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I am applying to a computational biology job. I want to make it clear that I am extremely interested in the practical aspects of my work, wet-biology generally, and collaborating with / supporting bench researchers.

My concern is that "bench researcher" is a colloquial / derogatory / unprofessional term. Should I use it in formal writing or something else?

Additionally, I am not certain if this is the correct term to use in any case. I noticed that there is "clinical research" distinguished from "bench research". I can move this into a separate question if it doesn't resolve naturally from this one.

Update: I am not especially familiar with lab work (my background is computational from outside biology) so I am not precisely sure what kind of roles I am trying to describe. Ultimately, any 'real scientist' who my work could help. I may work on a range of projects including predicting various things about amino acid sequences, for example binding energies of the protein. Really I am looking for a word for "biologist who doesn't just sit at a computer all day".

In case you are worried, the job explicitly does not require biological experience.

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    Could you perhaps be more clear about what you would describe as 'bench researcher' activities? Is this microscopy work, or similar?
    – etgriffiths
    Jan 4, 2022 at 18:55
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    You're extremely interested in practical aspects of your work, but not especially familiar with it? That's fine, I'm just clarifying. Jan 4, 2022 at 20:08

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I don't find it derogatory per se, but also don't think it's necessary to discuss "bench researchers". If anything, I think most people tend to have a bit of in-group bias, such that only a computational person would think "bench researcher" is derogatory, and only a bench person would think "computational researcher" is derogatory. The most plausible way you would offend would be if someone got the impression that you had a negative or patronizing view of bench science or bench scientists (see for example https://xkcd.com/793/ for an example of how this attitude can be expressed).

However, there isn't any neat division between roles in a biological laboratory; saying you want to work with "bench researchers" could imply that you don't realize that people who do wet biology may also have computational skills, and that those skills may be comparable to yours (or, likely, far superior if you haven't had computational experience in their specific domain).

I think it would be sufficient to make clear that you are interested in working alongside bench research (rather than researchers). However, if you are writing a cover letter for a job application, I think you can be a lot more specific to the role you're applying for and express specific interest in the technologies used in that lab; you can read papers published by the members of the lab to get an idea of what they do. That may be more difficult if you haven't had any exposure to research methods in biology, but you're going to be a better candidate if you can learn what you can ahead of time. Otherwise, your application may seem out of place.

The categorization of research depends a lot on your perspective. "Clinical" research, though refers to work done in human subjects for medical purposes, such as trials of drugs or devices; for a clinician/physician, the antonym would be usually be "basic research" referring to studying of the underlying processes or mechanisms; basic research can include both theoretical/computational approaches and wet biology/bench science. Clinical research can also involve primarily computational/statistical approaches, though, especially in fields such as epidemiology and public health.

Because these lines are not drawn neatly, I'd advise against using the terms without feeling comfortable with them. Instead, say what you really mean, plainly and specifically.

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In my experience, the phrase that is used is "bench scientist." It means someone who does experiments themselves. The experiments may or may not be done at a "lab bench" which looks like a counter.

I would not expect the phrase "bench scientist" to be derogatory. The real pitfall would be that implying someone is no longer a bench scientist might be derogatory. Many former bench scientists in academia have managerial roles. They are deans, or they write grants, or they supervise the bench scientists. The traditional belief in academia is that bench scientists are better, or have better jobs, than their supervisors. In reality, both are necessary.

This might be a chemistry-specific tradition. Chemists are much less prone to field work than biologists.

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