Education path: interested in computational biology, but careful about my options
Entering edit mode
3.8 years ago
stephenz ▴ 10

Hi there, I am a current final year student with a very strong interest in computational biology/bioinformatics, and I am seriously thinking about pursuing an academic career in this field. I am currently double-majoring in Math/Stats and I need to decide between Biochemistry/Molecular Biology and Computational Biology as my second major. My inclination has always been quantitative and thus my research interests have included a significant computational or quantitative component (read: systems biology, synthetic biology, bioinformatics). I also have solid wet-lab skills, but I feel my strengths lie elsewhere.

Whilst I am partly convinced to major in computational biology (plays more to my strengths), I have done some reading/research on the web and amongst academics I know and would like to hear opinions on the following:

  • I feel it is common for wet-lab people to switch to dry-lab research interests, but not quite the other way around. Is this true? In that regard, perhaps I would be leaving more opportunities open by taking a more 'conventional' biochemistry major - are there any potential pitfalls here, or things I should think about?

  • Is it more difficult to progress in an academic career as a computational researcher, as opposed to wet-lab? I would not want to be stuck in a 'data-cruncher' position for too long. Is it common for bioinformatics-background people to go on to become lab-heads/PIs and conduct their own research?

  • Given the nature of academia, I would like to have a good backup industry plan if this whole academic career thing doesn't work out. Software engineer/data scientist/quantitative analyst sounds good, but I wonder what industry attitudes would be to, for example, a candidate with a BSc(Maths/Biochem), MSc(Bioinformatics) and a computational PhD? Is it common for bioinformaticians to get computational jobs (non-bioinfo) in industry? In academic circles, computer science and computational biology are regarded as very different fields. What about industry?

  • I have a possibility to triple major in Computer Science additionally by taking another year. I imagine this would improve my chances for industry jobs, but it seems a little excessive. Would there be any benefits to an academic career by having this background? (aside from additional coursework knowledge)

My current inclination is to stick to a combination of Stats and conventional Biochem. I have strong computational skills (C/C++, Python, R, UNIX, etc) which I've used in research projects already. I feel the statistics background should be enough to justify computational interests in future (or to convince academics), whilst biochem should leave wet-lab doors open if I so desire.

Would be very interested to hear thoughts from the bioinformatics community :)

Thanks! Steve

education PhD Masters • 3.4k views
Entering edit mode
3.8 years ago
GenoMax 107k

If you are a star candidate then much of what I say below may go out the door (anything is possible in that case).

  • For a dry-lab person to set/acquire a wet-lab would be difficult. Now-a-days wet-lab space in academia is prime/prized. Unless you have a demonstrable need you are not likely to get any assigned so you would almost certainly be collaborating with some established wet-lab PI before you can think of getting some of your own.
  • If you accept a position as a data cruncher then do so with an understanding that it is a temporary solution. You would need to have the potential to strike out as an independent PI in comp biol and you probably are the best judge of that.
  • I can't comment much about this but if you have an interest in industry then get in as soon as you can. Remaining in academia too long can reduce your chances of getting an industry job.
  • Very likely. If you have expertise in CS, Comp bio, Math/Stat and some wet-lab experience then you would be a great candidate to be an academic PI.

Ultimately consider what will give you the most pleasure and where you stand as far as money is concerned.


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