A panel discussion about "Career Paths in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology" was part of Friday's Student Council Symposium during ISMB. The four panelists were from academia: Philip E. Bourne (group leader at University of California San Diego), Alfonso Valencia (group leader at the Spanish National Research Council), Jong Bhak (director of the Korean BioInformation Center) and Richard Wintle (Assistant Director at The Centre for Applied Genomics). (Only RW had spent a longer time [6 years] in the industry at start-up companies.)
[All quotes are paraphrases based on the notes I took.]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they couldn't offer real comforting answers to the questions of young researchers: "Isn't there a high chance that at the age of 40 you'll be highly trained and specialized, but without a job?" – "There's no job security in academia anyway; I'm not sure if academia is more competitive than industry" (AV). "After the initial boom in bioinformatics positions, will the fraction of grad students who become PIs approach biology with 5 to 10%?" – "Biology will morph into bioinformatics, so there will be more jobs." (JB)
However, I could take away some positive advice. In short: follow your heart, be passionate about something, don't do what everybody else is doing, start you own sub-field if you have to. From my perspective, this is both reasonable and encouraging. As I enter the last phase of being a PhD student, I begin to wonder how I can combine working in science and caring for my family. I guess I hope by staying motivated and by being effective in what I do I can have a chance to grow in my career and by there for my family. (I think this is a great advantage of computational biology: You can't make gels run faster, so to say, but you can be effective in programming and analyzing data.)
Another good insight was that a lot of basic, technological advances will come from industry in the future. Dr. Bhak cited the example of CPU development: The huge increases in processing power we see today is being implemented at Intel and AMD (although I cannot judge how much they rely on basic research by academia). My addition to this might be that part of bioinformatics will become more of an engineering discipline. So, for people interested in this, there will be a big job market in the future.
Similarly, the panelists expected that every biology lab will have embedded computational biologists in the future. I agree, but I think these will be mostly post-doc (i.e. non-permanent) positions.
Some of the questions and answers in more detail:
What will be the big opportunities in the next five years? The current generation of students will lead the bioinformatics industry, like the previous generation is currently leading in academia (JB). There will be many more embedded bioinformaticians (see above, AV). Hybrid skills (wet-lab and computational biology) will become more important (RW). The greatest opportunities are cross-disciplinary approaches that tackle as much complexity as possible (PB).
To stay motivated, and find out what you want to do: Always follow your heart in career decisions; create your own sub-division if you have to (PB). Don't do something just because it's trendy; what you like to do might change over time (at one point, industry might be appealing, later academia) (RW).
To find your spot in academia: Find influential people (RW). Diversify: try to do something that not everyone else is doing (AV).