What Is a Geneticist?
A gene is a sequence of nucleotides in DNA. Essentially, a gene contains codes to determine every attribute and characteristic of a particular life form. Every form of life has DNA in it; without DNA, or these genetic codes, there would be no determining the various characteristics or what kind of life form it would be.
The reason why most people, animals, and even plants have certain variations within them, from one unique individual to the other, is because of slight mutations that occur in the sequence of the genetic code. Studying these mutations and the various gene sequences is what geneticists do.
Geneticists can be called upon in medicine, to help determine the underlying causes of genetic abnormalities, illnesses, or other situations. They can also be called on in the plant sciences community to try and create more resistance to certain fungal bacteria, to produce more growth, and so on.
Geneticists are also in high demand to help determine better medications, antibiotics, pesticides, and even understand more acutely why some people develop certain characteristics or whether some abnormalities have a genetic underlying cause, rather than environmental.
Gregor Mendel was a late 19th century scientist who was one of the first to begin studying trait inheritance patterns. These are patterns that are handed down from parents to their offspring. Today, trait inheritance and molecular inheritance mechanisms of genes are still a major component of genetics in the 21st century. However, modern genetics has moved well beyond those simple characteristics and functions to ultimately study the behavior of genes and how certain sequences can affect an individual or other life form.
It’s important to understand the basics of genetics as a whole in order to better understand what geneticists do as a career. A geneticist is a person who will specialize in the science of genetics. This is a branch of biology that is specifically focused on understanding the characteristics of different organisms, how those characteristics develop, why they develop, and how they are passed on to offspring, or progeny.
Within the medical field, a geneticist will look at the various genetic characteristics that could be contributing to hereditary conditions or congenital malfunctions. As noted already, geneticists can work within a wide range of fields, from molecular biology to plant sciences to pharmacological development, and much more.
At its very core, the field of genetics is studying how different life forms vary and how those subtle and even minute variations can be passed on from parent to offspring and how those variations affect the offspring. Geneticists will conduct numerous experiments to determine where certain inherited traits come from, why they occur, how they develop, and the underlying laws that govern those inherited traits.
Geneticists will also try to determine why some organisms or lifeforms are more resistant to certain diseases than others. They will also seek to understand how some lifeforms can vary in size, color, and other characteristics, even within the same family and species.
There are many factors that determine what characteristics offspring will take on. It’s not just a matter of combining two unique genetic codes, but fertility, maturity, and the dominance of certain genes, chromosomes, and other biological calculations and circumstances make a difference in how somebody develops, grows, and exhibits certain traits and characteristics.
Some geneticists are focused on research to determine the underlying causes of certain behaviors, diseases, resistance to diseases, etc. Others will help to develop methods, medications, chemicals, or other options that can help refine genetics, reduce the risk of abnormalities developing, and help control certain congenital defects that could be potentially life-threatening.
There are numerous branches within the genetics field in which a person can go for a career. Each one will provide different challenges and unique insights. Some geneticists go into the field of biomedicine. This is focused on how genetics and genetic origin affect certain diseases and these geneticists may help develop certain medications or treatments to counteract various disorders or specific diseases. Biomedicine can also seek to treat genetic disorders that may have occurred in an individual from birth.
Other geneticists may go into the field of agriculture. Some focus on increasing crop yield production or learning about how certain plants are more resistant to insects, funguses, and other factors that can reduce crop yield.
Forensic science is also a field in which geneticists could offer numerous benefits, and already do. Many people who enjoy crime dramas on television will be quite familiar with the idea of DNA. DNA tests can help determine the veracity of a prosecutorial claim or assist defense attorneys improving their clients are not guilty of certain crimes they may have been accused of.
Some geneticists can go into the field of archaeology to help determine the types of ancient organic matter that could be uncovered at various sites. And still other geneticists might delve into bioinformatics, which combines computer science with biology. These geneticists will be working with a massive amount of genetic information to map out the human genome and determine what certain genetic codes could imply with regard to behavior, life choices, health issues, risk factors, and much more.
Because of the wide range of fields in which a geneticist could work, his or her workplace may vary. Most research geneticists will work in some type of laboratory. There may be a time when this individual will have to go out into the field to collect samples, but most of the time the collection of samples will be conducted by others, possibly even other researchers.
Medical geneticists, or biomedicine geneticists will most likely work in medical research facilities, hospitals, or even biotechnological research environments. Some of these workers will interact directly with patients, such as when they need to explain certain characteristics, how a congenital defect is affecting them, prognosis, treatment options, and more. In most of these situations, these medical geneticists would work directly with a patient’s doctor and not directly with the patient himself or herself.
Most major colleges and universities across the country that provide degrees in some type of genetics’ discipline will require professors for these classes. Most geneticists who step into the teaching profession will work in biology departments, especially those departments that have a strong concentration in genetics.
Many of the professors who teach genetics will also be involved in some type of research. The various options available to those interested in genetics provides a wide breadth of opportunity. Some may be completely devoted and thrilled at the notion of doing research each and every day. Others prefer to work more hands-on and with a wider range of individuals.
A forensic researcher who is focused on DNA evidence will most likely be working with evidence provided to them from investigators, detectives, prosecutors, and even defense attorneys. The more experienced geneticists are often called upon to testify at a trial, especially when the DNA evidence is compelling, one way or another. In most of these cases, independent geneticists will be paid for their time during their testimony, and it provides a potentially lucrative opportunity for those who are interested in expanding their career horizons.
Where geneticists tend to work will certainly depend on the field of study they prefer. In most cases, though, geneticists will work a standard 40-hour week, most of the time in a research laboratory or office environment.
The vast majority of geneticists around the world will be hired by universities, research foundations, government agencies, and hospitals. Very rarely will a geneticist branch out on their own or have any ambition to try and start their own agency or company. Most of the funding for geneticists comes through government grants, research foundations, medical focus, agricultural needs, or criminal justice departments.
For some geneticists, the routine of daily research spent in a lab can be exciting, but for others it can feel a bit mundane, or not offer enough inspiration. For these, combining research and hands-on experience can lead some to biomedicine and others to forensic sciences.
Salaries for geneticists in the United States were, on average, $72,720 in 2013. The full salary range was between $34,590 and $124,760, annually. Where a geneticist works and the type of work they actually do will impact average salaries.
In most cases, a geneticist would be required to have an advanced degree, such as a PhD. Some geneticists can seek employment with only a master’s degree in the field of biology and genetics, but a doctoral degree is most commonly required for most employment opportunities within the field of genetics.
A breakdown of the average salary for a geneticist in the United States on a state-by-state, is listed below:
The data derived comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191029.htm.
For the past several years, the demand for geneticists in most fields has remained relatively steady. During the past several decades, though, the demand saw a significant increase as the field of genetics exploded, thanks in large part to the advancement in computer technology. As computer processing speeds and power increased, the ability to map out genetic codes, not just within the human genome, but with plants, other animals, and other biological entities, there was a greater demand to explore the vast opportunities in genetic sciences.
In the future, however, demand will depend greatly on advances in big data, or the ability for computer technology to continue to advance and collecting more data, especially as it relates to DNA evidence and identities for individuals, but also with hyper computing and the analysis of large genetic and ecological datasets.
As there is an increased interest in environmental sciences, especially as it relates to genetic coding and mapping, demand may also increase in these fields.
Overall, the anticipated growth within the field of genetics is relatively flat. It will see little to no change and even as some fields, like environmental genetics, might see an increase, other fields may see a reduction in some demand.
A change +2% or -2% is expected over the next decade or two within the field of genetics.
While a person could potentially gain entry level work in the field of genetics with a bachelor’s degree, if there is any desire to advance within the field, receive a promotion, or even have the opportunity for long-term research grants and other prospects, advanced studies will be necessary.
A person interested in pursuing genetics as a career should look into majors specifically focused on genetics, but they can also pursue biology, environmental sciences, or some other related discipline for their undergraduate degree. For this type of career, a person should expect to take courses in biology, chemistry, math, ecology, statistics, and computer science.
If an individual has no interest in several of these disciplines, genetics might not be a career field they should consider pursuing, no matter where their ultimate focus may lie. Even somebody who is interested in forensic sciences and gathering DNA evidence for a case, they will still be required to take these types of courses and the work they do will ultimately, most likely, be done in a research laboratory and on a computer system. Most geneticists will never have the type of career glorified on crime dramas on TV.
Whether it’s a high school student, college student still trying to figure out what kind of career they are interested in, or even an adult who is contemplating returning to school for a new degree, one of the best recommendations a person could receive is to explore basic genetic classes. Biology and any type of genetics course that might be offered at the college and university level is highly recommended.
Many of these courses can be applied to other degrees as far as at large, or generalized classwork. Many disciplines, including social sciences, mathematics, Earth sciences, and more will permit a student to take classes of just about any discipline, and it will count towards requirements for that major, so even if they don’t ultimately pursue a career in genetics, those classes will still hold weight.
If a professor has open hours and is willing to sit down and discuss what kind of workload a person may expect just studying the field of genetics, what their prospects are for work, and how their specific interest may impact their career, they should take that opportunity.
It also might be ideal to pursue an internship or interview with a professional who is working directly in the field of genetics.
These organizations and societies are a great starting point for those interested in pursuing a career in the field of genetics. The Genetics Society of America (GSA) is the leading professional association for geneticists around the world. They promote a number of conferences on a wide range of genetics topics and also promote numerous awards within the field of genetics. This organization also publishes a number of professional journals, including Genetics, which is the authoritative journal on the topic, first published in 1916.
The American Genetic Association is responsible for publishing the journal Heredity. This organization also establishes annual meetings, funds an Evolutionary, Ecological, or Conservation Genomics (EECG) Research Award and has a focus on wildlife species.
The Society for Conservation Biology is an organization devoted to preserving biodiversity. It holds annual, regional, and sectional meetings, provides financial support, publishes Conservation Biology, and offers educational resources and advice for students. This would be a great organization to contact for those who have an expressed interest in the field of genetics.
What geneticists can work in a wide range of fields, including biomedicine, in the specific field of medicine are a number of disciplines that have been growing in recent years. Within the field of medicine, a geneticist will specialize in problem areas, including congenital defects and illnesses that have a root genetic cause.
People are seeing geneticists for a growing number of reasons. Some of the most common involve trying to understand certain traits or characteristics that may be more acute in a particular family line. They may also be focused on understanding the elevated risk of certain diseases that could be occurring within their family, which could include sickle-cell anemia, Alzheimer’s, and other abnormal developments.
Genetic counseling is also a growing field in which genetic counselors sit down with patients to assess specific risk factors of developing various types of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and other conditions. Genetic counselors can also work with couples to determine if there are any specific risk factors they need to be aware of when planning a family.
Geneticists also help people determine familial connections. In modern society, where some children don’t know or are not certain about who their parents are, who their father is, or have other questions, or perhaps during parental custody motions and other fights, genetic testing laboratories place their focus on determining the probability that a child was derived from two specifically targeted parents, which can help in a wide range of factors, including financial responsibility, medical risks, and so on.
A person who is interested in the human genome, DNA molecules, genetics, and understanding how various traits and characteristics are passed down from parents to offspring could find a wide range of potential career paths that inspire and keep them focused and fulfilled throughout their career.
Because there is such diversity, it’s important for somebody exploring the field of genetics to have a solid understanding of what to expect, what they would need to do with regard to schooling, classes they need to take, and how far they need to take their education (master’s degree or a doctoral degree, for example) before they start.
It is a very specific focus with regard to studies, but for those who have a sincere desire to pursue this field, it offers not just a rewarding career, but as noted in the table chart for average salaries, can be a solid career financially.
The field of genetics, with the advancement of computer technology, will also likely expand, providing opportunities that might not yet fully exist for a career right now.