Many schools offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs that train students who want to work as bioinformatics scientists. Depending on the level of the program, aspiring database programmers, computer scientists or biochemists may be expected to complete independent research projects or dissertations and internships. A number of programs may feature online components and, in the interest of flexible scheduling, some may offer full-time or part-time study options.
In terms of prerequisites, bachelor's degree programs require a high school diploma and a strong background in science, computers, and math; master's degree programs require students to have a bachelor's degree in a related subject or to take related class work; and doctoral programs typically require either a master's degree or a bachelor's degree with subsequent classwork in relevant topics.
Bachelor's Degree in Bioinformatics
Bioinformatics research may ultimately lead to new discoveries in biology, medicine and preventative health therapies. In addition to general education requirements, a 4-year bachelor's degree program includes focused training in math and physics. Bioinformatics is often offered as a specialization in a computer science or bioengineering program.
A bioinformatics degree program is interdisciplinary, with coursework drawn from several disciplines, including computer science, math and life sciences. Internships and research projects may be included. Course topics may be:
- Genomics, biology and bioinformatics
- Computer programming for biologists
- Database design in bioinformatics
- Biotechnology basics
- Drug discovery and development
Master of Science in Bioinformatics
Master's degree programs in bioinformatics offer advanced training in the disciplines of computer science, biology and genetics. Programs are typically designed for working adults, so online classes may be offered as part of the program, along with flexible class scheduling. Master's degree programs continue to enhance the student's knowledge in computer science, math and life sciences such as biology and chemistry. Often, the curriculum can be adjusted to emphasize a student's strengths. A master's degree program also prepares graduates for further study in a Ph.D. program. Because this is an advanced program, applicants are expected to have undergraduate background in informatics and biology, such as molecular biology, genetics and evolution. Those holding a bachelor's degree in another subject will be required to take courses in these prerequisites before starting the program.
Master's degree coursework offers further study in computer science, biology and math or engineering. An independent research project will likely be included. Course topics may include:
- Mathematical modeling in biology
- Advanced data analysis in molecular biology
- Physical methods in molecular biology
- Interactions and relationships in biotechnology
- Software for parallel computing
Ph.D. in Bioinformatics
A Ph.D. program in bioinformatics is designed for the advanced scientist or researcher who wants to go into teaching. Doctoral programs focus heavily on research; typical projects use computers, statistics and new biotechnology principles to study fungal, plant and animal genomics, as well as genomics and pharmacological informatics, among other areas of study. Students are exposed to new advances used in computer databases and modeling to study the genetic mechanisms of life. They also learn to apply that knowledge to current issues. Part-time, as well as full-time study, is available to accommodate working professionals. Dissertation coursework is usually required. Undergraduates who have not taken a fundamental course in biochemistry may be required to do so. Applicants without an undergraduate background in math and life sciences may have to also take prerequisite courses. Those with a master's degree in a related area may be able to complete a Ph.D. program in less than the usual time.
Doctoral programs focus on bioscience and bioinformatics courses, in addition to electives, independent research and a dissertation project. Some course topics may include:
- Computer programming applications for bioinformatics
- Science of forensic DNA applications
- Database use and development in bioinformatics
- Ethical considerations in research
- Tools and techniques to study genomes
Popular Career Options
Earning a bachelor's degree in bioinformatics prepares an individual to perform research. But it can also form a strong foundation for careers requiring further education and training. Some of those careers include:
- Computer scientist
- Medical doctor
- Biotechnology lawyer
- Biological scientist
- Medical research scientist
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not keep statistics specifically on bioinformatics scientists, but medical scientists share some of the characteristics of bioinformatics scientists. The BLS predicted 8% employment growth for medical scientists from 2018 to 2028, which is as fast as the average for all occupations (www.bls.gov). The median salary for medical scientists was $84,810 as of May 2018.
Bioinformatics scientists have some job characteristics in common with database programmers; computer programmers in general could expect to see an 7% decline in job opportunities from 2018-2028, and database administrators could expect 9% (faster than average) job growth. As of May 2018, programmers made a median annual salary of $84,280, while administrators made a median of $90,070 per year.
Completing a Ph.D. program in bioinformatics can prepare an individual for a career as a biophysicist, biochemist or other type of biological scientist. The BLS predicted 6% job growth in this area from 2018-2028. The median salary for biophysicists and biochemists was $93,280 in May 2018.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization and Biotechnology Institute are two professional organizations offering conferences, scholarly articles and other options for continuing education. The Biotechnology Institute also provides information about educational programs in biotechnology and bioinformatics.
Those with a bachelor's degree who do not wish to pursue a master's degree can pursue a graduate certificate in bioinformatics. This certificate program may be ideal for someone with a biology or chemistry background. Completing a certificate program can also prepare the graduate for further study by satisfying prerequisite coursework for a Ph.D. program.
Studies in bioinformatics can be found at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral levels. Graduates of these programs often go on to popular career choices, such as a computer scientist or medical doctor.