Forum:Does a PhD or work experience set you up better to do bioinformatics work in industry?
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12 weeks ago
buhbs ▴ 10

Hello all, I am currently a master's student diving into NGS data analysis for my thesis and really enjoying it. This has made me think I would like to pursue a career in NGS data analysis / bioinformatics / genomics. I was recently offered a potential PhD position to study speciation using genomics, epigenetics, and transcriptomics. I am trying to decide whether I should take this position or whether it would be better to jump straight into industry after getting my masters. I know I want to end up in industry eventually but I don't know if it would be better for me to get my PhD and then go into industry or to jump right in. Any advice would be very welcomed and appreciated!!

advice industry phd • 1.2k views
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It may be useful to clarify if your undergraduate degree is in biology (or related) or are you comp sci/math/statistics grad.

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I have my undergrad degree in molecular bio from the same university I am currently getting my masters from.

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You can go work in industry for a few years now and decide first hand. If you don't like it/feel constrained then switch back to a PhD program. With the experience you pick up you may be able to decide on a specific topic you find yourself interested in. In US you should be able to do that (may be difficult in other areas). While general advice is great (as you have seen in this thread), the specific situation you find yourself in, is what will be the ultimate decider.

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It's not going to be the same answer for every country. I guess e.g. in the USA a PhD is important, whereas my experience in Finland is that nobody cares if you have a PhD. It's the industry experience that matters. Higher positions are generally filled with in-house promotions. Nobody is going to hire a PhD without industry experience to e.g. some senior position. Then on the other hand with entry positions a candidate with a PhD might seem too overqualified. Also, for management track an MBA is pretty much a must have..

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12 weeks ago

There is a lot I could talk about on this subject, but I thought I would focus it on career progression on more research (and development) oriented roles in US biotech. Without a PhD there tends to be a glass ceiling (of sorts) for scientist level positions. This primarily exists because doctorate programs teach you how to independently drive projects and to collaborate/lead effectively (in theory), which are usual expectations at that level. This causes a lot of Bachelors and Masters level research associates to get stuck as senior research associate levels.

That being said, it is possible to land a scientist level position right out of or soon after a Masters, depending on how aligned your skillset and experience is with the job expectations. If you are sure industry is for you, and you can find positions like this, it's arguably better to take that route than a PhD. I say this because the huge time commitment and opportunity cost of a PhD may be net negative in the end. By this I mean that the scientist level position that took you 5-6 years to get, you could have matched or exceeded if you spent that time in industry wisely, all while making 3-4X what a PhD stipend is. Additionally, you learn the industry "mindset" which sounds nebulous but you'll understand soon.

Take my advice with a grain of salt, but I would test the job market with your current skillset first and see what jobs you are competitive for before deciding on a PhD. Importantly, learn whether those positions are scientist level or will set you up well for progression to scientist level.

Good luck!

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12 weeks ago

The glass ceiling mentioned by rpolicastro exists and is a very real barrier. In general, as an unspoken rule, you can't be the boss of people who have PhDs without a PhD (I'm sure there are exceptions especially if you put in the time).

That being said, I've met many people with a Master's or even just a Bachelor's that are as good if not better than people with PhD at bioinformatics.

The real question is 'how strong' and 'what' is your skill set. If you think you need an additional 3-7 years to hone and establish new skills in a more flexible environment then maybe a PhD is a good investment of time. If you already have those skills then you need to look at the cost-benefit for your self.

Unfortunately, many institutions will start you as an entry-level post-doc equivalent when you finish your PhD regardless of your skill set. The bioinformatics field is flooded with wet-lab scientists who switched to computational work in their final years/post-doc.

The job search is extremely dependent your proven experience and output (e.g. papers, projects, software) AND your ability to clearly illustrate that in your interview and CV - not to mention your raw interview skills. But also your own volition in not selling yourself short and knowing your worth.

Once you have a job you can rapidly climb the ladder (assuming you are in a work environment that allows for this) based on your ability. That being said maybe could you have already risen to that rank without the extra piece of paper.

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12 weeks ago

As mentioned by others the primary difference between hitting the job market with a masters vs a PhD is income in the short term. However in the log run a PhD will get you more money (though you may have to factor in repayment of student loans). A PhD will also bring a lot of valuable soft skills that you may or may not acquire elsewhere. Another consideration is international mobility. A PhD is the only degree recognized worldwide and it is easier moving between countries with a PhD than with a masters if that's a consideration. On the other hand a PhD isn't for everybody, it's often challenging and can be stressful and may require a lot of work. A lot depends on your environment and your supervisor in particular. People who strive in PhD programs often have strong motivation stemming from a personal quest for knowledge and I know of few that do/did it for the income even thinking ahead. If you feel motivated enough for a challenging 3-5 years, my suggestion would be to go for a PhD then move to industry.

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12 weeks ago
Mensur Dlakic ★ 22k

For most people, doing a PhD makes them experts in a very specific area. If your future industry job is in that general area, a PhD experience may be helpful. It is a safe bet that you'd be making more money in industry with a PhD than with an MS degree.

However, starting in industry with MS will have you making more money sooner, and in 5 or so years with raises you could be making the same money as an entry PhD industry job. The assumption is that one learns in industry jobs as well, so again in 5 years of industry work you could have the same or better training as after a PhD.

To me this would come down to what kind of degree I want, and how willing I'd be to trade a relative research independence for a more regimented industry job. Getting paid better early may also be a strong consideration for people with families.

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12 weeks ago
iraun 5.7k

Another option that I have not seen pointed out in the comments before is to pursue an industrial PhD degree. Not sure if this exists in the US though. I was wondering the same as you few years ago, and since I did not want to "close any doors", I found the opportunity to do a PhD in a company which goal and field was aligned to the kind of career I wanted to pursue. This experience gave me the chance to learn the "traditional" PhD skills (those that are general to any PhD, regardless of where you do it, such as, independency, team-work, leadership etc..), and importantly, the industry "mindset" rpolicastro mentioned. Of course not all that glitters is gold, certain aspects of pursuing a PhD in a company are tougher compared to academia PhDs. For example, usually a company survives due to investors, clients.. etc, the money comes from there, and generally speaking, a company does not depend of publishing papers as much as an academic group does. That means, that you can feel a bit alone in the "publishing papers" goal, and that you will have to push for them happening. An advantage of industrial PhD is that generally they are better paid, and also, if you like the company, the chances of getting hired afterwards are quite high, since after completing the PhD there, you would likely be the "best fit for the position".

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Doing a PhD "on-the-side" is going to be a rare opportunity in the US. You may be able to do so in a smaller start-up/spin-off that originated from a PI lab. You may need to work on your own time and/or walk a tightrope in terms of publishing/completing per-requisite course work etc.. You will take more time than a normal PhD program but with the industrial experience you would keep picking up you may be ready to launch yourself internally or in a different company once you complete the PhD. I have only seen ONE person do this successfully (that person was exceptional in many ways).

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Definitely it is more common to find these kind of opportunities in start-ups than in bigger companies. I know few people that have done it apart from me, it is something that some countries (at least in EU) are pushing in order to "fill the gap" between academia and industry needs. Usually you do not have to put your own time, you are 100% employed as a PhD, so 100% of your work-time should be dedicated to PhD. Obviously most likely you are going to end up over-working in order to complete it (but this is applies as well to PhDs in academia). Regarding the time it will take you to complete, that depends very much on the company and the supervisor. For the company perspective, they are usually interested in making the PhD candidate complete the degree, so that he/she can start as a full employee working and producing for the company. But as I said, a company is generally not that interested in publishing papers, whatever code you develop in a company has to follow the good coding practices and industry standards, etc, so that from that point of view, it takes a bit longer to develop new methodologies.

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you are 100% employed as a PhD, so 100% of your work-time should be dedicated to PhD

That sounds like best of both worlds (is the pay same as a normal employee or more of a stipend). I am not aware of this in US (there may be exceptions). Since start-ups are burning money from investors it would be unusual to have a person work on their own PhD 100% of the time. Is your mentor part of the company but holds an adjunct appointment in a University/Institute?

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Yes, it sounds like a good plan indeed, but as I explained, there are drawbacks. In my experience, industrial PhDs earn less than a normal employee, but more than a normal PhD candidate. Probably depends on the country.. for example, in my case (Norway), start-ups (in addition to private investors money) can apply for grants, and sometimes those grants require the company to hire a PhD candidate. Here you can have more than one supervisor, and at least one of them has to have a position in a University.

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