Saturday, August 6, 2011

What is it like to be a "Bioinformatics Specialist"?

I recently received a request from a complete stranger to learn more about the field of bioinformatics.  Since I think others may also benefit from my answers, I've converted this e-mail conversation into a blog post.  I've made some modifications to the questions and my responses, but all the main ideas are the same.

FYI, I've provided a link to my CV, so you can get a better idea about my background.

Q)  Can you tell me a little bit about your work as a bioinformatics specialist and what a typical day looks like?

A) I think it is safe to assume that someone with this job description will work for at least one lab, and your goal will usually be to help biologists without a strong computational background analyze their data.  In particular, I assist with microarray and next-generation sequencing data analysis.  Sometimes you may work in the lab of an individual scientist, but I work in a shared resource facility.  So, I work for several scientists on campus.  The Bioinformatics Core is also in charge of software support, so I also assist in installing and maintaining software and hardware.  Additionally, I assist in writing papers and grants, but I don’t know if is safe to assume all Bioinformatics Specialists will be authors in papers.

Q) When you completed your MS degree, did you find the job market to be favorable? 

A I actually have an MA degree in Molecular Biology (I was in a PhD program and left the program with just a Master's degree), so this may be a little different than someone going for an independent MS degree in Bioinformatics.  When I had to look for jobs, it did take a lot of effort, and I basically accepted the first offer I could get after a few months of hunting.  However, there are lots of people who are unemployed or go a year or more without a job, so it could be a lot worse.

Q)  How deeply would you suggest that a person searching for a job similar to yours get into programming?  What programming languages are most useful for your job?
 
A) I would say that you pretty much can’t get a job with “Bioinformatics” in the title without significant programming experience and a firm grasp of statistics.

I am proficient in R and Perl.  SQL is also very important.  Python is especially useful for next-generation sequencing analysis.  It is also valuable to learn Java, Apache, and PHP.
 
Q)  Do you know of any useful resources for job seekers?  For example, what do you know about bioinformatics internships?  

A) I think that the importance of internships varies with your career goal.  I think they are a little less important if you plan to eventually get a PhD, but I think they can be very important for individuals with a terminal BS or MS degree.

I would suggest e-mailing PIs / Scientists whose work you find interesting to see if there are any jobs – this is how I have gotten all of my jobs.  

Before I got paid to do research, I had to do research for academic credit for 1-2 years.  If you don’t have considerable research experience, I would consider offering to do volunteer work (or an unpaid internship).  

You should also apply for jobs that you see posted for companies.  However, I haven’t actually had much success with these.  I think companies are legally obligated to post jobs, even if they have already found an internal person for the job.  A lot of companies like to promote from within, so this may be worth something to consider.  Nevertheless, I think anyone who is willing to pay money to post a job on an external website is probably serious about at least considering candidates from outside of the company.  For example, here are some useful resources when looking for bioinformatics jobs (in addition to places like Monster, etc.):
When you are in school, I believe there should be some sort of career services department that might be able to help you.  For example, I have helped send out job postings for the Bioinformatics Core to prestigious universities looking for recent graduates.

Also, be certain to take advantage of research experience (even it is not required) for networking purposes.  Plus, research experience also has other direct benefits, such as getting practical experience that will almost certainly be useful for jobs later down the road.

Please feel free to continue the discussion with questions and comments below!

16 comments:

  1. Hey, I'm a freshman in college, and I'm currently majoring in Biology, and I'm in a 6 year PA program. That's my main goal, but I also want to minor in bioinformatics, because it combines my two loves: computer science and biology. Do you think simply a minor in Bioinformatics could get me a job anywhere? If so, how would I go about finding one later in life?

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  2. Thanks for the comment - I'm sorry that it took me a while to notice it.

    If your PA program is a Physican's Assistant program, then I would say that a minor in Bioinformatics probably won't help you much if your long-term goal is to be a PA.

    However, I do think Bioinformatics is a good field for anyone interested in biology and computer science. If you think it is possible that you may change majors (which a lot of people do in college), then the minor may allow you to consider an alternative career choice. I actually also considering being a PA for a brief period of time, but decided that bioinformatcs was a better fit for me.

    Although I didn't formally get any bioinformatics designations as an undergrad, I think it was very useful to be able to describe the extra math and computer sciences classes that I took (and, most importantly, my genomics research experience). Although I entered Princeton before they created the separate QCB PhD program, I think it may have also been useful to be able to describe myself as having a QCB concentration in grad school (although there were practically no formal requirements to have this designation).

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  4. Hi there. I'm going to be a college freshman majoring in Bioinformatics at Baylor. I was just wondering what I can expect job wise after getting my degree. I'm pre-med as well with my end goal being an MD at the moment, but I would like to be able to take a year or two off before Med school, and so I'm curious what kins of job I could get during those years. As in, what all would I do? Strictly research, write programs in industry rather than academia based jobs, etc.? My choice of Bioinformatics comes from how its very versatile but also how it relates to genetics. Eventually I would like to work in medicine in genetics, specifically personalized medicine. Thanks so much

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  5. I personally went the academic route - the first semester was for credit, but my time as an undergraduate researcher was ~1/2 credit, ~1/2 pay. So, I would certainly say that you shouldn't overlook potentially great opportunities in academic research, especially if you eventually want to get an MD (from what I can tell, an MD research job is more typical in academics than industry).

    Also, my research interests are fairly different now than when I was in college (I am much more interested in applied rather than basic research now). I think undergrad is your best opportunity to experiment with potential future job opportunities (I think it is harder to jump around jobs after college than during college), so that may be worth keeping in mind.

    That said, I do wish I had a wider variety of research experiences, and I wished I had looked for internships / co-ops in industry. I would check out pharma companies (the big ones almost all have bioinformatics departments) and genomics-specific companies (23andMe, DNAnexus, etc.).

    I hope this helps - good luck!

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  7. I am almost done with my undergrad degree in Kinesiology, with Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math. I had originally intended to go to medical school, before working for a cardiologist. In the 10 years since I have been out of school, I have spent most of my time doing data analysis for the government and for political campaigns. I would like to go into something that incorporates these knowledge bases. Do you think that bioinformatics would be a good fit? Getting a masters would require my taking a few undergrad classes relating to programming and probably a couple of additional math classes, but I have done quite well in stats and all of my biology classes. My other option is biomechanics (yes, I know, quite different.) Do you have any thoughts on this?

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  8. Hi Stephanie,

    I have a few suggestions:

    1) Make sure that you know that a "bioinformatics" job will be like. I do genomics research. You could also get into proteomics, molecular modeling, etc. This is not a comprehensive list of applications, but you should definitely be interested in the specific topic if you want to get a Master's degree.

    2) My understanding is that the research job market is tough right now. I have a friend with a MS in Biotechnology who has been unemployed for over a year. Although there people with professional master's degree who might disagree, I would say that a bioinformatics degree would be most directly useful for a research job. No matter what, I would first look for jobs that interest you and then see what the degree requirements are.

    2) If if you are mostly interested in biology and data analysis, you might also want to consider a Master of Public Health (MPH). I believe there is a niche of government jobs that are specific for people who have this degree, and it therefore may be considered more of a terminal degree than a MA/MS in bioinformatics. For example, I am actually applying back to graduate school now for Bioinformatics PhD programs.

    3) I would recommend making sure that you are critical about the advertised degrees. For example, there was a recent discussion on Biostar about someone who wanted a "cost-effective certificate":

    http://www.biostars.org/p/85646/

    I personally think that a masters degree is probably the minimum level of commitment that can really make a noticeable difference on your resume (aside from on-the-job experience, publications, etc.). The prestige of your program also matters. Although I don't consider it to be an absolutely perfect resource, I would recommend at least taking a look at the US News Graduate School Rankings:

    Biology:http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/biological-sciences-rankings
    Genetics/Genomics/Bioinformatics Specialty: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/genetics-rankings

    MPH: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/public-health-rankings?int=493b21

    Biomedical Engineering: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-engineering-schools/biomedical-rankings?int=b07d60

    I hope this helps - good luck!

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  9. Here is some extra questions that I got via e-mail:

    Q) Since you've looked for a job before and you are going back to get a PhD, how is getting a position as an analysis person at a core as a masters vs phd? Would it be easier w/a masters? A lot of the jobs I looked at say masters or phd so are they treated equally? Are the responsibilities in your core different if you go in as masters w/ several years of experience vs PhD?

    A) Formally, yes - your responsibilities will likely be different for masters versus PhD. Namely, I have done all the methods development in my spare time and I collaborate independently with PIs, but I haven't gotten a raise in the last 4 years and I think it is unlikely that you could run your own bioinformatics core without a PhD. I would also guess someone with more experience and/or a PhD will probably be allowed to be independent more quickly. Likewise, it would also depend on the specific needs of the core - more independent jobs that involve helping write up papers would preferably to go people with PhDs; jobs that don't involve working with customers probably preferably go to people without a PhD.

    Q) I know in your blog post, you said you did not have much success in applying to companies, nevertheless, would you have any tips for applying to industry positions?

    A) I think the importance of the degree may vary. I've heard that there are circumstances where people can think you are overqualified with a PhD and I've heard (but can't personally attest) that industry may prefer hiring employees without advanced degrees and promoting from within (although I've also heard of people returning to get a PhD because they couldn't get promoted...so, it may vary from company to company). I think it also helps to know someone who already works within a company (and/or do a internship / co-op).

    Q) Do you know where the core funding comes from? Grants? University? How stable are the positions there? How does the pay/benefits compare vs industry?

    A) I think it will vary. There should always be some charge-back for funds coming from customers. There may also be institutional funding, but (at least at City of Hope) there is likely to be an administrative push to recover as large a portion of costs a possible. Either way, the ability to hire and keep personnel will probably be correlated with incoming funds. I think the biggest problem has typically been an inability to hire new staff, but I've certainly seen staff get let go (which is also true when working in a lab BTW - I don't think there is any way to absolutely guarantee a job. I think a tenure-track faculty position is as close as you can get, but I don't think there will be any tenure-track positions in bioinformatics coresa nd I think even tenure faculty can lose jobs if the institution ever doesn't have enough funds to cover that faculty member, the faculty member does something wrong, etc.).

    I don't know about industry salaries. You will probably make more as a bioinformatics staff member than postdoc in academics.

    Q) Is there often downtime at the core or there is always sequencers / analysis queued up?

    A) Depends - I now work in the Integrative Genomics Core, and the director usually asks if users want us to assist with analysis. Currently, I would say genomics analysis requests typically do not get passed along to the bioinformatics core from my core, but I think it depends upon the relationship and background for the wet and dry lab core directors. It also depends upon user demand - I can have up to 2 weeks with very little downtime and up to 2 weeks with only a few hours of work covered by charge back.

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  10. Hey,
    It was very nice to read your blog. I am an international student and got admitted to Georgia Tech's PSM program in Bioinformatics. Since you went there for your undergrad, do you have an idea about the program and the quality of research in the department? I am going there straight from my undergrad school and have very little work experience, would it be difficult finding a co-op(it is mandatory to find one in the program) after my first year?
    Thank You

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  11. Co-ops are very popular among undergraduate engineering majors. Not sure if the information is public, but I'm pretty sure career services has a database of opportunities.

    I don't believe this used to be a requirement for the bioinformatics program, so I'm not familiar with the opportunities that are specifically relevant to bioinformatics research (unless that doesn't matter). However, I would assume they wouldn't add this requirement if it wasn't feasible to students to accomplish. I believe Jung Choi is is charge of the PSM program. I would recommend addressing him about your concerns. In fact, it looks like his contact info is on the bioinformatics page about internships / co-ops:

    http://www.bioinformatics.biology.gatech.edu/employers/internships-and-co-ops/

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  12. hey!
    I applied to universities and got accepted into bioinformatics and nutrition but I till don't know which one to chose as my major because I am also thinking of studying medicine after I finish my bachelor in one of them.I am interested in bioinformatics more but I am afraid that I wouldn't continue medicine ,then would a degree in bioinformatics and also masters help me get a good job?what are the types of jobs that i can get?someone told me that i can work in pharmaceutical companies,is that true?How much would my income be?
    Thank you!

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  13. Sounds like you are in a Bachelor degree program. I think trying out the coursework is going to be the best option for you to see what you like. I think a lot of people change majors at least once while they are in college.

    As for medical school, a lot of places offer pre-med programs. Regardless of whether you get some sort of certification on your degree, most medical schools have required coursework, which may be beyond your major coursework. Engineering (and presumably bioinformatics) degrees are technically challenging, so it is not unusual for people with these degrees to get into medical school if you can demonstrate that you can excel in a difficult area of study (assuming all the pre-med classes are covered - and things like chemical engineering are probably more relevant than mechanical engineering).

    You ability to hold a leadership position will likely be correlated with your terminal degree, and that will typically be correlated with salaries. Where you work also matters: industry jobs typically pay better than academic jobs, for example. There are bioinformatics jobs at pharmaceutical and biotech companies - you can try getting an internship as an undergrad to see if you like that sort of experience.

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  14. Hello !
    Im an 11 grade student and was interested in taking a bsc in bioinformatics because of my interest in computer science and biology. However I had a few questions in mind that I hope you could answer .

    First of all, when I graduate what kind of jobs can I opt for, I mean do I have to be an assistant in research? And exactly what do bioinformaticians do?

    Is it true that bioinformatics is declining in the present century?

    Also with my bsc can I get a job , which preferably would be part time ?

    And with a master or phd in bioinformatics how would my career improve ?

    Thx alot in advance and hope that u will be able to answer my questionnaire

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  15. I would say most jobs want a master or PhD, but you may be able to find a "research associate" job with a BS. In bioinformatics, I would expect you to probably find a research job.

    You will probably need to first do research for course credit, but you can get paid for undergraduate research. Summer research fellowships are especially popular (and you don't necessarily need to do the summer research at the school where you are enrolled).

    I think there is high demand for bioinformatics jobs. As with all things, routine tasks can be automated and outsourced. However, I wouldn't say "bioinformatics is declining".

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