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What is a Bioinformatics Degree?
If you love biology, data, and programming, a degree in bioinformatics might be for you. This booming field combines techniques from computer science, statistics, and mathematics to analyze biological data of all kinds.
Bioinformatics is a fast-growing area with lots of exciting opportunities. In part, this is because technology is moving faster than ever, enabling us to understand the world around us in deeper, more nuanced ways. Scientists now have access to massive amounts of detailed biological data, including information about genetic sequences, protein samples, cell populations, and more. The challenge, in many cases, is knowing what to do with that data.
That's where bioinformatics comes in. This evolving science takes an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to organizing, analyzing, and applying biological information. It's playing a role in solving some of humanity's most complex biological problems. Bioinformatics techniques have been used to develop personalized medications, track the spread of disease, understand the inner workings of DNA, and more.
If you think this degree might be for you, read on. In this article, we'll explore:
- What degree options are available in bioinformatics
- What the difference is between bioinformatics, biotechnology, and computer science
- What skills you learn in a bioinformatics degree
- What can you do with a bioinformatics degree
Degrees in bioinformatics come in all shapes and sizes. They can be done online or on campus, full-time or part-time, at universities and colleges across the globe. But most degrees fall into one of the following four categories:
Bachelor's Degree in Bioinformatics
Because of its interdisciplinary nature, bioinformatics programs are sometimes found in the faculty of computer science, and sometimes in the faculty of science. Bachelor of Computer Science in Bioinformatics, Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics, and Bachelor of Science in Computational Biology are just a few common names for this degree.
Undergraduate programs in bioinformatics usually take around four years to complete. They provide the basic training needed to enter the field, offering courses in subjects like biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, and even physics. Although there are some jobs available at this degree level, top bioinformatics jobs usually require a master's degree or higher.
Master's Degree in Bioinformatics
An advanced degree in bioinformatics is a must for many research-based or scientific careers in the field. These hands-on programs usually take about two years of full-time study, and involve courses in statistics, molecular biology, computer science, and biotechnology. Many also include an internship component, allowing students to practice their skills in hospitals or clinical settings.
Professional Science Master's Programs in Bioinformatics
If you're not interested in pursuing a PhD or an academic career but still need a master's for your dream job, a Professional Science Master's (PSM) is worth considering. These programs are more career-oriented than other master's degrees, focusing on building skills and competencies for professional success. They tend to be less theoretical and offer more applied training opportunities.
Doctoral Degrees in Bioinformatics
Doctoral degrees are required for some bioinformatics careers, as well as most academic positions. In many cases, having a PhD in bioinformatics can also increase your starting salary.
However, a PhD is only recommended if you truly love the field. These programs are time-intensive, taking anywhere from three years to eight (or more) to complete. Doctoral programs in bioinformatics also tend to be highly specialized. In addition to coursework, they involve a significant research component and a final dissertation.
Degrees Similar to Bioinformatics
Because it's such an interdisciplinary field, bioinformatics overlaps with many other degree programs. It's often confused with other fields, like computer science and biotechnology. Let's take a look at what these three degrees have in common—and what sets bioinformatics apart.
Computer science programs teach students many of the same skills as bioinformatics programs do. For example, both degrees include training in topics like data structures, algorithm implementation, and computer programming. However, bioinformatics degrees complement this general computer science training with courses in biology, chemistry, math, and statistics.
Like bioinformatics, biotechnology is an interdisciplinary degree that brings together biology and technology. However, both these fields rely on very different techniques to further different goals. Bioinformatics applies techniques from information technology and computer science to gather, organize, and analyze biological data. In other words, it focuses on furthering our understanding of biology. Biotechnology, on the other hand, uses tactics like gene editing and plant tissue culture to create new and useful biological and genetic products.
Skills You'll Learn
Whatever degree you pursue, studying bioinformatics will help you develop valuable skills. Here are a few of the most common ones you might gain during your studies:
- Expertise in programming languages like Ruby, Perl, or Python
- Strong understanding of statistical theories and techniques
- Knowledge of biological topics and techniques like evolutionary biology, genome mapping, and protein modeling
- Aptitude for data mining and data wrangling
- Excellent communication skills (written, verbal, and visual)
What Can You Do with a Bioinformatics Degree?
With this wide range of skills, as well as professional training in biology, bioinformatics graduates can end up in an array of careers. Here are just a few directions this degree could take you:
With their specialized expertise, many bioinformatics majors end up working in scientific labs. These jobs exist in both the academic and commercial sector, at many different levels of training. Bioinformatics researchers usually specialize in a single area of research, like biopharmaceuticals, genomics, or cancer. These positions typically involve a mix of data collection and analysis, as well as some day-to-day administrative lab tasks like grant writing.
Software development is another common career option for bioinformatics majors. In this profession, they'll support other scientists by designing custom-made tools and software to facilitate their research. Using their knowledge of data structures and algorithms, bioinformatics graduates in these roles create many of the innovative computer systems that keep the world's top research labs running.
Some bioinformatics majors prefer to focus purely on data analysis. In this capacity, they can find work for research labs, pharmaceutical companies, and even app developers. There, they'll work under other scientists or product development managers, collecting, cleaning, and analyzing specialized data of all kinds. Of course, a biology-based career is an obvious next step. However, many of the data science skills gained during a bioinformatics degree are applicable to any industry.
For advanced bioinformatics students—that is, those with PhDs—a career in academia can be a natural fit. In these roles, they can become university instructors, professors, or deans. There, they'll conduct their own bioinformatics research, teach courses, publish academic papers, and more.
Some bioinformatics majors finish their degrees, only to realize that a biology-based career isn't for them. The technology sector is booming, offering lots of job opportunities in a wide range of industries. Bioinformatics graduates could find work with a software company, a technology startup, an app developer, or somewhere else entirely. Computer systems analyst, network and computer systems administrator, data scientist, and computer programmer are just a few options to consider.
Data science, computer programming, and software development are increasingly popular fields. As more and more people aspire to improve their computer science abilities, the demand for skilled teachers continues to grow. Bioinformatics graduates can apply their expertise to a variety of education careers. Some might become private tutors for high school or university students. Others might become instructors for an online coding academy. The opportunities in this area are endless.
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