Journal of Genetic Counseling

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 818–834 | Cite as

From Novice to Seasoned Practitioner: a Qualitative Investigation of Genetic Counselor Professional Development

  • Kimberly Wehner Zahm
  • Patricia McCarthy Veach
  • Meredith A. Martyr
  • Bonnie S. LeRoy
Genetic Counselor Development


Research on genetic counselor professional development would characterize typical developmental processes, inform training and supervision, and promote life-long development opportunities. To date, however no studies have comprehensively examined this phenomenon. The aims of this study were to investigate the nature of professional development for genetic counselors (processes, influences, and outcomes) and whether professional development varies across experience levels. Thirty-four genetic counselors participated in semi-structured telephone interviews exploring their perspectives on their professional development. Participants were sampled from three levels of post-degree genetic counseling experience: novice (0–5 years), experienced (6–14 years), and seasoned (>15 years). Using modified Consensual Qualitative Research and grounded theory methods, themes, domains, and categories were extracted from the data. The themes reflect genetic counselors’ evolving perceptions of their professional development and its relationship to: (a) being a clinician, (b) their professional identity, and (c) the field itself. Across experience levels, prevalent influences on professional development were interpersonal (e.g., experiences with patients, genetic counseling colleagues) and involved professional and personal life events. Common developmental experiences included greater confidence and less anxiety over time, being less information-driven and more emotion-focused with patients, delivering “bad news” to patients remains challenging, and individuals’ professional development experiences parallel genetic counseling’s development as a field. With a few noteworthy exceptions, professional development was similar across experience levels. A preliminary model of genetic counselor professional development is proposed suggesting development occurs in a non-linear fashion throughout the professional lifespan. Each component of the model mutually influences the others, and there are positive and negative avenues of development.


Genetic counseling Genetic counselor Professional development Experience Training Model 



This study was completed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the first author’s Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Minnesota. We would like to thank Caitlin Chun-Kennedy for assistance with data analysis and the study participants for their time and valuable input.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Kimberly Zahm, Patricia McCarthy Veach, Meredith Martyr, and Bonnie LeRoy declare they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Treatment of Subjects

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000.

Human Studies and Informed Consent

No human studies were carried out by the authors for this article

Animal Studies

No animal studies were carried out by the authors for this article

Supplementary material

10897_2015_9900_MOESM1_ESM.docx (17 kb)
Supplemental Table 1 (DOCX 16.8 kb)


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Copyright information

© National Society of Genetic Counselors, Inc. 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kimberly Wehner Zahm
    • 1
  • Patricia McCarthy Veach
    • 2
  • Meredith A. Martyr
    • 2
  • Bonnie S. LeRoy
    • 3
  1. 1.Center for Counseling and Student DevelopmentUniversity of DelawareNewarkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Educational PsychologyUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA
  3. 3.Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and DevelopmentUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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