Due to my passion for education, leadership, health disparities, and research, I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in 2021. I chose to enroll in a Doctor of Education (EdD) program for Leadership for Educational Equity in Higher Education. Although no formal part of this educational program is in genetics or genetic counseling, I am taking every opportunity to apply what I am learning to the profession of genetic counseling.
Therefore, when the assignment in my Policy and Governance class was to write a research paper on policy impacting higher education, I jumped at the opportunity to explore faculty appointments and tenure for genetic counselors. The process of putting this paper together was interesting to me, and I wanted to share with others what I learned.
In learning about the history of faculty appointments, I discovered that they started more than 100 years ago, when most faculty were white, Christian, upper-class men. Faculty tenure was meant to retain the very best professors with an intention that tenure would provide them the freedom and security to pursue groundbreaking research and challenge students and administrators to excel. Because of these policies, however, tenured faculty have historically lacked diversity, research has been rewarded over teaching and poor retention of non-tenured faculty has resulted in costly and other negative outcomes (Nelson, 2012).
Academic retention of genetic counselors is especially challenged by the plethora of job opportunities outside academia (Hoskovec et al, 2018). Policies for faculty promotion and tenure are typically incomplete and left open to some interpretation resulting in inequity. Faculty promotion processes vary greatly across institutions and are influenced by best practices since the written policies are limited in scope. Methods for promotion to professor faculty tracks significantly vary, and oftentimes, policies for these promotions do not exist. However, genetic counselors at some institutions have advocated for promotion consideration, most commonly on the existing matrices of other providers.
Recognizing that many institutions utilize existing matrices for faculty promotion, I wondered why so few genetic counselors meeting the requirements for faculty appointments are on professor tracks. Is it because genetic counselors do not hold doctoral degrees? Because they are primarily female? Because there is a lack of policies or metrics for specific professional and academic activities? Because they are not eligible due to hiring practices by hospitals rather than universities? Because it depends if there is a clinical professor track available? No matter what the reason, it seems that current practice is inequitable and that taking a closer look and aiming to improve policy would be beneficial.
Many policies do not appear to have a written requirement for a doctoral degree for faculty appointment promotion. Most of the institutions with genetic counselors on professor tracks have metrics that appear to be the same for all faculty, regardless of degree. Clinical tracks are a common professor track approved for and utilized by genetic counselors. Some institutions only allow genetic counselors to be promoted if they have met certain job requirements (i.e., teaching a course), and some institutions have additional or different sub-tracks that may be more accommodating to genetic counseling skills.
Education for genetic counselors and employers about best practices is essential to increasing consistency in metrics and avenues for academically deserving genetic counselors. Institutions with improved processes and retention would then have more opportunity for financial gain since it is the long-term, experienced genetic counselors who are likely able to develop advanced research careers and obtain grants that financially benefit the institution.
Further research should be performed to identify the practices of current institutions providing faculty appointments to genetic counselors, the similarities and differences across these institutions, and the existing barriers at institutions that do not offer faculty appointments. I look forward to continuing these discussions and invite you to reach out to me with your thoughts and experiences. I hope we can all work together toward making sure genetic counselors working in academia receive equitable faculty appointments.
I want to thank Wendy Uhlmann, MS, CGC, all individuals within the NSGC and my institution with whom I chatted, and those who responded to my Twitter request for informal insight that helped me see where our profession stands in terms of faculty appointments, tenure, and academic promotions.
Hoskovec, J. M., Bennett, R. L., Carey, M. E., DaVanzo, J. E., Dougherty, M., Hahn, S. E., LeRoy, B. S., O’Neal, S., Richardson, J. G., & Wicklund, C. A. (2018). Projecting the supply and demand for certified genetic counselors: a workforce study. Journal of Genetic Counseling. 27(1):16-20. doi: 10.1007/s10897-017-0158-8
Nelson, C. (2012). Should Tenure for College Professors Be Abolished? The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2021 from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303610504577418293114042070
Kami Wolfe Schneider, MS, CGC is a 2005 graduate from the University of Cincinnati's genetic counseling training program and has been working as a pediatric cancer genetic counselor at Children's Hospital Colorado for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus since 2011. Her current faculty appointment is Senior Instructor.