Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What degree do I need for a career in bioinformatics?

The type of bioinformatics degree you pursue should be influenced by the type of job that you want. Go to, and take a look at some of the positions you may be interested in (dream big!). If they all require at least a master's, then you better get serious about graduate school. In general, getting a graduate degree in bioinformatics can make you more competitive for bioinformatics jobs. Having a graduate degree can be a tie-breaker in your favor if you are competing against someone with otherwise identical qualifications for a position, and a graduate degree will qualify you for more positions since many positions require at least master’s if not a PhD.

A bachelor’s degree is traditionally a four year degree in the United States. It will land you a job that, day to day, resembles a traditional software engineering job. Web interfaces, data visualizations, dashboards, databases, and maybe even some pipetting will be your bread and butter. If your job description mentions research, then you can expect to spend a lot of time coding other people's algorithms. If this is the type of position you want and/or are already qualified for (especially fresh out of college with a computer science degree), then the time that would be otherwise devoted to graduate school might be better spent on internships and getting work experience. Still, a master's will not hurt and might help job prospects (and starting salary) if you are on the fence. 

Master’s degree
A master's degree is a graduate degree that you can complete after receiving a bachelor's degree. Most master's degrees, including ones in bioinformatics, will take you two years to complete. Master's degrees are coursework-based, but some master’s degrees can include a master’s thesis option where you work on a novel project or research project of your own. Graduate certificate programs are abridged master’s programs that do not award you with a master’s upon completion. Certificate programs are generally easier to get into, are cheaper, and may be an option if you are having trouble getting into a traditional master's program. Master's programs are easier to get into compared to a PhD program because students are typically expected to pay their own way for the master's. However, the investment can be worth it since having a master’s degree pays better than an undergraduate degree and bioinformatics is no exception. Completion of a master’s degree will help you land more interesting jobs, gains you more independence, and allows you to work on more advanced projects. A master's in bioinformatics can help you expand your biological knowledge if you have a computational background, and it will certainly help your computational skills if you have a background in a biomedical field. If you are interested in developing novel algorithms, then you really need to get at least a master's and probably consider a PhD. There are programs that offer master's degrees in bioinformatics completely online. This might be an option if you are having trouble getting into a traditional program, but beware that you will lose out on critical in-person networking that can help you get a job later [note: this was written before the current global pandemic; online courses are quickly becoming the norm for at least the short-term].

Doctoral Degree (Doctor of Philosophy aka PhD)
A PhD is a research intensive degree, and a PhD in the computational sciences, like bioinformatics, will take at least four years to complete. It is not unheard of for a PhD to take longer since progress depends on you and your project. The first two years of a PhD generally involve coursework or a combination of coursework and novel research under a faculty advisor/mentor (also referred to as a principal investigator or PI). The remaining years you are expected to be a productive researcher that works on and publishes novel research, helps your PI write grant proposals, and attends scientific conferences to showcase your work. Your pièce de résistance will be your dissertation, a hundred-plus page document that where you compile your research into a coherent story (or several sub-stories with similar themes). In addition to writing your dissertation, you must orally defend it in front of a committee PhD-wielding professors that you and your PI have picked. Your dissertation work often gets turned into one or many peer reviewed publications before or after your graduation (depending on your university and your circumstances). You are normally required to publish one or more first author papers in peer reviewed journals before you are allowed to graduate.

One huge benefit to choosing a PhD over a master's is a teaching assistantship, which essentially lets you go to graduate school for free. A teaching assistantship provides a full time PhD student with a stipend (a salary) in the $20,000+ range with a tuition waiver (reduced or free tuition) in exchange for helping to teach undergraduate courses. This often ends up being in the realm of 20 hours a week of work grading papers, attending office hours, teaching labs, and even lecturing courses. If you play your cards right and are very, very frugal with your stipend, then you can come out of graduate school debt-free. PhD students usually get priority over master's students for teaching assistantships (in some programs, master's students are not eligible for teaching assistantships), so this is something to consider if you are on the fence between a master's and a PhD. Many PhD programs give their students students assistantships by default, but others may require a separate application. PhD students are also eligible for research assistantships. This is along the same idea of a teaching assistantship except instead of being paid to teach, you are getting paid from your PI's grant (or your own grant/fellowship) to do research.

A PhD in bioinformatics can open the most doors for you. Many positions require graduate degrees, and positions that do not will very likely credit your education years towards years of experience. If you are interested in academia, then a PhD is mandatory for trying to become a faculty/professor at a university. If you are looking to one day lead a team of researchers or be a director of a program, then this definitely requires a PhD. If you want to start your own bioinformatics company, then you had better get a PhD so investors will take you seriously. Bioinformatics has A LOT of PhDs in the field, so it could be challenging to get taken seriously as a founder if you are not part of the PhD club. 

What program should I choose?
Your field of study matters but it also does not matter. A graduate bioinformatics degree can cover enough of biological and computational topics to make you a fairly well rounded scientist. However, many of the hard sciences (especially computer science, statistics, and mathematics) can give you the computational foundation needed for a career in bioinformatics. Graduate work in seemingly unrelated areas can have direct applications to bioinformatics. Electrical engineering comes to mind as a field that you might not think of but is leading the way in machine learning and artificial intelligence research. Keep in mind all programs are not created equal. Although a bioinformatics degree might seem like the logical choice for a career in bioinformatics, if you have the opportunity to get a hard science degree from a better program/university, especially if there are groups there doing bioinformatics research, then you should definitely consider this as an alternative. Note that most job postings do not require "x degree in bioinformatics" but rather say "x degree in bioinformatics, computer science, statistics, or related field".

Closing thoughts
I personally recommend at least a master's degree for people who ask me for career advice, mostly due to how broad the field is. However, you can be a very successful bioinformatician regardless of the level of your degree. There are bachelor's and master's holding bioinformaticians out there that can go toe-to-to with a PhD-holding bioinformatician any day, but this very much depends on the person, their education/background, and their drive. 

Cannot afford school or do not have the time to go back? Check out my guide for getting a bioinformatics education online for free.

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