry that I will not be considered for traditional jobs when I am ready to move to clinic. It has already been 2 years in this position and none of that has been spent in clinic.

    American GC, I do agree that the number of jobs does not seem to be growing. I can only hope that the number will grow as the economy in the US recovers. Fingers crossed!

  6. Amy

    I have been a GC for 13 years. The first 11 were as a research coordinator. I had the same fears as others about the ability to move into a clinical role. I was worried when I decided it was time to move on who would want to hire me for a clinical job. After 2 years in my current clinical job I found out was that I had experiences from my nontraditional job that translated very nicely to my clinical job. I feel that my nontraditional experiences actually bring a lot to my clinical job that a GC with more traditional experiences would not have. So do not fear that nontraditional experience!

  7. Bob Resta

    Broadly speaking, traditional jobs keep you tied to the past but non-traditional jobs open up your future and the future of the profession. The clinical jobs of tomorrow may look very different from the clinics your training prepared you for. Either we evolve or we become an evolutionary dead end.

    Go forth and multiply, I say unto thee.

  8. Anne

    >I feel that my nontraditional experiences actually bring a lot to my clinical job that a GC with more traditional experiences would not have.

    I think the challenge isn’t in convincing ourselves that we have the skills to move from a traditional to a nontraditional job or vice versa. The challenge is in convincing employers. Hiring and training somebody is an expense (of time and money). Managers (whether GC’s, MD’s, HR professionals) want to be sure that they’re going to hire somebody who can do the job and can fit within the culture. Making a mistake in that assessment is costly.

    Often it’s less risky to go with somebody whose background you’re familiar with and where you can see an easy translation of their skills from one position to another. It takes a bolder manager, one who has more confidence in her ability to assess skills and ‘think outside the box’, to hire somebody where the translation of a skill set from one job to the next isn’t as clear cut. In my experience, it isn’t always easy for an applicant to make a hiring manager see the application of skills acquired in a nontraditional setting to a traditional setting.

  9. Sarah

    Great blog… your words are pretty much exactly the thoughts that were going through my own head when I decided to market myself for a “non-traditional” genetic counseling role, after only one year of clinical experience. Not only was I afraid I would not be able to come back to a traditional role in the future, I was also afraid I would not feel fulfillment in what I was doing.
    However, since starting my role, I truly feel that a genetic counselor is a perfect fit. Liaising with health care providers is actually not so far removed from direct patient care. I am active as a patient advocate and, the more I get involved in the role, the more I feel like jobs like these are PERFECT for genetic counselors. The field in general is growing and expanding in non-traditional ways, and there are going to be, and should be genetic counselors embedded in as many areas as possible.
    Taking on non-traditional roles also adds to your already existing skill-set, whether it be from past job experience or training through a masters program. I (hope to) think that having a dynamic background can only give you a stronger skill set.

  10. Leslie

    Sarah, would you be willing to elaborate on what you do in your current job, i.e. in what capacity you liaise with health care providers? As someone who is applying to genetic counseling programs in the next year, I’m very interested in seeing what paths GCs have taken outside of the traditional roles. Thanks!

  11. Emily

    Thanks for this great post. I took a non-traditional (research) job right out of school. They were not advertising for a GC, but when I explained my background the physician who was hiring had an immediate “a-ha” moment – of course a GC was the perfect fit (and he has continued to hire more and more GCs over the years since I left!). I did struggle a little bit with my “GC identity” at the time. This was at a time (1998) when there were not as many support resources for counselors working in nontraditional roles. I had no idea how or when I would segway into clinical work – a job was a job and it was better than my temp job🙂. When I did get into clinical work (4-5 years later), it was out of necessity due to a move. Getting up to speed on the clinical information was more of a challenge than polishing my counseling skills, which had been honed somewhat in my research role since I had worked directly with families. Had I been competing with someone who had a ton of clinical experience I might not have been offered the clinical job; but as it was, there was not a ton of competition at that time (that was lucky).

    Personally I would not worry about getting “traditional” experience first. If you start out in a nontraditional role and make a change later, presumably it is for a good reason. You don’t know where your passion lies until you try a few different things and that can make you a stronger counselor. But if there is a chance you might switch later, I would try to stay abreast of the clinical scene at least a little – stay on the listserv, go to NSGC every few years, etc. You don’t want to totally lose touch with the clinical GC world.

    I am sure the GC training programs struggle with how to adequately prepare students for the increasingly diverse roles available to us. It’s a good problem to have, though. It’s as important as ever that the NSGC continue to embrace GCs of all roles and develop resources to assist GCs in the inevitable transitions we’ll all have between roles during our careers.

  12. Jehannine

    It is wonderful to have our attitude towards roles that do not involve clinical service delivery named as stigma – because I believe that you are right, this is what it is. And by consciously naming it, perhaps we can work towards doing something about it.
    As is the case with almost every stigmatized trait that I can think of, it is likely that what we are dealing with here is fear of differentness because it is unfamiliar.
    We all want jobs that we have been exposed to in one way or another (otherwise how do you know about it to want it?) – thats why kids all tend to want to be police, bus drivers, and doctors rather than behavioural economists (nod to Dan Ariely for making me laugh about this in “upside of irrationality”). Its also why all PhD students want to be academics – they are the only role models with similar educational backgrounds that PhD students are routinely exposed to. The same holds true for GCs. We are taught/mentored mostly by genetic counselors who hold clinical service delivery roles, and that being what we are exposed to, that is what we want to do – because we are not much exposed to anything else, and if we don’t know about it how do we know we want to do it?
    Also, as human beings, there is a tendency to want (whether it is consciously or subconsciously) to mold others in our own image (as deliverers of clinical service, we think new grads should start with a clinical service job) – in part at least perhaps because being different is difficult, and so encouraging others to be different is also difficult – particularly if you care about them (as I think most people in our profession do about the students they interact with). Also, its harder to help people get a start in something you have less experience with and know considerably less about.
    However, if the discussion here reflects reality, and the number of clinical service delivery GC roles being created by those with healthservice purse strings is not increasing, this will put pressure on the system (more people trained for and wanting jobs in a particular sector than there are jobs)……sounds to me, as Bob suggested, like evolutionary pressure to diversify and find new niches or we become an evolutionary dead end. Alternatively (or, as well?), we need to do more to prove/quantify the value (in terms that those holding the healthservice purse strings understand – like in economic terms or patient outcomes) of our clinical service delivery, such that more money is made available to hire more of us for those jobs that all new grads want. This proving/quantifying means research, which is often classified as “non-traditional” and hence, stigmatized….and that is where I will stop going round in circles🙂
    In a side note, against advice, I took on a “non-traditional role” straight out of school, that I created myself. It was a research job that over a period of years has evolved into a professorship. I do not provide a clinical service, but I do genetic counseling, because some of my research is looking at the impact the intervention has, and so I do have day to day exposure of interacting with “patients” (in my case though, they are research participants), AND day to day experience of providing genetic counseling. The point of the story being that there are ways to do actual genetic counseling outside of delivering a clinical service.

  13. nontraditional GC

    well said Jehannine. I have been a nontrad. counselor for 8 years and have loved every minute of it. I have seen other counselors bounce in and out of the lab I worked for, from traditional jobs without an issue. However I have been in the job market for a year now and am having a very difficult time securing my next job. Although I have years of experience both in traditional and nontraditional roles AND am certified, I am getting beaten out of jobs across the country by new grads. This recession that we are going through is not only hitting new grads hard, but also us GC’s that have been counselors for years and are looking for work. Seems like experience, certification, and ability to move anywhere does not matter at this time, rather money does.

    I agree with those that have seen the articles, 3 years ago, stating genetic counseling is one of the top positions to have and i have to say its frustrating to read because the demand for counseling services is just not growing quick enough for the numbers that are graduating. The market is not changing quick enough to support us.

    Not only do we need to hear more about how to start up nontraditional work, but also how to market ourselves in avenues that have never been occupied by counselors. Further, I think the schools need to get more involved in providing better services to support new and old graduates in finding and creating positions in non-traditional roles, rather than just using the listserve as our primary means of finding a job. The schools put us in the program, now they need to invest in our future.

    • looking for non traditional jobs

      I am so happy that I have found this blog. I don’t feel so alone any more. I graduated 3 years ago, worked as a traditional GC for a year in a temporary position and can’t seem to find a job anywhere. I live in the NY/NJ area and the competition is tough. I am an older grad and I also think that there are just too many GC’s going for the very limited positions. I am racking my brains for non-traditional roles just so I can keep working and keep my brain cells going. I actually think I may prefer a non-traditional role. I really don’t know if I need further schooling in research or grant writing or marketing. I am really lost! All I know is the longer I go without working, I will lose some of what I learned and spent so much time and money achieving. I just don’t know where to turn for information on non-traditional roles. Does anyone have any ideas they are willing to post?

      • Hi there,

        Thanks for your comment, which only reinforces to me the importance of this blog.

        As for your question about non-traditional roles, I would look at the comments section of Jessica Giordano’s post (https://thednaexchange.com/2010/07/09/traditional-versus-non-traditional/#comments) in which Beth Balkite gives some ideas and suggestions about so additional avenues to pursue.

        From the comments given on this and Jess’ post, it seems clear that you are not alone in your job search! We will keep this in mind for future publications and welcome any other readers who are willing to share their experiences as a guest blogger.

        Hope this helps a little. Thanks again for reading.

      • Beth Balkite

        Looking for a non-traditional job? You may want to review pages 548-551 in the most recent edition of A Guide to Genetic Counseling. This section is entitled: Tools for Working Outside the Box: What Genetic Counselors Can Bring to a Non-traditional Role. It also has a section on transitioning into a non-traditional role. I was a contributor to this section because all of my years as a counselor–except the first two–have been non-traditional. This section may not get you a job, but should help you design a resume that you can use to apply for a non-traditional role as well as help you find the a job in a different area.

  14. Hello all! I am a middle aged lady who is looking at returning to work after raising a family. I earned an arts degree and took an unusually large number of science courses as well before beginning a family. I am very interested in picking up my academics again in advance of launching a second career. Genetic counselling appeals to me for a number of reasons, but I have some questions for you all.

    1. I may well prefer part time or a series of contract positions; is this practical in this career?

    2. What is the most advisable route to take re: education and qualification?

    Any comments, observations or advice welcomed.

    Kindest Regards,
    Janet

    • Mara

      Hi Janet,
      Your questions are good ones. I am 44 and went back to receive my Masters in genetic counseling when I was 38. I have two children so I was fortunate to live near one of the more well known programs that also had a part-time program. I believe most of the accredited programs are Masters programs specifically for genetic counseling. I was an engineer undergrad so I had to take some prerequisite biology and genetics courses to get into the program. I also thought it would be an ideal profession for working part time so that I could still be around for my girls. However, I am still unemployed. There are very few jobs right now let alone part time positions. I live in the North East outside of NYC. The job market for genetic counselors is not booming right now. If you are willing to relocate, there are jobs that pop up all over the country. Also, by the time you graduate, the situation should be better. (let’s hope so anyway). Genetic counseling, in general, is a job that can be done part time. So, I say go for it! It has been a great learning experience for me and quite an accomplishment at this stage of life.
      Good luck! Feel free to ask me more questions if you have any.
      Mara

  15. Thanks for that Mara! I did a little digging around our local university website (UBC, my alma mater has a GC master’s program). My sciences are no longer acceptable, too stale dated, so I would have to spend 2-3 years taking all the base science courses required for a BSc. in Genetics, then apply for the Master’s program at roughly 55 years of age. The $64,000 question is: would they accept into the program a student who is THAT mature! I am not sure how frank they would be on that topic.

    While I would certainly be disappointed not to find a counselling position where I supported real clients, I could content myself with lab work/tutoring etc. especially given that at my age, I have many things going on in my life that give me satisfaction, and don’t have to fret about supporting myself (did all the hard work on that score already!).

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