So, you’re sold that Health and Social Care is the path for you. That’s great and all, but where on earth do you start...
- Help patients understand their genetic risks using your specialist scientific knowledge and counselling skills
- This work can be emotionally challenging but highly rewarding
- You'll need to develop excellent science knowledge and counselling skills like tact and empathy
As a genetic counsellor you'll use your specialist knowledge of genetics to help patients understand the likely risks they face in terms of health problems that are genetic.
You might work with patients who are facing incredibly difficult decisions, so you'll develop the counselling skills to work with tact, empathy, and care - but you'll also combine this with detailed scientific knowledge, so you'll need to develop a wide and balanced skillset.
You'll train as a specialist scientist, and you'll be involved in:
- Ordering and analysing genetic testing
- Looking at patients' family history to help understand how health problems have been passed down through the generations
- Making an assessment of the likely risks they face
- Discussing this with the families
- Helping them understand their options and the likely implications
Genetic counsellors are usually based in specialist genetics department or genomic medicine centre, but you might also work as part of multidisciplinary teams who plan and deliver care for particular types of illnesses.
To become a genetic (or genomic - a name increasingly being used in the NHS) counsellor, you'll need excellent science knowledge (biology in particular), but also people skills, empathy, and the ability to consider many perspectives.
There are three routes into genetic counselling. Firstly, is to take a Masters that is accredited by the Genetic Counselling Registration Board (GCRB). You'll usually work in a pre-registration genetic counsellor role (Band 6) for two years. This work will be supervised. Then you can get registered status as a genetic counsellor.
Most genetic counsellors in the NHS train through the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) in genomic counselling. This counts as a Masters degree, and combines work as a genetic counsellor. You'll then be able to work as a Band 7 genetic counsellor.
To gain a place you'll need to have studied for a degree in a relevant subject (biosciences, psychology, nursing, and midwifery degrees may all be considered relevant - although if your degree didn't contain a genetics module or component you may need to complete an extra short course). If you have a degree in a different subject you could do a higher degree (like a Masters) in a relevant subject before applying to the STP programme.
Work experience or volunteer experience in a caring field is also essential, and you'll normally need to build up the equivalent of six months relevant full time work experience before you apply to the STP programme.
If you're already a registered nurse or midwife that has completed training in counselling skills and human genetics, you can start work in a Band 6 pre-registration genetic counsellor role for two years, and then apply to register with the GCRB.
Once qualified, you can progress by gaining experience. You could become a consultant genetic counsellor - although these roles are rare and only available in some clinical genetics departments.
You could also pursue a career as a researcher on psychosocial issues of genetic counselling.