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In this, and the next post in this series, I want to answer some of the questions that came up in the comments.

One of the commenters on part II wrote that:

For most academic biology groups, however, being a bioinformatics specialist is a dead end job! People in these roles may or may not be PhDs, but they end up in fouth author hell – always the fourth author on hundreds of papers – which cuts no ice when it comes to institutional promotion boards.

Of course, he didn’t ask for my opinion about this, but I’ll share it anyway. And I want to hear from you.

Do you think this is a fair assessment?

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First, I think it’s important to realize how academic labs are structured – at least in the life sciences. It’s like a pyramid – I drew a picture to show this below.


The main characters
At the top is the PI – this is the person who has the academic appointment – i.e. professor, assistant professor, etc. This person writes the grants that are used to fund the whole enterprise. Like a sea captain, they chart the course and help steer the ship. They work really hard, pick the research questions, teach classes, oversee everything, write papers, and talk about the work at meetings and seminars. Most of the people in the lab (the post-docs and grad students, anyway) aspire to be like the PI – except, perhaps better.

Some labs have lab managers and/or staff scientists. Often these people have Ph.D.s and have been post-docs. For one reason or another, they’re working for someone else rather than running their own lab. Post-docs are people with Ph.D.’s who work on independent research projects and look for a job. Graduate students work on their own projects and work towards completing a degree.

We never had programmers in the labs that I was in, so I’m putting this person in at a tech level based on their placement in my husband’s former lab. The scientific programmers usually worked for either the PI or a post-doc. They would write some scripts, install programs, figure out how to get things running, help build databases, rename files, set up pipelines for data processing, maintain the systems, and schlep data from one system to another.

The technicians work on the PI’s project and carry out the experiments. Sometimes they have their own research projects.

Okay, those are the main players. Now, in these labs there will be people who are using bioinformatics software and databases and there might be some people – in addition to my hypothetical programmer- who might be writing some of their own scripts and setting up their own analysis pipelines.

Will this be a satisfying place to be? Is it a dead-end?

It depends.

Leo Tolstoy wrote: “happy families are all alike, unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.” Academic labs, happy or not, are alot like Tolstoy’s unhappy families. They are all unique.

The dark side of academics

  • If you work in an academic lab and you get bored hearing about biology, you will not enjoy being there. If you like biology, but you don’t know as much as the people around you, they probably won’t respect you unless you make an effort to learn what they’re doing and try to say a few words – even if you’re not a native speaker.
  • Some of the people working at the wet bench will think that the work that you’re doing is easier than that what they do, because it requires less physical exertion.
  • If you are a programmer, and not a post-doc or grad student, there will likely be people in academic labs who will not treat you as an equal, mostly because they don’t respect or understand people who aren’t aspiring to the same grad student -> post doc -> PI -sort of career path.
  • If you’re writing custom software, the programs that you write might never be used outside of your laboratory. If they do become used outside of your lab, it will be up to you to support all of the people who use them – in addition to your normal job.

But there is a bright side

  • If you’re a post -doc, or a grad student, things can be good. You can have the best of all worlds.
  • If you’re truly interested in biology, academic labs can be wonderful learning environments. You can go to seminars and hear about research from all kinds of people. If you’re interested in a subject, study a bit on your own, and ask questions, people are usually quite happy to explain things to you (maybe with more detail than you’d like, and sometimes in a bit of a condescending tone, but that’s a job hazard).
  • You might help people make a contribution to human health, and sometimes the health of the planet. You can be part of building a world-wide knowledge base that might, down the road, improve people’s lives.
  • Universities often subsidize tuition for employees – so you can take classes for free.
  • You can get experience with skills that will help you get a better job somewhere else.

Okay, readers, what do you say?

Read the whole series:

  • Part I. Careers in biotechnology
  • A look at the jobs in biotech company, making biomedical products.

  • Part II: Bioinformatics
  • Where does bioinformatics fit into a biotech company? Who makes bioinformatics tools? Who uses them?

  • Part III: Life in a bioinformatics software company
  • How do people work together to make bioinformatics software?

  • Part IV: The tip of the informatics iceberg
  • What about the software engineering and IT side of bioinformatics software companies?


  1. #1 Dior
    August 6, 2007

    One problem with your pyramid, I have been a lab manager for 15 years in both academic and biotech research entities, and never have I seen a PhD lab manager. To be a lab manager you need a more….common sense approach.

  2. #2 Sandra Porter
    August 6, 2007

    I’ve known quite a few lab managers with Ph.D.s. but I suppose it’s a matter of where you are and which institution you’re at.

    I corrected the image, though, since you’re absolutely right, not all lab managers have Ph.D.s.

  3. #3 Trevor Covert
    August 6, 2007

    I have to say that at this time the commenter is right on in terms of where bioinformatics/statisticians/programmers are regarded in academic labs. The lab where I work is about to hire a fresh PhD grad with a lot of experience in bioinformatics and programming, and his salary will be split between 5-6 different labs that will use his expertise as a tool for their project then toss him on to the next PI. I expect that he’ll get a lot of 3rd to 4th author papers and that’s about it.

    I think the major problem is that a lot of established PIs do not know how to integrate bioinformatics into their traditional view of the lab hierarchy. So computational biologists end up as a nice hammer in the toolbox to help support hypothesis and lend extra support to conclusions made initially from traditional approaches.

  4. #4 Suicyte
    August 6, 2007

    I think this statement on ‘4th author hell’ hits the nail on the head. I had posted something quite similar a while ago on my blog, see http://suicyte.wordpress.com/2007/05/11/collaborations-in-bioinformatics
    I did not directly address the ‘lone bioinformatician in an academic lab’ setting, but what I said about academic collaborations also applies here. I have been in such a situation myself.

    I also have a posting on how to escape from 4th author hell http://suicyte.wordpress.com/2007/06/12/publishing-bioinformatics-papers-in-high-profile-journals but I am not sure if it works. It hasn’t worked for me so far.

  5. #5 Chris
    August 6, 2007

    Here’s a question that relates to 4th author hell:

    Obviously, 4th author papers aren’t going to get you tenure, or even a job, at a Tier I research university. What about at more teaching-oriented schools, specifically Small Liberal-Arts Colleges (SLACs)? They typically don’t require lots of funding or high-profile papers.

    Are those 4th author bioinformatics contributions going to cut the mustard at those schools?

  6. #6 Sandra Porter
    August 6, 2007

    I think it’s important to be realistic here and define your goals.

    Personally, I haven’t really cared much about publications for a long time, not since I quit research to go teach community college. So, I confess, it’s been a long, long time since I cared about publishing. I care much, much more about accomplishing good things and hopefully leaving the world a somewhat better place.

    If you’re acting in a technician role – doing a 9 to 5 job, and just doing the work, you’re not going to be first author on anything. That’s just how the system works.

    There are people who work as technicians, that I know, who do much, much more, but they work overtime quite a bit and they’re pretty obsessed with the science. I know they’ve been first author on papers, and I know it’s taken a long time, too and had a cost in terms of personal time and time off.

    Seriously, if your goal is to get first author papers, and be the lead researcher, it’s best achieved by getting a Ph.D., doing a post-doc, and finding an academic position where you’re heading up a lab. Of course this isn’t easy, but this is how things work.

    This also is going to require coming up with the ideas for the research project and doing much it on your own. If you need help to do the wet lab part, then you need to work that out with a collaborator. If you can find a large enough story, you can negotiate to be first author on one paper and they can be first on another.

    On the other hand, if your goal is to teach somewhere like a SLAC or community college, papers are great, but not nearly as important as experience teaching and mentoring undergraduates. Again, though, you do need a Ph.D. or at the very least, a master’s degree. It’s the minimal requirement for that type of job.

  7. #7 SMC
    August 7, 2007

    I think (as someone escaping a 15+-year “professional-computer-nerd” background to become a “real” microbiologist) a major part of the problem is that to most people, if you’re the “computer guy/gal”, your role very often ends up largely defined as “compu-janitor”.

    Effectively, the “computer person” job is to clean up messes. If you’re lucky, perhaps you get to spend all of your time at least working on what you expected to be working on – cleaning up messy or complicated data to produce useful answers. If you’re unlucky, everyone assumes you’re the person to go to when “My Outlook™ is broken” or “My Internet doesn’t work” or “I can’t make my Powerpoint™ look right”…

    Either way, though, even assuming you are thought of as an important and skilled human being, the job still seems to often end up being thought of as one focussed simply on cleaning up messes.

    I think of it as like being a proctologist. Except without the high pay and prestige of being a medical professional.

    Not that I’ve gotten cynical about it over the last 15+ years or so or anything…

    For the record, the skills and knowledge I’ve picked up are extremely useful and I have no intention of letting them degrade – I just got really tired of being typecast as the compu-janitor.

  8. #8 Georges Grinstein
    August 7, 2007

    The overloaded term bioinformatics here is being interpreted as one who’s derivation (background) is mainly from Biology. A PhD in Computer Science with a Bioinformatics concentration (option, minor, …, or dual major) is different as that individual is likely to develop or evolve tools, many of which would appear in CS journals and so is likely to be a first author.

  9. #9 Sandra Porter
    August 7, 2007

    In computer science, though, it’s the senior person who gets to be first author, not the post-doc or grad student who did the work.

  10. #10 Aviv Sharon
    August 14, 2007

    Excuse my ignorance, but what’s the “wet bench”?

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    August 14, 2007

    A lab bench is a kind of table where we do our work. Since almost all biological procedures – such as isolating bacteria, manipulating DNA, testing antibodies, cloning genes, purifying proteins, etc. – involve transferring liquid from one container to another, these procedures are sometimes affectionately called “wet bench” techniques.

    Computer work, on the other hand, is hydrophobic. Physical water is never involved.

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