What job opportunities are available for those pursuing a degree in Bioinformatics?
I am a bioinformatics major, and while I love the field of study, I am still a little uncertain on all the job opportunities available with a Bioinformatics degree. Do the jobs tend to be more computer/programming based, or more lab work? Or is there some of each?
I've been working in Molecular and Cell Biology for a little over a year now. Bioinformatics is used fairly heavily when sequencing DNA and RNA, and is pretty Computer Science heavy for my tastes.
However, your question can depend highly on where you end up getting work. My work had lab personnel running the sequencing of the material, and Bioinformatics personnel running analysis on the information that resulted.
If working in an Undergrad or Academic environment you may find yourself with a few lab responsibilities, but in large companies you may find yourself soley working on the Computer and Analysis end of things.
Toshiro K. Ohsumi
Toshiro K.’s Answer
The job tends to be more computer based. There are a few traits of a good bioinformatician in my opinion:
1. They can come up with new algorithms or methodologies.
a. Generally, when dealing with new biology, novel analyses may be needed. These may be analyses that are not covered by any existing programs, or you may need to stitch together analyses from a number of existing packages and incorporate your own analyses.
b. If you can come up with a novel improved method for analyzing something - particularly if everyone else is using the same thing - then that could be a significant contributing factor to a company's success in, say, developing a drug.
c. A way to develop this skill is read up on existing bioinformatics algorithms (look for textbooks by Sung or Pevzner) and also data structures and algorithms (the canonical book by Cormen, Leiserson, and Rivest and the one by Skiena). Having a toolbox of known data structures and algorithms makes it easier to think about designing new ones without reinventing the wheel.
2. They can code very effectively.
a. You don't have to be a former Googler. :-) However, you need to be able to do #1 above and be able implement the idea quickly.
b. You should learn at least one modern programming language. The usual one is Python followed by R. Knowing Java or C++ is helpful, I think, because they are better for developing multithreaded programs. (I'm biased here in that regard.)
c. To gain fluency, I think it's all about practice - a lot of it - just like for learning a human language.
3. They are mathematically rigorous.
a. They should statistically justify their analyses.
i. As an example, it is surprising the number of bioinformaticians who use the word "average" or "standard deviation" on a set of numbers before checking if the set has a bell (Gaussian) distribution.
b. They should know various probability distributions in case p-values are needed.
c. But, they must also understand that statistical significance may not translate to biological significance and vice versa.
d. This is often gained first from either taking a statistics course or see something like https://www.statlect.com/
4. They have a diverse skill set.
i. They know more than just coding well. They should also know things like how to set up and use a database, like MySQL.
ii. They should know enough biology so they can understand what the biologists are asking for and if that is something reasonable.
iii. As indicated above, they should know statistics.
5. They can communicate well.
i. Bioinformatics is collaborative in nature.
ii. One must be able to present their analyses to a group.
iii. I found, sadly :-), the only way to get better is to do a lot of it and receive (painful) feedback.
I hope this helps. All the best.