Bioinformatics Degrees: Bachelor's, Courses & Online Training Info

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What jobs can you get with a bioinformatics bachelor's degree? Get the truth about requirements, online options, courses and training programs to decide if it's the right degree for you.
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Studying Bioinformatics: Degrees and Training at a Glance

Bioinformatics is the fusion of biology and computer science, and a degree in it prepares you for fields like genome research, molecular biology and information technology. As a bioinformatics student, you'll learn to take biological data and create computer models and programs. Bioinformaticists often work in academia or the pharmaceutical industry, studying new genes, helping develop drugs or advancing our understanding of DNA.

Although bioinformatics is a growing field (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects demand for medical scientists to increase by 40% from 2008-2018), many private sector and academia jobs require graduate degrees (which means another 2-6 years of schooling). Job opportunities for people with a bachelor's are more limited. You won't qualify to lead labs or research departments, but you could take on supportive roles. Also, continuing education departments at many universities offer additional courses and training that can help you become more competitive for jobs that don't require grad degrees.

Bachelor's Post-Baccalaureate Courses and Training
Who is this degree for? Students interested in starting the training path towards a career as a scientist Students who hold a bachelor's degree and are interested in advancing their career
Common Career Paths (with approx. median annual salary) * While these jobs may be available to bachelor's degree holders, preference is often given to candidates with a master's degree.
- General software engineer ($69,620)*
- Bioinformatics programmer ($102,090 - salary for a programmer in scientific research fields; may require a graduate degree)*
These courses and training are unlikely to qualify you for a particular job, but can help you develop advanced skills and expertise.
- Bioinformatics specialist or biophysicist ($82,840 - for biophysicist)*
- Scientific researcher (varies widely)*
Time to Completion 4 years, full-time 1 or more semesters
Common Graduation Requirements - General education courses
- Science and math courses in areas like molecular biology, statistics and computer science
- Research project, typically completed in the final year
- Specialization in areas such as genomics and biomathematics
Varies based on how many courses you take and whether you're enrolled in a program, like a certificate program (graduate certificate programs consist of about three classes)
Prerequisites - High school diploma
- Prior coursework in computer science and biology can be helpful
- Bachelor's degree commonly required or recommended
- Knowledge of programming languages like Java and C++
- Undergraduate coursework in biology, including molecular and cellular biology
Online Availability Not at this time, but some courses may be available online Online courses and certificate programs available

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008 figures).

Bachelor's Degrees in Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics bachelor's degrees always include the study of both biology and computer science, but the structure of your degree program may vary by school. Some schools don't offer degrees in bioinformatics but do offer bioinformatics specializations for degrees like biology, biochemistry and computer science. If your degree program is a Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics, you'll take many of the courses that a biology or computer science major would take. Many schools require a senior research or capstone project that will allow you to work with a faculty member or other students.

Pros and Cons of a Bachelor's in Bioinformatics

Pros

  • Bioinformatics is an emerging and growing field (37% job growth for scientists specializing in bioinformatics)*
  • You'll develop a wide variety of skills in math and science, which could prepare you for many careers
  • Will provide you with in-demand skills in computer science

Cons

  • Many bioinformatics careers require a graduate degree, often a PhD
  • You might need to commit to a specialization early in your studies
  • Learning a variety of skills means you might not be an expert in any one area

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Requirements

Your required coursework will span biology, computer science, statistics and information technology. Courses will include many hours in both biology labs and computer science labs. As an undergrad, you'll also be required to take general education courses in the arts and sciences. Topics in common core courses include:

  • Genomics
  • Biological programming
  • General, cellular and molecular biology
  • Analytical, physical and organic chemistry
  • Computer science and data structures
  • Calculus
  • Applied statistics and multivariate analysis

Online Course Info

Bachelor's degrees in bioinformatics are still rare. Those schools that do offer this program don't offer it fully online. At some colleges, you may be able to enroll in online versions of some individual courses you'll need, such as chemistry courses or even an introductory class in bioinformatics. If online courses are important to you, check the class schedules of the college you're considering to see what classes are offered online.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Bioinformatics careers include a lot of computer programming. Although you'll take computer programming courses as part of your degree program, the more you can learn and apply, the more qualified you'll be for a range of jobs. Consider taking electives in computer science or practicing programming on your own. This extra knowledge could help you compete against computer science majors and applicants with graduate training in bioinformatics.

If you want to earn a graduate degree in bioinformatics in order to pursue a career as a researcher, work with professors during your undergrad study in order to gain as much research experience as possible. You may be able to find part-time work as a lab or research assistant, which will help you stand out in grad school applications.

Degree Alternatives

Though bioinformatics has strong job prospects, your options are limited if you just have a bachelor's degree. If you know that you don't want to go into a graduate degree program, consider earning a bachelor's degree in computer science instead. Since bioinformatics has a heavy programming component, these degrees share technical skill sets. Job growth for computer programmers and computer software engineers isn't quite as good as for bioinformatics specialists, but the number of jobs is still expected to grow much faster than average and the field is large and more receptive to bachelor's degree holders. The BLS projects that demand for computer software engineers will increase by 32% from 2008-2018, and the median salary for computer software engineers was over $80,000 in 2008. While recent graduates might earn less, lifetime earning potential with a computer science bachelor's degree is good.

Post-Baccalaureate Courses and Training Programs in Bioinformatics

Many schools offer stand-alone courses in bioinformatics that are designed to help you expand the skills you learned during your bachelor's degree program. These courses may be a good fit for students who pursued a related area like biology or computer science and want to start specializing in bioinformatics.

Some schools offer short certificate and training programs as part of their continuing studies divisions. Like stand-alone courses, these improve your skills but don't necessarily prepare you for a particular career. Since these courses and training programs are designed as continuing education, they are frequently offered either as online programs or on evenings and weekends.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Will help you develop technical skills that are in-demand by employers
  • Keep you up-to-date on advances in the field
  • Can be completed in just one or two semesters, and part-time by working professionals
  • Often available online

Cons

  • May not make you competitive for jobs that require a master's or PhD
  • Not meant as an introduction to the field, so students need to have a solid background in biology and/or computer science beforehand

Common Course Topics

Stand-alone courses and certificates are designed to help you improve your skills in specific areas related to bioinformatics. They are highly technical and intended for students with prior study and knowledge. Topics include:

  • Perl
  • Java
  • Genomics
  • Data mining
  • Biostatistics
  • Molecular modeling

Online Courses and Certificates

Several universities do offer graduate certificates in bioinformatics online. (At some, you can take individual online classes without enrolling in a whole certificate program.) Online graduate certificate programs are often designed for working biologists or computer scientists. The course content is often delivered fully online, though you may need to find a proctor to administer your exams.

How Continuing Education Can Help You Stand Out

If you already have a job, taking continuing education courses could help you build your skills and advance in your career. If you don't have a job, these courses could help you beef up your resume and pass technical screens by employers looking for employees with expertise in specific programming languages like Perl. When choosing which courses to take, look at recent job postings and see what programming languages, software expertise and data analysis skills are most in-demand by employers.

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