Clinical geneticists are physicians with specialized training in genetics. Although some work in research, the majority work with patients, diagnosing, managing, and treating genetic diseases and hereditary disorders. Your education and training path takes you through three primary stages: college, med school and residency programs. You can then go on to specialize in a particular area if you prefer. It can take more than 10 years to become board certified, but this can be a rewarding and exciting career. According to Mary-Claire King, the 2012 president of the American Society of Human Genetics: "There has not been a more exciting time to be involved in the genetics field since Gregor Mendel counted smooth and wrinkled peas and Charles Darwin tended finches."
Stage 1: Your College Degree
Your first step to becoming a clinical geneticist is to get a bachelor's degree. Typically, geneticists tend to take physical science or biology majors, such as chemistry, biology and biochemistry; some go to colleges that also offer specialized programs, such as genetics and molecular biology. Specialized study may be useful to you later, but it is not essential at this stage. Your primary aim is to get into medical school.
Stage 2: Your Medical Degree
Clinical geneticists can take two medical training paths: becoming medical doctors or becoming doctors of osteopathic medicine. MDs attend medical school programs; DOs tend to train at osteopathic medical colleges. During your training, you'll also start the process of qualifying to practice as a physician. This is essential to your career as a clinical geneticist. MDs need to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination; DOs take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam. These exams start during your medical training and finish during your first residency year.
Stage 3: Your Residency Training
Once you're done with college and med school, you'll follow one of three residency paths. These programs give you the skills you need in genetic diagnosis, counseling and treatment. You can opt for a 4-year residency focusing solely on clinical genetics or join programs with a dual medical and genetic focus. For example, you can take a 2-year clinical genetics residency and a separate 2-year residency in another medical area. Alternatively, you can take a combined 4- to 5-year program that teams genetics with another discipline, such as pediatrics, OB-GYN and internal medicine. Once you've met your residency requirements, you can apply to the American Board of Medical Genetics to become certified.
Clinical Geneticist Subspecialties
Once you're certified to practice as a clinical geneticist, you may decide that you want to specialize in a particular area or add additional skills to your general genetics training. You have two options: medical biochemical genetics and molecular genetic pathology. Both programs require another period of residency training, lasting 1 or 2 years.
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