Friday, January 26, 2018

Deciding on the Dual Degree

While preparing for my genetic counseling graduate work, one of my favorite experiences was working with a local organization, Jewish Young Professionals, to set up a night that focused on genetics. We arranged for a certified genetic counselor to speak with a group of approximately 20 individuals aged 20-40, about a variety of genetic issues that might be important for them to know at different stages of life. Activities like this, while not always an everyday part of a genetic counselor's professional life, are important to providing basic education to the community and can be valuable in increasing awareness of relevant genetic issues. While I love individual interactions, and look forward to clinical genetic counseling, I also feel that it is important to think about the impact of genetics on population health (for example, what population screening measures are appropriate and why). Given this perspective, the addition of the MPH degree in Public Health Genetics just made sense.

        I didn't always know I wanted to be a genetic counselor. I didn't even know what genetic counseling was until a few years ago but experiences like the aforementioned one helped solidify my interest in getting involved in healthcare, specifically genetic counseling. I started the process of applying to genetic counseling training programs and continued to be passionate about people and their health. When I got into the genetic counseling program of my dreams, the option of entering the dual degree program (MS in Genetic Counseling/MPH in Public Health Genetics) seemed intriguing. I started to ask a number of questions: Was it right for me? I already had a different graduate degree, in a field I wasn't in, so what could the addition of an MPH do for me?  

        When considering the dual degree, I knew that I could see the benefit, but was it enough when weighed against the cost and time commitment? To be honest, I spent a good deal of time pondering practical issues.  I thought about what the addition of another degree could provide.  Maybe it could help me when I apply for jobs.  Maybe it would give me a bargaining chip for a slightly better salary.  While this information is important to keep in mind, it missed the larger picture of the relevancy of a dual degree to genetic counseling education and practice.  I had great conversations with the program directors as well as the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, who helped focus my internal reflections.  I also had an informative discussion with an alumnus who graduated from the dual degree program and an alumnus who did not get the dual degree but who has recently started an educational program in public health.  They both shared with me how their clinical practice has been influenced by their public health education.

University of Pittsburgh Public Health
As a result of all these conversations and considerations, when I thought of my future as a genetic counselor, it became clear that I wanted the education as a public health professional to inform my work as a genetics professional within the larger context of our current healthcare system.
Much of genetic counseling work is intertwined with public health, and at times, it can be hard to separate the two. Some experience in public health is intrinsic to the University of Pittsburgh genetic counseling experience, but it became clear that the addition of the dual degree would help me better understand and reframe some of the debates we are currently having about genetics in a new and helpful way. The increased depth and breadth of experience provided by the MPH would also help me improve my ability to communicate with and care for patients in the clinical setting. For these reasons, I started my first dual degree class this semester.

-Natasha Robin Berman
Class of 2019

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