Bioinformatics FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) - Newbie getting started
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
- 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
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"
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...)