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How useful is a PhD if my final career goals don't involve leading my own research lab? In a perfect world I would like to end up as a bioinformatics programmer/analyst in a lab or a core facility to help other people with their projects rather than work on my own. (This is what I'm already doing, actually, but I fell into it somewhat by accident, and I'm not sure if I will be able to find similar jobs in the future without a PhD, if I need to leave my current lab. Thus this question.)

Is a PhD going to be a significant advantage for this kind of position, compared to a BS plus equivalent time working in a staff bioinformatics job in academia? Or are PhDs mostly only useful for people who want to end up as professors or managing research projects in industry?

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    In addition to what others have said, one thing to consider is that some staff researchers find themselves frustrated at the lack of career progression opportunities after around 10 years or so. They have often reached the top of their salary scales, and taking orders from younger researchers with PhDs can begin to grate. A PhD would give you flexibility to shift into science management or research of your own if this happens. (But you could always do the PhD later, when and if). – Significance Jun 30 '16 at 0:58
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    @Significance Good point, but yes, I think that's a factor I should consider when/if it actually comes up. – weronika Jun 30 '16 at 5:04
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Looking at your situation, I would say that if you have no intention of teaching and no interest in conducting your own research, a doctorate may not be the best use of your time. It might be better to earn your BS and get some experience under your belt.

That said, a PhD might help open doors in some really cool labs / companies / universities. There may be some jobs that require the terminal degree.

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  • To be clear, I do have a BS and experience. I should edit the main post to mention that, probably. – weronika Jun 30 '16 at 5:00
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If you want to do research as a bioinformatician in an academic lab, getting a PhD is definitely worth the effort. It may be possible to get a staff scientist position or similar without a PhD, but the degree is usually the easiest and the fastest route.

On the other hand, if you want a supporting role (e.g. as a software developer), a PhD is not particularly useful. Most of the time people seem to expect an MSc degree or equivalent experience.

I'm not sure how things work in the industry.

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  • I'm not clear on your distinction. I want to be involved in research, but I don't particularly want my own project: I want to do programming, data analysis and some statistics, on other people's data and generally under the guidance of what these people want out of it. Does that count as research or as a supporting role? – weronika Jun 30 '16 at 4:52
  • @weronika Currently doing a PhD in bioinformatics, it has taught me a lot about "what these people want out of it" . I have worked for a company as analyst before starting my PhD, and they also hire mostly PhDs, because they want people to be able to handle their given projects independently. Research lab leaders (or research company leaders) don't always have the time to micromanage their staff scientists/programmers work. – skymningen Jun 30 '16 at 7:54
  • @weronika Long-term positions tend to require specialization. You either do research (which usually requires a PhD), or you specialize in developing and maintaining the infrastructure. Generalist positions are not good long-term options, because it's too time-consuming to follow the developments in multiple fields. – Jouni Sirén Jun 30 '16 at 10:17
  • @skymningen and Jouni, I see what you mean, thanks! – weronika Jun 30 '16 at 15:08
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It's helpful to be able understand both the problem and the method of solution. A PhD can help immensely in this. Also, some labs may not consider an applicant without a PhD for the kind of work they need done. I often don't consider non-PhDs for my positions, though I don't personally hire in the bioinformatics space either (though one of my colleagues does and most of his hires are PhDs).

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  • Aha, good to know about the hiring preferences, thanks! As for the first part - what exactly do you mean? I've worked in a research lab, generated main figures/data for papers, etc. - I think I have a pretty good feeling for the problems and solutions, I've just never had my own project. So I'm not sure what important skills a PhD will teach me that I'm missing, given that having my own projects in the future is not my goal. – weronika Jun 30 '16 at 4:59
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    @weronika Listen to what Bill says. Most research labs require external funding. Funding comes from proposals that people in the lab write. To write good proposals you need to be one of the top experts in the area. To be a top expert you need a PhD. A job in a research lab is not just doing the grunt work for an existing grant. You should also help in getting new grants. Otherwise, when the project finishes you are out too. – Alexandros Jun 30 '16 at 13:03
  • @weronika, perhaps you could ask those questions of your lab director or former lab director. A PhD will give you more time in the lab, more experience generating your own problems, and more time coming up with your own solutions to them. Also, it will give you time to explore the literature in your field in order to understand what open problems there are in your field to know where to focus your efforts. – Bill Barth Jun 30 '16 at 14:20
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I think it really depends on the research field and the lab you want to work at. And also the specific job you want to handle in the whole research project. Some part of the project may require a PhD and some may not

I'm studying Economics. For the academic job like faculty in the University, you will need PhD with no doubt. For jobs in the industry, it dependents. NGOs like IMF and World Bank, they hired people with PhD degree or Master degree for the research related work.

If you know specifically the work you are going to as your career later. You can search and find out what kind of people they are hiring for those jobs. And you can contact them for more details. Best wishes!

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