By Ryan Hartman
Before graduate school I had the opportunity to work as a genetic counseling assistant in a diagnostic testing lab in Maryland. It was an incredible experience, and it helped me to develop a sense of the field before graduate school. I came out of Virginia Tech knowing that I wanted to be a genetic counselor, but I did not really know what I needed to do to prepare to get to graduate school to be one. The application deadlines had all passed for that current year, so I began scrounging around for jobs I thought might be applicable. I knew two things at that point in my life:
- I didn’t want to be doing bench work and
- I needed a job.
Luckily I landed the perfect opportunity at GeneDx.
They explained to me in my interview that the position was a launch pad to graduate school, and many of my colleagues in the assistant role wanted to do the same thing. It just seemed perfect. I waited a little over a month and as soon as I heard that I had gotten the job, I accepted it and made plans to move to Maryland after graduation. I knew then that my journey was taking off in the right direction.
As soon as I arrived I knew that I did not know enough about genetics yet. I was placed in the cardiogenetics department, and the learning curve was steep at the outset. I remember constantly having to look up terms and acronyms that went over my head. This must have happened for the first month until I really settled in and got the hang of what I was doing. However, during this time I realized that what I was learning the field.
I was picking up lessons and nuisances that I still use today in graduate school, and I know I will use them in my career as well. I worked on difficult cases and had to call doctors and genetic counselors to receive clarification on test orders. I went through thousands of clinic notes and databased information for our counselors and doctors to do research. This data basing was probably where I picked up the most knowledge about cardiology in general, and this is certainly where I began to fall in love with cardio genetics.
I did little tasks that the genetic counselors asked throughout the year when things came up. I approved tests before they went into the lab for their correct demographics and tests ordered. Through each one of the necessary cogs in the corporate machine, I played a role in the healthcare of the individuals sending samples to the lab. I felt immediately out of college that I was helping to make a difference in the healthcare of people. It was a great feeling, and I look forward to increasing it after graduation from UNCG as well.
The job and experience as a whole helped a ton to get to where I am. Not only does it look great on a resume to work in the field for a year prior to graduate school, but I was prepped with knowledge, lingo and firsthand encounters I could share at interviews. I also had the support of a number of genetic counselors at GeneDx who wanted to see me succeed. I reflected on these experiences as an assistant in so many ways.
There is no way I would’ve had the repertoire of skills if I had come right out of my undergrad into graduate school. I also didn’t have enough bare bones knowledge about human genetics out of undergrad, and I would not have been prepared to enter a heavy course load of just that in graduate school. I was able to meet people at GeneDx who remain friends with me to this day, and I met mentors as doctors and genetic counselors who I will keep in touch far beyond graduate school.
I was lucky to land in such a great learning environment, and I was able to make connections with people who believed in my potential.
The genetic counseling assistant position is growing in number as well, so the opportunities are there for people to gain that experience like I did before coming back to college for graduate studies. Maybe you need to complete a few extra prerequisites. Maybe you need more experience like me to get your feet wet in the genetics world. Maybe you just want to take a year or two and make some money.
There are countless reasons why it could be a good idea to go to the working world before pursuing that graduate degree. I would not be where I am today without that job, and I am grateful for what it gave to me to further my career and be the best genetic counselor I can be.