bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

How to recruit a good bioinformatician

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:

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.


  1. Points 6 and 7 were key to filling Nottingham ADAC with good people. It took multiple personal visits to Human Resources to convince that a PhD + publications wasn’t the criteria to shortlist on for our analysts. Plus put as much effort into negotiating their starting salary as yours.

  2. The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is not to convince candidates to accept a job but to get enough qualified applicants. My experience is that good bioinformaticians are not actively looking for jobs and therefore one needs to catch their attention in other ways. So far, twitter, word-of-mouth, and conference job boards have been the most productive venues. LinkedIn was useless.

  3. I think there is also the problem that there is no “one bioinformatician fits all” either. Personally, I’m interested in metagenomics and microbial sequencing, and feel I do a pretty decent job of it sometimes. I’d be practically useless to someone studying somatic variations in human cancers (at least for the first month while I got up to speed). I also can’t write a mapper, or an assembler, or hell, anything in C or C++. But often we are all lumped into one job descriptor “bioinformatician”.

    ps, i’m also looking for a job near the end of the year if anyone needs someone with knowledge of both metagenomics and large scale isolate sequencing, from bench to final analysis.

  4. All great points Mick. #5 really isn’t that controversial. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the tired old phrase, “it’s so hard to recruit/retain good bioinformaticians [/programmers/scientists/people/whatever]”. No, it isn’t really, but you have to be willing to pay for them.

  5. Like many others, I came from industry into academia. I had no PhD, and no publications. The salary I was offered was also too low. Luckily, the institute in question had the foresight to ignore the lack of academic credentials, and the ability to go outside of their pay scales.

  6. I think this is partially true. I’m not sure how you can separate “didn’t see the advert” from “saw the advert and didn’t apply”. The post above could really be used to write the “perfect” advert. Getting that advert in front of people is another question.

  7. I totally agree with you. There are different skills within bioinformatics, and having one does not mean you have the other!

  8. There is a real problem though, especially with externally funded projects. I’ve had a funder *insist* that they will only fund the lowest pay point on the pay scale. So you go out and you find someone and they might say “I want a higher salary”. So you ask HR “Can we pay them more?” and they say “You can, but the money has to come out of the grant i.e. the consumables budget”. It’s tough. We do need to pay more for skills that are rare. Perhaps funders need to recognise this too.

  9. On pay scales: it’s notable how there is a higher pay track for clinicians in most institutions. Given this precedent, maybe it’s time for a developer pay scale.

  10. This is a terrific post and I can really relate to it having been pretty miserable for several years working in a job that didn’t have any of these things, and then finally moving and working for the last two years to a job that does have most of these things and really enjoying life and loving bioinformatics and science again.

    Having peer support is particularly crucial, it’s so much easier to make progress if you have people you can talk to and get advice from. The internet is great, but still no substitute for a person. I currently support a single group, so I can really get involved with and understand the biology, but I sit with bioinformaticians so I have access to peer support and this I think is the ideal model. Working as a ‘core’ bioinformatician you get the peer support, but not necessarily the deep links with the biology, whilst working as a ‘lonely bioinformatician’ is certainly no fun either.

    And the PhD thing is right too, as a bioinformatician you need skills in stats/maths, biology and computer science, and a PhD isn’t necessarily the only (or even best) place to get these from. Working in industry I had the time and opportunity to go on courses, learn new skills, and apply them, without worrying about all those first author papers I needed to produce.

  11. Interesting article – thanks! So how does someone with a PhD in Bioinorganic Chemistry make the switch to being a bioinformatician? Would you recommend stepping sideways and doing an MSc Bioinformatics, or would such a switch in careers be impossible without some industrial experience? I’m currently using MOOCs and other online resources to learn programming languages and generally adding to my computing knowledge. Any advice would be appreciated – thanks.

  12. Hi Allison, i definitely recommend an MSc, we have a good one in Edinburgh. Your skills in biochemistry would be most welcome too!

  13. Thanks Mick, that’s good to know. Looking at the website there doesn’t appear to be a part-time option. Any idea if this is something that Edinburgh will be offering in the future?

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