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Become a Computational Biologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a computational biologist. Research the educational requirements, and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in computational biology.

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Should I Become a Computational Biologist?

Computational biologists or bioinformatics scientists use computational theoretical principles to understand biological systems. They are experts in computational management, data-algorithm, high-performance computing, statistical processes, and biological processes. Their duties include extensive research and rigorous computer programming, and they must have in-depth knowledge of biochemistry.

The majority of computational biologists, like other types of biological scientists, work full-time, regular schedules. While they are biologists, computational scientists work primarily with the findings of research and spend much of their time with computers in an office or laboratory setting. Those who are exposed to hazardous materials must take precautions to minimize risk of injury or illness.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctoral degree
Degree Field(s) Biomedical sciences, mathematics, computer science or related fields
Experience 3-5 years of experience
Key Skills Bioinformatics, statistical genetics, genomes projects, manipulating large data sets, knowledge of algorithm development, scripting in PERL/Python, Windows/Unix, computer programming, familiar with high volume data sets, next-gen sequencing and mass spectrometry, excellent communication skills, experience in biomedical environment, problem-solving skills, and high-performance computing
Salary (2016) $50,175 per year (Median salary for all biologists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale.com

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Acquiring a bachelor's degree is crucial in the field of computational biology. Professionals usually acquire their degrees in biomedical sciences. Some students major in mathematics, statistics or computer science. The extensive education required in this job will prepare candidates with an in-depth knowledge of computer programming, research and the biochemical aspects of the job.

Success Tip:

  • Prepare for a graduate degree. Undergraduate students should take into consideration that graduate studies are required in the field of computational biology. With this information, students should be diligent in their programming, mathematics and science courses. These courses, along with a high grade point average (GPA), will be the focus of enrollment advisors of graduate schools when admitting students.
  • Take the GRE. The GRE is a usual admission requirement for graduate programs in the field of computational biology. Preparing for the test can be time-consuming and laborious, so proper planning can help students succeed in taking and scoring well in the test .

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a master's degree is pivotal for aspiring computational biologists. This educational phase will immerse students into research and laboratory work, covering topics in statistical methods, genomic tools, algorithms, biochemistry and computational modeling, among others.

Success Tips:

  • Choose a school that emphasizes research. Most jobs require extensive research knowledge. Candidates should look into enrolling in a research-based school so that they can get acclimated through internships and lab work with the research methods in this field.
  • Start thinking about future core studies or specialties. The field of computational biology is a broad scientific and computational field. Computational biologists are usually employees of pharmaceutical companies, universities and government agencies. There are many core studies that future computational biologists can look into. Some can specialize in DNA sequencing, while others can specialize in molecular profiling or human immunology. Talking with professors and academic advisors can help narrow down these options in preparation for graduate studies.
  • Get entry-level jobs or participate in internship programs. There are entry-level jobs for aspiring computational biologists. While in school, students can work as computer scientist interns, research data analysts or clinical research coordinators.

Step 3: Earn a Doctoral Degree

Doctoral students are busy immersing themselves in their school work and their actual jobs. This is the time to get acclimated with seminars and conferences focused on one's specialty. This is also the best time to join communities of scientists and engineers in order to network for future research projects and job opportunities after graduation.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in graduate fellowships. Achieving graduate fellowships are excellent ways to solve problems in one's specialty. They are also helpful in getting recognition for one's knowledge and dedication in the field. There are many graduate fellowships available for scientists and engineers. The Department of Energy Computation Science Graduate Fellowship program offers fellowships, along with stipends, conferences and up-to-date information through publications.

Step 4: Acquire a job

By the time computational biologists finish their doctoral degrees, they have had ample training and experience in the field. They may find positions in academia or get hired within the biotechnological and pharmaceutical industries, both in the private and public sectors, as researchers.

Success Tips:

  • Be well-informed in the industry. Computational biologists deal with the latest technological advances in science and medicine. Therefore, professionals should read journals or specialized magazines in their fields. The PLOS is one source of information where professionals can acquire various computational biology publications and peer-reviewed journals with the latest research or industry discussions.

Step 5: Join a Professional Group

In order to be well-informed about the latest in the field, professionals should consider joining the International Society for Computational Biology. The organization provides access to job openings, conferences, education, publications and other resources for career advancement. Joining professional groups also promotes networking - meeting other scientists and engineers can help generate job opportunities.

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