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Sometimes I get a bit disillusioned with the types of projects that I work on as they are just basically business apps that aren't exactly groundbreaking and are usually redundant as far as other applications already existing that do similar things. I have thought that it would be nice to possibly eventually get into working as a programmer for a company that is doing medical research or some other type of scientific research to where I would feel I am working towards something that I feel is potentially beneficial to a wide number of people, this relates to some recent life experiences but I won't get into that here. Also, I'm not really interested much in doing computer science research, more research for other fields that make use of programming.

I currently work as a Java web application programmer and I don't know much about jobs of the type that I would be looking for in this field. I would be interested to hear from anyone with experience in this who could possibly point me towards resources or tell me a bit about what working in this field would be like, I assume it would be quite different than working for the types of businesses I have worked for so far. Thanks for any info

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6 Answers 6

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I work in a research lab, the main work is designing hardware/software for use in neurophysiological experiments. It's madly interesting, especially compared to what some other people I graduated with are doing, and as you say it really gives you the feeling you're doing something that matters. Especially because some features you develop get used the day after they're finished and produce results that are used to write papers etc. Some of the things we do in the lab are also pretty groundbreaking and kinda futuristic (in the veins of putting electrodes into the human brain and hooking it up to a machine: watching the analog signal from a single neuron's electrical signal live is really a strange experience)

To be honest I don't think there's much use though for someone with your background in a lab like ours. Java just won't cut if for hard realtime systems and signal/image processing. But again, that's just in our lab. There are tons of other fields being researched where a decent java programmer would be a way beter investment than having the students/post-docs do the programming (most of this people have a pure science background, if you'd see the programs they produce you'd cry, most of them have no clue about programming principles at all). Eg the lab next to ours does lots of patient sudies involving basic stimulus presentation programs that are written by a java programmer they hired for a couple of years. So you'll just have to keep an eye for open positions in your area, visit sites from hospitals/universities to see if they are hiring. And maybe you'd alos benefit from learning a lower level language than Java, it should give you more opportunities.

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Thanks for the info, that provides a lot of insight. It would be good to get one where I can use Java for now and then possibly move to a lower-level language. –  programmx10 Mar 28 '11 at 16:26

Small research groups tend to use grad-students and post-docs for their programming chores. At the very least they probably going to want a significant background in science for any programmers they do hire.

Major research institutes and large university departments do have occasional opportunities for programmers without science backgrounds. This is particularly true in the life sciences. I think web programming jobs are some of the mostly likely positions to crop up. Your day-to-day activities in these jobs won't be too far removed from what you are doing now. A typical job might involve something like creating a web site that presents data on the variations occurring in some stretch of DNA in fruit flies, and lets users upload data from their own experiments. Sometimes the application to human health is obvious, and sometimes there is just a hope that something relevant will turn up.

As bit-twiddler mentioned in his answer these positions tend not to pay as much as jobs in the private sector, but you do get to learn some of the science which can make for a pretty satisfying day.

If you are interested start tracking the job boards at the nearest major university.

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Thanks, your answer is very informative and gives me a picture of what is out there as far as these types of jobs. I am a bit curious, however, as to whether there would be jobs in the private sector of this type. I know that there are medical companies that are for-profit so wouldn't they have jobs that would be like this that would be hiring more than students? –  programmx10 Mar 28 '11 at 4:02
BioTech companies certainly hire web programmers to fill the same needs as at other companies: human resources, payroll, client communications, marketing, etc. If you want to get in at the more 'sciency' end of things, I think it's tricky. I've never worked in BigPharama or medical engineering, but from my own job searches I have the impression that you simply MUST have experience in the field, and with the regulatory frameworks before they'll even look at you. I have no idea how people break into the field for their first job. –  Charles E. Grant Mar 28 '11 at 6:31
"t so wouldn't they have jobs that would be like this that would be hiring more than students?" No, they'd just get interns from universities for that. Get a few students who're having to do an internship for their graduation thesis, and tell them the project includes having to create or upgrade the software as well. –  jwenting Mar 28 '11 at 7:55

I work for a medical device manufacturing corporation. While I am not familiar with the research qualification min req,s, I can tell you these men tend to be engineers and physicists that work with medical personnel to research and build devices and applications.

They are not what we would call strong developers. Writing programs is just one of the necessary means to an end. The real challenges are not programmatic. The goal is to improve the quality of patient lives.

So while programming well is good, I dont see it providing a lot of value by itself. Honestly I think it would be of benefit for them to be a strong developer, but its a shift in culture and a very hard sell. Most engineers consider themselves to be good developers already. It will be quite a chsllenge to prove your not only better, but necessary enough to hire full time to these kinds of people.

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Honestly I don't know a whole lot about this field at the moment but I figure they must have a need for doing some sort of data analysis / searching within large datasets, I do have some experience with this sort of thing so was thinking there could be a possible opportunity –  programmx10 Mar 28 '11 at 5:34

A lot of scientific programming uses Java now. I recently worked on http://www.opengda.org/ for the Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron facility in the UK. That's a big client-server app built with Eclipse RCP and Jython. Other facilities on the same site were also making use of Java in their code.

Such jobs are, in the UK at least, advertised on academic careers sites like http://jobs.ac.uk. See if you can find a similar site for your area (if you aren't over here that is).

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Cool,thanks I will look into that, I am in the U.S. by the way –  programmx10 Mar 28 '11 at 16:25

Do you hold an advanced technical or scientific degree? Medical and scientific research software development jobs usually require one to hold at least an MS degree. Research software development jobs also generally pay a lot less than industrial software development jobs.

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I currently work as a programmer/research staff for a university hospital in a somewhat internship-like position (it's complicated ;)). As you mentioned that you want to your work to benefit a larger number of people, here are some of my experiences:

Viewed from a engineer's POV, physicians tend to work rather chaotically. They solve problems in a completely different way than engineers. Working with people who think in totally different patterns is both challenging and rewarding, plus you learn a lot in the process.

As a programmer, you can greatly influence their work by providing them with tools that allow them to view and work with the information more systematically than they are used to. Giving them the right tools is also important to allow them to focus on their problem, which cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, the medical industry in general still has an enormous potential for electronification of processes, at least here in Europe. I don't know of any other field where you can make the people's lives so much easier with so little programming. This also means that you don't get to program highly sophisticated software a lot, but it's very rewarding.

As a engineer, you can help them think more constructively, e.g. when designing a database for large studies. Too many studies fail because they can't use their 10 years worth of data in the end simply because they recorded data in the wrong way.

So, if you e.g. want to save people's lives by setting up a intuitive data entry tool with a small margin for input errors, the medical field is the way to go. :)

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