Forum:Should I quit PhD program?
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3.1 years ago
George ▴ 30

Hello everybody! Hopefully, this is the right place to ask this kind of questions.

I am an international first year biology PhD student in the USA. After several years in research and first year of doctoral studies I decided to switch to bioinformatics and computational biology field. I acquired basic skills in R and Python, learnt some machine learning techniques in bioinformatics. I have lost interest in my field and became interested in bioinformatics, programming and statistics. Unfortunately, it is not possible for me to change the program within the university. Now, I see only one effective solution to this issue - quit the program, work on prerequisites (GRE math subject test; linear algebra; calculus I, II and III; statistics and programming) and apply for bioinformatics graduate program positions later. Moreover, on a long term investment, bioinformatics graduate program is more attractive as it will help significantly to develop valuable skills that can be transferred to another field and secure a job in a future after the graduation. What do you think about it?

Thank you.

education phd career research forum Forum • 2.1k views
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Reach some one near by who is knowledgeable and run your decision through :) (for eg. academic counselor in university or a well wisher much elder to you (saw enough life) or some academician/street smart person who knows your limitations/strengths)

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Thank you so much! It was really helpful!

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Thank you so much, guys for your help! Now, I have pretty good idea about what I will do.

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When you are successful come back and update this thread to say what you did and the reasons behind your choice.

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3.1 years ago
Joe 19k

I know the US system requires much longer study durations but I won't claim to fully understand it.

My 2 cents though:

Unless you absolutely dread getting out of bed in the morning, things haven't gotten that bad (yet?). I'd be inclined to say stick at it. The beauty of bioinformatics is it can be an additional layer to almost any other biological project.

You say you've already managed to work in a lot of bioinformatics and ML. I would say carry on as you are, and just take every opportunity to work in bioinformatics analysis/tasks so that your skills improve.

Additionally (though many may not agree with me on this), you do not need a degree in bioinformatics to be a bioinformatician, much the same as you do not need an art degree to be an artist. So long as the work you put out reflects your interest and ability, people will recognise a portfolio of work as evidence enough. You do not need certification in any programming language for example (and I'd wager very few bioinformaticians have such).

As a primarily wet-lab scientist myself I would also contend the point:

Moreover, on a long term investment, bioinformatics graduate program is more attractive as it will help significantly to develop valuable skills that can be transferred to another field and secure a job in a future after the graduation.

Pretty much all skills you learn in science are transferrable. I consider any informatics skills I gain a bonus, not a replacement for, the skills I'm getting from other disciplines. I would be careful of falling in to the trap that a bioinformatician == programmer (comp sci). Sure the jobs overlap a lot, but if there is a job ad for a software developer, many bioinformaticians would not fulfill that role (though I can't speak to your skills level).

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Thank you so much! It was really helpful!

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Okay, so this is a good few lines written by jrj.healey. Indeed, those who now call themselves 'bioinformaticians' and who are leaders in the field have invariably not gone through a B.Sc. or M.Sc. in Bioinformatics. I never did any bioinformatics courses but I picked up skills 'here and there' and had the advantage of Computer Science behind me. My PhD began as a wet-lab project and, even though it finished as a bioinformatics project, I was still processing fresh and warm blood from patients and managing liquid nitrogen stores right up until the end.

I actually almost fell into the same ideology as you (OP) a while ago in thinking that I needed a MBA in order to be good in business and enter that field. That was silly because I had already picked up business acumen through experience of private consulting.

My recommendation is to stick it out but to start embracing bioinformatics 'on the side'. A good way to start that is by coming here and looking through online tutorials. The community here is pretty good and willing to help. With any PhD from a US university, your career will be off to a great start.

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3.1 years ago

Is there a possibility that you could use bioinformatics skills in your project and make it multidisciplinary ? Or you could also discuss with your PI and ask if he could involve you in other collaborative projects that are more focused on bioinformatics ? There is a lot of data out there and you could also think of doing some analysis and incorporate into your project. Of-course you need guidance. I would suggest to discuss all possibilities with your PI/Post-docs in the lab and I am sure they will try to fix it.

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I don't know about the situation in the US, but over here, informatics/statistics PhD students are more difficult to attract for a biology lab. If one of our students told me, he/she wanted to pursue an integrated biology/informatics project, the lab would profit much: If the student is able to analyze data and understands the biology, more sophisticated projects can be planned.

As already pointed out by geek_y and jrj.healey I would advise open communication with your advisor on how to give your project a multi-disciplinary angle. Maybe it is possible to get a mentor from a second discipline involved (again: speak with your advisor, don't decide alone). I think you and the lab would profit more than starting all over new. Good and open communication is key.

In our field, many bioinformaticians never studied computer science or bioinformatics, but slowly transcended into this domain.

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Thank you so much, guys! Your advises and recommendations are very helpful for me!

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3.1 years ago
GenoMax 103k

Better solution may be to bite the bullet and try to complete an MS where you are now (if you could do one without a thesis that would be fine too). It would show that you are willing to stick with a program and complete it. You could then opt for practical training and apply for new PhD programs. This will allow you to stay in the US. You could also find work on the side. If you are competent you should be able to land a bioinformatics job (even though you may not have a degree in the subject) while you work on getting into a bioinformatics PhD program.

Note: Also see my comment to @Vijay's answer.

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3.1 years ago

I would say, follow your heart. Believe in your instincts and decide. Who can know you better than you?

It is perfectly acceptable to quit if you are deciding it based on what you really want to do. There is no point in sticking to a kind of work you don't enjoy. And, yes, you are not the only one going through it. So, relax and take some time to plan out and decide your move! All the best George :D

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While your advice is logical it will mean leaving the US (if OP drops out of PhD program). Leaving a PhD program half-way may be looked upon unfavorably when OP stars applying for new PhD programs.

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Agree, but then that's not the end of the world. I understand that questions will be asked. But someone will definitely understand what made him quit.

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Basically, OP is not sure about quitting, so he came here and seeking suggestions. We could be positive and provide realistic solutions.

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It is possible to 're-invent' one's self, but support is needed in order to do this whilst you get back on your feet.

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3.1 years ago

A couple of answers and comments have mentioned the fact that many current bioinformaticists are self-taught and do just fine. But bioinformatics graduate programs didn't exist ten or fifteen years ago when current, experienced informaticists were learning their skills. I would ask if that's still likely to be the case five or ten years from now -- or even if it's the case right now. I perceive that full-featured informatics software packages are becoming more user-friendly, and that it's getting harder for pure biologists to get useful things done with basic scripting skills without someone saying "why don't you just use <package>?"

So, since informatics really has become its own discipline, the question to address is whether you would enjoy inhabiting that field, going to those conferences, and collaborating with those colleagues more than you would enjoy remaining in biology and hanging out with the most computationally-oriented of the biologists. As a biologist, you can certainly enjoy informatics and incorporate it heavily into your research. But if you're truly becoming more interested in the development of algorithms and software than in the application of them, then you're already halfway over to the dark side...I mean, the CS side. ;-)

I can't speak intelligently to the problems of switching programs at a given school or with a given visa status, so I won't come down on one side versus the other. If someone offers you an easy transition to a more CS-based program, it sounds like it could be a good fit, and they would probably eagerly welcome someone with a strong biology background. But if it's a major issue to switch, then I'd at least give it another year to see how well you can steer your projects toward your interests without leaving your current program.

Just take a look at all the methods papers and software packages out there that are written and maintained by "biologists", some of whom put out a little code on the side and some of whom have turned to developing software full-time. If you code something useful and publish it, people might pick it up and use it, or they might not. However, if you then immediately have it used in five high-impact papers because you're collaborating closely with a number of biology projects, you will already be building your reputation as an informaticist no matter what your diploma eventually says!