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!
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My Biomedical Informatics Blog by Charles Warden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.