Medical research and the practice of medicine are closely related, but that's especially so in a handful medical specialties. For example, clinical genetics might be a strong option for you if you're torn between medicine and pure science. Geneticists work at the frontier where science and medicine meet, drawing on the latest genetic research to diagnose and treat medical conditions with a genetic component.
The field of genetics has two broad career paths. If you're interested in research, earn a Ph.D. as a medical geneticist and find work in a commercial or academic setting. If your focus centers on treating patients, attend medical college and become a physician specializing in genetically-inherited conditions. Some physicians perform both roles, treating patients part time but also participating in research. You might focus on genetic disorders such as muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis, or patients with a family history of cancer, hemophilia or other conditions.
Your workweek would resemble a typical doctor's practice in many ways. You'd interview patients, review their symptoms, medical history and family medical history. Some patients are physician referrals, and others contact you because their family history shows they're at risk. Patients receive a variety of molecular testing procedures or a cytogenic examination, which places a cell sample under the microscope to identify potential cellular malfunctions. For patients at risk for breast cancer or other conditions, you monitor their condition and screen them regularly. Other conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, are managed through a combination of medication, lifestyle changes and therapy.
Keeping accurate records is crucial for all doctors, but for a clinical geneticist it's especially important. Research projects analyze doctors' patient outcomes to determine which treatment options work best, and determine why they work. Some geneticists play an active role in research, either by participating in clinical studies, or by dividing their time between clinical settings and the research lab. Geneticists may also function as pathologists, analyzing tissue samples or cadavers to search for genetic markers that might indicate a genetically-related medical condition.
Becoming a clinical geneticist requires a four-year premedical degree, then four more years in medical school. After graduation, you spend two years in a general internship, seeing patients with a wide range of health conditions. Then you work for two to three years specializing in genetics. Some programs combine those two requirements into a single four- or five-year residency, so you can start and finish your training in a single location. Alternatively, you could complete a full residency in internal medicine, pediatrics or another field of medicine, and then enter a residency in clinical genetics.
- Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images