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Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - Newbie getting started

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This resource is maintained by and Damian Counsell, UK Medical Research Council Rosalind Franklin Centre for Genomic Research (the RFCGR) 1998-2004.

Jump to the table of contents of the whole FAQ.

Careers: How can I become a bioinformatician?

  • I am a newbie and I want to do bioinformatics.
  • I am a biologist and I want to do bioinformatics.
  • I am a computer scientist and I want to do bioinformatics.
  • More general advice
  • Where can I find bioinformatics jobs?

How can I get involved?

If you want to get involved in bioinformatics, now is an exciting time, but (certainly for less senior practitioners) it looks as though demand for bioinformaticians is currently falling, partly for general economic reasons, partly, perhaps, because drugs companies in particular have been disappointed with the pay-off from their investment in the field.

This section is opinionated; there are people in the field, both computer scientists and biologists, who I would love to provoke (or convert). If you are a newcomer, and especially if you come from one of bioinformatics component pure disciplines, I hope my ranted warnings will help you to avoid the mistakes of your predecessors---and I write as one of the mistaken. David S. Roos put it well in his review in the journal Science:

"Lack of familiarity with the intellectual questions that motivate each side can also lead to misunderstandings. For example, writing a computer program that assembles overlapping expressed sequence tags (EST) sequences may be of great importance to the biologist without breaking any new ground in computer science. Similarly, proving that it is impossible to determine a globally optimal phylogenetic tree under certain conditions may constitute a significant finding in computer science, while being of little practical use to the biologist."

How can I get involved?---I am a "newbie"

Please read the education section above for information about some of the places you can currently study bioinformatics. Please do not direct questions about eligibility, course quality or admissions policy to me, but to ask the individual institutions directly.

If you are a high school student / sixth former, think about taking an interdisciplinary computational biology or bioinformatics bachelor's degree of the sort offered at, for example, Manchester University in the UK or UPenn in the States. Don't worry if you can't find a place on such a course or there isn't one nearby; perhaps the best way to approach this subject is from two sides. Do a bachelor's degree in one area while taking a healthy interest in the other---or (if you can afford to) complement a first degree in one part of the discipline with a second degree in the second.

If you already have a degree in a biological discipline there are similar Master's courses---both interdisciplinary (e.g. Birkbeck's in London) and conversion type courses---for biologists or others to learn computer science, for example.

If you are currently doing a computer science or biology PhD, try to take advantage of the opportunity to take courses in the "other" discipline.

How can I get involved?---I am a biologist

To a biologist I would say: take as many real computing courses as you can. It's important not just to learn a programming language, but also to learn the discipline of computing; to structure and document your work in a rigorous way. What courses you take might be directed by the kind of work you are interested in doing when you graduate---whether you see yourself supporting bioinformatics applications or building them. For the former you need all-round familiarity with the programs themselves and the hardware and software needed to run them---plus your existing understanding of biology. For the latter you need to learn a structured programming language and the principles of good program design---plus the ability to talk to and understand biologists.

(Continued on next part...)

Part:   1  2  3  4  5 

Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - Newbie getting started