Friday, March 22, 2019

Advice on the Match

The current applicants for the Pitt Genetic Counseling Program are approaching the end of interview season and thinking about how they will rank their schools for the NMS Match Program. As members of the first class to participate in the new Match system as applicants, some of our first years share advice for finalizing their choices.

Keep busy and try not to think too much about interview(s) or the Match, easier said than done, I know. Pick up a new hobby. Try something you’ve always wanted to try. Reread your favorite books- whatever makes you happy and keeps you busy. If there are people you see or talk to on a regular basis, let them know when Match Day is so you don’t have people asking every day if you’ve heard back yet. (You’ll still get people asking.) The night before Match, go do something fun and engaging. For me, it was dinner with friends where we all agreed we were not allowed to discuss the Match or anything related to grad school. I shut off my email when we went to dinner and didn’t allow myself to turn it back on until a couple of hours before emails were supposed to come out the next morning. Think about where you want to be when you find out. The first year I applied (before the Match system), I took the day off of work because I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate and didn’t want to be at work if the news wasn’t what I wanted. Then plan something fun for after the Match that you can do regardless of what that email says!
-Vickie Bacon

When ranking your schools, don’t “play the game”.  Try not to think about the “what ifs” or figure out what the schools are thinking.  Trying to trick the system won’t work out for you- just rank your schools from your favorite to your least favorite.  Take a minute and think through how you would react to the following situations: getting into your first choice, getting into a school that’s not your first choice, and not matching anywhere.  Where do you want to be and who do you want to be with in each of these situations when the results of the Match are made available?  If you are anything like me, you may have trouble deciding between 2 or 3 schools.  One great thing about the Match is that you can edit your rankings until they are due.  Try going to bed one night with “Option A” as your first choice and see how it feels.  The next day, try it again with “Option B”.  Just don’t forget to finalize your rank by the due date.  After you submit your ranks, let it go.  You’re done! It’s out of your hands now.  Good luck!
-Christine Drogan

You’ve finished your interviews; congrats! My biggest piece of advice, which you’ve probably heard many times, is not to rank schools based on how you think they will rank you; think about where you most want to be and go from there. Rank all possible options, unless there’s an option that you would turn down if offered (remember that the Match is binding!) I went back through my paperwork from all my schools to make sure I hadn’t inadvertently left out any options; one of the schools I interviewed at had six tracks and I didn’t want to miss any opportunities! Try to make plans the night before Match Day if you can, because you will be anxious. Anything that can take your mind off the anxiety will be helpful. Finally, think about where you want to be when you get the email with the results. Many of my classmates took the day off work, but I preferred to be around my supportive co-workers and keep myself busy, instead of alone in my apartment with nothing to distract me. Several of my classmates and I also went through this process with the old system, and we unanimously prefer the Match system; anxiety will always be a part of applications, but know that the system has greatly improved!
-Claire McDonald

First of all, congrats for making it this far! That is a serious achievement and you should be proud of yourself. I know that if you’re thinking about the match right now, it can be hard to keep that in mind. As for how to approach rankings, my advice is to be thorough, be honest with yourself, and don’t be afraid to change your mind. Make sure that you know all the possible tracks you can rank (remember, there can be multiple different tracks depending on financial aid). It’s also okay if you choose not to rank a school, even if you got an interview from them. The Match is binding and you do not want to be committed to going somewhere you never wanted to end up in the first place. Finally, don’t be surprised if your preferences have changed since the start of the application process. Give yourself the time and mental space to look over your list and rearrange it. As for what to actually do on Match Day, every person is different. Consider what you have done in the past in days in which you have had to deal with great anticipation and stress. Would you prefer to be around people or to take the news in private? Are you okay with friends and family reaching out to you, or would you want to ask people to wait until you’ve contacted them first? How can you practice self-care during this period? I know that it’s a lot to think about, but I think it boils down to being kind to yourself. Good luck!
-Pooja Solanki

My best advice for you is to relax and rank the schools in a way that feels right to you. I know how crazy the past months have been leading up to this and how much work and stress was involved. Take a minute to appreciate how far you’ve come in this process and be proud of yourself! The hardest parts are over, so relax and focus on ranking the schools in the way you feel most comfortable with. My advice on doing that is to look back at any notes you may have written after your interviews with the programs and look over all the materials the schools gave you during your interviews to help you make your decisions. After you have submitted your final decision to Match, I know how difficult it can be to not think about Match Day too much and how frustrating the wait can be. Unfortunately, there is not too much we can say to make the wait better, but my advice would be to try to relax, stay busy, and be happy with all that you’ve accomplished during this process. Congrats on your interviews and good luck!
-Caroline Bong

Friday, March 1, 2019

Unique Advocacy Experiences

Advocacy experience is an important part of an application to a genetic counseling program. While formally volunteering as a counselor (such as for a crisis line) is a great way to gain experience, some of our students participated in less-traditional advocacy settings. This week, we highlight some of these experiences so future applicants can read about other ways to develop skills used in genetic counseling.

I volunteered with two amazing groups before moving to Pittsburgh- BuddyUp Tennis and Camp Courage. When I was looking for a volunteer opportunity, one of the geneticists I worked with pointed me towards BuddyUp Tennis, a weekly tennis clinic for children and adults with Down syndrome (They’re nationwide – check them out!). Every Saturday morning, I got to start my day with some exercise and a lot of fun. The BuddyUp Athletes didn’t seem to mind my absolute lack of athletic ability, and we were able to work with them to help them learn how to play tennis, get some exercise, and make friends. Spending time with these individuals was a great lesson in communication and empathy, two very important skills in genetic counseling.
Camp Courage was a weekend bereavement camp for children who had recently had a loved one pass away. I volunteered as a “Big Buddy” and was paired with one camper for the weekend. We spent the weekend doing a lot of fun camp activities, but there were also sessions set aside for the children to have some time for healing. We helped the children make memory boxes, had a really nice campfire ceremony to honor their loved ones, and ended the weekend with a balloon launch for the campers and their families. The goal of the weekend was to allow the children to speak as freely as they wanted about their loved one, help them to normalize and perhaps better understand their grief, and really just listen and be there. Working with the campers allowed me to gain more experience in a supportive role. While I have grown more comfortable discussing sensitive situations with adults, interacting with children dealing with difficult situations was a great learning experience that has made me more compassionate and more aware of the importance of communication in the field of genetic counseling.
-Alyson Evans

I was on the Executive board of my sorority during my undergrad. This typically isn’t thought of as an advocacy experience, but part of my position was to meet with members who were struggling with grades or were missing a significant number of classes or our events.  Effective communication was key to helping the women understand that we weren’t meeting with them to reprimand them, but to find out how we could better support them if they were struggling with school or other issues that kept them from wanting to participate.  What we almost always found was that there were many resources (such as the academic success center or student counseling center) that we could put them in touch with to help them overcome or better manage more underlying difficult circumstances.  Each woman and each situation were unique, and working with them and our chapter advisers to find the best course of action was my favorite part of the position. For me, this helped to lay the foundation for effective psychosocial skills that will apply  to many situations I will face as a genetic counselor. 
-Lauren Winter

I was an AmeriCorps member for two years. Although I had many roles throughout that time, the experience I like to highlight is running a tax site. The nonprofit I worked with had federal funding to run a free tax preparation service for working-class families and individuals. When you do someone’s taxes, they are trusting you to protect their privacy; you look at their social security card and state ID, and see exactly how much money they made. You ask them very personal questions, such as whether they are legally married, who they live with, and whether they support themselves financially. The intake form they fill out is confusing, so you find ways to re-phrase questions and explain concepts in layperson’s terms. People are sometimes sensitive about their financial information and can get agitated quickly if their refund is lower than they expected or especially if they owe money. When taxpayers were unhappy with those amounts, I took the time to explain every line on the tax form, how that number was calculated, and why they might owe more than they expected. We would discuss their misconceptions and how they could plan better for next year. These are all skills used every day by genetic counselors. Genetic counselors ask deeply personal questions, explain technical concepts in a patient-friendly way, and counsel patients regarding their test results. As a student, I find myself expanding on those skills I developed as a tax preparer.
-Claire McDonald

In my year between graduating college and starting the Pitt Genetic Counseling Program, I worked as an AmeriCorps member at a mental health nonprofit organization. While a major part of my role was working on a crisis and national suicide hotline, there were many other advocacy-focused aspects of my position. I was responsible for writing all of the organization’s grants, including at the local, state, and national level. While this may not commonly be thought of as advocacy work, it taught me an incredible amount about how to effectively communicate the need to bolster support around issues that are overlooked. Mental health is a cause that is often ignored until someone has a specific personal connection or reason to support it. Genetics shares some of the same realities, especially when it comes to rare disorders. Working in this capacity for a year allowed me to communicate to genetic counseling programs that I was capable of and prepared to spend my career advocating for patients and a field that deserve support.
-Stephanie Betts

For two years while I was living in San Francisco, I mentored a 9 year-old girl through the YMCA Reach and Rise program. This national program focuses on the mental health concerns of youth who have experienced repeated trauma. Like many other urban centers, San Francisco is struggling with long-term, primarily minority residents being pushed out, so advocating for this community was really important to me when I moved to the neighborhood. The program paired me with a social worker, who served my mentee’s family as a caseworker and also provided me with invaluable mentorship. Her support helped me grow in my advocacy role. I also came to appreciate how truly amazing social workers are as resources! Finally, this structure acknowledged the importance of the whole family when working to promote an individual’s wellbeing; this tenet is at the core of genetic counseling. One of my main roles was identifying my mentee’s strengths and needs through our weekly time together.  We then connected her with relevant community resources, like a free STEM summer day camp, tutoring, and a community pool where she learned how to swim. This both broadened the program’s impact and helped sustain it after the program’s official end. Genetic counselors seek to promote resiliency in those they work with in a similar way. I have come to increasingly appreciate these unexpected lessons from the mentorship program, as I see how they help me serve others during my training to become a genetic counselor. 
-Caitlin Russell

Friday, February 15, 2019

Student Job: GCA at Magee-Women's Hospital

My name is Andrew Fazenbaker and I am a first-year Genetic Counseling student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. I also work part-time as a Genetic Counseling Assistant (GCA) in the Center for Medical Genetics and Genomics at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. I started working full-time as a GCA in January 2017 and dropped down to part-time once I started school. Even though I was full-time for only a year and a half, there was no shortage of fulfilling experiences. 

Magee-Women's Hospital
As a GCA, there is a constellation of responsibilities that support clinic operations. At Magee, those responsibilities mostly deal with prenatal and cancer genetic cases. The job is an administrative support role, so it involves a hefty amount of paperwork. Paper charts, release-of-information forms, test requisitions, faxes, letters, and more all make their way to my desk one way or another! Once it’s there, it’s my job to make sure it’s filled out properly and gets to where it needs to be, including EPIC, our electronic medical record software.

On top of that, the phone is almost always off the hook! Whether it’s to schedule an appointment, obtain a pedigree, or to initiate a patient’s insurance authorization, phone conversations are a central aspect of the job. However, face-to-face interactions are just as important. At Magee, the GCA’s tend to patients while they are in the waiting room, consent patients for Non-invasive Prenatal Testing, attend meetings, and observe counseling sessions, among other things. 

Working as a GCA has definitely kept me busy, and it has taught me a great deal about the provision of genetic counseling services. It’s the only job I can think of that immerses you in the behind-the-scenes operations of a Genetic Counseling clinic. I’ve met so many amazing counselors and support staff, who have all been invaluable mentors to me. I’ve improved both my technical knowledge and my professional skills to a degree that would be difficult for me to attain in any other context. In fact, I’m convinced my job as a GCA is the only reason I was prepared enough to make it into graduate school at all! Everybody’s journey is different, though, and there are many paths to take while striving for a career as a Genetic Counselor. 

Andrew Fazenbaker, class of 2020