A recent survey of more than 650 bioinformaticists sheds some light on career realities in the field and indicates that despite some grumbling over pay scales and paper-writing, respondents are generally very satisfied with their jobs.
Michael Barton, a bioinformatics PhD student at the University of Manchester, began the survey in July and this week posted the raw results from 658 participants on his blog, Bioinformatics Zen.
Barton explained to BioInform that his goal was to generate a picture of what bioinformaticists currently think about their field. His interest, he said, was partly personal, but he also wanted to be able to answer the many queries he receives on his blog about career options and realities. “There isn’t really a resource where you can go and find out this information,” he said.
Barton acknowledged that he would have like to have seen more participants — closer to 1,000 — and that the responses are likely be biased towards blog-readers and English-speaking bioinformaticists.
Indeed, the respondents were overwhelmingly from the non-profit sector, with 498 responses, or 76 percent of the total, claiming to be in academia, government, or non-profit positions. In addition, participants mainly hailed from North America and Europe. “There are very few results from the Middle East and Africa, which I think is a shame,” said Barton.
Nevertheless, the results still provide a useful snapshot of the discipline.
For example, while the average annual salary for all respondents was $48,302, the average salary for those working in the non-profit sector was $42,427, but the average salary in industry was $77,407.
In addition, industry bioinformaticists published on average fewer papers than non-profit scientists — 7.9 papers compared to 9.9 in the non-profit sector.
On average, non-profit participants in the survey have been working for 5.3 years and expect to be working in the field for another 21.8 more years. Industry participants, meantime, reported that they have worked in the field for an average of 6.1 years, and expect to continue for another 16.7 years.
For all respondents, 402, or 61 percent, reported that they have a biology background. The next most common response was computer science, which 117 participants, or 18 percent, claimed as their background.
Not all participants indicated their affiliation, but 479 survey participants said they work in academia, 12 work for government agencies, 7 work for non-profits, and 115 are in industry.
Despite some differences between non-profit and industry careers, the “happiness” level for the field appears to be high for both sets of scientists. Respondents were asked to rate their satisfaction level with their job on a scale of one to 10, and both sectors reported an average of nearly 8.
“For me, the most interesting result is that bioinformaticians are generally quite happy,” said Barton.
Barton says he likes the day-to-day work in the field he has chosen, but admits he did not take his own survey. “I was so busy with everything else, I actually forgot.”
It’s About Perl
On the subject of programming languages, most of the surveyed bioinformaticians — 393 — said they use Perl. This was followed by 209 who said they use C/C++, and 196 who said they use Java. Respondents could choose more than one language.
“I was quite surprised at how small the usage of Java was,” Barton said. “I expected it to be much higher than it appeared in the data. I was particularly surprised that C/C++ appeared more popular than Java.”
Barton suggested that perhaps some bioinformatics scientists began using C and C++ before Java was around and stayed with it. “I guess a lot of command-line programs in bioinformatics are written in C, especially for speed because you can compile C so much faster than anything else,” he said.
“For me the most interesting result is that bioinformaticians are generally quite happy.”
The survey also asked respondents to write in their favorite bioinformatics software tools and web applications. According to an initial analysis by Rebecca Holz, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Blast was by far the most popular tool, with more than 200 responses. No other tool received more than 50 responses.
Holz’s analysis also showed that Google’s suite of web applications — including its search tool as well as Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Scholar, and GMail — were the most commonly reported among respondents.
About half of the respondents described their field of bioinformatics as genome analysis or sequence analysis — 333 and 346, respectively — which may be connected to the emerging second-generation sequence technology, Barton said.
According to the survey participants, who could choose more than one sub-discipline, gene expression is the next most popular field, with 224 responses. This was followed by “data and text mining,” with 215 responses, and “databases and ontologies,” with 205 responses.
In terms of bioinformaticians’ pet peeves, the pay leads the way for the respondents. Only 63 participants included “pay” among the reasons they like their jobs, but 343 included it among reasons they dislike their job (see chart below for further details on respondents’ likes and dislikes).
The dissatisfaction with pay may be due to a glut of post-docs for tenure positions, Barton said. “Perhaps it is a case of supply far exceeding demand, and salaries can be lower because there is a large pool to pick from.”
“Writing papers” also figured relatively high on the list of dislikes, with 182 responses. Victor Maojo, a computer science professor and bioinformaticist at Universidad Politecnica de Madrid, Spain, told Bioinform in an e-mail that he found it “surprising” how many people do not like to write papers. He added that some respondents might have been including paperwork in general as opposed to journal papers, noting that in Europe, paperwork is a much “heavier burden” than in the US academic setting.
Trey Lathe, chief scientific officer at Open Helix, a service provider that trains researchers on genomics resources, told BioInform in an e-mail that “the survey reflects what I see today,” with nothing seeming “particularly surprising.”
“What is notable,” he said, is that some respondents commented “they see the future of bioinformatics moving toward more integration with other fields and more cross-disciplinary needs.”
Laurie Irwin, vice president at Fortune Personnel Consultants in Peabody, Mass., is a recruiter who focuses on bioinformatics and said she agrees with the survey’s happiness ratings. “The people I know in their jobs are very happy,” she said.
Currently, she said, she is seeing more demand for bioinformatics scientists in the academic setting rather than industry. The data explosion is making research institutes and hospitals reach out to recruiters “a little more than they used to,” she said — a trend that may be due to “more robust funding” in the academic world.
“I also see the need on the clinical side for more data analysis from the statistical as well as the bioinformatics standpoint,” she said.
Since last year, she has seen a trend of more senior-level hiring in bioinformatics. Younger scientists needn’t despair, however, because the next trend she forecasts is “those senior level people will being to higher more junior-level people,” Irwin said.
Translational informatics, bioinformatics work in the context of drug repositioning, and partnering with clinical colleagues to bring in mathematical analysis are some of the other growth areas Irwin said she is seeing.
As for programming languages, C/C++ and Java have been “a pretty core requirement” in informatics, she said. “I have found in the last year there has been a little more need and a little more difficulty finding Java programmers.”
Further details on the survey, and some initial analysis of the results, are available here.
Source: Michael Barton, Bioinformatics Career Survey 2008