Bioinformatics 101


Bioinformatics Career Prospects

The bioinformatics jobs market has changed considerably in the past few years and can be attributed to a number of factors, mainly the increase in the number of bioinformatics academic programs, leading to an increase in the number of graduates chasing jobs, the steady decrease in the rate of increase of bioinformatics jobs, and the almost flattening of the amount of investments in the biotechnology sector.

All this have led to an increasingly harder market for recent graduates. The increases of number of jobs candidates has led employers look more to experience, as compared to the nineties when just possessing the necessary skills was enough to bag the candidate the job. There has also been a significant shift, with a increasing number of academic jobs and decreasing number of industry jobs, as compared to a few years back.

However it is not all bleak news for bioinformatics, there is still a wealth of biological information out there to be deciphered, and there also be an increase in the number of bioinformatics research programs, so in some years to come, some of the research would begin to filter into the industry, as many innovations nowadays seem to begin in the research labs (look no further than Yahoo! and Google). Also the bioinformatics market despite everything is still growing worldwide and is expected to surpass the 50 billion dollar mark soon.

The pharmaceutical industry tends to be the major employer of bioinformaticians, although biotech companies, especially those involved personal care products, industrial organisms and agriculture have seen bioinformatics play a more important role in their industry.

Biotech companies have received a lot of bad press in the past few years as many have apparently failed to deliver on the promises of “money printing” products. This has led to a decrease in the rate of investments in biotech companies. However there are signs while the biotech companies may be down, they definately not out and as many  consolidate thier efforts to produce the goods, the question is not whether they can do it but when. 

Research and academic institutes have also become big players in the employment market as more candidates look to acquiring a PhD and acquiring some essential researching skills in the hope that it would lead to better opportunities in the future.

Career Opportunities

While gene sequencing and analysis might currently be the main focus in bioinformatics, the field is quite diverse and opportunities also lie in other areas.

Below are brief descriptions of some of the areas within bioinformatics that opportunities are arising are:

  • Sequence Assembly: This involves the use of sophisticated computer-based methods to assemble the thousands of fragments that make up the genome of an organism.
  • Genomic Sequence Analysis: This involves mapping out the regions of a genome that code for a particular protein’s production. It also involves mapping out areas of the gene that is clipped out or discarded. All these are done using sophisticated software programs and results are then compared with databases of already mapped out genes.
  • Functional genomics: This is the process of determining the functions of genes and determining whether they would suitable for drug discovery.
  • Genotyping: This involves the discovery of disease causing genes and using that knowledge to identifying individuals who are susceptible to such diseases.
  • Proteomics: An offshoot of genomic studies, this is the study of the portion of a genome that is expressed in particular cells. This usually involves the use of micro-arrays (a cutting edge technology that allows the expression of level of thousands of genes in a cell sample to be quickly determined) and the results are entered in a database. This area is especially useful for drug and/or gene therapy.
  • Pharmacogenomics: Here databases of single nucleotide polymorphisms (gene mutations that cause particular disease states or increase/decreased sensitivity to drugs) have an important role to play in future drug development efforts and in the design of clinical trials.
  • Database Administration: This usually involves the design and maintenance of huge databases of genomic sequence and biochemical information. These databases need to be constantly updated. There is also the involvement in the development of intelligent search algorithms to search through the database and retrieve relevant information.

Skills Needed

The current trend in seeking potential employees seems to be looking for those that have firstly been trained in the biological sciences and have acquired computational skills. However, there is room for those with an IT background with strong interest and knowledge in the biological sciences, especially molecular biology.

Skills that potential employers tend to look for can be grouped into the following:

  • Informatics problem solving skills which include computer science and genomic expertise. This would include a good understanding of how and why DNA is transcribed into RNA and then expressed as proteins.
  • Database administration and programming skills (e.g. SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase, MySQL, CORBA, PERL, Java, C, C++, web scripting). UNIX tends to be the operating system used for many biological programs. Being able to write programs, especially using PERL and C, on this platform and using SQL, which tends to be the language used of querying relational databases where the biological information is stored, would be highly desirable.
  • Experience with genomic sequence analysis and molecular modelling programs would also be a good skill to possess for those looking to get into bioinformatics.
  • Act as an effective bridge between biologist and computers scientists, especially during the design of effective tools for data analysis, storage and retrieval.
  • Possess the necessary skills needed to effectively filter information and from possible relationships between datasets.
  • Detailed knowledge of the bioinformatics field and the problems it addresses.

Getting Started

Getting started in bioinformatics would usually require some training in biological sciences coupled with knowledge of computational sciences or vice versa. The strongest demand is for those who have degrees in both the life sciences and computer sciences, coupled with a few years of IT experience under the belt.

Those who find themselves in this category are probably ready to take their first steps into the field of bioinformatics if they are not already involved. However, those with life sciences PhDs with self-taught computers skills are also well sought.

For those with either just a biological sciences or computer sciences degree, a Master’s degree in bioinformatics or computational biology is probably the best route to follow to get on the bioinformatics careers ladder. This is especially true for those with a biological science degree.

The Master’s degree should arm the graduate with some of the necessary skills needed to get a job in bioinformatics. This is especially so for those with a biological sciences background. A Master’s degree increases the market value of the graduate and is looked on favorably by recruiters, especially if it comes with industry experience.

Doing an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics is also another way of getting in on the bioinformatics train but unfortunately, they are very few of them around and existing programs have not been around for long. This makes it hard to evaluate the value that they actually contribute towards one’s career. However, it is an option that should be looked at as bioinformatics is a career what considering getting into.


There are far more academic training programs available now than they were five years ago, with more universities planning to roll out their programs. The profiles of some of the available academic programs in bioinformatics and computational biology can be found here. To view a list of academic programs, click here.

Job Profiles

Jobs titles to look out for searching for a job in bioinformatics vary greatly, meaning that there are a lot of hidden opportunities out there, so one would have to actively seek them out. Some of the job titles can be viewed here.