Our journey into genetic counselling
We asked recent Master of Genetic Counselling graduates to talk about their experiences of training and transitioning to work as Associate Genetic Counsellors.
Sarah Collis and Shelby Taylor, are both New Zealanders who completed their Master of Genetic Counselling at the University of Melbourne in 2015 and 2017 respectively. They share with us what it’s like to be a genetic counsellor.
Tell us about your pathway to becoming genetic counsellors
Sarah: I am originally from Wellington, New Zealand, and now work as an Associate Genetic Counsellor with the Genetic Health Service NZ, Central Hub. My undergraduate qualification was a double Biomedical Science and Arts degree. While studying, I obtained volunteering experience as a Girl Guiding Leader, and as a Wellington Riding for the Disabled volunteer. I had a science background and enjoyed working with individuals and families, so I wanted to combine these passions into a career – so, I applied for a Master of Genetic Counselling program. During the last few months of my training, I enjoyed working with the Melbourne Genomics Health Alliance team to help coordinate the recruitment of Royal Melbourne Hospital patients. After graduating, I worked briefly as a research assistant with the Epilepsy Genetics Research Group at Otago University, and then moved to my current role.
Shelby: I am a newly graduated genetic counsellor working at the Peter Mac Callum Cancer Centre and The Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne. I’m originally from Christchurch in New Zealand and I moved across to Melbourne three years ago to complete the Master of Genetic Counselling. My passion for genetics, public health and bioethics was sparked during my undergraduate studies at Otago University in Dunedin. It was here that I was introduced to the genetic counselling role and recognised this is what I wanted to do! During the last year of my undergrad, I connected with my local genetics service and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do some clinical observations prior to applying for the genetic counselling course.
What was your most memorable experience during your training?
Sarah: I had the opportunity to present my thesis findings during the 2016 HGSA conference in Hobart. This was my most memorable experience while training; it was both nerve wracking and exhilarating.
Shelby: The most memorable aspect of my training was definitely the clinical placement component. It was here that I had the opportunity to practise everything I had learnt throughout my training and see the role of genetic counsellors in the real world. Clinical placements challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone, to try things and learn as much as I could from my genetic counselling supervisors. It was also rewarding and affirming to look back as I progressed throughout the clinical placements to see how far I had come.
What are your three top tips for students studying the Master of Genetic Counselling?
- Consider doing relevant, part-time, volunteer or paid work while studying. I valued the practical skills and insights from the work experiences I had while studying, as well as the connections built with colleagues.
- Strive for balance as much as possible. It can be difficult to juggle coursework, placements, research, work, and life outside study. I remember lecturers and supervisors often reminding us that it was important to make sure self-care was included in the balancing act.
- Learn to be hypersensitive about language. While on placement, I kept a list of my favourite ways that I heard genetic counsellors phrase ideas or sensitively ask questions.
- Make the most of all of the opportunities that are offered to you throughout the course (for me, I tried to say “yes” to all of the opportunities that were presented even when it felt scary)!
- Treat the course as a two year job interview.
- Continue to find time to prioritise hauora (health or wellness) and balance throughout the course, even when things get busy.
Tell us about a key challenge and how you managed this
Sarah: Although there are more genetic counselling roles now becoming available, one of the challenges I think most of us face while studying is the uncertainty of life after graduation. I learned that this uncertainty continues even after you begin working, as our roles are diversifying along with the increasing integration of genetics into healthcare. This also means it is an exciting time to be a genetic counsellor! I hope the sense of initiative and open mindedness I used to find my current role will help me to continue to make the most of future opportunities in our evolving profession.
“Our roles are diversifying along with the increasing integration of genetics into healthcare… it is an exciting time to be a genetic counsellor!”
Shelby: I found work-life balance a tricky concept to achieve and maintain throughout the course. I am a bit of a perfectionist and tend to throw myself into everything that I do, which meant I often ended up working very long hours, particularly towards the end of the course. If I were to do it all again, I would spend more time focusing on balance. Now that I am working, I recognise the value of self-care and setting aside time in each day to do things unrelated to work or study. This might be starting the day by going to the gym, or making time to catch up with a friend for coffee.
Tell us about something fun you did while training
Sarah: It was fun to explore new places while studying. I enjoyed living in Melbourne, and the opportunities to travel for conferences and placements.
Shelby: We had a lot of fun throughout our training too. With the course being relatively small, it meant that our cohort got to know each other really well. I was also lucky enough to do some travelling – flying to Tasmania and Queensland for the annual HGSA conference – and I also traveled around New Zealand as part of my research project.
And finally, what was the most useful thing you learnt now that you are working?
Sarah: The reflective practice skills I built during my Masters course have been valuable now that I am working. One of the benefits of this job is that there is always room to grow. I regularly evaluate my practice by keeping a reflective journal, and seeking feedback from colleagues and supervisors.
Shelby: Now that I am working, I am so grateful for all of the time we spent learning about reflective practice; I have found this incredibly valuable as a new genetic counsellor. The course spent a lot of time focusing on the importance of reflective practice and provided a number of opportunities to nurture these skills and this way of thinking, in the way of reflective writing assignments and provision of supervision. As a result of this, I approach my clinical practice with greater self-awareness, and am constantly reflecting on genetic counselling sessions, thinking about what went well and things I might do differently next time.
Learn about the Master of Genetic Counselling at the Graduate School of Health.