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Genetics is a branch of biology that studies the inheritance of physical and behavioural characteristics of living things, and how these traits are passed down through generations.

What does a geneticist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Geneticists study genes and the science of heredity (inherited traits passed down through generations). They study living organisms, from human beings and animals to crops and bacteria. Research is a major part of a geneticist’s job. They conduct experiments to determine the origins and governing laws of particular inherited traits, such as medical conditions, and seek out determinants (such as disease resistance) responsible for these traits.

Depending on where they work, geneticists might then find ways to modify traits and generate new traits through the use of chemicals, radiation and other means. In manufacturing they will develop new pharmaceutical or agricultural products and in a medical setting they will advise on the diagnosis of inherited conditions and treat patients with genetic diseases.

Typical responsibilities include:

  • conducting lab research and experiments
  • extracting DNA or performing diagnostic tests
  • interpreting, reviewing or approving genetic lab results
  • documenting their processes and results
  • analysing genetic data to draw conclusions and publish research
  • communicating results of findings, for instance at conferences or in scientific journals
  • supervising or directing the work of other geneticists, biologists, technicians or biometricians working on genetics research projects
  • when more senior, spearheading new research

With experience, one of the areas you could go into is genetic counseling, which involves offering information, support and advice on genetic conditions to your patients.

Typical employers of geneticists

  • Hospitals
  • Research institutions
  • Universities
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Agricultural and horticultural companies
  • Biotechnology and genetic engineering companies

Competition for jobs can be tough. Job vacancies are advertised online, on the British Society for Genetic Medicine’s website, in national newspapers, local hospital or health authority job boards and scientific journals such as New Scientist, Nature Genetics and Nature.

  • The recruitment process is likely to involve a technical interview. Read our article on technical interviews to find out what these involve and how you can tackle them.
  • If you'd like to find out what your salary might look like, take a look at our article on how much you might earn in science on our TARGETcareers website.

Qualifications and training required

To become a geneticist, you will need to have a degree. Relevant life science degrees include biomedical science, biology, microbiology, genetics and biochemistry. It’s also common for you to need a postgraduate qualification, such as a masters degree. A PhD can also be useful and may even be necessary, especially if you want to lead your own research projects or become a university lecturer. Read our article on scientific postgraduate study to explore your different options.

Research work, hospital laboratory placements and experience gained using relevant scientific and analytical techniques can be particularly helpful in landing a graduate job.

If you want to work as a geneticist within the NHS, you will need to complete the scientist training programme (STP) after your degree. Scotland has separate training schemes, which also involve a three-year STP or an equivalent programme.

After completing the STP, you can then apply for a certificate of attainment from the Academy of Healthcare Science. This will enable you to apply for registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to practise as a clinical scientist in the UK, you must be registered with the HCPC. You will automatically be eligible to apply for registration if you have completed an HCPC approved course, but you will need to pay a fee for the HCPC to process your application, plus a registration fee, which is reduced by 50% if you graduated from an approved course within the last two years.

It’s possible for a school leaver to enter the science industry through an apprenticeship as a laboratory technician but, if you ultimately want to become a geneticist, you will need to get a degree. To find out more about getting into science via a school leaver route, visit the science section of TARGETcareers, our website aimed at school leavers.

Key skills for geneticists

  • Analytical skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Problem solving
  • Critical thinking
  • The ability to understand complex concepts
  • Teamwork and communication skills
  • Innovation
  • IT skills

Next: search graduate jobs and internships

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