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I love programming, but I also love biology. Basically Bioinformatics sounds fun to me. However, there is a fat chance that I won't get a Bioinformatics job and will be forced to build my career around regular programming.

Therefore a question: does it matter (much) for an employer if he is looking for a regular programmer but finds a Bioinformatics diploma? Or is it the same in the long run as a regular Informatics diploma?

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If you can program, it wouldn't matter if you had a nuclear physics degree now would it? –  Bernard Feb 25 '12 at 4:48
First, a 'regular' programming job is not a catch-all. And programmers from every field of specialization are in need. Only you have to find the right position that needs the combination. –  Kris Feb 25 '12 at 9:45
Well, I guess I'll stick with Bioinformatics after all. As far as I understood, usually company simply needs a diploma having "info" in the degree name having good grades. However, bioinformatics feels better simply because it's something I can't learn by myself at home. While simple informatics is as easy as reading few books. Now to decide which answer to accept... –  Max Feb 25 '12 at 14:52
I'd love to work with you, but that is because I am trying to quit my job for a biotech position :) –  Job Feb 25 '12 at 21:58
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7 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Bioinformatics is all about research. That involves search algorithms, databases and programming. Math is very important. Bioinformatics involves theory about algorithms on strings. Building phylogenetic trees for species (quite a big subject). Two research groups in my university worked on. Why and how a specie of bacteria lose genes when adapting from one host to another (their genom become smaller). How histones worked (DNA packing molecules, involved in regulation). I think having a passion for math is good. Since the field is growing, if you have a phd you can quite easily get a research job! Getting there is another thing. Bioinformatics is one of the hotter research areas. I think my teachers in bioinformatics was very competent. It is also a very international environment. The problem was that our schedual was made up by the biology faculty and by people who never had programmed.

I have taken bioinformatics myself, unfortunately the program was too hard for me. I also could not see myself living in Stockholm (capital of sweden). SICP in two months, a lot of logic, in the first course! (I never quite figured out a good strategy for programming in scheme). The professor was mentioned in the SICP book though wich was pretty cool. The faculty also did research with supercomputers. If you want to make money you should probably reconsider.

Most people educated in bioinformatics work as developers, researchers or in statistics. In research you can choose between classifying cancer patients in hospitals (quite common) or by doing research in a university (if you are good). Some do molecule modeling, some do extremely specialized bioinformatics where there are themselves and perhaps 20 other people that read their reports. There is also research environments outside the universities that does bioinformatics exclusively. As a developer you most probably work in java or maybe with databases (if you are good, since database developers generally are paid more than other developers), some work in matlab and c++ as well. That is what I know about the field. England, Germany, USA and Japan have probably the most research in bioinformatics. Two links I found which are good. Oxford - Computational Biology Research Group , Max Planck Institute - Protein Evolution

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Thanks for great answer, did not understand one phrase though: If you want to make money you have probably should reconsider, do you mean that bioinformatics has not much money to offer? –  Max Feb 25 '12 at 11:09
Problem is, I can't really say at this point if I "like" bioinformatics, because I never tried that. All I know is that I like biology (on all levels), like statistics (sometimes I collect and analyze some data just for fun) and like programming. Also, I have 5 years of "generic" programming (web mostly) experience and during that time I found out that it's not what I'd like to do for the rest of my life. –  Max Feb 26 '12 at 17:17
That's why I'm thinking of taking bioinformatics. First - I'll have some degree, which is always good. Second - if I find bioinformatics interesting, I'll try sticking to it, maybe even seeking PhD. But lastly - if I don't like it, I want to make this degree as valuable as possible for my "web programmer" career. –  Max Feb 26 '12 at 17:19
Students that did the best when I studied was ruby programmers, i.e. consider learning ruby and perhaps lisp. –  r4. Feb 27 '12 at 9:59
Thanks a lot for your help and comments. –  Max Feb 27 '12 at 17:30
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The degree signals intelligence and interest. In practical terms, the better the school, the less important the major. If you go to Princeton or Stanford or pick-yer-top-school, most any major will signal intelligence. The gap between nuclear physics or computer science and comparative literature isn't that big. If you're going to a large state school with open admissions, the gap between Electrical Engineering and English is huge. The second piece is interest. Someone who has shown they have the potential to be smart doesn't need the perfect major as long as they can show an interest in programming, especially the domain in question. An industrial engineering major who signals an interest in programming by listing 3 or 4 tough CS courses can easily get a CS job - especially if it's related to factory automation.

Now let's dig in to your specific case. If you're going to a top school, it's all up to the interview and what you know. If you're going to a less prestigious school, you have to signal your intelligence. Good grades is one way. If informatics is the most technical degree (at some schools it's computer science or computer engineering, at others it's the same as informatics) then you are fine. Even in the short term, the distinction between the two is very small, especially if you take enough hard CS classes. If you want to work in bio-informatics, or just stay current in the field, the added specialization can even help. The key is to not let the program get too soft. Make sure you still take hard coursework, and get relevant internships.

Good luck - it's a great time to be in both of your areas of passion!

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I am a regular programmer (database stuff mainly) that has been working with bioinformatics groups for the last few years. The majority of the bioinfomaticions I know (not all of them) are really poor programmers in my opinion (some cant even indent their code properly). The know enough to write one off scripts and get a result they are looking for, but nothing about the discipline of software engineering - writing robust maintainable code, testing it, documenting it.

Saying that I guess a lot of it is down to the interviewer and what they consider important.

If you are going to study bioinformatics, but are interested in a normal software job, then be sure to read up and practice the other stuff.

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It's really employer dependent. Some won't hire anyone without a CS degree and some won't hire you unless that CS degree is from a prestige university (Stanford, MIT, etc.). Others just want a college degree and don't care so much about it as long as you can show programming knowledge. At the entry level it can be tough to get by the initial HR screening process without the 'right' degree but I've worked with some junior developers who made a good effort to find the right people to talk to in order to avoid a semi-automated HR screening.

One big advantage you will have is in areas where you can leverage your domain knowledge. I hate to say it, but a lot of college grads these days aren't well rounded. They don't know anything outside of their chosen field. Many employers understand the benefit of having a software developer who also comprehends their business.

Long term, the type of degree will matter less than your experience to most employers.

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What if I'm not a "junior" programmer? I have a full-time programming job experience of 5 years (without any diploma). Does that change anything for me? Basically I do not want to waste my time getting Informatics diploma because for me personally >50% classes will be worthless. That's why I'm thinking of something more interesting, like Bioinformatics. –  Max Feb 25 '12 at 14:54
Having a college degree in anything will get you past the HR initial barriers at a lot of companies. In the US, a college degree is about the only legal method they have to judge general intelligence. –  jfrankcarr Feb 25 '12 at 15:21
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In my relatively uninformed opinion, a degree in Bioinformatics could be extremely valuable. The problems are hard, and the data is large. Big data is a very hot field right now, and I expect it will only get hotter. Sensible employers looking for programmers don't really worry about degrees. Demonstrated mathematical ability and some experience programming is pretty rare.

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It depends on the bioinformatics program you are going into and the kind of job you want afterwards. You can get through some bioinformatics programs using only Matlab and R. These are great tools in the scientific and statistical domains, but generic development shops are not going to be very interested in your experience with them. If you want to remain a strong candidate for general developer positions, then make sure that you take classes that have a computer science flavor, and involve quite a bit of programming in C/C++/Java/Python/Perl or other general purpose languages. I don't generally advise folks to chase fads, but I'd highly recommend taking a machine learning course. Machine learning is ubiquitous in bioinformatics, and, at least for the moment, ML expertise is in demand throughout the software industry.

I noticed your comment asking about money. If you are working in bioinformatics you are generally working in an academic research organization. These generally do not pay as well as development positions in dedicated software shops. It's not absurdly lower, but there is also no 'upside' of bonuses or stock options. There may not even be regular raises. In terms of remuneration, bioinformatics positions are probably closer to generic in-house programmers for non-software businesses. The flip side is that research labs often have incredibly flexible working environments, and you get to spend time each week going to talks about cutting edge issues in biology and computer science.

There are private companies with bioinformatics departments, but in my experience they tend to hire straight developers with a BS or MS in computer science or Ph.D. bioinformaticists.

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In my opinion, get CS, and spend your free time on Bio or take some courses from that departmant. Otherwise, your CV may not achieve to the desk of Human Resources (in some companies). Your previous experiences, knowledge and projects may not be seen. Especially web based job applications give you a combobox with only fields of CS, EE, Math, Physics, Statistics etc. and you can't even apply. Of course you may not want to apply that kind of company that constraints your creativity to design a CV.

After high school, I've started Economics. And yes, I was learning nice stuff about how the world rules. But as you said, ">50% classes was worthless". After a while, I met the programming. In my country, the big slice of software development pie was accounting and database programming (ERP, CRM, ..). Then, I quit my education, and started new one. Now, I can learn in 6 months in school, what I could learn in 2 years by mysef. It realy speeds up the process. I'm participating in student projects with electronics students. Lecturers give me nice suggestions...

But success doesn't depend on diploma. In one way or another, you can do astonishing works.

+1 to CS =)

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I'm really curious why this answer was downvoted. Anyone care to explain? –  Max Feb 26 '12 at 13:44
I think there is a thin line between "what you program" and "how you program". I've work together with people from non-CS in some projects (ex: Physics, Chemistry, EE). They all are very smart. And they have solid understanding about algorithms. But when they start, they realy violate lots of software development metodologies. But of cource not all of them. I also saw very nice developer with degree in Math. –  Onur Feb 26 '12 at 15:03
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