Question: Am I Sabotaging Myself By Getting A Masters Instead Of A Phd?
gravatar for avalancheshane
7.6 years ago by
avalancheshane70 wrote:

Hello everyone!

I realize that this question has been asked before and I have read through some of the other threads but I figured I'd see if there are any more perspectives out there. I am currently a research embryologist for a small fertility clinic with a Bsc in molecular biology. I have about 2 1/2 years of experience and have been accepted into an Masters in Bioinformatics program. I am very excited to begin taking classes but l have recently begun second guessing whether I should have tried to get into a PhD program. I will not be able to continue working at my current job while I am in school so I will likely be paying for school with loans unless I'm able to find a job after I relocate.

Those of you who have Masters degrees, would you do it again or go for a PhD? From what I have found searching around the site many people say PhDs are more academically focused while Masters degree holders tend to find more positions in industry. Is concern over the cost of a Masters degree a good reason to consider a PhD instead or do most of you find you were able to offset your education costs with the job you eventually found? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you in advance!

phd • 7.2k views
ADD COMMENTlink modified 7.6 years ago by Michele Busby2.1k • written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70

It's definitely not an "either or" situation, almost everyone on my MSc then went on to do a PhD (myself included).

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Ben2.0k

Would you mind telling me a bit more of your story? Did you work at a company for a while using your Msc and then leave to go back to school? How long would you say people worked with an MSc before going for a PhD?

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70

For this type of questions I recommend you to ask also to

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Giovanni M Dall'Olio27k

Thank you, I'll do that!

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70
gravatar for Istvan Albert
7.6 years ago by
Istvan Albert ♦♦ 85k
University Park, USA
Istvan Albert ♦♦ 85k wrote:

I believe that degrees and coursework are a mere multiplier on the overall effort. To paraphrase Derek Sievers's Ideas are just a multiplier of execution the degree is just a multiplier for a person's abilities, determination and effort that they put into their preparation:

Your value in ten years will be VALUE = DEGREE * EFFORT

Here is the breakdown of how that looks

Degree levels
Self Study = 1
Masters Degree = 2
Ph. D. Degree = 3

No Effort = 0
Weak Effort = 1
Average Effort = 10
Systematic Effort = 100

The most common misconception is that people confuse a PhD with the effort that a person puts into their work. Most PhDs do put in more work and that is the reason they get ahead.

ADD COMMENTlink modified 7.6 years ago • written 7.6 years ago by Istvan Albert ♦♦ 85k

To add to this answer: the OP should consider that if the end goal is a job in industry, it does not mean that a Master's degree will be sufficient -- there are some (many(?)) industry jobs that still require a PhD (at least it is among the things that are listed as a requirement).

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Steve Lianoglou5.1k

Thank you for this reply, that is a very interesting way to consider education!

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70
gravatar for sarahhunter
7.6 years ago by
Cambridge, UK
sarahhunter600 wrote:

Believe it or not, I had a similar dilemma 16 years ago (!!!), when I had finished my Biochemistry and Genetics BSc. and was deciding whether to do a PhD (on a pure biology topic) or make forays into Bioinformatics (and do the Manchester University MSc). In the end, I chose the MSc. After my MSc I then went to work in Industry. I'm now leading a team at the EBI and so I can't say that not having a PhD has held me back (yet...!).

However, things have changed since the late 90s - there are a lot more graduates with MSc (and PhDs) in Bioinformatics and so there is more competition for jobs in general. There have also been waves of hiring and firing in industry; mini bioinformatics bubbles, if you wish. However, unless something is academic, and specifically post-doc, it's rare that a PhD is the only thing asked for in a job ad - often adverts will say "or equivalent experience". So, basically, it's not clear cut.

As other posters have said, it partly depends on what you want to do afterwards, but it also depends on how much experience you have of doing bioinformatics already. Would you be comfortable leaping straight into a bioinformatics PhD? - are you confident you'd enjoy it for the full 3-5 years (if you've never done something like bioinformatics before, you might end up regretting specialising in it when you learn more about it - it's not for everyone, and some people really miss the lab). If you're not sure, you could do the Masters and see if it's for you. Then you have the option of doing a PhD afterwards (if you manage to get funding).

Hope this helps!

ADD COMMENTlink written 7.6 years ago by sarahhunter600

This helps a lot! I had thought very much along these lines that a PhD is for when you know very strongly what area you're interested in while a Masters gives you a chance to get a more high level view and be exposed to different areas you could later really focus on. I have very limited experience at this point, just enough that I'm very interested in the field so that makes me feel more confident in a Masters for now.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70
gravatar for Matt
7.6 years ago by
Matt140 wrote:

I am a PhD working in industry. I work with excellent bioinformaticians from both backgrounds, MSc and PhD. I think the answer depends on what you eventually want to do on a daily basis.

The choice of degree is not just about training; it is a signal to your future employer about the kind of role you prefer. When employers are looking for people to set up projects, lead research teams, and communicate results they will often look first for a person with a PhD. That's true in both industry and academia. On the other hand, if you prefer the more hands-on aspects of bioinformatics, like writing code and performing statistical analysis, a MSc may be sufficient or even a better route.

That is meant as a guideline, not a rule--I know MSc bioinformaticians who have gone on to lead projects, and I know Ph.D. bioinformaticians who do amazing work at the terminal. In the end you should be judged by your ability and interest rather than by your degree. Nevertheless, it will smooth your path if you choose a degree that aligns with the type of work you prefer.

ADD COMMENTlink written 7.6 years ago by Matt140

Wow lots of great information coming from you all. Thank you for this too, at the moment I feel the role you've described as primarily being filled by MSc bioinformaticians is more in line with my interests but it is also nice to know that it doesn't necessarily limit me.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70
gravatar for Michele Busby
7.6 years ago by
Michele Busby2.1k
United States
Michele Busby2.1k wrote:

Hi Avalanche,

You don't list your location but you are getting advice from all over the globe and some of this depends on what country you are in.

In the UK most people do a MSc (which they pay for) before they do a PhD (which they don't pay for).

In the US you can often go straight for a PhD (which you do not pay for) without an MSc (which you do pay for).

So if you are in the US it makes less sense to get a MSc if you think you may eventually need a PhD than it does in the UK.

However, it can be difficult to get into bioinformatics PhD programs so in that case an MSc might be helpful, as would be some programming experience.

Unless you want to be a developer, and really like programming for the sake of programming, I would say that in general you get to do more interesting work if you have a PhD than if you have an MSc, but there are always exceptions.


ADD COMMENTlink modified 7.6 years ago • written 7.6 years ago by Michele Busby2.1k

Thanks for your input as well Michele. I am located in the US so getting a PhD for free is certainly a strong consideration. I do have a strong interest in and enjoyment of programming though so I think an MSc may be a pretty good fit for me.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70
gravatar for Dan D
7.6 years ago by
Dan D7.1k
Dan D7.1k wrote:

I have an MS and an ME. I had the opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. from a top 20 US university but decided to go with an MS. My reasoning was that my interests are very broad and I wanted to have the freedom to move around and work at various science/informatics interfaces. I've worked in a high-throughput screening lab and now I'm in a genomics facility and do contract work on the side for various companies.

I will say this: if you want to do anything in bioinformatics, learn how to code before you start your coursework. It doesn't take long--I'm not saying to postpone the start of your program or anything, but I can't stress this enough. In my experience, there is a surprising number of bioinformaticians (MS and PhDs alike) who can't program/script at all, and having that knowledge in advance of beginning your studies will give you a huge advantage in allowing you to focus more on the problem at hand rather than how to talk to the computer in the course of solving it. Learning how to code has been the single biggest advantage for me in my career so far, and it will open up many, many doors for you if you decide you want to pursue other career trajectories. Buy a book or two and get reading. If you're disciplined you'll pick it up very quickly. Even a basic level of comfort with a scripting or object-oriented language will go a long way.

ADD COMMENTlink modified 7.6 years ago • written 7.6 years ago by Dan D7.1k

Thanks for your answer, I was thinking flexibility was one of the most appealing aspects of an MS for me as well! And fortunately I had gotten very similar advice about programming and I've been taking Java programming courses for about the past year to try to get a comfort level with programming as well.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70

You've probably picked the least helpful language to program in for this domain ;-) You want a language that's quick to explore data with. R + bioconductor is a good choice. Python is very helpful as well.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Steve Lianoglou5.1k

I thoroughly disagree. Look at GATK, for starters. Plenty of great bioinformatics software has been written in Java.

I can think of plenty of languages which would be less helpful to learn for Bioinformatics work: PHP, Visual Basic, COBOL, Pascal, JavaScript, Brainf**k, and so on :)

ADD REPLYlink modified 7.6 years ago • written 7.6 years ago by Dan D7.1k

In general any generic ranking of languages is bound to be incorrect from some point of view so it is best if we never go there in the first place.

For example Visual Basic compiles to very fast native code that leaves just about all the the others in the dust when it comes to execution speed and resource consumption. Not that I recommend that someone take up VB for this reason alone.

Good starter programming languages are those that also teach people proper software engineering principles. Java is excellent for that even if one may disagree with some of its design elements: for example that everything has to be an object/class.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Istvan Albert ♦♦ 85k

I'm not "ranking languages." I'm just saying that Java is a perfectly acceptable introductory language for an aspiring bioinformatician. Assembly is obviously faster still than VB, but how many Bioinformatics packages and tools are written in it?

Some languages are relevant to bioinformatics, while others are not. Java is firmly the former.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Dan D7.1k

oops - I actually wanted to reply to Steve Lianoglou and his assertion of Java being least helpful - so it should be read it in that context

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Istvan Albert ♦♦ 85k

I re-disagree. A large proportion of the programming done in my team is using Java. At EBI there's a pretty even Perl/Java split (Java-based teams: UniProt, InterPro; Perl: Ensembl). Admittedly, we use other languages as well (Python, shell scripting) but our core is Java.

And of course, BioJava exists alongside BioPerl and BioPython...

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by sarahhunter600

Replying to myself because many people took exception to my suggestion of R/Python over Java: I agree that there is something to learn from each language, and each language has its place. I was not trying to incite a language war.

Yes, GATK is written in java, and it's great. Every aligner that is widely used has also been written in C or C++, but I wouldn't recommend those either for an aspiring bioinformatician -- especially someone w/ the OP's background. Given his experimental background, my assumption is that his goal would be to leverage bioinformatics to enable him to better analyze data inorder to inform biology, and not to make algorithmic contributions such as writing the next widely-used splice-aware aligner, or to build web services or databases that are widely used by the community.

In that context, I still absolutely would recommend to learn R and Python over { Java, C(++), VB, Fortan, Pascal, Prolog, lisp, haskel, erlang, Oz, C#, F#, Dilan, Forth, scala, clojure, fantom} for these purposes, and spend the time he would have spent on learning these languages on getting a bit better at statistics.

If, on the other hand, the OP wants to get more involved in the software engineering side of bioinformatics, than by all means dive into all of the other languages as you see fit.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by Steve Lianoglou5.1k

Wow lots of interesting input here :) You are correct that with my current background and expertise, making informed decisions based on our biological data would be a suitable goal. That being said however, I do have a strong interest in software engineering with bioinformatics application as an emphasis. I'm hoping to learn what I need to contribute to the analysis going on in our lab in the short term but I'd like to gain experience and comfort programming in a variety of languages to open the door to actual software engineering down the road. While I can't claim to have gotten too deep into programming at this point, I do feel I have the sort of personality that enjoys pouring over lines of code trying to best optimize and improve it. I'm also trying to weigh what knowledge I can gain that will be immediately useful in employment so that I can continue to support myself while I learn other languages as well as shore up my experience with statistics.

ADD REPLYlink written 7.6 years ago by avalancheshane70

I agree 100% with Deedee's answer! You are so right! The more programming experience you can get, the better off you will be.

I learned to code after getting my PhD by taking undergrad computer science classes. I did it because the human genome and model organism genome projects were getting a lot of attention and I thought that soon it would be possible to do exciting research using a computer - no lab necessary! I was also excited about the possibiily of publishing my papers on-line without needing to get approval from anybody. Anyway, It turned out to be a huge amount of fun and also very empowering because unlike bench work, there are few limits on what you can do. And these days it's even easier to learn thanks to google. Back then, the languages to learn were perl and java, and so that's what I started with. But these days, I would advise a programming "newbie" to get started with R, using the RStudio program, which is very nice. In addition, you MUST learn your way around a Unix environment. To learn R and data analysis, I recommend the Coursera classes from Jeff Leek, Roger Peng, and Brian Caffo from Johns Hopkins. (Must be a fun place to work!) For Unix, I recommend signing up for an iPlant account and using their free Atmosphere VMs to get used to the environment and/or using VirtualBox to run a Unix environment on your PC, if that's what you've got. Lastly, one last bit of free advice!! Invest in a top-flight computer and excellent monitor. Take your time to research the options and talk to people about the systems they prefer.

ADD REPLYlink modified 11 months ago by _r_am30k • written 6.6 years ago by Ann2.3k
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