Economics Of A Career In Bioinformatics
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Terence ▴ 210

I am a software developer looking for a new set of challenges. I am therefore seriously considering undertaking study towards a Masters of Science in Bioinformatics (I have a bachelor degree in Comp Sci).

My background in industry (and what I love doing) is working with large databases / datawarehouses, data visualization and performance optimizations, which on the surface of it looks like a good fit for bioinformatics. I do enjoy working in a commercial setting.

I have done extensive reading on the field and find it fascinating. In a perfect world this would be the only consideration. However, I am a little concerned about the economics of such a move.

From talking with people associated with the degree, it looks like salaries in Bioinformatics are about half as much as one would make as an experienced software developer in industry. This would amount to a halving of my wage and all the lifestyle changes that entails.

The people I have spoken to have quoted $50k -$60k for entry level (Masters) positions. To go much higher seems to require a phd or post-doc research. Does this sound accurate?

It appears to me that the wage disparity is partly due to the youth of this industry and the academic / research institutions in which it sits. Is there a trend to more work being available in a commercial setting? Are such wages higher? Or do you feel this industry is likely to remain in the domain of academic research for the foreseeable future?

It seems that almost all the software used in bioinformatics is open source. I agree that this is excellent for research, but does this come at the exclusion of commercial software?

At some point in the future (5 - 10 years), I would like to be able to build a software product or services company servicing the bio-tech industry. At this point does that seem like a pipe dream?

Thanks.

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I have a similar issue. I am finishing my MS. in Bioinformatics via NYU-Poly this fall and I started to look for opportunities. I applied to all the jobs available in NYC but got no reply. All these job need "Practical Experience" which as a student, I do not have. I also find that the salary range is about half of what one can earn in a IT world doing billing system. I just wonder how can the scientific world compete with talents if they only pay half as much. Doing bioinformatics in my opinion, is way harder than "regular IT". I know because I am a working IT professional studying Bioinformatics for the love of it. Now I do not know how to get into the field even if I am willing to cut half of my current salary. And as a full time IT worker, I do not even know whether there is a Phd program that can be taken online.

So after finishing the Ms BioInformatics Degree, I seems to find myself finished with BioInformatics because there seems to be no obvious way to work in the field to have practical experience to advance.

Any advise and help from practicing BioInformatics expert will be very much appreciated.

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12.4 years ago

If your primary motivation is money, then I would suggest you investigate another career path ;)

Seriously though, bioinformatics is an academic discipline, this means the more senior positions will tend to be limited to those with a doctoral-level education. It also means that the majority of the jobs (but by no means all) will be in the academic sector (which is inherently lower-paid than industry).

There are jobs in industry to be found, pharmaceutical companies, after years of scaling back in this area, are realising that the computational sciences (bio- and chemo- informatics) can have a contribution to their business model and are building up their departments again. At least that is the case in this country (the UK), but these companies tend to be multi-national.

Also despite the fact, as you rightly point out, that the ecosystem of bioinformatics software tends to centre around open-source solutions, there are plenty of commercial software applications for the biosciences/bioinformatics, and I'm sure the companies that produce them would often appreciate talented software engineers above talented bioinformaticians. The rewards here could well be significantly greater, especially if you get in at the right time, and with the right stock options :) Have a look at companies like GenoLogics, Ingenuity and Nonlinear Dynamics if you want to get an idea of the sort of tools being developed, and the sort of companies doing this work.

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Biomed 4.8k

First, scientists in general are not paid well and bioinformatics is a scientific field.

Bioinformatics problems are mostly percieved (by hot shot nature publishing biologists) as technical problems as opposed to scientific problems, hence bioinformaticians are most of the time percieved as technicians that need to solve the technical problem of managing the data to enable the scientist to get the science done. I have rarely seen wet bench scientists working for a bioinformatician PI but I have seen hundreds of bioinformatics scientists working for the cell biologist or MD.PhD PIs.

Bioinformatics is intellectually very rewarding but so are poetry and mathematics although none of those activities pay well.

At the ASHG 2010 meeting everyone I met told me that there is a great need for people to handle the data torrent coming of the next gen sequencing machines and make sense out of the data. I wonder why? Could it be that bioinformatics is not rewarded enough by the society (much like nursing) so not enough people decide to pursue it as a profession?
It is a life decision you need to make for yourself. I apologize if I have offended anyone with my comments.

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Bioinformatics software companies generally are not doing well, financially speaking, and so your last point "to build a software product or services company servicing the bio-tech industry" likely will not succeed. Times change very quickly though and someone who can launch a product to deal with reams of patient data - DNA sequence, EMRs (electronic medical records, etc) could do well. But there is a lot of competition in this area - witness 1000 bioinformatics employees at the Beijing Genome Inst. We are on the verge of seeing so much data for each and every patient a doctor sees.

Simon is right - pharma may be a place to look. If you are good, you could probably make $100K/yr with a master's degree and great work experience and successes. A lot of software is open-source. Industries need to have something proprietary and so may cobble together an open-source piece or two with some in-house script for their unique situation. ADD COMMENT 11 Entering edit mode 12.4 years ago A few years back Mike Barton circulated a survey on bioinformatics careers at Bioinformatics Zen. The post is no longer available there but was reposted in several places including Pierre's Yokofakun. Mike posted the data on GitHub for people to process, and some analysis on the survey by BioGang can be found at OpenWetware. According to Chris Miller's preliminary analysis, the data from 2008 suggested the following: "Very quick and dirty look at salaries in industry vs. academia: * Academic Salary Mean/Median:$36,520 / $33,712 * Industry Salary Mean/Median:$66,239 / $64,235  Salary/Years Experience: * Academic Mean/Median:$10,970 / $8,333 * Industry Mean/Median:$17,410 / $12,000  Perhaps you can find more information in these data to answer your questions. ADD COMMENT 1 Entering edit mode Upvote for mentioning my very old (and very rough) look at salaries. It should be noted that the survey was a small sample and is likely to be fairly biased. Still interesting, though. ADD REPLY 7 Entering edit mode 11.4 years ago I believe Bioinformatics is a viable career choice. While I don't have specific comments to address your questions, I can share my own experience and why specifically I decided to become a Bioinformatics Scientist/Computational Biologist. I was originally trained in Computer Science. I received my bachelor in CS, and followed the conventional path, I worked as a software developer for a couple of years. I went back to school for a Master degree, and it was during that transitional period, I realized I wasn't able to compete against the top computer scientists in the field. I was able to code, design novel algorithms, and analyze time complexities, but I wasn't one of those candidates that could ace a Google-type interview. That realization prompted me to come out with an exit strategy. I was then exposed to epidemiology in 2005, when H5N1 pandemic was a hot topic. That was a turning point of my career; I'd decided to learn more about biology. Immediately after my Master program, I joined a PhD program in biology and medicine. I successfully defended my dissertation in a little more than 4 years, and with good publications portfolio, my first job post-PhD in a pharmaceuticals environment was in the lower end of 6-figure with superb benefits. I've been in the industry for a little more than 2 years now. While I don't deny this career choice might be a downgrade of my current paycheck, but this decision has been extremely rewarding for me. To succeed, and more importantly, to truly appreciate this interdisciplinary field, I'd strongly recommend you to learn more about biological sciences while keeping your technical expertise intact. Candidates, who can provide biological insights while using computational skills to analyze data, will most likely enjoy the many benefits that this career offers. And it's my opinion that my current line of work offers more career advancement than a typical software developer. After all, I don't just code, I code with purpose. ADD COMMENT 0 Entering edit mode You mentioned that you join a Phd program in biology and medicine. May I know where to find such programs in New York area ? ADD REPLY 6 Entering edit mode 12.4 years ago The economics of your question needs to account for the freedom that comes with the position. Most academic type positions have a large degree of freedom for choosing interests and problem domains. I suspect most industrial type jobs have less freedoms but in return people are paid better. The disparity between the salaries is likely to be a reflection of the value people associate with this freedom therefore it is likely to persist over long term and it is not just a temporary situation. ADD COMMENT 5 Entering edit mode 12.4 years ago Shigeta ▴ 460 I tend to agree that the pay for engineers is not better than a job programming a billing system for middleware. Intellectually it is probably more attractive. If you work in some markets, in a biotech company or a pharmaceutical company, you may find the pay is not bad. I think what is tough is that 'bioinformatics application' can mean anything from a handful of perl scripts to an oracle backed enterprise application with a dozen people supporting it. I see that in the Bay Area where I live, that a good engineer could step in to the market without losing their engineering cred too - lots of the engineers which have come through our office went on to work more typical jobs (dolby labs, nikon, amazon are a couple companies I can think of). So you may want to give it a try. The best engineers can work with machine learning and stat code, not designing the algorithm, but working with an analyst who coded it in MatLab or something of this sort. Numerical stat is pretty important right now and being careful and precise with that work is often what people want to see. visualization is a good thing to do as well, though I don't see it as much. ADD COMMENT 3 Entering edit mode 12.4 years ago You can have a look at the Salary surveys from the 'The Scientist' magazine. You may have to register to access the contents: here in Spain the fellowship for a PhD student is much lower, less than 20,000 euros per year. The situation is similar in other countries in Europe. The salary of a researcher is usually lower than the average salary in other fields; but we do it for the love of science :-) ADD COMMENT 2 Entering edit mode 12.4 years ago Nw Programer ▴ 20 The people I have spoken to have quoted$50k - $60k for entry level (Masters) positions. To go much higher seems to require a phd or post-doc research. Does this sound accurate? This is a little pessimistic but not absurd. I made$55k/yr when I left a job as an SDE at Microsoft in 1998. Two years later I took my first bioinformatics job also at $55k/yr. I was perfectly happy because I wanted to get into the field, but that was a lot less then I could have earned elsewhere, since it was the height of the dot-com boom. At the time I only had a B.S. but later I got an M.S. I've been in my current position in an academic lab for six years, and I make about$78k/yr.

In some sense you are competing with grad-students and post-docs who are very cheap labor. I know that grad-students and post-docs are often accused of having sloppy coding practices, but some of them are very, very good.

At some point in the future (5 - 10 years), I would like to be able to build a software product or services company servicing the bio-tech industry. At this point does that seem like a pipe dream?

Such companies do exist already, so it isn't a complete pipe dream. However, the value in those companies is generally in their state of the art algorithms rather then in their software engineering skills. The field is so young that it may be dangerous to pour tons of resources into engineering polish: a better algorithm or a shift in wet-lab technology may make your product obsolete after only a couple of years. I think this means you'll have to team up with somebody with a proven research record in the field, which usually means a Ph.D.

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Mndoci ★ 1.2k

Those salaries seem a little low. I know people working as software engineers in academic or non-profit research centers who are earning that as software engineers and algorithm designers. But in academia your salaries are always going to be low. In industry, you'll start higher (not double, but definitely a bunch higher). You could work for a software company designing scientific data management systems (some have been mentioned), but speaking as someone who worked in commercial scientific software for a while, it's a tough business, especially on the research end of things. Customers don't want to pay much money and there are far too many options, especially open source ones out there and tighter pharma pockets doesn't help. That there are very few commercial options that are that much better than open source solutions makes things only that much more difficult.

Having said that, there are companies that seem like good places to work, especially those with more service oriented business models and companies on the clinical/diagnostics side of things. And as others have mentioned biopharma companies will have software and informatics positions open. I'd definitely look at next-gen sequencing companies (like Pacific Biosciences, Complete Genomics, Illumina, etc) which are trying to solve hard data problems as well as other companies trying to solve analytic problems in this space. If you want to go a little off the beaten path, 23andme is hiring too.

In other words, it's not an easy industry to work in as a software engineer/data warehousing geek, but it's possible and there are options. I'd avoid working at companies with a legacy discovery research and informatics software business unless they've been successful at remaking themselves.

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10.7 years ago

it's relay very interesting field so go on I'm a biologist but i gut diploma in bioinformatics the problem is that i don't find job in this field in the middle east