Question: Thoughts on switching from Biology to Bioinformatics
3
gravatar for mam288
3.2 years ago by
mam28880
mam28880 wrote:

I'm looking to get some thoughts on what it would take for me to switch fields. I have been away from science for 6-7 years and am considering going back to school for Bioinformatics. I have a Ph.D. in Genetics and limited programming experience (some online courses in Java, a couple basic CS courses years ago in undergrad). My question is, what would I need in order to get hired for a bioinformatics job? My options are: 1) Master's Degree in Bioinformatics from a local University (North Carolina State University) 2) Online Master's Degree (Johns Hopkins, NYU, Brandeis, etc) 3) Cousera Specialization (https://www.coursera.org/specializations/bioinformatics?utm_medium=courseDescripTop, https://www.coursera.org/specializations/genomic-data-science, https://www.coursera.org/specializations/systems-biology)

Of course, a Master's Degree would be ideal but they are pricey and a full-time program would be difficult for my family (I have 2 young kids) as for 2 years I would not be bringing in any income and would be paying tuition. I could potentially work part time at least if I did an online Master's but I'm not sure if they hold the same amount of weight? The Coursera Specialization would be the easiest from a logistics perspective but I don't know if it would hold enough weight when applying for jobs to be worth the time investment. Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

Thanks in advance for any advice!!

career • 2.5k views
ADD COMMENTlink modified 3.2 years ago by LLTommy1.2k • written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
6
gravatar for Jean-Karim Heriche
3.2 years ago by
EMBL Heidelberg, Germany
Jean-Karim Heriche19k wrote:

Do a post-doc in the area that interests you. This used to be (still is ?) the acceptable way of switching fields. The trick is to pick the right environment in which you'll be able to grow your skills. The transition will be easier if your education gave you some good foundations in areas relevant to your new job (e.g. maths, statistics...) and has taught you how to learn by yourself.

ADD COMMENTlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche19k

Totally agree - you're an asset to science, and you should be paid, rather than the payee. More importantly, it could take longer than you might expect. A Geneticist moving to Epigenetics, for example, is quite reasonable since there's a lot of cross-over. Genetics to Immunology or Developmental Biology would also make sense, since you'll no doubt be drawing on your genetics background as you learn. Bioinformatics however might as well be ancient hieroglyphics, since there's not a whole lot at the beginning that you can lean on, and the documentation is just as hard to read.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by John12k
2

I disagree somewhat. In some areas of bioinformatics, understanding the biological relevance of a bioinformatics question can be key to a successful project.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche19k

Haha, point well taken. There does seem to be very little overlap other than the "bio" part of the name.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880

Wouldn't it be difficult to get a post-doc outside the field my degree is in though? When I first graduated I was looking at post-docs and it seemed to be the case that people mostly stuck pretty closely to the area of their graduate studies. I can't recall many, if any, people who really branched out. Maybe this isn't the case for all fields though?

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880

My experience is that there are labs/PIs willing to train well motivated people, even from scratch, they may not be the majority but you'll increase your chances of finding a good post-doc if you're geographically mobile (which I agree can be an issue with kids).

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche19k

Huh, I didn't realize that. Geographic mobility will be a problem though. We're moving to a new area for my husband's job so I will unfortunately be restricted to that area. I've been trying to coordinate locations with my husband since we both graduated and I suspect my career would be in a completely different place if I had been able to move anywhere.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
1

There are career re-entry fellowships that you could apply for. See here for the US and here and here for the UK.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by Jean-Karim Heriche19k

I'd rather have a family than "geographic mobility" :-) But if you feel strongly about this you should air it out with your husband and not just let it go. This is as clear-cut an example of the struggles of being a woman in science if i've ever seen it, so I would hope there were programs available to you specifically because you took time out to raise a family, and now want to continue working.

ADD REPLYlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by John12k
1

Same here. I'd definitely rather have family so I do not grudge (for the most part) the impact it has had on my career. It is frustrating though.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880

For sure - you shouldn't have to decide between the two to be honest... hope it works out for you whatever happens :)

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by John12k
1

I agree, unfortunately that's today's reality. I wish it wasn't. Thanks!

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
5
gravatar for ablanchetcohen
3.2 years ago by
ablanchetcohen1.2k
Canada
ablanchetcohen1.2k wrote:
  1. Too expensive. You will never recover your investment in time or money.
  2. Not familiar with these online degrees. Any credible degree would require considerable work. Paper mill degrees are detrimental rather than advantageous.
  3. Coursera courses can be very useful for acquiring knowledge, but are generally not recognized. Yes, you should take Coursera courses to pick up skills. Just don't expect a potential employer to recognize your Coursera degree. Sell the skills you acquired through Coursera, not the Coursera degree.

Why not just pick up some Unix and programming skills on your own, using Coursera courses if you like, and then just volunteer to do bioinformatics analyses for free to pick up some experience?

What is up with all these PhDs wanting to get supplementary degrees to get a job? Very discouraging. The PhD is supposed to be a terminal degree. Surely, there must be jobs available for PhDs that do not require going back to school? Is this a real problem or the eternal student syndrome?

ADD COMMENTlink modified 3.2 years ago • written 3.2 years ago by ablanchetcohen1.2k
1

Since the OP has been away from science for 6-7 years I think he/she has the expectation that without a new qualification, they might struggle. I can't say either way since I don't hire people, but i've certainly never heard a PhD graduate wanting to go back to studying! Most are absolutely dying to earn some cash :D

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by John12k

Yes! I definitely would rather earn cash. Not to mention my current job pays decently when compared to academic jobs and I have gotten accustomed to not being a broke graduate student :-/. You're right that one factor is that I feel like my qualifications in my old field are stale and learning something new would give me a fresh set of qualifications to work with in my job search. I'm trying to figure out if the benefits of changing careers would outweigh the drawbacks of having to go back to school. From what people are saying here, it seems like it might not be worth it.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
1

I completely agree that it is discouraging. I have absolutely no desire to be an eternal student (I would much rather earn money) but I feel a bit like I've gotten stuck. I went into graduate school with the goal of staying in academia, and was interested in teaching more than research. Not that I didn't like research, of course, but it was never my end goal. That was definitely a mistake on my part. I was able to get a Visiting Assistant Professor position right out of grad school. After that I was trying to coordinate with my husband and wanted to either get a teaching/lecturer position or do a post-doc related to my Ph.D. work. The market was insanely competitive for teaching jobs and I got discouraged and jumped on an unrelated job when it came up. It was supposed to be a temporary solution while I searched for a job in academia, but it has been 6 years and I'm still here. Mostly, I'm not very interested in being a bench scientist and finding a teaching job without being able to relocate has been proving extremely difficult. Since I've always liked programming I figured I'd look into a career switch.

Your point about using Coursera to pick up specific skills instead of looking at it as a degree makes complete sense. Maybe I can pick up some programming skills and just see if I can find a way to use them in a genetics-related research position if I'm able to get one...

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
2

Well, I wish you good luck. However, I one more note: In your initial post you talk about very limited programming experience - now you say you always liked programming.... well, you know, if you really like it, fine, get into it - BUT do not underestimate the amount of time you need to become a good programmer! Depending on what level we talk about, but it can take years and most likely more or less full time. Software development is nothing you can pick up within a couple of weeks.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by LLTommy1.2k
1

Thanks! Yes, I definitely need to find the time to invest the time in learning if I want to switch. Hopefully I'll find a way to do that without having to sacrifice quality of life...

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
2
gravatar for LLTommy
3.2 years ago by
LLTommy1.2k
LLTommy1.2k wrote:

I think if you have a phd already and want to work again, you first off all should try to get back in touch with science. Why does it have to be 'bioinformatics'? Just try to get 'something' (postdoc or maybe part time at an institute close to your location?).... Since you did genetics - if you find something in that area, bioinformatics is right around the corner, if that is what you are interested in. But it could be easier to approach this from genetic side than to look right away for something with the job title 'bioinformatician'.

P.S.: Picking up a programming language always helps.

ADD COMMENTlink written 3.2 years ago by LLTommy1.2k
1

Good point, it seems like this is probably the path to take. Much less disruptive than going back to school. It seems to be in line with what ablanchetcohen mentioned earlier too.

ADD REPLYlink written 3.2 years ago by mam28880
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