During my graduate training, I attended a meeting with a bioinformatician who exclaimed, “Ah! You’re the PhD student who’s also in the genetic counseling program.” I affirmed that I was indeed the dual degree student. She shared, “I’m glad to work with you. You’re a unicorn.”
It was the perfect word to describe me - a unicorn. Unlike my fellow classmates, when I stepped into that first medical genetics class, I was already a year into graduate school. I’d taken courses in research techniques and settled into a C. elegans research laboratory. Even from the first day of school, as I rushed to care for my worm stocks between classes, my perspectives and goals looked different from my peers.
The further I journeyed down my training path, the more I realized that my experience was not unique. With one foot in the clinic and the other in the lab, I often felt like I didn't fit the mold of a “good” genetic counseling student. Genetic counseling students were supposed to be pursuing clinical careers. But what about students who envision and apply their knowledge and skills differently?
Recent events have increased all of our attention to issues of access in the admissions process, and rightly so. Yet after admission, throughout coursework and fieldwork, and as students approach graduation and search for jobs, the next steps may look intimidating for those interested in alternative opportunities. While the roles new grads are landing rapidly expand, the training and certification requirements remain stuck in a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather than embrace the application of our GC skills into novel realms, a prevalent “this is the way it’s always been done” mindset and its accompanying expectations may discourage students from embarking down those new roads.
A strength in the evolution of our profession is the universal application of our intertwining medical, research, and counseling skills. As such, the coursework, rotations, research, and opportunities facilitated by training programs ought to reflect this heterogeneity. They should seek to prepare students for a wide range of career trajectories and even encourage them to explore uncharted settings. Adhering to traditional expectations of the training course and career progression instead perpetuates a culture of limiting these goals. In my professional life now, I could not be more grateful for those late nights spent designing experiments and observing worm phenotypes. My wet bench work prepared me to understand the research process and its application in genetic counseling, equipping me to bring unique technical and analytical skills to the table.
Many days throughout my training, I felt like there really was a sparkly horn on my head. But I’m so grateful for the ways my program and my classmates adapted to my unexpected path. Their willingness illustrates the innovative mindset within our professional community. Looking to the future, I urge graduate programs to embrace diversity not only at the beginning of training (admissions) but also at its conclusion (graduation and beyond), as their students push the boundaries of the field and explore new frontiers.