Careers in biotechnology, part V. Bioinformatics in an academic lab

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Sandra Porter

In this, and the next post in this series, I want to answer some of the questions that came up in the comments.

One of the commenters on part II wrote that:

For most academic biology groups, however, being a bioinformatics specialist is a dead end job! People in these roles may or may not be PhDs, but they end up in fouth author hell - always the fourth author on hundreds of papers - which cuts no ice when it comes to institutional promotion boards.

Of course, he didn't ask for my opinion about this, but I'll share it anyway. And I want to hear from you.

Do you think this is a fair assessment?

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First, I think it's important to realize how academic labs are structured - at least in the life sciences. It's like a pyramid - I drew a picture to show this below.


The main characters
At the top is the PI - this is the person who has the academic appointment - i.e. professor, assistant professor, etc. This person writes the grants that are used to fund the whole enterprise. Like a sea captain, they chart the course and help steer the ship. They work really hard, pick the research questions, teach classes, oversee everything, write papers, and talk about the work at meetings and seminars. Most of the people in the lab (the post-docs and grad students, anyway) aspire to be like the PI - except, perhaps better.

Some labs have lab managers and/or staff scientists. Often these people have Ph.D.s and have been post-docs. For one reason or another, they're working for someone else rather than running their own lab. Post-docs are people with Ph.D.'s who work on independent research projects and look for a job. Graduate students work on their own projects and work towards completing a degree.

We never had programmers in the labs that I was in, so I'm putting this person in at a tech level based on their placement in my husband's former lab. The scientific programmers usually worked for either the PI or a post-doc. They would write some scripts, install programs, figure out how to get things running, help build databases, rename files, set up pipelines for data processing, maintain the systems, and schlep data from one system to another.

The technicians work on the PI's project and carry out the experiments. Sometimes they have their own research projects.

Okay, those are the main players. Now, in these labs there will be people who are using bioinformatics software and databases and there might be some people - in addition to my hypothetical programmer- who might be writing some of their own scripts and setting up their own analysis pipelines.

Will this be a satisfying place to be? Is it a dead-end?

It depends.

Leo Tolstoy wrote: "happy families are all alike, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way." Academic labs, happy or not, are alot like Tolstoy's unhappy families. They are all unique.

The dark side of academics

  • If you work in an academic lab and you get bored hearing about biology, you will not enjoy being there. If you like biology, but you don't know as much as the people around you, they probably won't respect you unless you make an effort to learn what they're doing and try to say a few words - even if you're not a native speaker.
  • Some of the people working at the wet bench will think that the work that you're doing is easier than that what they do, because it requires less physical exertion.
  • If you are a programmer, and not a post-doc or grad student, there will likely be people in academic labs who will not treat you as an equal, mostly because they don't respect or understand people who aren't aspiring to the same grad student -> post doc -> PI -sort of career path.
  • If you're writing custom software, the programs that you write might never be used outside of your laboratory. If they do become used outside of your lab, it will be up to you to support all of the people who use them - in addition to your normal job.

But there is a bright side

  • If you're a post -doc, or a grad student, things can be good. You can have the best of all worlds.
  • If you're truly interested in biology, academic labs can be wonderful learning environments. You can go to seminars and hear about research from all kinds of people. If you're interested in a subject, study a bit on your own, and ask questions, people are usually quite happy to explain things to you (maybe with more detail than you'd like, and sometimes in a bit of a condescending tone, but that's a job hazard).
  • You might help people make a contribution to human health, and sometimes the health of the planet. You can be part of building a world-wide knowledge base that might, down the road, improve people's lives.
  • Universities often subsidize tuition for employees - so you can take classes for free.
  • You can get experience with skills that will help you get a better job somewhere else.

Okay, readers, what do you say?

Read the whole series:

  • Part I. Careers in biotechnology
  • A look at the jobs in biotech company, making biomedical products.

  • Part II: Bioinformatics
  • Where does bioinformatics fit into a biotech company? Who makes bioinformatics tools? Who uses them?

  • Part III: Life in a bioinformatics software company
  • How do people work together to make bioinformatics software?

  • Part IV: The tip of the informatics iceberg
  • What about the software engineering and IT side of bioinformatics software companies?