The Job and What's Involved

Geneticists study genes, which are the working parts of DNA. DNA is the chemical database that forms the blueprints for every living thing - from humans, to plants and bacteria.

Geneticists use their skills and knowledge to research and understand a wide range of problems. For instance, they look at:

  • How 'mistakes' in genes cause certain diseases.
  • How diseases can be inherited through families.
  • What can be done to prevent diseases from being passed on.
  • How to alter genes to produce positive changes, such as making crops more resistant to disease.

Geneticists work in many different areas, including agriculture, archaeology, bioinformatics, biomedicine, bioscience business, environment/ecology, forensic science, law and medical genetics.

Over 12,000 genetic conditions are found in humans. This guide concentrates on clinical laboratory specialists who identify and diagnose genetic disorders. There are two main jobs in this field: clinical cytogeneticists and molecular geneticists.

Clinical Cytogeneticists

Clinical cytogeneticists study chromosomes, which contain genes. Chromosomes are found in cells that come from samples of blood, tissue, bone marrow or bodily fluids. They use microscopes and analyse cell cultures (cells that are grown in the laboratory) to check for chromosome abnormalities. Identifying genetic abnormalities can explain why some babies have birth defects, or why some couples are unable to conceive. A clinical cytogeneticist's work could also help haematologists (doctors who specialise in blood disorders) to diagnose and manage conditions such as leukaemia, or identify abnormalities in foetuses such as trisomy, which causes Down's Syndrome.

Molecular Geneticists

Molecular geneticists use a range of chemical techniques to study DNA. They check for gene mutations and confirm the diagnosis of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and certain types of cancer. Their work also helps to identify patients who are at risk of genetic disorders (because a parent carries the disease) before their symptoms become apparent.

These clinical specialists rarely have contact with patients, but they work closely with a variety of healthcare professionals.

Their work may involve:

  • Carrying out research and development.
  • Using computers and sophisticated software packages.
  • Recording data, interpreting the results of diagnostic tests and writing reports.
  • Working quickly and with meticulous accuracy.
  • Supervising the work of medical technical officers.
  • Training junior clinical scientists.

Geneticists working in the NHS work around 37.5 hours a week, from Monday to Friday. They may work on a rota covering weekends and bank holidays.

They are based in laboratories and work in sterile conditions.

Geneticists wear laboratory overalls. Some work may involve potentially hazardous and toxic materials, so appropriate protective clothing must be worn and health and safety requirements must be observed.

The basic starting salary for clinical scientists in cytogenetics or molecular genetics may be around £22,886. Additional allowances may be paid to people working in London.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The NHS is the main employer of clinical laboratory specialists in genetics. These geneticists are usually employed in multidisciplinary regional medical genetics laboratories, which are based in larger hospitals. There are also some specialist laboratories.

Applications for most NHS training posts are administered by the Recruitment Centre for Clinical Scientists. Other jobs may be advertised on NHS recruitment websites ( in England and in New Scientist. Vacancies in Scotland may be advertised in The Scotsman. In Northern Ireland, vacancies may be advertised in the local press.

Some experience of working in a laboratory and an understanding of hospital laboratory work are useful.

There are only a few NHS training posts available each year and competition is intense.

Education and Training

To apply for a training position with the NHS, candidates should have at least a 2:1 degree in genetics or another life science with significant genetics content. The minimum requirements for a degree course are five GCSE/S grades (A-C/1-3) and two A levels/three H grades, or equivalent qualifications. Entry requirements vary, and it is best to check with individual institutions.

Successful candidates go on to complete a two-year in-service training programme in an accredited teaching laboratory. Trainees develop their knowledge and skills in diagnostic work and scientific information.

Some successful candidates also hold a relevant MSc or PhD, although this is not essential. Entry to a postgraduate programme normally requires a good first degree in a relevant subject.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Trainee clinical cytogeneticists work towards the Postgraduate Certificate in Clinical Cytogenetics from the Association of Clinical Cytogeneticists.

Trainee clinical molecular geneticists work towards the Clinical Molecular Genetics Society's Certificate of Competence.

Successful candidates go on to complete a further two years' supervised work experience. They are then eligible to apply for registration with the Health Professions Council, which is mandatory. This involves producing a portfolio and evidence of Continuing Professional Development (CPD), together with a formal assessment. By law, only registered staff are allowed to use the title clinical scientist.

Geneticists are encouraged to do further training and examinations throughout their careers. Ultimately, this could lead to Membership of the Royal College of Pathologists.

It is essential for all healthcare professionals to do CPD to keep their skills and knowledge up to date and maintain their registration with the Health Professions Council.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A geneticist should:

  • Be interested in science, particularly genetics and human biology.
  • Have excellent problem-solving skills.
  • Have good written and spoken communication skills.
  • Have an investigative and analytical mind.
  • Work quickly and accurately, and pay attention to detail.
  • Have proficient IT skills.
  • Be discreet - medical information is confidential.
  • Be good at teamwork
  • Enjoy laboratory work.
  • Have management and teaching skills for supervising and training junior staff.

Your Long Term Prospects

Promotion is not automatic but depends on further training, additional responsibility and experience.

After two to three years' post-registration experience, geneticists may be able to apply for positions that are more senior. The consultant grade level is usually awarded to heads of departments or major sections, or scientists who have made a significant contribution to advancement in the field of genetics.

There may be some opportunities to work overseas.

Get Further Information

The Association of Clinical Cytogeneticists (ACC)

The British Society for Human Genetics (BSHG),
Clinical Genetics Unit, Birmingham Women's Hospital,
Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TG
Tel: 0121 627 2634

Clinical Molecular Genetics Society (CMGS),
Clinical Genetics Unit, Birmingham Women's Hospital,
Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TG
Tel: 0121 627 2634

The Genetics Society, Roslin Biocentre,
Wallace Building, Roslin, Midlothian EH25 9PP
Tel: 0131 200 6391

Health Professions Council (HPC), Park House,
184 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866

Medical Research Council (MRC),
20 Park Crescent, London W1B 1AL
Tel: 020 7636 5422

The Royal College of Pathologists,
2 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AF
Tel: 020 7451 6700

Working in the NHS

England: NHS Careers, PO Box 2311,
Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel: 0845 606 0655

Scotland: NHS Scotland
Tel: 0845 601 4647

Wales: NHS Wales Careers
Tel: 01443 233472

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