Bioinformaticist Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a bioinformaticist's career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a bioinformaticist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Bioinformaticist Career

Bioinfomaticists work within the cross-section of multiple disciplines, including computer science, biology, and statistics, in order to conduct research in the fields of genetics, medicine, and other fields. Read the following pros and cons to determine if bioinformatics is the right field for you.

Pros of a Bioinformaticist Career
Median salary above average (about $42,070 for bioinformatics technicians** and about $91,960 for bioinformatics scientists* in 2014)
Opportunity to help advance medical and biological science ***
Strong expected job growth (19% between 2012 and 2022) for biochemists and biophysicists*
Opportunity to use multiple skill sets

Cons of Bioinformaticist Career
Long period of education and training for bioinformatics scientists, many jobs require a Ph.D.***
Possible strong competition for entry-level as well as permanent research and faculty positions*
Potential dependency on federal budget decisions for research funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health*
Field has continually been in flux, may continue to change as new technologies are discovered****

Sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **O*Net Online, ***Job postings on CareerBuilder website, ****University of Minnesota.

Essential Career Info

Career Options

Bioinformatics, sometimes referred to as computational biology, brings computing, biology and statistics together with massive biological databases (such as from the Human Genome Project). Bioinformaticists use computers to research problems in biology, human genetics and medicine to answer complex questions about living organisms. The Department of Labor divides careers in this field into research scientists jobs and technician jobs. The University of California - Santa Cruz Career Center's website makes another distinction between bioinformaticists who build and design new computer programs and new procedures for evaluating and organizing data, and bioinformaticists who set up the databases, keep them functioning and up to date.

Bioinformatics Scientists

According to job postings on CareerBuilder and Monster.com, some of the job duties of bioinformatics scientists and analysts may include developing methods for computers to analyze biologic data (particularly genetic information) and creating databases of biologic information. They may write or modify software programs for a laboratory or develop new statistical models that can identify abnormal genes. Bioinformatics scientists may need to analyze the data produced by computer programs, such as a gene-sequencing program. Other duties may include working with other scientists to share or obtain database information, collaborating with colleagues in information technology as well as with other team members who may have different levels of expertise in this field.

Bioinformatics Technologists

Technologists use, and may develop, software to help scientists access databases. They document any changes or problems with the databases and may perform database maintenance and upgrades. Bioinformatics technologists may use existing software programs to mine information from the databases, and adjust or design database querying tools as needed.

Career Prospects and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for biological scientists, including bioinformatics scientists, was about $91,960 in 2014. Expected job growth for scientists in this category (including biochemists and biophysicists) is 19% between 2012 and 2022.

Meanwhile, bioinformatics technicians earned a median salary of $42,070 in 2014, according to O*Net Online. Bioinformatics technicians are also expected to see average job growth through 2022 (approximately 8-14%), with an estimated 6,300 openings occurring within that decade.

Education Requirements

According to job listings on CareerBuilder and Monster.com, many bioinformatics positions require a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, although some may require a master's or a bachelor's degree. A number of universities offer interdisciplinary degree programs in bioinformatics; for example, it may be a joint program run by the department of computer sciences and the department of biology. Course work in these integrated programs might cover computer science, genetics, engineering, biology, math and medicine.

Positions that would require you to design or develop new programs and methods for studying databases usually require a doctoral degree. Jobs where you would help researchers access the genetic information in a database and/ or maintain and update databases may require a bachelor's, master's or Ph.D., depending on the position.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers don't always require a degree in bioinformatics and often accept applicants with degrees in a related area, such as mathematics, computer science or biophysics. However, because bioinformatics generally spans several fields, you may need working knowledge or experience in areas not specifically covered by your degree. Here are a few of the bioinformatics job postings listed in May 2012:

  • A children's hospital in Pennsylvania is looking to hire a bioinformatics scientist to work with the clinical laboratory to include genetic data in patients' clinical diagnoses. Duties include implementing or developing new methods to analyze gene date, creating and managing databases and collaborating with stakeholders in other hospital departments. Some of the job requirements include a Ph.D. and advanced abilities in math, computer skills and biological sciences. You'll need to have at least three years of experience and be a team player. FBI fingerprint and child abuse clearances as well as a drug screening are also required.
  • A biotechnology company is hiring a bioinformatics application developer to work in Massachusetts to provide design and technical support for genetic sequencing software. Some of your duties would be evaluating, designing and testing the applications to make sure they are meeting clients' needs, working with other team members and adapting existing software to work with new platforms. You'll need a master's degree in a related field, at least 12 years of experience working with software that supports clinical or genomic applications and familiarity with relevant programming languages.
  • A medical college in New York is looking for a bioinformatics analyst to support researchers who are using the school's genomic database. Some job duties include performing preliminary analysis for researchers, developing databases and doing script analysis. You'll need a bachelor's degree in bioinformatics, computer science or biology with three to five years of relevant experience in biology.
  • A biomedical research laboratory in Maine is looking to hire a bioinformatics scientific curator to develop their protein and genome ontology programs. Some of the duties include searching the literature to incorporate new information into the databases, attending and presenting at seminars and conferences, staying abreast of new information in the field and participating in testing of software and project development. You'll need a Ph.D. in one of the life sciences, one to three years of experience and good organization and communication skills.

How Can I Stand Out?

Bioinformatics is a growing field that is adding new information as new discoveries are made. If you are interested in this area, obtaining a degree specifically in bioinformatics may be more likely to expose you to both the computer science/engineering as well as the biological science/genome aspects. Persons with more advanced degrees also seem to have more job opportunities.

Develop Related Skills

Good oral and written communications skills appear to be a common recommendation in job postings, since bioinformaticists need to collaborate with and often instruct colleagues from their own and other departments. The ability to work as a team member is also a common theme. Some other skills that bioinformatics professionals would find helpful include problem-solving skills, the ability to be a critical thinker, and perseverance to work through difficult problems until they are solved.

Alternative Career Paths

Chemist or Materials Scientist

If you are interested in scientific research, but want something outside of biology and computers, you might consider becoming a chemist or a materials scientist. Some of the duties for scientists in this field may include testing materials for safety and quality, working on the development and testing of new products and analyzing substances to learn their chemical composition. Chemists and materials scientists require at least a bachelor's degree in chemistry, engineering or a related field, and but many employers prefer candidates with a doctoral degree. Expected job growth for chemists and materials scientist is slower than average at 4% between 2010 and 2020. The BLS lists median salary for chemists at about $70,000 and for material scientists at about $85,000 in 2011.

Medical Scientist

If your preference is more towards medicine, you may want to become a medical scientist. People in this field research methods of improving human health. Some of the duties may include planning and conducting research about disease diagnosis, prevention or treatment, or collaborating with health departments to improve health safety. Other duties may include studying cell structure of bacteria or other organisms and developing immunizations or medications. Medical scientists may work for private companies, universities or for the federal government. Most medical scientists need a Ph.D. in biology or related field, or a medical degree, but many have both. BLS data indicates job growth for medical scientists (except epidemiologists) will be 36% between 2010 and 2020. Median salary for this group was about $76,000 in 2011.

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