Bioinformatics Zen

Frequently emailed questions

Can you give me a Bioinformatics PhD studentship or a job?

No, I'm not a professor or a manager.

How can I find a PhD?

Take a little time to apply to individual supervisors rather than spamming many researchers. Writing a generic cover letter and CV, then sending these to everyone you can find will generally not be very succesful. I think this approach is bad because supervisors usually know when someone has sent them a CV on the off-chance of an offer. Secondly, do you want to spend many years working on something you're not really interested in?

A better approach, after you've found all the projects you can, is to spend some time reading the research descriptions, then narrow the list down to the ones that really excite you. Read the last 3 papers that the supervisor wrote, and if you still want to do the PhD, write to the PI telling them what excites you about their research. You could also email the supervisor, and ask if you can phone to talk about the project further. If you come across as a bright young researcher with a lot to offer, you'll definitely get their interest.

Should I pursue a further degree in bioinformatics, such as a masters?

This depends on how you feel, but for me I'm glad I did a masters. A year long course (in the UK) gave me a chance to learn programming, statistics and other bioinformatics foundations. The 4-6 month research project also gave me an idea of whether or not I wanted to do a PhD. Of course plenty of researchers are very successful in bioinformatics without ever having done a masters. Whatever your decision: whether you decide to do higher education via a masters or a PhD, I really recommend spending some time to learn programming beforehand, if you're not already familiar. Doing an evening class or getting a good text book and practising at home will really help when you start on your research project. Furthermore make sure to learn the language used on the course.

What are the job prospects for finding a job with a masters?

This is difficult question to answer because it varies depending on the skills of the individual versus the requirements of the job. One suggestion would be to look at current bioinformatcs job postings and see if you think you would be a good candidate for the position after completing the masters you are interested in. If you do eventually decide to pursue your masters, a healthy degree of networking could also ensure that you have a job waiting for you at the end. For instance some masters allow you to complete a research project in industry, which could certainly be beneficial to finding a job.

Another point to consider is that doing a masters can be expensive, where tuition fees can be very large and possibly require taking on a significant debt burden. Obviously this investment is worth giving thought to before making a commitment. Doing bioinformatics can be very fulfilling but, of course like any job, can still be very frustrating. One way to consider the investment in a masters is this: if you did the masters and found a job that was in field but did not initially pay a large salary would you still be happy you did it?

What are the job prospects for finding a job with a PhD?

I think there could be many opportunities for a post-doctoral position if you would like to pursue the PhD path. There are however limited numbers of tenured faculty positions so the prospects are usually dim when finding a permanent position after doing a post-doc. I experienced this first-hand as I did a post doc after doing my PhD, and I found the job search very unpleasant. A PhD is however may be required to persue higher level positions, and some PhDs do make it all the way to become a professors.

Which programming language should I use?

A simple answer would be Python. This language has become more and more popular in bioinformatics, and so will have an increasing biolibrary base, as well as a growing Python bioinformatics community. Python is also one of the easiest and simple programming languages to learn. What makes a language simple and easy? Well it reduces the options for the programmer to create bugs, and makes the code easier to understand. However, as I said, that was the simple answer. For instance, if you are about to start a Master's degree, it would be a better idea to learn the language taught on the course. Another consideration is the language used by your colleages, if you start using Python but everyone else is using Perl, then there'll be less opportunity to get help or advice.