Since the first established Master’s Programme in the UK in 1992, there has been a growing demand for Genetic Counsellors and a growing recognition of the role of genetics in health. To address this, in 2016 the NHS developed the Science Training programme (STP) in Genomic Counselling in partnership with the University of Manchester. When I was looking into applying in that first year of the programme, I found a lot of things were a big unknown in terms of what specifically was required to have a good chance of getting an interview. I couldn’t find many people talking about their experience of applying without reading lengths of conversation on the Student Room.
You may have found this blog as you are just starting to think about applying, or preparing to reapply. Over the past three years of submitting applications to the scheme, I feel I have gained insight into what helped in putting the best application forward.
Whatever stage you are at, I want to try and pass on my experience to help other aspiring Genetic Counsellors.
Gain well-rounded experience
With a high number of quality applicants each year, it is important to be aware of your strengths and also ensure that you have the well-rounded experience the STP looks for. Though the mandatory experience is stated as a First or 2:1 in a biological science, psychology or nursing degree, and a minimum of 6 months full-time or equivalent experience in a caring role (and ideally more), with the competitive nature of applications I would advise going above and beyond this. There’s a variety of ways you can do this and there’s no right or wrong. My fellow STPs have varied backgrounds and you can choose what works best for you. From speaking to various Genetic Counsellors and those involved in the Genomic Counselling STP, I feel the following three areas are a strong basis to focus on:
- Direct experience working with patients or vulnerable people
Whether this be a part-time or full-time role(s) within the NHS, for a charity, volunteering on the wards at a hospital, or as a care assistant (e.g. in a care home), this experience will strengthen your application and enable you to gain vital skills and knowledge transferrable to a role in Clinical Genetics.
- A good understanding of genetics
If you don’t have an academic background in genetics, undertake a short course in human genetics. The Genomics Education Programme also has free resources including family history taking and online courses in genetics (see Helpful Resources). Equally, improve your understanding of different genetic conditions that Genetic Counsellors see in the clinic, and ensure that you have considered how these conditions impact individuals and families. If you have a genetics background, research roles, industrial placements and/or a dissertation in genetics would further strengthen this experience.
- Counselling in some capacity
To me, this always seemed like the most difficult element to fulfil without any prior experience, however, it is important to gain some sort of experience in counselling both for you to know this role is right for you and to demonstrate your interest in becoming a Genetic Counsellor. For example, some fellow applicants completed evening courses at local colleges or online counselling courses; whilst others who felt it was right for them, undertook volunteering roles at helplines such as Samaritans or Nightline, which offer in-depth training and hands-on experience.
These are varied skills that are expected and I think the STP fully expect each applicant to be much stronger in one area, dependent on whether you have more of a patient-care or science background. It is helpful to identify any gaps you feel you have and work towards building on them.
Ideas for going that extra mile
- Attend Genomic Counselling STP open days by looking out on the National School of Healthcare Science website or by reaching out to regional genetics departments to see if they are holding any.
- Reach out to Genetic Counsellors to learn more about the profession, and, on the very rare occasion that they have time in the department, try and shadow in the clinic (this is not expected and most people won’t find this opportunity).
- Reach out to current STPs and ask about the scheme and their experiences.
- Complete a Future learn or Connecting Science course based around Genetic Counselling (What is Genetic Counselling? is a new course held twice a year which you can find here).
- Become a STEM Ambassador and share your passion for science with young people.
- Volunteer at a local science fair or festival.
- Volunteer or work for a charity supporting those with genetic conditions or vulnerable people in the community (you could sign up to the Genetic Alliance UK newsletter and social media to stay up to date with their genetic support group members).
- Get involved with a science society or science magazine and gain experience in science communication.
- Look out for conferences you could attend (such as the Festival of Genomics and the World Congress on Genetic Counselling).
- Read around the subject of Genetic Counselling and general counselling techniques.
- Stay up-to-date with news around genetic breakthroughs and topical issues linked to Genetic Counselling such as patient views on genetic data sharing and clinical cases of interest such as ABC vs. St George’s (see helpful resources below). For example, you could set up Google Alerts.
- Listen to relevant podcasts discussing genetics and psychosocial impacts of health conditions such as DNA Today, Naked Scientist, Genetics Society, GC Chat and You, Me and the Big C.
Try and see the time you spend gaining this experience as an opportunity and not a tick box exercise. The skills you will build on will make you a better Genetic Counsellor with a broader insight into the field of genetics and patient care.
These are flexible suggestions which I hope can inspire creative ways to get involved in activities which are tailored to your interests. You may also consider finding a mentor (e.g. at work) who can help you talk through your ideas on strengthening your application and who may help you build contacts that will help and inspire you. I found this invaluable to keep up my motivation to keep applying and to regularly reflect on what steps I had taken to build experience. It was also the stepping stone I needed to gain advice on where to go next when I felt my background was very science heavy.
If you feel you are lacking in the leadership area of the application, you could also consider a mentoring or teaching role at work or as a volunteer, or start to lead more projects within your current roles (don’t forget this can include outside interests such as leading a sports society, organising an event, etc).
Most of these suggestions will strengthen your application by demonstrating your passion for science and becoming a Genomic Counselling STP.
Make your application shine
Writing everything you want to say into four 250 word sections is a challenge. Here are my eight top suggestions:
- I found writing everything out without any word restrictions helpful, then editing (a lot).
- Two or three solid examples within a section are much more valuable than five brief scenarios. What skills have you displayed and developed? What was the outcome?
- Don’t undersell your contributions, make sure it is clear how you have contributed and what this has meant for the patient or the team.
- Where relevant, always bring it back to how your actions have benefited the patient and the NHS values you have demonstrated.
- When you are talking about Genetic Counsellors and their role, don’t overuse words like empathy. Keep your language varied and relevant to Genetic Counselling. Reading recent papers that explore the approaches to patient autonomy and directive counselling will help in this.
- Remember they want to know why you want this specific scheme as well as why you want to be a Genetic Counsellor. Answer both of these questions in your application. The scheme is a huge investment in each individual trainee and a challenging process so you need to show your determination and enthusiasm.
- When you have drafted your application, get someone trusted to read it through. Ideally, ask someone you know who has very good grammar and someone who has an understanding of the Genetic Counselling profession. You will probably have read the application so many times at this point that it won’t look like English anymore!
- Finally, adding in that you’re reapplying isn’t a bad thing; it displays resilience.
I hope this has been helpful and I wish you the very best of luck!