Forum: Should I specialise in bioinformatics?
gravatar for saulpierotti
16 months ago by
saulpierotti10 wrote:

Hello everyone, this is my first post, please tell me if I am breaking any rules.

I have almost completed a biotech Bsc (in Italy) and I am evaluating what to do next. I am interested in computational biology, and already have a humble understanding of the Unix command line, Python, LaTeX, CS in general. I am considering the possibility of pursuing a bioinformatics Msc and then doing a Phd, but I would like to take an informed choice.

My main interest is not on developing software and algorithms but on answering biological questions. Said that, I enjoy the less "messy" approach of bioinformatics, and its reproducibility. I would enjoy focusing on molecular biology/biochemistry/biophysics/molecular modeling. My ultimate goal would be working in academia.

I would be really thankful if someone will suggest me the best way of pursuing my objectives, from an inside perspective. Is it better to do a bioinformatics Msc now, or to pick up the skills that I need along the way and do a molecular biology Msc (or similar)?

job prospects suggestions forum • 1.1k views
ADD COMMENTlink modified 13 months ago by contact0 • written 16 months ago by saulpierotti10
gravatar for genomax
16 months ago by
United States
genomax78k wrote:

My main interest is not on developing software and algorithms but on answering biological questions.

That description fits an applied bioinformatician rather than a computational biologist. If you want to stay in academia then your are most likely going to want to go into a core bioinformatics support group that does this kind of work. Depending on where you end up, your own temperament and people you will work with you may experience a range of emotions from fulfillment to despair. As I have said in past answers on similar topics, people may consider you as a paid contractor to valued collaborator and all things in between.

My main concern is, will I be in a disadvantage with a biological background, with respect to someone that has a CS/mathematics background?

It may depend on skills you pick up (and some of this may be natural talent). People like @Joe/@Wouter/@Devon (and others) on this forum started out as experimentalists but have picked up significant programming skills. Unless you get the programming logic intuitively (command line skills and programming are overlapping but significantly different) it is generally an uphill battle to pick those up. On other hand, @Kevin (and perhaps others I am not familiar with) come from a pure comp sci background but have picked up a solid understanding of biological principles/statistics that give them a unique perspective (and a big leg up) on bioinformatics.

Will I be able to conduct my own research, or I will be a sort of "technician" of a wet lab group?

In a core facility you are less likely be able to conduct your own research. If you join a large group that has a significant bioinformatics component then could do so but then you may still be limited on working with projects they have/need.

A good compromise may be to keep your experimental biology career going while working on some of the associated informatics yourself. Someone who understands both fields equally well can become a successful faculty/principal investigator. If you like data science (as statistics seems to be referred to now) then rather than bioinformatics I would suggest getting an MSc there. Informatics related to health care is going to be big no matter where you are in the world so that would be a practical skill to pick up in terms of future job prospects.

ADD COMMENTlink written 16 months ago by genomax78k
gravatar for Joe
16 months ago by
United Kingdom
Joe16k wrote:

I’ll just get this out of the way at the start: there are lots of questions like this on the forum (especially lately for some reason). Pretty much all of the advice there will be relevant, so have a look around the site (there is a search bar).



“Should I” is a question only you can really answer.

If the question is, are there jobs in bioinformatics, or, will I be employable? Then yes, absolutely. It would not be a ‘waste’ of you time to follow it as a career. If you have some practical biological education, then hold on to that firmly too, as bioinformaticians with true biological insight are still a rare (and much more sought after) breed.

Unlike the first answer here, I dont particularly place much value on MSc’s. You can get on to PhD courses directly without needing one, and its perfectly valid to ‘learn on the job’. Particularly if you want to be what I call a “Type II” bioinformatican - i.e. analysing data rather than writing tools specifically.

The only thing in your post that would give me pause I think is that you state you want to go in to academia. This is, of course, totally possible, however, academia is increasingly difficult to make a path in to. In the UK, less than 1% of PhD graduates ever go on to hold a professorship, for instance. The reason I mention this specifically is that I believe bioinformatics has an even harder time of it than most. Bioinformaticians still often struggle against being seen as a ‘service’ rather than a legitimate discipline in their own right. This can (does and has) make pushing your way in to academia as a bioinformatician that bit more difficult. It’s improving over time for sure, but there are still a breed of academics that think bioinformaticians should be ‘seen but not heard’.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. Academia has always been notoriously difficult to navigate. I would seriously recommend giving some consideration to joining biotech startups. They’re growing exponentially, and are very thirsty for informaticians. You’d get to do all the same work in all likelihood (and be paid more to boot!).

Some practical advice for an interview scenario might include: - Ensure you’re as comfortable with programming and the Unix commandline as you can reasonably be. - Familiarise yourself with publications in the type of data you’re interested, and particularly get to know at least the names of some of the big software suites in that area.

DISCLAIMER: My opinions are based heavily on my experience in the UK system. It’s possible that elsewhere (e.g. Italy) MSc courses are more highly valued for example. So, take what I’ve said just at face value!

ADD COMMENTlink modified 16 months ago • written 16 months ago by Joe16k

Thank you for your answer. I have red many of the answers to similar posts in this site, however many of them are 5+ years old, and I wanted a more fresh opinion on the topic. Moreover, the vast majority seem to be from a CS perspective instead that from biology. I nonetheless have found some useful advice in them. Outside the UK in Europe I believe is almost mandatory doing an Msc before a PhD, surely it is in Italy. My main concern is, will I be in a disadvantage with a biological background, with respect to someone that has a CS/mathematics background? Will I be able to conduct my own research, or I will be a sort of "technician" of a wet lab group?

ADD REPLYlink written 16 months ago by saulpierotti10

No, quite the opposite I feel. I am still first and foremost a wetlab biologist, and having that understanding, whilst being able to sling together some python or run some pipelines when necessary is extra employable.

You will struggle to have a purely bioinformatics group that doesn’t develop software or do anything wet lab though. You either need to write tools (and essentially be a software development/algorithms lab), or you need to generate and analyse the data. Do not throw out the experimental biology, else you’ll have nothing to analyse. Your group would need to grow up around a central theme. Maybe you want to study genomic epidemiology for example - so your lab would need to be able to culture and sequence microorganisms.

If you analyse other peoples data, you’ve already backed yourself in to the ‘service’ position. It’s not then much of a surprise that people would treat you so.

ADD REPLYlink written 16 months ago by Joe16k
gravatar for ahmad mousavi
16 months ago by
ahmad mousavi470
Royan Institute, Tehran, Iran
ahmad mousavi470 wrote:


I think if you want to enrich your experience before doing a PhD, it will be great to do a MSc on a computational biology project. It helps you learn more about biology and make you familiar with research works. From both academic and engineering view bioinformatics is one of the best area in job market, it also a good major because you use other area of science for solving biological problems. I defiantly suggest you to continue this way. The best area will be genomics, data science analysis.

ADD COMMENTlink written 16 months ago by ahmad mousavi470
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