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Bioinformatics Programs Produce More Grads, Despite Shrinking Job Market

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In the late 1990s, trained bioinformatics professionals were in such demand that signing bonuses, stock options, and other perks were common recruitment strategies for biotech and pharmaceutical companies looking to staff their growing bioinformatics departments.

But those days are over. According to BioInform’s most recent survey of bioinformatics degree programs, US universities are churning out graduates in this field at an ever-increasing rate — just over 300 students have graduated from bioinformatics degree programs so far in 2004, up sharply from only 32 graduates in 2000. Meanwhile, according to a study released in June, the job market for these graduates has steadily declined during this same period. The report, prepared by Paula Stephan and Grant Black of the department of economics at Georgia State University, found that the number of bioinformatics positions advertised in the journal Science dropped by 43 percent between 2000 and 2002 — from 443 positions to only 254 — and the number of jobs posted on www.bioplanet.com also plummeted from 168 positions in 2002 to 111 in 2003. Noting the accelerating number of bioinformatics grads entering this lackluster job market, Stephan and Black argued, “Unless conditions in industry change dramatically in the next few years, it is likely that many trainees from these programs will have difficulty finding jobs in industry.”

Indeed, today’s bioinformatics students are certain to find a highly competitive environment facing them upon graduation. Respondents to BioInform’s fourth annual survey of US university degree programs indi-cated that there are at least 1,905 students currently enrolled in bioinformatics degree programs, and all of them will be seeking jobs in the next few years.

Here Come the Grads

BioInform identified 74 US universities that are offering BS-, MS-, or PhD-level degrees in bioinformatics, computational biology, or biomedical informatics in 2004 — up from 64 programs in 2003. Five of these programs will begin admitting students this fall (see table, pp 3-8, for a complete listing).

Of these universities, 23 offer bachelor’s-level degrees (BA or BS), 47 offer master’s-level degrees (MA, MS, Masters in Business Informatics, or Professional Science Masters), and 48 offer doctorates (PhD or ScD). Eight schools (Carnegie Mellon, Drexel University, Florida State University, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Wright State University) offer all three degree levels, up from seven last year.

According to university responses, at least 1,905 students are currently enrolled in undergraduate and graduate bioinformatics programs — more than twice the 939 students that were reported for 2003. Not all programs provided enrollment data for 2003, however, so this number is likely to be lower than actual enrollment for that year. Enrollment in degree programs in 2004 ranged from one student (University of Memphis) to 126 (Oregon Health and Sciences University), with an average enrollment of around 34 students per program in 2004 (55 programs reporting), up from 28 students per program in 2003 (34 programs reporting).

The size of the 2004 graduating class has broken the 300 mark for the first time, at 301 grads — up from 231 graduates in 2003 (This number is higher than the 201 reported in last year’s survey [BioInform 08-11-03] because respondents had the opportunity to update their 2003 graduation data). Of these, 74 received bachelor’s-level degrees, 187 received master’s-level degrees, and 40 received PhD-level degrees. This compares to 49 BS, 140 MS, and 42 PhDs that were awarded in 2003 (see chart, this page, for complete data on graduates for 2000-2004).

The gender distribution in bioinformatics degree programs remains skewed toward male students: Of 55 programs that responded to this question in BioInform’s survey, 34 reported a higher number of male than female students, 10 reported a 50/50 ratio, and 11 reported a higher number of female students. These responses are similar to last year’s gender distribution: Of 48 responding programs, 33 reported a higher number of male students, 10 a 50/50 ratio, and five reported a higher number of female students than male students.

The Programs Are There, But Where Are the Jobs?

According to the University of Georgia study (available here, “industry was almost exclusively the sole source of demand” for trained bioinformatics professionals in the mid-1990s, but by the early 2000s, “demand from the academic sector had grown substantially, surpassing industry as the largest source of positions advertised in Science.” The study found that even as the total number of advertised positions dropped, the proportion of academic institutions grew from 66.8 percent to 79.9 percent of all advertised positions between 2000 and 2002, while positions in industry fell from 21 percent to 16.6 percent of the total during that period.

These findings are supported by the universities who participated in BioInform’s survey. Of 32 programs that offered placement information, 24 said that the majority of their graduates found jobs in the aca-demic, government, or non-profit sector or went on to continue their education.

This precarious job market is one reason that a number of bioinformatics degree programs are tweaking their programs to better prepare their students for the evolving post-graduation environment. “Our biggest challenge is finding a market for master’s level students,” said Mitrick Johns of Northern Illinois University. Johns noted that bioinformatics PhDs are much more marketable, but “we aren’t capable of producing a bioinformatics PhD here.”

Phoenix Eagleshadow, outreach coordinator for the bioinformatics program at UCSC, noted that “there are significant differences between a MS and PhD program in this field, which is not true for other programs.” While the MS degree “is truly a professional degree, [because] it steers students toward industry, PhD degrees open up the possibilities for national lab/institute/center, government, and academic positions, as well as industry,” she said.

Several universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Indiana Univer-sity, and UNC Chapel Hill, are planning to add a PhD program to their offerings in the near future.

In addition to the challenges of post-graduation placement, respondents indicated a number of fundamental obstacles in designing an effective bioinformatics curriculum. Chief among these was the multidisciplinary nature of the subject — it’s difficult to train students sufficiently in biology, computer science, mathematics, biochemistry, statistics, physics, and a number of other topics without making a few compromises, respondents noted. This raises the risk that “students become a jack of all trades and masters of none,” said Dodie Weise, student coordinator for the bioinformatics program at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Many respondents said that the diverse educational backgrounds of incoming graduate students also presents a problem, because in-struction has to be carefully tailored to the individual. “We cannot make assumptions about what they know when they arrive in say, the way a chemistry graduate program can,” said Martin Gruebele of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“While we have advanced courses in bioinformatics, we have found that finding relevant introductory level courses in statistics, genetics, and computer science is a challenge,” said Barbara Sherry, director of genomic sciences graduate programs at NC State. “The existing introductory courses often contain extraneous information not relevant to our students, so we will be working to develop additional bioinformatics-specific introductory courses.”

But despite these challenges — and the harsh realities of the post-graduation job market — most universities reported that they are seeing increased interest in their bioinformatics degree programs. It’s likely that the number of graduates will continue to accelerate over the next few years, even as their employment prospects dwindle.

This may be good news for employers, but not for students expecting the same demand for their skills that there was in 1999.

— BT

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