If you have an interest in genetics, enjoy working in a healthcare setting and are keen to develop your career in an ever-changing field, think about becoming a healthcare scientist working in genomics
As a healthcare scientist (also known as a clinical scientist) working in genomics, you'll examine patient samples to identify genetic and genomic abnormalities, which may cause inherited or acquired (non-inherited) diseases.
You will work closely with other healthcare professionals such as clinicians to provide advice to patients about diagnosis and treatment, as well as help predict whether other family members or future generations are at risk from the abnormality.
Your work will typically fall into three main categories:
- prenatal diagnosis - examining cells for possible abnormalities in the foetus
- predictive testing - to identify patients who may be at risk from single gene disorders
- confirmation of diagnosis.
As a healthcare scientist working in genomics, you'll need to:
- utilise scientific, technical and clinical knowledge to analyse and interpret the results of routine and complex tests carried out by other members of the laboratory
- write fully interpretive reports for clinicians (including family doctors, consultant neurologists and paediatricians) and other healthcare professionals who have requested tests and advise them on investigation strategies
- develop and devise new investigation strategies, taking account of the clinical problems of genetic disease and the clinical relevance of inherited or acquired genetic abnormalities
- participate in research and development and translate any new techniques and assays into routine diagnostic service
- deal with enquiries relating to genomic testing and provide expert scientific advice to clinical colleagues and other healthcare professionals
- interpret quality control and quality assurance data
- undertake continued professional development.
At a senior level, you may also need to:
- train and mentor staff, supervise MSc students and give lectures to medical undergraduates
- lead research activities or programmes
- take responsibility for a specialist area of service or the management of a laboratory or department.
- Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee healthcare scientists are usually employed at Band 6, starting at £26,302.
- Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 (£31,383 to £41,373).
- Salaries for senior and consultant clinical scientists range from £40,028 (Band 8) to £99,437 (top of Band 9), depending on your experience and training.
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 figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work a 37.5 hour week, although you may be required to work a shift pattern, including weekends and nights.
What to expect
- You'll work as part of a multidisciplinary team, including doctors specialising in genomics and genetics, genomic counsellors and other laboratory staff such as healthcare science practitioners.
- Although you'll have very little direct contact with patients, your work will have a large impact on them and their families.
- Jobs are available in most areas of the country, usually in medium-sized or large hospitals. However, there are only a relatively small number of jobs available and you may need to relocate to increase your chances of career progression.
- During training, there is an opportunity to experience working in a variety of different hospital laboratories. You may have to travel to other parts of the country to fulfil the training requirements and spend a few weeks there. You'll also have to travel to the university to complete your Masters degree.
As a graduate with a degree in genetics or a related subject with a genetics component, such as molecular biology or cellular sciences, you can apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). Relevant STP programmes are offered for genomics and clinical bioinformatics (genomics). Entry on to the STP is competitive and you'll need a first or 2:1 degree, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. For all applicants, getting good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful, as is evidence of research experience (for example, through a relevant Masters or PhD).
The STP is a three-year, full-time workplace-based training programme that leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS. During this time you'll be employed in a fixed-term salaried post in genomics. The first year of training is spent on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three. Training includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in genetics.
If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate. See the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) website for programme details for both external and internal applicants.
Details of training posts may be advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through the online application portal Oriel. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.
On successful completion of the STP you're eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.
For information on STP training in Wales, see the Workforce, Education and Development Services (WEDS). There are separate scientist training schemes in:
- Scotland - NHS Education for Scotland - Clinical Scientists
- Northern Ireland - NI Direct Healthcare Scientist
If you don't already have a degree, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP), which provides undergraduate training leading to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science (life sciences - genetics science). Courses are full time (usually three years) and include a mixture of academic learning and workplace-based training in the NHS. After graduation you'll be qualified as a healthcare science practitioner and will also be eligible for professional registration as a biomedical scientist with the HCPC. It's also possible to apply for the STP.
You will need:
- laboratory skills and the ability to plan and do research
- strong problem-solving skills and the ability to use your initiative
- an analytical and investigative mind
- excellent oral and written communication skills
- the ability to manage a laboratory project and liaise with a variety of technical colleagues
- teamworking skills
- a high level of self-motivation
- flexibility and adaptability
- good IT skills, as most laboratories are highly computerised.
Entry on to the STP is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. To improve your chances, try to get an insight into the workings of a hospital laboratory by arranging a visit to your nearest regional genetic laboratory before you apply. You could also try and find short-term work experience in a genetics laboratory. For a list of regional genetics centres in the UK, see the Association for Clinical Genomic Science (ACGS) website.
Make sure you attend an open day for your specialism to get a better insight into the role and STP programme. A list of open days relevant to genomics and clinical bioinformatics is posted on the NSHCS website.
Most healthcare scientists working in genomics are employed in the NHS and are based in laboratories in large hospitals around the UK. Some work for other specialist laboratories.
Geneticists also carry out research and scientific analysis work in a 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:
- 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:
- Association for Clinical Genomic Science (ACGS)
- The British Society for Genetic Medicine (BSGM)
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
Once qualified, you must keep up to date with the ongoing developments in your area of expertise, as well as building on your laboratory and management skills. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include:
- attending conferences workshops and lectures
- publication in peer-reviewed journals
- presenting research and papers at conferences
- undertaking work exchanges abroad
- applying for research grants.
Membership of the BSGM and ACGS is useful for finding out about events and conferences and for networking with other professionals.
Once you've got experience, you may be able to train to become eligible for consultant healthcare scientist positions via the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme. This five-year workplace-based training programme includes study at doctorate level and for fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath). See the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) for full details.
There is a structured career path within the NHS. Once qualified, you can progress through the grades by gaining experience and completing further study and research. Promotion is based on merit and you may need to move to other hospitals to make the most of available opportunities.
As your career develops, you're likely to take on a more supervisory role with responsibility for the work of your department. Progression to consultant and then deputy head or head of department involves further training and is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section. It's possible to gain a senior position by making a significant contribution in the field of genetics.
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.