The 'Horror' that Awaits You, if You Quit Bioinformatics (or Academia)

The 'Horror' that Awaits You, if You Quit Bioinformatics (or Academia)

We came across a recent blog commentary from one of Mike Eisen’s students, titled - Goodbye Academia.

I have enjoyed research and teaching for the last twelve years. Yet, I have resigned from my postdoctoral position at MIT a week ago, giving up on the dream of an academic position. I feel liberated and happy, and this is a very bad sign for the future of life sciences in the United States.

What awaits him on the other side of the world? Fred of ‘A farewell to Bioinformatics’ fame requested us to share the following email with our readers.



Hello Fred, It’s been almost two years since “A farewell to bioinformatics”. I’m sure there are people who want to know how well it worked out for you. What parts of bioinformatics do you miss? Still involved in? What expectations did or did not work out? Do you feel more value in what you do? Do you like doing what you do? Have you traded one for the other? Overall - do you feel leaving bioinformatics earlier would’ve been wiser, or maybe you lean towards returning? Does contributing to science not tempt you? Those really are a lot of questions. Even though statistically insignificant, they’re important!**


Reply from Fred:


Oh goodness. The rant that just won’t die.

How has it worked out for me? Honestly, marvelously. I don’t miss bioinformatics. I’m not involved in it in any way. But it was never my original field. I was a competent programmer before I got to university, trained in physics and math

there, then spent six years at the bench working on mycobacteria. After grad school came to an unfortunate end, I slipped into bioinformatics more by accident than anything else. The bioinformatics and statistics core facility needed

someone, and it meant my commute changed by about a hundred feet as opposed to moving to another country or continent. But my intellectual tastes in all four areas (programming, physics, math, biology) were fully developed in their own fields before I ever touched bioinformatics, and I brought those tastes with me.

My coworkers now are certainly more competent on average than they were in bioinformatics. There are still screwups in architecture and approach, but they’re usually due to a rush to get something out, and we get them cleaned up. My working conditions are better, and I have about as much freedom to choose what I work on as a I did in academia. The money is certainly much better. What I’m doing is not deeply valuable to mankind, but it does make a fair number of other people’s work much easier, and I don’t require it to be more. I get up in the morning and I’m happy to go to work. And then, after a low stress day and at a reasonable hour, I’m happy to go home to my wife and child.

I have no interest in ever returning to bioinformatics. I would probably have been better served by leaving earlier, but second guessing the trajectory of a life is always rather fraught. After all, bioinformatics brought me to Seattle where I met my wife, and I wouldn’t trade her and my six month old son for anything.

And it’s not as though I’m not doing science anymore. Some of my interest has shifted to history, and I’ve been slowly bringing myself up to speed in that field. I do some statistical consulting within the company I work for, and occasionally on the side. I’ve also been looking back at the fields I’ve worked in and resolving mental dissonance about what the narratives say we did versus what we actually did, and I’ve started writing that up (though with the aforementioned six month old, that’s going pretty slowly). I occasionally pull out my models of failure modes of homeostasis (the current point on the trajectory of my antibiotic research) when I get an idea that might move it forwards. To be honest, if I’m careful about my time allocation, I probably get as much time to spend on my own research as most professors do. I have to work in areas that don’t require much money, but there are many lifetimes of interesting work to be done that don’t require an expensive lab.

So, two years down the road, what would I change in that rant? First, I don’t care enough now to have actually written it. Second, I would have tried to lay out a detailed argument, as I did last year when I set forth the errors in Ruby’s

language design. But detailed arguments are bookmarked with the best of intentions and forgotten unread. I was astonished when a couple people I know recently told me they had read the Ruby paper. But the technical assertions in my bioinformatics rant? They stand.

Written by M. //