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Career Spotlight: Heather Skirton


Reader in Health Genetics


Basic job description:

After a (first) career in clinical nursing, I now work full-time as a nurse academic at the University of Plymouth (UK). My role mainly involves research on topics that will hopefully enhance health care and quality of life for individuals and families at risk for a genetic condition. I also teach a range of health professionals to enable them to integrate genetics into their everyday health care.


Type of Education/Training Required:

I trained as a nurse and midwife before spending many years as Clinical Nurse Specialist in Genetics. To undertake that role, I required additional education in human genetics and in advanced counseling skills and also took a Master’s degree in health care. I prepared for my work as a researcher at the University by undertaking research training through a PhD.


Special Talents or Skills that Contribute to Career:

Genetics nursing combines the science and art of nursing. Having the capacity to understand and explain scientific information is needed to perform the role, but specific skills as a counselor are needed to work sensitively with families.

Nursing is the ideal background for working in genetic healthcare. Genetic counseling is about so much more than risk assessment and offering genetic testing. It involves having an understanding of the way the condition has an impact on the health of the individual and being able to support the individual through difficult periods of adjustment and decision-making. However, increasingly it also involves offering screening and management of the condition.


What is your background?

I trained as a nurse and a midwife. My clinical experience in pediatrics and midwifery helped me to prepare for my role as a genetics nurse. I found I needed to undertake a diploma in counseling (3 years part-time) to fulfill my responsibilities well.

To enable me to undertake research, I first did a Master’s degree In Health Care and then a PhD in Health Psychology.


Why did you choose this career?

Good question! I think I rather fell into it but have never regretted applying for the job as a genetics nurse. I now love the rigor of research and writing papers that I hope will influence good patient care.

What suggestions do you have for others who would like to break into this field/profession?

Take courses in both genetics and counseling to top up your basic professional qualification. Join professional organizations and attend conferences, also volunteer to work for those organizations as this not only helps other professionals but gives you insight into your chosen field that is invaluable

What is involved in a typical workday?

I might teach a class but usually I am either writing proposals for research, collecting and analyzing data or writing manuscripts. Because of the nature of my research, collecting data usually involves contact with families or health professionals. Research is often a group project, so I spend time discussing projects with my collaborators at the same University or other universities in many other countries.


What do you like the best about your work?  The least?

I like so many things about my work, this is difficult to answer. Contact with my colleagues in Japan, US or Italy rates highly, but so does finding out something that really matters to the families affected with genetic disease. I can’t really think of anything I don’t like except getting rejection letters from grant funding bodies!


Do people tend to stay in your field for a long time or is there a lot of turnover?

People do tend to stay a long time. Nursing offers great opportunities for either staying in clinical care or having an academic career. There is an excellent career path to follow that eventually leads to either expert clinical nurse or Professor.


What are your career goals?

To make a difference


In what ways does your degree help you with this job?

I definitely need my degree in this job. You can pick up research skills, but there is no substitute for the rigor of planned research training. My co-workers at the University have either a master’s or doctoral degree. 


How does your current position compare to working in other settings, like academia or industry?

I now work in academia and though I miss the direct patient contact, I do make amends for that by working for a lay support group as a counselor. I think the academic pathway is right for me at this stage of my career, I can put my clinical knowledge to work to designing appropriate research questions

May 2006


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