I may have said this before (when you get to my age, you begin to forget things), but I’ve been in bioinformatics for around 17 years now, and for that entire time, bioinformatics skills and people have been in high demand.
Today, my friend and colleague Mike Cox asked this question:
A friend is having problems recruiting bioinformaticians, any suggestions for good places to advertise?
— Mike Cox (@MikeyJ) January 21, 2015
So I thought I would write a blog post about how to recruit bioinformaticians. Hint: it’s not necessarily about where you advertise.
1. Make sure they have something interesting to do
This is vital. Do you have a really cool research project? Do you have ideas, testable hypotheses, potential new discoveries? Is bioinformatics key to this process and do you recognise that only by integrating bioinformatics into your group will it be possible to realise your scientific vision, to answer those amazing questions?
Or do you have a bunch of data you don’t know what to do with, and need someone to come along and analyse whatever it is you throw at them?
Which is it? Hmm?
2. Make sure they have a good environment to work in
Bioinformatics is unique, I think, in that you can start the day not knowing how to do something, and by the end of the day, be able to do that thing competently. Most bioinformaticians are collaborative and open and willing to help one another. This is fantastic. So a new bioinformatician will want to know: what other bioinformatics groups are around? Is there a journal club? Is there a monthly regional bioinformatics meeting? Are there peers I can talk to, to gain and give help and support?
Or will I be alone in the basement with the servers?
Speaking of servers, the *other* type of environment bioinformaticians need is access to good compute resources. Does your institution have HPC? Is there a cluster with enough grunt to get most tasks done? Is there a sys/admin who understands Linux?
Or were you hoping to give them the laptop your student just handed back after having used it during their 4 year PhD? The one with WIndows 2000 on it?
3. Give them a career path
Look around. Does your institution value computational biology? Are here computational PIs and group leaders? Do you have professors in computational biology, do computational scientists run any of your research programmes? Could you ever envisage that your director could be a computational biologist?
Or is bioinformatics just another tool, just another skill to acquire on your way to the top?
4. Give them a development path
Bioinformaticians love opportunities to learn, both new technical skills and new scientific skills. They work best when they are embedded fully in the research process, are able to have input into study design, are involved throughout data generation and (of course) the data analysis. They want to be allowed to make the discoveries and write the papers. Is this going to be possible? Could you imagine, in your group, a bioinformatician writing a first author paper?
Or do you see them sitting at the end of the process, responsible merely for turning your data into p-values and graphs, before you and others write the paper?
5. Pay them what they’re worth
This is perhaps the most controversial, but the laws of supply and demand are at play here. Whenever something is in short supply, the cost of that something goes up. Pay it. If you don’t, someone else will.
6. Drop your standards
Especially true in academia. Does the job description/pay grade demand a PhD? You know what? I don’t have a PhD, and I’m doing OK (group leader for 11 years, over 60 publications, several million in grants won). Take a chance. A PhD isn’t everything
7. Promote them
Got funds for an RA? Try and push it up to post-doc level and emphasize the possibility of being involved in research. Got funds for a post-doc? Try and push it up to a fellowship and offer semi-independence and a small research budget. Got money for a fellowship? Try and push it up to group leader level, and co-supervise a PhD student with them.
If none of the above is possible, at least make sure you have access to good beer.
I’m not sure how this post is going to go down, to be honest. I know a lot of lab people who might think “Why should bioinformaticians be treated any differently?”. I understand, I do. I get annoyed at inequalities too. However, the simple fact is that “supply and demand” is in play here. I think it was Chris Fields who said that many people try and recruit bioinformatics unicorns, mythical creatures capable of solving all of their data problems for them. Well, it’s possible that they just might, but if you want to find a unicorn, you’re going to have to do something magical.