Healthcare scientists (also known as a clinical scientists) working in genetics examine samples of patients' DNA to identify genetic abnormalities, which may cause inherited diseases.

They can also help to predict whether any abnormal genes that are detected can be passed on to the next generation. They screen individuals both before and after the appearance of symptoms.

Types of healthcare scientist, genetics

The work falls into three main categories:

  • prenatal diagnosis;
  • carrier testing;
  • confirmation of diagnosis.

Some healthcare scientists working in genetics use testing techniques to examine non-inherited conditions, such as analysing changes in cancer tumours. They may also devise or develop new tests and procedures.

Most healthcare scientists working in genetics are based in the National Health Service (NHS) within large hospitals or in other specialist laboratories. They work as part of a multidisciplinary team, including doctors specialising in genetics, specialist nurses and genetic counsellors.

Responsibilities

Common tasks carried out by healthcare scientists working in genetics include:

  • establishing genotypes (the genetic make-up of individuals) and using diagnostic procedures and tests to detect genetic diseases;
  • using laboratory techniques, including PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to multiply a small amount of DNA for testing; mutation detection techniques, such as SSCP (single-strand conformation polymorphism); denaturing HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography); southern blotting; DNA sequencing and fragment analysis, using capillary electrophoresis; and the laser detection of fluorescent dyes;
  • writing reports for clinicians (including family doctors, consultant neurologists and paediatricians) who have requested tests and advising them on investigation strategies;
  • interpreting the results of routine tests carried out by genetic technologists, who conduct the majority of the DNA extraction work;
  • developing and devising new investigation strategies, taking account of the clinical problems of genetic disease and the clinical relevance of inherited or acquired genetic abnormalities;
  • conducting research and development, designing new molecular genetics techniques and assays for genetic disease;
  • dealing with enquiries and communicating with clinical colleagues and other healthcare professionals;
  • training and teaching colleagues and other healthcare professionals;
  • supervising the work of genetic technologists and junior staff;
  • interpreting quality control and quality assurance data;
  • updating professional skills and knowledge by reading scientific literature and attending training courses and conferences.

Salary

  • Jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) usually consist of nine pay bands.
  • Salaries for trainee healthcare scientists typically start at around £25,700, depending on the employer.
  • Salaries for qualified healthcare scientists usually start on Band 6 and range from £25,783 to £34,530.
  • Experienced healthcare scientists (Band 7) can earn between £30,764 and £40,558.
  • Salaries for principal scientists, the highest grade at which healthcare scientists work, range from £39,239 (Band 8) to £98,453 (Band 9).

Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.

Salary levels for healthcare scientists working for private companies, universities, government bodies and other organisations may vary.

Income data from Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Weekend, evening or on-call work may be required. It is possible to work part time following successful completion of training. Career breaks are supported in the NHS, but you must keep up to date with technological developments during any breaks and would require a period of retraining on returning to work to fulfil state registration requirement.

What to expect

  • You will work as part of a team, including medical staff, genetic counsellors and genetic technologists.
  • Jobs are available in most areas of the country but mainly in medium-sized or larger hospitals in urban areas. During training, there is an opportunity to experience working in a variety of different hospital laboratories. Relocation may increase your chances of career progression.
  • The work is varied with a choice of research and development (R&D) projects available, plus the satisfaction of contributing to patient care.
  • Travel at a local level is more common as laboratories merge. Absence from home overnight and overseas travel are uncommon.

Qualifications

In order to work as a healthcare scientist (also known as a clinical scientist) in genetics you need to successfully complete the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). This makes you eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows you to register as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).

The STP is a graduate-entry programme that leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS. Successful candidates are employed by an NHS Trust as trainee healthcare scientists and join a salaried three-year, fixed-term training programme (blood/cellular sciences), which includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in your chosen science specialism (genetics).

Entry on to the STP is competitive and you will need a first or 2:1 degree, (typically genetics or a related subject with a genetics component such as molecular biology or cellular sciences), or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD.

Gaining good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful.

An MSc or a PhD in a relevant subject area may be advantageous when applying for trainee positions, but is not a requirement. However, in practise, many applicants have a research Masters or PhD. Additional skills and experience, such as involvement with research projects and publications, may be useful.

NHS organisations in England and Wales annually offer 250 to 300 training posts in life sciences, physiological sciences, physical sciences and informatics. Details of training posts have been advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS): STP recruitment. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.

There are separate scientist training schemes in:

Entry is also possible through obtaining a Certificate of Equivalence from the AHCS and in some instances via the Association of Clinical Scientists (ACS).

For those without a degree, undergraduate training that leads to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science (Genetic Science) accredited by the National School of Healthcare Science, is provided by the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP).

Entry on to the degree course usually requires a good mix of GCSEs at A to C grade and a minimum of two A2/A-levels, including science subjects. These requirements may vary so check with individual institutions before applying. Courses are full time (usually three years) and include at least 50 weeks of workplace-based training in the NHS.

Applications are made via Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). For a list of accredited courses see the Health Careers Course Finder.

Graduates from the PTP can then apply to enter the NHS in a healthcare science practitioner role or they may choose to apply for the STP, which offers pay on a higher scale and more opportunities for career progression.

Skills

You will need:

  • laboratory skills and the ability to plan and do research;
  • strong problem-solving skills;
  • an analytical and investigative mind;
  • excellent oral and written communication skills;
  • the ability to manage a laboratory project and liaise with a wide variety of technical colleagues;
  • capability to work effectively as part of a team;
  • good IT skills, as most laboratories are highly computerised

Work experience

Entry on to training schemes is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. Laboratory experience and an insight into the workings of a hospital laboratory are important, so arrange a visit to a local hospital laboratory before you apply.

Investigate the possibility of short-term work experience in a genetics laboratory. It is worthwhile making speculative approaches. For a list of relevant laboratories, see the Association for Clinical Genetic Science (ACGS).

Employers

Most healthcare scientists working in genetics are employed in the National Health Service (NHS) and are based in laboratories in large hospitals around the UK. Some work for other specialist laboratories. A list of genetics centres in the UK can be found through the Association for Clinical Genetic Science (ACGS).

Geneticists also carry out research and scientific analysis work in a wide range of industrial settings. They work for organisations researching genetic structure and function, genetic engineering and genome mapping in plants and animals. This might be in:

  • archaeology;
  • conservation;
  • environmental pollution;
  • forensic science;
  • industrial contamination.

Typical employers include pharmaceutical, agrochemical, horticulture, food, biotechnology, energy, water and environmental companies, as well as government agencies, institutes, laboratories and universities.

There are commercial companies that employ geneticists to undertake commissions such as paternity testing.

Look for job vacancies at:

The ACGS has contact details for regional genetics centres in the UK.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Trainee healthcare scientists (also known as clinical scientists) undertake three years of training accredited by the National School of Healthcare Science when on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). They spend the first year of training on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three.

Trainees also follow a period of structured part-time study alongside practical training. This leads to an MSc in clinical science (specialising in genetics). On successful completion of the STP you are eligible to apply to the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS) for a Certificate of Attainment, which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).

Once qualified, you must keep your skills up to date and follow the ongoing developments in research. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include:

  • attending conferences, workshops and lectures;
  • writing for journals;
  • presenting research and papers at conferences.

Membership of the Association for Clinical Genetic Science (ACGS) - through membership of The British Society for Genetic Medicine (BSGM) - is useful. See their website for details of events and conferences in genetics-related areas.

It is possible to join the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme, a five-year workplace-based training programme and, where appropriate, study for Royal College qualifications.

For entry on to this route, applicants will need registration (or eligibility and application underway) with the HCPC as a clinical scientist; normally at least one further year in the workplace to consolidate and enhance clinical scientific skills, learning and experience (including research and education); and the ability to demonstrate meeting any additional specific selection criteria required for a particular specialism at interview.

Career prospects

Career progression to higher grades, following successful completion of the training period, may involve moving to another hospital. Further study and training may follow and some clinical scientists study for a PhD either full or part time (if they don't already have one).

Networking at all levels is part of successful career development in this role. Maintaining a professional profile by presenting research at meetings, undertaking work exchanges abroad and applying for research grants is also recommended.

Ongoing training and professional development is mandatory to retain HCPC registration. Opportunities for networking and continuing professional development (CPD) can be found through membership of the Association for Clinical Genetic Science (ACGS).

It is possible to apply for principal scientist or consultant scientist roles after several years' experience at a professional grade. This can be either a clinical or management role. Responsibilities may include supervising and training a laboratory team, compiling and interpreting reports, and advising health authorities on policy matters relating to genetics, through work on appropriate committees.

There are opportunities to specialise in specific areas of genetics.

A consultant role in management is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section, and advanced budgeting and administration skills are often required. Consultant positions are usually awarded to heads of departments or of major sections. It is possible to gain a senior position by making a significant contribution in the field of genetics.

There are also opportunities for management roles within the National Health Service (NHS) (see Health Careers). The diagnostics and pharmaceutical industries offer a number of opportunities including:

  • pure research;
  • technical support for sales and marketing;
  • medical information specialist;
  • senior management posts.