The number of card-carrying bioinformaticists entering the job market more than tripled in 2002, according to BioInform’s second annual survey of US university degree programs. This year, American universities expect to release 164 freshly trained BS, MS, or PhD-level bioinformaticists into the wide world, diploma in hand, compared to 53 in 2001.
This new wave of graduates — and their prospective employers — are the first beneficiaries of the remarkable growth witnessed in the number of degree programs over the last few years: While only six dedicated bioinformatics degree programs existed before 1997, 13 universities added new programs in 2001, and seven schools are adding bioinformatics-related degrees in 2002. There are now 45 universities in the US offering formal bioinformatics or computational biology degrees — 13 BS programs, 33 MS programs, and 33 PhD programs (see table, pp. 4-7). Five schools (Carnegie Mellon, Drexel University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the University of Pennsylvania) offer all three degree levels.
With offerings that range from dedicated bioinformatics programs to more interdisciplinary approaches, and annual tuition between $2,232 (for in-state students at the University of Memphis) and $33,000 (Harvard University), prospective students have a good chance of finding a program that suits their needs within their price range. PhD programs generally offer paid tuition via research or teaching assistantships and stipends.
In 2002, 26 BS, 111 MS, and 27 PhDs were issued in bioinformatics or computational biology, while last year’s graduating class was made up of 12 BS, 26 MS, and 15 PhDs. Graduates who landed industry jobs in 2002 had a slight edge over those who remained in academia, according to the estimates of survey respondents.
The student base in US bioinformatics degree programs remains predominantly male, although 13 schools reported that female students make up 50 percent or more of their bioinformatics classes this year (up from five in 2001). Russ Altman, director of Stanford’s program, noted that maintaining an even gender distribution is often difficult in the field. “We encourage diversity,” he said, “but have a hard time maintaining it, as the pool of applicants is less diverse than our actual student body.”
The rise in degree offerings comes at a time when bioinformatics vendors are experiencing financial uncertainty, biotech and pharmaceutical firms are under mounting pressure to consolidate, and post-dotcom IT professionals are reading up on molecular biology in hopes of getting a job in the field. Is shooting for a formal degree still a wise idea for students looking for a career in bioinformatics?
“Absolutely,” said Maureen McCarthy, director of biotechnology business development at Fresno, Calif.-based recruitment firm Management Recruiters. For the drug discovery companies that make up her company’s client base, “99 percent are looking for a PhD” when filling bioinformatics research positions, she said. Unlike the general-purpose IT world, bioinformatics employers are seeking a solid base of scientific knowledge: “It’s not like getting your certification as an Oracle DBA,” McCarthy noted. While BS degrees aren’t as desirable as masters’ or PhDs for filling research positions, they have their place, she said: Biotechs and pharmas will hire bachelor-level graduates for research associate or bioprocess technician positions, and although chances of landing a developer position with a bioinformatics vendor are slim, there’s always the old standby of the BS-educated workforce: “You could work in sales,” she suggested.