Genetic Counseling is a Career for All – An Interview with Benjamin Helm
by Jay Flanagan, MS, CGC
A part of NSGC’s “Genetic Variation” blog series that aims to give a voice to diverse members of the genetic counseling community. Genetic variation refers to diversity in gene frequencies and can also relate to differences between individuals or populations.
In 2017, certified genetic counselor Jay Flanagan wrote a blog about being a male genetic counselor, in hopes that sharing his experience would inspire others who are curious about the career to explore it more. At the time, just five percent of all genetic counselors were men—a stat that remains largely unchanged in 2021. The blog remains one of the most popular on NSGC’s site, and four years later, Jay still receives emails with questions or stories about how this blog helped someone in their journey to becoming a genetic counselor. This blog picks up where Jay’s last blog ended and features a interview with Benjamin Helm, another certified genetic counselor.
Diversity is essential in all professions
A few years back, a New York Times article explored perceptions of certain careers and found that many men are not attracted to popular careers with strong growth potential that are found in the service sector. They found that men passed over these “pink-collar jobs,” like nursing or teaching, for traditional blue-collar jobs--an interesting fact because these service sector jobs often provide greater job security and wage growth than other jobs. They concluded that men could not see themselves working in these fields.
This aligns with a recent Scientific American article focused on the lack of men in caregiving professions. In the article, the author reviews a study that explores why society seems to care less about fighting for men’s’ gender equality in the workplace and provides reasons why it is beneficial to all. He argues that seeing more male representation in these roles might compel men to explore their caring, compassionate sides more freely and argues that seeing men in non-traditional roles could also encourage young women to envision themselves in a less traditional role or occupation. This speaks to the genetic counseling profession, as we look to expand our society’s diversity.
In the last ten years, the genetic counseling profession has seen a significant growth in salaries, diversity, autonomy and growth. It is expected to double in the next ten years which puts it at the top of all professions. And yet, looking at the most recent Professional Status Survey (PSS), only 5% of genetic counselors are male, which is essentially unchanged from where it was 25 years ago.
So, why do some men decide to make genetic counseling their profession? I think the only way to find solutions to how to grow our diversity is to explore why certain individuals choose to make this their profession. I spoke with Benjamin Helm to gain insight into his journey. Ben is a certified genetic counselor and cardiovascular expert at the Indiana University School of Medicine who has been in the profession for about 10 years.
A different pathway to working in healthcare
Ben grew up in a rural community where his father was a family physician. Like me, he was drawn to the healthcare field, but didn’t necessarily want to be a doctor. An experience in his college years pushed him toward genetics.
“I knew there was a history of early-onset heart disease in my family, so I had early experiences with finding genetic patterns in my own family. This led me to develop an interest (possibly subconscious) in genetics and disease, but it was not until I had my first abnormal cholesterol panel as an undergraduate that I really decided to explore it more. I got those results during a semester when I was taking a genetics class and that probably influenced my interest in the genetic counseling profession,” said Ben.
As he considered the profession, he began to shadow other counselors but was never able to find a male role model or mentor. This was not a concern, but it did bring up questions that many men ask while traveling the career journey path.
“Why aren’t there more people that look like me? What’s different about me that makes this the right profession for me when it seems like so few men have pursed this path? This was highlighted during my graduate interviews. I was commonly asked how I would feel working in a profession with so few men,” said Ben.
Why genetic counseling was the right fit
Despite some initial reservations, Ben is certain that he made the right choice. He loves his subspecialty as it allows him to use his strengths.
“I find that in cardiology, I can play a more direct role. I am driven by developing a mastery of a specific area, which has been cardiology. I am problem solver but I also use my counseling skills to help the patient come to the best conclusion for them and their family.”
Another thing Ben loves about the profession is that is evolves over time.
“In many professions, you are locked into one specialty once you have passed your boards or graduated school. With genetic counseling, the skills you learn allow you to find the best fit over time,” he said.
For example, Ben’s work has inspired a desire to help with population health through things like polygenetic risk scores. He has been actively involved in research and hopes to further his career by obtaining his doctorate in epidemiology.
A career in genetic counseling is for everyone
Ben wants those who are curious about the profession to know, “From the outside, the profession often appears to be homogeneous, but no matter what group you associate most closely with, you will find others like you in our profession.”
It has become the goal of national professional organizations, including NSGC, to find better ways to be inclusive of all groups and to grow the diversity of this rich profession. While I would love to see more males in the profession, we also need to grow our diversity in general. For example, one of our recent genetic counseling program graduates was born with achondroplasia. She is now using her life experiences in her work as a genetic counselor to touch families who are raising children with skeletal dysplasias. Her example provides further evidence that our reach and impact is much greater the more diverse our members are.
If you would like to find a genetic counselor to discuss whether the profession is a good option for you, a good place to start is looking at https://www.findageneticcounselor.com/. On that page, you can search by area and specialty but you can also contact NSGC if you are looking for someone who you feel would give you a better understanding of the profession related to your unique life experience.