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Ask Slashdot: Scientific Research Positions For Programmers?

Soulskill posted about a year ago | from the head-data-wrangler dept.

Programming 237

An anonymous reader writes "I recently (within the past couple years) graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in Computer Science and currently work as a programmer for a large software consulting firm. However, I've become gradually disillusioned with the financial-obsession of the business world and would like to work for the overall betterment of humanity instead. With that in mind, I'm looking to shift my career more toward the scientific research side of things. My interest in computer science always stemmed more from a desire to use it toward a fascinating end — such as modeling or analyzing scientific data — than from a love of business or programming itself. My background is mostly Java, with some experience in C++ and a little C. I have worked extensively with software analyzing big data for clients. My sole research experience comes from developing data analysis software for a geologic research project for a group of grad students; I was a volunteer but have co-authorship on their paper, which is pending publication. Is it realistic to be looking for a position as a programmer at a research institution with my current skills and experiences? Do such jobs even exist for non-graduate students? I'm willing to go to grad school (probably for geology) if necessary. Grad school aside, what specific technologies should I learn in order to gain an edge? Although if I went back to school I'd focus on geology, I'm otherwise open to working as a programmer for any researchers in the natural sciences who will take me."

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Sheldon Cooper says... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306399)

... geology isn't a real science!!

Re:Sheldon Cooper says... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306437)


God! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306407)

I hate my life! I hate people! I hate the world! I hate it all!

Therefore, I am now going to dip my nutsack into your anus.

Re:God! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306419)

This made me laugh out loud.

Your hatred is a force for good. As is your nutsack.

Keep fighting the good fight with your nutsack.

yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (4, Informative)

Trepidity (597) | about a year ago | (#44306409)

The term is usually "research programmer" or something similar. However they're often time-limited positions rather than indefinite. A common arrangement is that a university gets a big grant, and needs to bring in some extra programmers to help out on the project for the ~3 years of a typical grant. The best-funded labs do keep some programming staff on semi-permanent payroll, though, because they always get a new round of grants before the previous ones run out.

I'd just start looking at job listings in the area you care about and see what skills or experience they ask for. Familiarity with data-analysis tools is often a plus, e.g. be conversant in R, be able to make some nice visualizations of data, etc. But that's only one area; there are plenty of others.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306451)

There's also Python and Matlab. Familiarity with Bayesian analysis might be a plus too.

A quick google will find loads of primers on bayesian analysis, e.g.,

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306455)

Wasnt Freesurfer hiring recently?

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306461)

Yes, consider grad school, or moderate sized consulting companies.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (5, Insightful)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306505)

One thing that should be clarified here: with these sort of programming roles there is no direct access to academia. In this way it's not like finance where, for instance, people can go from back office to front office if they show enough promise and interest: one does not simply go from research programmer to reseacher.

From the sounds of it, OP would be best served by going into academia via a graduate program.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (4, Interesting)

tylikcat (1578365) | about a year ago | (#44306725)

How exactly do you mean direct access to academia?

You won't be able to bypass the traditional academic route, but from some of these positions you will be able to publish, and you might be involved in the interesting parts of planning. At the very least, this all will be very helpful if you do at some point want to enter a graduate program. (Or, conversely, it might be very helpful in giving you enough familiarity with the territory that you know you really don't want to enter a graduate program, ever.)

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (1)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306847)

By no direct access I meant that there is no path to reaching the upper or even middle echelons of academia - as a reasearch programmer he would always remain in a supporting role. Which is fine if that's what he wants. But it doesn't sound like that's what he wants.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (1)

DoctorBonzo (2646833) | about a year ago | (#44307037)

And what, pray tell, are the "upper or even middle echelons of academia"? Tenured positions and assistant professorships?

Smells like "job security".

I believe that personal satisfaction comes from following one's interests. Unless you're very, very lucky, that won't make you rich, but it can at least make you feel superior.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (1)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about a year ago | (#44307305)

And what, pray tell, are the "upper or even middle echelons of academia"? Tenured positions and assistant professorships?


I believe that personal satisfaction comes from following one's interests.

As a staff programmer, you don't "follow your interests". Instead, you do what the actual researchers tell you to do.

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (3, Informative)

ggraham412 (1492023) | about a year ago | (#44307413)

By no direct access I meant that there is no path to reaching the upper or even middle echelons of academia - as a reasearch programmer he would always remain in a supporting role. Which is fine if that's what he wants. But it doesn't sound like that's what he wants.

I actually moved in the opposite direction from a pure research position in the hard sciences to a programming position in support of research. At the time, I received similar advice from a senior researcher. It was a little more strident though, something like: "What are you nuts? You won't ever be able to propose research again and no one will ever take you seriously."

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (2)

LourensV (856614) | about a year ago | (#44306519)

Another option you may want to look into is working at a supercomputer centre. These are usually (semi-)independent organisations that maintain supercomputers and fast networks, and help scientists use them. Jobs there include technical sysadmin type work maintaining compute clusters, storage arrays, and networking equipment, programming with an emphasis on parallellisation, optimisation and visualisation, as well as more consulting-type work where you advise researchers on how to best use the available facilities to achieve their goals, and gather requirements for the programmers. As a random US example, there's one in Chicago [] .

As for technical skills, if you're in the geosciences then you'll definitely want to brush up on your knowledge of Geographical Information Systems. ESRI ArcGIS is the big commercial vendor there, but there's also a lot of FOSS GIS software available [] . Also, some knowledge on geostatistics will help you communicate; some tutorials can be found here [] .

Re:yes, there are a reasonable number of positions (2)

That_Dan_Guy (589967) | about a year ago | (#44306865)

Try SAS ( My wife programs that for Kaiser. So it's all medical research. But there are plenty of non-academic jobs in medical science.

Outside of that... hmmm, Engineering? Not really science so much as applying science to solve problems.

Geology will end you up with a big oil company searching for more oil, or other natural resources.

Dichotomy (5, Insightful)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306431)

I think a solution a lot of people find is to split their day: they pay their bills with a job they can (just about) tolerate, and then use their free time to focus on their passion, perhaps in a small community (cf. FOSS development).

Also, academia is no paradise either: it's not so much about focusing on what you are interested in, but rather focusing on where there is funding, and where you can find your own niche. It's surprising and depressing how many niches are already filled: it's like trying to find an empty shell on the ocean floor.

Re:Dichotomy (1)

Thanshin (1188877) | about a year ago | (#44306503)

The job I can tolerate to pay the bills takes most of my day and leaves me mentally too tired to focus on anything related to it.

I would cut my salary in half to work half hours if I could. However, even smaller differences, like cutting 1/8th for one more free hour, as recent parents do, would cut my progression in the corporation by turning me into "those people who aren't compromised with the enterprise".

Dichotomy is already a compromise, and having to sacrifice one's career for it is too expensive.

I prefer the option of amassing money until I can sell everything and go live in some beach in Thailand for the rest of my life.

Re:Dichotomy (1)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306539)

Well I didn't say it would be easy. Some jobs are more accomodating than others. And some people can manage it, and some cannot.Sadly I find myself more and more in the latter group as I've gotten older and taken on more responsibilities. But this guy seems young, and full of vim and vigor. Me, I'm living in a van down by the river.

Re:Dichotomy (4, Funny)

tylikcat (1578365) | about a year ago | (#44306729)

Whereas I am old and mostly full of vi.

Re:Dichotomy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307045)

I always inform my organization that I will be more productive on week 2 and beyond with 40 hour work weeks and a work-life balance than ever working 50+ hour work weeks. The burnout is staggering, and by week 2 the 50+ hour work week person is slowing down and taking more internet breaks, whatever than the other people because they feel that it is due to them.

There are numerous studies and websites on this phenomenon. For the "link or STFU" nazis, please see the unlinked website below. ^_^

Ability also plays a key role in output. If you are capable to do your job, you should be able to perform agreed upon tasks in 40 hours. If you don't agree it can be done, stand up for yourself. Say no. If they insist, deliver late. It is not your fault that your employer puts unreasonable expectations, and once you are late once or twice, but still deliver when you say that you can, they will start to respect you more and believe in your time estimates over their own. Remember, the reason that you are working there is because the boss does not have the time, or expertise to do your job.

Re:Dichotomy (1)

singingjim1 (1070652) | about a year ago | (#44307177)

I'm working towards selling everything and getting an RV as my only residence to travel and ride my bikes (mtb and road) all over the country until it or I die. :)

Re:Dichotomy (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about a year ago | (#44306575)

well I think the question was "how can I get paid for betterment of society"...

anyhow, if he wants to work in academia then going to academia is kind of a must. if he has means to make a living then just donating time could be better.

Don't know how is it in the USA, but ... (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306439)

I can talk from my experience in Europe. Although you may have the experience and knowledge to do the research successfully; going to grad school will open many doors. You will have access to information about ongoing projects, publications, etc ... And by the way you will fill some possible weak points in your knowledge about the subject.
About technologies; you must be flexible; just know how to program, not on a specific language. Anyway, I recommend you to get to know (and learn to love) Matlab.

My experience (1)

FilatovEV (1520307) | about a year ago | (#44306441)

Very often scientific research implies the need to do some programming. But in most cases, science comes first, and programming is a secondary (although often a crucial) skill. If you like to do science, go for a grad school in science (look for what science would you like to contribute to), and your programming skills will be in demand -- sometimes!

Re:My experience (1)

beaker_72 (1845996) | about a year ago | (#44306493)

This is very true. I'm working in academia just now, I wanted to do something similar to the OP but found the only route open to me was to study for a PhD which I'm now doing. If you really want to go down that route you'll probably have to do something similar. Not sure where the OP is based but this website might help if in the UK, I'm sure there are similar things around the world: []

Re:My experience (1)

tylikcat (1578365) | about a year ago | (#44306755)

I decided to go for the PhD myself, but that was in large part because I didn't want to only do programming. (Having a background in programming, finding positions was not difficult, however.)

There are also a number of variants, including getting a staff position and then taking a couple of classes on the side (many universities offer a certain number of credits as a perq of employment.

Open-Source, Scientific Computing jobs (1)

seekthirst (1457205) | about a year ago | (#44306447)

I suggest gaining more experience by joining or creating a friendly open-source community (focused on scientific computing, e.g.,,,, and learning the ropes. Or as you say joining a research organization in the capacity as a junior programmer, or graduate student. Software skills are important but what might be more important is technologies, since programming languages come and go quickly. For example, understand how to basic 3D graphics works, and then study implementations on GPUs. Or learn algorithms for high-performance computing and then study tools like MPI or Boost to understand implementations.

Computational Research is a thing now, yes. (2)

Shag (3737) | about a year ago | (#44306483)

You might be happy somewhere like []

Re:Computational Research is a thing now, yes. (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about a year ago | (#44306535)

Unusual supernova is actually perfectly normal

Best headline ever.

Grass is always greener, I guess (1)

barlevg (2111272) | about a year ago | (#44306491)

I just completed a job search looking for basically the same kind of jobs as you as someone with a Ph.D (in physics, so slightly different, but still), and it seemed like there was a *lot* more out there for someone with only a BA/BS or masters and a few years of job experience than for someone straight out of grad school. The issue might be where you're looking for jobs. The DC area has tons of research positions, most supporting the federal government in some way (more than just defense contractors, and defense contractors do more than just design weapons). The federal government (especially the intelligence agencies) also advertise openings for people with your background and interest.

Re:Grass is always greener, I guess (1)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306513)

The federal government (especially the intelligence agencies) also advertise openings for people with your background and interest.

Because data doesn't mine itself.

Re:Grass is always greener, I guess (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306525)

How is this not flamebait?

(captcha: hydrant)

Re:Grass is always greener, I guess (1)

biodata (1981610) | about a year ago | (#44306553)

In soviet USA data mines you

Re: Grass is always greener, I guess (3, Informative)

barlevg (2111272) | about a year ago | (#44306567)

To be blunt, yes, that seems to be a large component right now. But data mining does not necessarily mean spying. Of great interest to a lot of agencies is mining publicly available information streams (news articles, tweets) for trends and patterns.

Startup (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306495)

Go work in a startup instead. A successful startup will affect the humanity faster than most successful researches.

Another way to look at it (1)

Miss.Silvias.Ex (2734315) | about a year ago | (#44306497)

Well, You also could work for an investment bank, get the big pay checks and continue working out your plan while doing it :-P

Seriously, have ever thought about going for an academic career? What I have seen is there are many people in organisations who are stuck in their jobs. This is mainly because their monthly fixed costs are high and they don't have a clear plan what they want to do with their life and how to finance it. Until you've figured it out I would suggest sticking with your current situation - or go for a job in an investment bank ;-).

Business is a vital institution in human society (0, Flamebait)

Karmashock (2415832) | about a year ago | (#44306517)

You might not like business or its obsessions but it is a vital institution.

Without it, who would pay for the universities or the scientists? Business pays for it all one way or another.

It puts the food on your table.

The heat in your home.

The electricity in the wires.

The clothes on your back.

The fuel in your car.


Its about as vital to human society as your digestive tract is to your body.

Is the excrement that comes out the far end the most glamorous or sweet smelling thing ever? No. But it is vital.

And that obsession is merely the hunger pangs of the stomach. Does it ever stop? No. It is an ongoing need.

Why does the scientific community not care as much for such things? Because to a great extent they're shielded from it. That said, they aren't totally shielded from it. Most of them have to pitch grant proposals. The old "publish or perish" imperatives of their trade.

Best of luck gaining entry to the Ivory tower, friend. But know it was built by everyone else on our dime. And whatever glories or accomplishments achieved by academia... they did not happen without sacrifice from the rest of society.

Re:Business is a vital institution in human societ (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306927)

Actually, people do all those things. Business is just a means of extracting the surplus value created by them and transferring to only a few.

R language (R is too short for a Slashdot Subject) (4, Insightful)

biodata (1981610) | about a year ago | (#44306527)

If you want to get into scientific research programming with big data, you are probably going to have to engage with statistical programming. R is probably the lang of choice at least in the biological arena, due to FOSS and all the prebuilt packages. People also I've seen using Matlab quite a bit, but I think you wouldn't go wrong with R. You might also want to get engaged in something like Kaggle or the DREAM challenges, build yourself a bit of a profile on those arenas, and eventually try to team up with some guys on one of the challenges there, as a way of making contact with people in the big data research area. Any graduate training (postgrad as it would be called in Europe), would only help - there are many positions that just won't be available to you until you have had a 'research training' which means Masters as a minimum or preferably a PhD eventually.

Re:R language (R is too short for a Slashdot Subje (2)

antifoidulus (807088) | about a year ago | (#44306583)

Depends on what level you are working at I guess. If you want to directly write the code that does science, then yeah analysis languages like R are quite useful. However, you can still support science and be involved in scientific programming without writing a line of code that applies only to science.
My advisor in grad school's biggest contribution to scientific computing was designing and implementing(with some outside help) a distributed, POSIX-compatible file system specifically optimized for the sorts of access patterns that are common in science. It's written entirely in C and you don't need to know a single principle about nuclear fission to help out. To the OP, if you have a solid background in science, then maybe going to grad school for a science may be useful, but if not catching up is going to be a bitch....I would recommend going to grad school for CS in a field such as distributed file systems/computing, parallel computing, gpgpu etc that can be used by science, but for which you don't have a to have a background in science in order to make a meaningful contribution.

Re:R language (R is too short for a Slashdot Subje (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307031)

I work for a botanic garden (we have very large, focussed collections, and over 150 research scientists). I started without any knowledge of the subject beyond what's covered in science at school, but that's no problem -- the scientists do the science, I write software to manage the data, learning what I need. The software used to be what I imagine are pretty standard bespoke database applications, like any business probably has, but in the last few years (since I started) has been much more about sharing the data (we're interested in semantic web, linked data, ontologies etc), and writing software to improve the way the research is done, replacing the older systems. It's still closer to standard database/web work than something specialised (e.g. physics simulations, bioinformatics, etc); though some of the research teams have software like this I'm not sure if anyone is employed specifically to write/use it.

A couple of positions are working their way through the system (we are part-funded by the government), and should be advertised at some point in the summer.

There are also two positions for web developers (not much science in these, this is for the public/visitor side), and two science-database placements for students at a British university doing a year in industry (part support, part development, depending). []

How nice for you! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306541)

However, I've become gradually disillusioned with the financial-obsession of the business world and would like to work for the overall betterment of humanity instead

Well la-de-fuckin' da. How nice for you that you are above all this needing to work to feed yourself and take care of your family (how contemptable!) you're in it to save the world!

I tell you what... here's a way you can work for the "betterment of humanity". Get good at sucking dick, because if you are not already, from the prancing, lisping way you write, you are well on your way.

Re:How nice for you! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306893)

Jealous much?

Re:How nice for you! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307209)

I shoulda learned to program computers. That ain't workin', it's money for nothin' and chicks for free!

Re:How nice for you! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307471)

Them guys ain't dumb!

Join the NSA today! (4, Funny)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about a year ago | (#44306549)

The NSA do all kinds of interesting mathematics. Betterment of humanity though? Eh...

Wot? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306561)

Pro-gramming is science now?

Try again in ten years time. (4, Informative)

Bazman (4849) | about a year ago | (#44306569)

I reckon academia is heading towards hiring more programmers. We often have research grants where one of the employed researchers could be a statsy person with publications in the learned journals, or a computery person with lots of stuff shared in github and contributions to open-source projects and so on. The prof as PI on the grant is impressed by the former, I'm (as CI) impressed by the latter. Currently we tend to favour the statsy people, and they are often very poor programmers with little knowledge of version control, testing, Makefiles, awk, all that nerdy stuff that could make their life simpler. So I teach them...

I can only really talk confidently about statistics here (sample size = 1) but I know a bit about other places. University College London has a Research Software Development Team, for example: and the whole development of programming skills for researchers is being pushed by the SSI ( of which I am a fellow.

You might also want to look at Software Carpentry, a programme for training researchers in programming skills - there may be opportunities there.

So currently there's a few opportunities, but its getting better. A final thought though - you want to leave "the financial-obsession of the business world and would like to work for the overall betterment of humanity instead". Hahahaahha rofl. Academia is just as financially-obsessed as any trading house. I'm spending today doing paperwork for expenses claims, travel, grant proposals... Its all about the money... Oh do I sound disillusioned? Okay, I have probably stopped some people catching malaria, but not today...

Re:Try again in ten years time. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306845)

That's the UK approach, and something to be admired for some things. In the US, and some parts of continental Europe a lot of the programming comes from people in the academic track, somewhere between PhD student (when they start to know enough to be useful) and entry-level professor (when they start to be too busy to keep up with the coding). Many countries don't really have a stable researcher position, though. In the US, for example, research professor at a university (the non-teaching, just doing research position) is not tenure-track, so your income is based on getting new research grants. Government labs or consulting companies are "better" in that case (but have their own headaches, of course).

Re:Try again in ten years time. (1)

Trepidity (597) | about a year ago | (#44307021)

My impression is that it's been going the opposite direction in the U.S., but could change again. It used to be quite common for CS research groups to have substantial programming staff. That's what Richard Stallman's job was in the MIT AI Lab, for example, and he was one of a number of hackers from non-academic backgrounds on the AI-Lab staff (Richard Greenblatt and Russell Noftsker were two of the others). But in those days there was generous and fairly unrestricted funding, so folks like Marvin Minsky had a ton of money lying around to keep programmers on their lab's payroll. These days grants are typically tied to 3-year projects and more regulated.

As a Geologist... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306587)

The big and fun geoprocessing tasks where you get to really dig into the data in my field are related to geophysics or geochemistry. Both of which are probably grad school level specialisation stuff before people start to take you seriously. It's not that you're unable to do it, but you'll have a hard time convincing someone to give you a chance based on an undergraduate degree in geology. There are quite a few small companies trying to break the hold the larger ones have on software and as a user, I love being able to afford the software to do my job.
If you want to dip your toes into the geo whatever software world then look around at companies (some may even do open source) that are actively developing petrophysics / geophysics / modelling software. They're probably really interested in someone motivated enough to want to do interesting work and it's in the field you're interested in.

join my lab group! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306597)

I've been looking for someone with your skill set you two years plus. Generally I only get programmers with tons of experience that I cannot afford to hire or flakey, drop out types who I end up firing after two months because they don't care / don't show. My group is a computational biology group, so if you are interested in that field there should be plenty of positions.

Universities or @home projects (2)

hazeii (5702) | about a year ago | (#44306605)

How about looking at universities, and specifically fields where there is a lot of good to be done but aren't 'natural' homes for programmers? e.g. Life Sciences, agriculture, biology etc.

Separately, there are all the @home projects, which can always use programmers (and do occasionally recruit from amongst their contributors).

Re:Universities or @home projects (2)

jellie (949898) | about a year ago | (#44306701)

I agree. I would start out looking at university job postings first. My own field is genomics and bioinformatics, and there really is a huge need for programmers and data analysts. Actually, my first research assistant position was as a programmer in a lab in which I did MATLAB programming. MPI and GPGP programming is very useful too.

As someone else mentioned, you can also work for the large national labs or supercomputing centers as well. A lot of the supercomputers are publicly owned, and there's a fairly large staff of people who maintain the systems or develop for them.

A lot of/most(?) research is financially-driven (1)

Stolpskott (2422670) | about a year ago | (#44306613)

First comment from me, is that this is a laudable goal, and OP has my respect for wanting to help the world.
Second comment is that, from my limited (Electronics, Integrated Circuit Engineering, Machine Vision/AI) experience in academia, most of the research there is commercially driven, either because a large corp has come along with a wad of money and asked the institution to research something specific, or because the institution has an eye toward commercially applicable research, via patents on something or through a commercial enterprise linked to the research institution.

I definitely think there are options for OP to get into "pure" research, and the way I would go about it is to get into one of the Graduate Research programs (Masters/Ph.D) at an institution that is doing something interesting and where faculty staff make positive noises about retaining post-grads as research fellows, and then make it clear that I am interested in staying on as a research fellow after finishing the program. It might work, or it might not. Also, research fellowships are typically not a long-term option in my experience, being 2-3 years or until the money runs out, whichever is shorter.

Then, you get companies like Google (with their 75/20/5% time split for working on core, off-the-wall, and personal stuff) or Intel (who do a lot of research, but again, commercially-driven).
The days of Bell Labs and their almost pure "research for the fun of it" are pretty much gone... you can find a bit of that spirit in a lot of places, but it is typically one of the first things to be cut when the company and economy are doing well, and one of the last things to be started/supported when things are picking up. So now is probably not the best time to be looking for this kind of opportunity :)

Re:A lot of/most(?) research is financially-driven (1)

tylikcat (1578365) | about a year ago | (#44306775)

This varies an awful lot by field. In my research career so far I've been supported mostly by NIH and some NSF grants, with computer time and hardware supplied at time by the DOE and Microsoft.* The more pure research grants are more competitive... but the coporate stuff is a lot skeevier, especially wrt ownership of intellectual property.

* Kind of a funny situation. I had just left MS, was and thrilled to kick that windows dust off my boots... and then they were funding my research right out of the gate. Which just meant it was a couple more years before I kicked that windows dust off my boots. Despite this, I had a lot of fun.

No such thing (2, Insightful)

pla (258480) | about a year ago | (#44306631)

Welcome to the club. Now get back in line. :p

Seriously though, I think, with the exception of the "Alex P. Keatons" among us, virtually all programmers would rather work doing some sort of pure research for the betterment of humanity, than helping some sycophantic management team please the board/stockholders for yet another quarter.

Reality of the situation, though, you (and I, and all of us) have chosen the very same thing you claim has disillusioned you. You have chosen to want a paycheck. Make no mistake, for every one software engineering job position you see posted, you can find a hundred good causes that need volunteer coders. Except, good luck getting a steady paycheck if you go that route - Short of actually becoming a professor, you very much need to treat it as an act of charity.

Which leaves you to ask yourself: Can you really afford to live without a paycheck? If you can't answer "yes" without hesitation, hey, they don't call it "work" because we go there to have eight hours of fun every day.

As a compromise solution many of us have taken, do your good deeds on the side. Get that paycheck, and put 10-20 hours a week into a FOSS project, or helping the local foodbank set up a useable LAN from their pile of 15 year old mostly-DOA donated junk, or if you still have a few "in"s at your university, ask a few of your favorite non-CS professors if they have any projects that could use your skills (almost all of them do). But make a living first and foremost.

Re:No such thing (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306957)

This guy who posted is a joke, bothered by financial obsession? Come on, get real, all you slash dot holier than thou jerks. When all of you high priced engineers, especially you greedy software ones, work for free then you can lecture the rest of us of the evils of money. The age of un-reason is here.

Re:No such thing (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307333)

I need to correct the parent on one thing:

" You have chosen to want a paycheck"

That should read, "a large paycheck". There are certainly plenty of labs that have money available for coding, but you'll be earning about 25-35K in most cases. As someone who was on the opposite side of this conundrum (I was trying to hire a programmer), I was frustrated to find that noone with significant coding skills was willing to work for that amount of money.

If you want to do something interesting with your coding skills and earn a wage, you can, but be prepared to take a huge pay cut, like the rest of us have.

FOSS, fascinating or humanity, most jobs bettermen (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306637)

Most jobs are for the betterment of society, or at least the customer, if you choose to focus on that. Anything in the food industry is ultimately about feeding people, for example. So if it's being of service that's important, you can bring that attitude to most jobs. You can also be of service to your coworkers. If you make it your goal each day to help your coworkers have a better week by serving their computer needs, you're making that part of the world a better place.

Most of the time being of service isn't "fascinating" though.
Few jobs are fascinating after you've done them for a few years.
Fascination is largely the realm of the amateur.

I have a "boring" government job, but we use free software.
As a programmer, I spend half my day contributing to the OSS software, so that's a service to society. Any organization using FOSS might offer that.

Academia (0)

jbolden (176878) | about a year ago | (#44306643)

If you are young and you want to be in academia, you want a PhD. There are any number of research assistant roles with loser criteria but you will forever be near the bottom of the hierarchy. If you want to find something and you know people, sure they might bring you on but they will never be able to guarantee you anything steady. Do a big data geology thesis and the people who are interested in your research will become known to you. You will have an advisor who can help place you ....

Not geology; geophysics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306645)

Look for jobs in geophysics not in geology. Geophysics, in particular seismology related geophysics, is more numerate than geology and utilises software (and hardware!) for pretty much every task. Good geophysical software makes the difference between a successful exploration/production/consultancy/software company and a failure. Most companies will hire good computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, etc as programmers, data processors, etc without any geological background, though of course it helps. Some service companies you could look into are CGGVeritas, Fugro, ION, DUG, as well as the major and minor exploration and production companies.

From my experience (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306651)

I work at a large research organization. I'll tell you how it is here, it will be similar at other places:

* We have research staff and non research staff (lawyers, personal assistants, software engineers, ...)
* All research staff must have a PhD in the field of their research position. I.e. if you want to do research, do a PhD first.
* Software engineers don't need a PhD, but we require a bachelors in IT or equivalent experience.
* Software engineers assist in research, but do not lead it. I.e. you don't get to work on your ideas, but on somebody else's. Still, it's research and some of it can be argued to be for the good of mankind.
* Almost all research is not as exiting as it is cracked up to be. Direct connections to the good of mankind are very rare.
* Most research projects are very small and you may be the only software engineer on it. Not all software engineers work well in such an environment.
* Most software you produce is very alpha and never gets further (run once, point proven, let's move on). This can be frustrating and also bad for your CV since you can't really claim you shipped a product for real customers.
* Work is not different than interesting jobs at industry such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, ...
* These days the research world is very financially obsessed, and research projects are most of the time determined and restricted by what your group can get funding for (rather than what is for the common good).

Re:From my experience (4, Interesting)

vikingpower (768921) | about a year ago | (#44306677)

I work for a national research organization ( small country, higher-income part of Europe ). It is different here:

* Research staff and non-research staff, here, too ( non-research = secretaries, lawyers... )

* All software engineers are research staff

* You must not have a PhD, although it helps

* Software engineers can lead in research, especially in our dept., which focuses on networks, security and some types and aspects of software / programming

* Direct connections to the good of mankind are not so rare. One of the specializations of this institute is environment; another one is crisis and disaster management

* Most projects are, indeed, rather small. 2 - max. 5 people for about 1 - 2 years is the standard

* You will mostly produce demonstrators / alphas. You will never produce software above TRL 6, for sure.

* I second the part about financial obsession

* It is NOT the same as working with Google, IBM, et al.: it is more laid-back here, you can actually take time to think, and although mgmt. is generally as stupid and incompetent as elsewhere, there is not as high a pressure upon programmers as elsewhere.

Having worked at NASA for such folks (4, Insightful)

gatkinso (15975) | about a year ago | (#44306685)

I can tell you that with out a PhD, your are viewed as little more than a trained chimp. Masters in both CS and Applied Math seemed to mean nothing, the fact that these so called doctors were incapable of writing more than 4 lines of intelligible code was beside the point.

It was fairly annoying, and none of my work is cited in their papers.

Re:Having worked at NASA for such folks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306823)

I have similar qualifications and experience working with a NASA contractor as well as my NASA customers. Myself and all my programmer brethren are definitely looked down upon. I've been called a monkey and a commodity in the same week by different Phd folks. It's sad because we are the ones who enable their vision yet we are treated like mules.

Re:Having worked at NASA for such folks (1)

korbulon (2792438) | about a year ago | (#44306861)

I can tell you that with out a PhD, your are viewed as little more than a trained chimp.

Is that you, Wolowitz?

Re:Having worked at NASA for such folks (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307511)

This this this, so hard this. If you do not have a PhD you will be treated like shit. The only thing anyone cares about in most research specialties anymore is where their next funding is coming from. The process starts with doing some low amount of research on a topic and then turns into bullshitting a grant enough so that you can secure some slice of the pie. If/when you secure that piece of the pie, pass the actual work on to someone below you and rinse and repeat.

Go to the FDA (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306687)

If you can build tools to analyze unstructured data, then you can write your own ticket. Getting in is the hard part. Go for a fellowship/internship. It is very difficult to get through the office of personnel management. The only downside is being surrounded by doctors that probably should be using a typewriter. I once asked a co-worker what version of windows he was using and the reply was, "office."

Computational Chemist (1)

LongearedBat (1665481) | about a year ago | (#44306699)

A friend of mine is a computational chemist. He comes from a chemistry background, but has for some years now been writing software for simulating cell receptors to help find matching proteins for them. He's even part authored 3(?) books on KNIME which is written in Java. In his experience skilled programmers with maths knowledge are hard to find in the field because most come from a chemistry background rather than a computer science background.

That seems to be good match for you.

Scientific Programming (5, Insightful)

NoseBag (243097) | about a year ago | (#44306721)

Three words: Math, math, and math.

If you don't have the advanced math skills, your use to a scientific research effort will be limited.

climate science (2)

vrhino (2987119) | about a year ago | (#44306723)

Consider climate research. In the US that might be NCAR or GFDL. Lots of FORTRAN but newer languages common, too. Use applied physics. World Class supercomputers. Parallel algorithms. Lower pay scale. Some, not all, scientists pigeon hole programmers and look down on them.

most definitely yes (3, Informative)

darthsteve (1795384) | about a year ago | (#44306737)

I recently shifted my career from microbiology to systems biology. The thinking end of biosciences in the UK is becoming dominated by computer science. Data analysis, modelling, simulation, and subsequent hypothesis generation are increasingly being given to computer science over biological sciences, who have allowed themselves to drop their numerical / analytical abilities. Linear algebra and quadrattic programming for skills such as flux balance analysis are hugely lucrative in biotech start-ups modelling metabolism. I think ordinary differential equation modelling of biological interactions isn't going anywhere, but statistical modelling for clinical trial design using non-linear mixed effects modelling is enormously lucrative. Optimization for data fitting is also a handy skill set to drop into these as well. Statistics, maths, and computer science graduates going into clinical research organizations can expect to earn 3x the salary of a biosciences graduate going into a lab, and the availability of jobs is significantly higher. Typically they're asking for programming skills in C, Matlab, R, Python, and Java. Bioinformatics roles mining databases is Java, Perl and R and involves database design and graph theory. Modelling and simulation is all C and Matlab, with Python gaining popularity over Matlab due to cost. I've used Mathematica a bit, but Matlab for most. My colleagues all code in Matlab, R or C. Image analysis is also becoming important as high throughput phenotypic screening is in vogue. The people I know in this area are using tools like Matlab and Definians. You will need a PhD in computer science to land the big paying jobs in pharma, and the PhD research will need to be based on biological data of some sort, but the association can be very loose as long as you can code and pick up basic biology along the way. Alternatively, a solid portfolio of projects is also tempting industry due to the lack of skills on the market, and could supplement an M.Sc instead of investing time in a PhD. Personally, I'm seeing a golden age for computer science and maths graduates earning £40-60k straight out of a PhD. Wet lab scientists are starting £16 - 23k, and are increasingly relegated to generating data for computer scientists who are leading the projects. If I had my time again I would train in computer science and see if I could get into the statistical modelling for clinical trials. Do that for a few years, then go freelance and watch the money roll in.

Look at Research Institutions (1)

y0rGr4ndm4 (2426730) | about a year ago | (#44306785)

From reading your post, I saw myself a few years back. After working a couple of years in industry I quickly learned that I would rather apply my skills to more than just making some guy rich. Luckily, I managed to score at job at CSIRO (Australia's governamental research institution) as a developer - and it was awesome and fulfilling. After a few years I had the opportunity to move to Europe, and in wanting to stay within the research domain, I started a PhD at SAP. From my experience so far I can say that, as mentioned, finding stable development work in research is very difficult - these institutions rely on external funding to operate and they have little control over that. But, if you are willing to deal with the uncertainty of 3 year contracts, it's totally doable - I would say try to find a position in a major institution so that even if funding dries up on one project, you can sell yourself into other projects. Another thing that I would stress is think *very* carefully before taking the PhD route - this is NOT development work and the is so much in the periphery (working on unrelated projects, TA'ing, trying to get a hold of your professor, writing/presenting papers) which seriously departs from the simple pleasure of building something and making it work. Even in the case of someone who is passionate about research, has and loves a topic, PhDs make for a pretty miserable existence. Unless you want to become and academic, I would suggest sticking to the developer route. Good luck!

Mathematical modelling (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306797)

My own career has been mathematical modelling in the life sciences - health, medicine and disability research. My background was computer science, but my employment has been in medical research groups. The best job I ever had was a research studentship, when I did my own research for a doctorate - it is like being paid to play, and congratulated when you have the most fun. Employment prospects are good, especially if you can work irregular, contract and part-time elements. Some really enjoyable elements (like university research) are enjoyable, poorly-paid long hours. Other elements (like certain big data companies) pay obscene daily rates for solutions that take minutes of real effort.

The actual computer languages are fairly irrelevant, but you must have database skills, the ability to drive (preferably scripted) statistical analysis and competent independent problem-solving. You need some evidence of each of these, perhaps some certificate of training in SQL, some course in SAS / R / JMP and some course in a computer language, or alternatively a completed piece of work demonstrating your own achievements in each.

I would recommend some analytical mathematics skills - statistics, discrete mathematics, optimization, non-linear dynamics, econometric modelling - whatever fits with your chosen area. You need to be able to hold your own in a discussion of the technical issues to be resolved. Very few people have practical mathematical skills or working knowledge of statistical design.

Try a National Lab or a Science Company (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306809)

(I am a Ph.D. student in a high-ranking U.S. university, things may be different at other tiers and are definitely a bit different in Europe. This perspective is based on what I have seen working with chemists, physicists, biologists, materials scientists, electrical engineers, and research groups in my time)

Academia the wrong place to go looking. The whole system is structured to train and the kick out self-sufficient scientists, so part of the process is learning how to program enough to get through the basic tasks of experiment automation. For most people this involves cobbling together some hasty LabVIEW code, but even if you strive for something more general the result is ultimately not all that useful for anyone not doing your exact research. In the few cases where you can write something ``general,'' odds are that your audience only expands to a dozen people in the world.

Another part of the dearth of academic jobs is related to the self-sufficiency part. Most PIs are not interested in hiring non-doctoral (pre or post) scientists because the output of this person has to justify the cost of a graduate student while returning none of the research that would actually bring in such money. This is also one of the reasons why you rarely see lab technicians in the U.S., where the task of maintaining hardware is typically given to a graduate student who can devote a few hours here and there to making sure everything works okay. Programming follows the same sort of path, since it is evident that most projects require little long-term attention and can be thrown together well enough in an afternoon or two. This code is rarely beautiful, but it technically works and that is sufficient to go make the measurement, which is really all that matters.

(disclaimer: I actually have spent a couple of months writing ``real'' software for my projects, since there was a generic need both for me and the field. These opportunities are few and far between in the physical sciences)

If you want to do research-type programming, go try JPL, NREL, or a related institution. These sorts of places have actual long-term projects which require actual software-engineering type design and support. They are also much more accustomed to the idea of hiring technicians (as a programmer, this is how you are going to be seen, since you are not a Ph.D. scientist), and slots may exist. That being said, I have heard horror stories of the Ph.D.-produced code for some of the critical systems at such places, and you may end up being thrown at horrid legacy systems. At JPL at least I hear the culture is shifting toward streamlined, more modern and modular code, so maybe there is an opening there.

Another option would be to work for a small scientific company, like Princeton Instruments. In my research, we often work directly with people from such companies to add custom hardware and software features, and they often have plenty of internal research which is quite interesting if very industrial.

If you do go to grad school, have a very specific goal in mind. Going as someone who wants to do scientific programming may be all right, but it will never get you through the Ph.D. process, let alone get you a job afterward. You have to love your research, because it will fill every waking hour for several years of your life.

As far as technologies, I have seen a range of languages: C, C++, C#, Lisp, Pascal, Delphi, Python, Matlab, Mathematica, LabVIEW, Java, ... You also spend a lot of time communicating with scientific hardware, so being able to do communication with devices over RS-232, GPIB, and USB (raw binary or plain ascii) is something you would have to pick up. Otherwise, the real key is understanding exactly what is needed for a particular project, at both the scientific and programming levels.

You probably have the skills already (1)

sleepypsycho (1335401) | about a year ago | (#44306813)

It sounds like you want to work with a scientific group as a programmer, not be doing your own independent research. If this is true there are a variety of positions out there. My experience is in life sciences and imaging. There are research institution like the Broad Institute [] or HHMI Janelia Farms [] that staff a fair number of programmers. Also, many Universities have core imaging facilities and there may be similar types of facilities in other scientific areas.

There also a significant number of companies that do research. Bioinformatics is a big topic for example pharmaceutical companies so big data experience is important. There are plenty of biotech companies too, some are providing research, some are trying to develop profitable technologies such as new tools for discovery and bio fuel etc. A number of companies that provide instrumentation and software to do research. There are a number of large players, such as Thermo Scientific, GE and Dananaher companies such as ABSciex, Beckman and Coulter. Obviously any company will be profit driven, so you will have to decide whether it is for you, but the jobs will contribute to research one way or another.

My suggestion is to get some scientific journal in you field of interest. Look at the advertiser and institution that do interesting things. Then go the websites of these places and see what openings may be out there. If you find something really interesting in a research paper that clearly involves computing you should directly contact them and see if they are interested in hiring. Most researcher are interested in the research problem and don't want to spend all there time coding. Often they are not good at finding developers just like developers are not good at finding these small research position. They may welcome someone who is interested enough in their researcher to seek them out. They might also point you to someone who will.

They exist, but are tough to get (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306843)

Positions like the one you are interested in exist, but they tend to be very few and far between, and they are generally time limited.

There are a growing number of computationally intensive projects in the physical sciences where the infrastructure and data management need to be handled by real programming/IT professionals rather than scientists who dabble in code. You should look at some projects like the Materials Genome Initiative, or some of the large computing centers in the national laboratories

Materials science and chemistry have increasing reliance on modeling and simulation which are requiring more and more programming skill. This ranges from building the software that the scientists use, finding interesting ways to link the various software packages together for simpler workflow, and using the packages to get the intended scientific results. You may find graduate positions at any point along this spectrum, but the number of positions using the code far outweigh the number of positions developing it. You could look into some of the various software used for density functional theory (DFT), molecular dynamics, lattice dynamics etc. to get the general idea of the landscape. Many universities now have institutes that are devoted to high performance computing, and they could be a better place to start looking than in the traditional academic departments.

Here is one (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306863)

Yes it does exist. Check out There are other labs around the country like this one too but I know about this one.

Make sure you really want it (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306901)

I'm coming straight out of a programming-heavy research position. This is a little different from what you are looking for since I have a PhD and I was writing the papers and doing the CS research in addition to doing a lot of programming. However, I can still give you some information about programming in academic research.

First of all, only professors have any sort of job security. Funding is always limited to a few years and if it isn't renewed you'll need to find another job, which will probably require you to move to another country or, if you are in the US, to another state. Salaries are not competitive with what you'd get in industry - I more than doubled my salary when I moved into industry, though that's probably an extreme example ($70k to $170k). Programming is seen as monkey work that gets absolutely no respect - only papers published in the right journals (and some conferences) are seen as an achievement. If you don't have a PhD I imagine that you'll have it even worse on that account, though that does depend on who you end up working with. Research positions are also generally difficult to get because people, like you, like to work on this stuff.

There is a huge oversupply of mobile and smart people with PhDs who would like to work in research. Many of those have some sort of programming ability. You'll be competing with these people for the jobs. You have an edge with your programming experience and a disadvantage in that you don't have a PhD. You can probably make a good case for hiring you by highlighting that you are an actual professional programmer and not an amateur. Your challenge will be to convince these people that you are also smart and worth dealing with. You may be able to avoid some of the competition if you look for jobs that clearly involve no research and no writing of papers. Such positions will not be attractive for people who want to do research.

Don't let me discourage you if this is what you really want, though. It can't hurt you to take a look at job postings and see if they make sense for you. I also have no idea about the situation for non-academic research, though for that I'm sure you'll run into the same issue with a focus on making money.

Please apply (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306907)

The other type of position you want to look at is a research assistant. These are generally contract employees, however you still receive full university benefits (health, lots of vacation, etc). If you're looking in the natural sciences, there are lots of these available, however they aren't advertised in your normal IT related spheres because the people hiring don't know where to post :(. Find a research area you're interested in, subscribe to mailing lists and you will see jobs. There are also field-specific tech lists (code4lib as one) that often times have postings.

Now for the bad part. These jobs generally don't pay compared to industry. You should be prepared to work alone and not w/ anyone to provide technology training (why they're hiring you).

Go to grad school (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306917)

I spent 20+ years doing such things at large oil companies. Last major project was a 300x600 mile model of rock properties in the Gulf of Mexico for a super major. Geology is ripe for big data analyses. You need the discipline knowledge to succeed and communicate w/ the rest of the team.

1) expect to deal w/ lots of old, badly written code. That's what the scientists will often have as a "specification".

2) the original code you write will mostly be throwaways that won't get thrown away. Research doesn't produce polished products. Norm is many small to medium size programs stitched together w/ shell scripts.

3) go to a highly ranked grad school (e.g. Austin, Stanford, etc) if possible. The personal contacts will be invaluable.

4) scientists will often treat you as a 2nd class team member even if you have the scientific credentials. However, if you manage it properly, you'll get paid the same as they do. ($80-100k entry level for a PhD in geosciences. Possibly more by the time you finish)

5) it will cost you 4-6 years working as a grad student at slave wages to get the needed credentials.

It's not all fun, but most of the time it is.

Have Fun!

PS checkout Seismic Unix from

Government Work (1)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306935)

You can look at working for government agencies. If you are in the USA, look at positions at NOAA, USGS, NASA and other places. Telescopes in Hawai'i (and Chile) are also hiring software developers.

In my case, I work at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (in Canada) and developed systems that are used by ships transiting the St. Lawrence Seaway and maintain systems that are collecting data from satellites (remember the epic-fail dropped a satellite on the shop floor meme - it is NOAA-19 and we collect its signal).

Scientific Programmer (2)

RogerWilco (99615) | about a year ago | (#44306953)

There are definitely positions at the Bachelor and Master level (In Comp.Sci or equivalent) at universities and research institutes.
Also don't forget large oil firms and the like.

There are two types:
- Scientific Programmers: Those that work on implementing, scaling and optimizing algorithms for number crunching purposes. Knowledge of the specific field is certainly an advantage here.
- Generic Programmers: From lab automation to webpages, database backends, archives and various other things that organisations need to do their work.

It's hard to get a permanent contract though, as a lot of the funding is on projects for 2-5 years.

Job adverts might be on the sites of the organisations themselves and sometimes the employers have a combined website. In the Netherlands there is AcademicTransfer for example, where all publicly funded research organisations pool their job adds.

The long dark tea time of the soul (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44306993)

Research needs people in all disciplines. What it takes is desire and a keen mind for solving problems in novel and sometimes elegant fashions. Enter the programmer... As researchers we learn the bits and pieces of programming for the languages we need to use (e.g., SAS). The analytical part of the process is best served by collaborative effort instead of a "bull-pen" of programmers who will code to solve a specific part of a problem without knowing (or caring?) about the end game. Find a field that fascinates you. Find an institution that does good science in that field (and has good funding!!!). Then find a position where you can be a part of a team and not another code monkey for lease to any department.

Are you prepared to travel? (1)

excelsior_gr (969383) | about a year ago | (#44307007)

The so-called "interdisciplinary" research projects can benefit greatly from your programing skills, if you take them to a new field. I guess that you have already proven, through your co-operation with geologists, that you are able to grasp a new topic and reach a high level of competency in that field (as in being co-author in a paper in that discipline), so you should definitely play that card while applying, in my opinion.

Traveling, as well as learning/using a new language should be considered. I tried Germany and it turned out really well. Central european countries in general have quite good research projects and you can get a job at a university paying about 1500-1700 Euros per month after taxes plus full benefits (health insurance and pension).

As for the field, start with looking in geology projects, but don't restrict yourself to that. Chemistry researchers are in a dire need for some sane programing skills, I can tell you...

Yes, but you need math/science skills (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307035)

Most of these positions require that you are inventing something mathematically or computationally new. If you are interesting in building helpful software, look into getting a degree in Instrumental Analysis (Chemistry) or Numerical Analysis (Applied Math). These fields are looking for new software all of the time, and people in all of the sciences are looking for new software from these guys all of the time. However, most of the time, these are made by the professors or researchers themselves and if you would like to get involved, they would expect you to know the chemistry, math, etc. involved behind the math.

But heck, if you're into that, go for it. I'm an applied mathematician and program as a skill more than a love. I keep on making software just because it hasn't been made for many things at the forefront of applied math. There is lots of scientifically useful software to be made if you are a researcher in this field, and lots of people welcome these software-oriented people because they would rather keep on doing the math instead of getting deep into software development.

Bioinformatics (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307159)

Get some genetics and cluster programming under your belt and join the bioinformatics world.

There's opportunities (1)

the plant doctor (842044) | about a year ago | (#44307161)

My PhD work required that I learn programming, I learned R. Now I'm starting to learn Python in addition to R.

There's plenty of opportunities for someone who is a programmer that is interested in science, where I'm sitting. I just hired an MS level employee who had experience modeling but not with programming. I'm looking to hire one programmer to do some R package work for me shortly and another to do some "big data" sort of work. However, it's not always easy to find someone to fill these positions who has enough science background or interest.

Depending on your interests and skills, there are jobs that would definitely suit you. A general programming skill with a general interest in science can net you some interesting positions.

Be a self-starter (2)

srijon (1091345) | about a year ago | (#44307165)

I worked as a research assistant for a professor for six years. It was a great job. The most rewarding part is that I worked on lots of different projects and most of them were cool and intellectually stimulating and fun. It was also fantastic going to conferences and presenting work. You can really push and challenge yourself. It feels a bit like working in a startup. Each professor has their own team and budget and grants and publications, so its like being part of a small company, except that there is a big institution providing backing and benefits. Will your work change the world to be a better place? That's often not so clear cut in academia, but it is certainly a tremendous opportunity for growth and development, and there is demand for computer programming in research.

Professors tend to be incredibly busy so they are looking for self-starters, people who can just get on and contribute without lots of supervision. If you want to get into this area of work, more than academic qualifications, what you need is to demonstrate your own ability to make things. Demo or die. For fields like bio research there's lots of use of small sensors and data capture devices, so one suggestion is to make your own Arduino or Rasberry project, to show that you can come up with a cool idea and have the passion to see it through from start to completion.

Academia is a two tier system, professors and then everyone else. Professors have full control over their research efforts. Researchers don't. After a while as a researcher you will start having your own ideas about where you think the research direction should go, and then you will encounter a glass ceiling about how far you can take this. There's no real career advancement path, so at that point you are stuck.

To address this, make it part of your plan from the outset to enroll in a part time degree program while you are working as a researcher. Most universities offer tuition remission for employees, so as you work you can also get a degree for a heavily discounted fee. Its an entitlement in many full time research assistant posts, but make sure to check this before you start. Any professor you would want to work for will immediately agree to help you figure this out, especially if the degree you want to do is in an area that is relevant to the research. That degree represents your exit strategy, either into full academia, or into a job beyond it, don't procrastinate.

Wow, makes me wish I was starting all over again!

In My Experience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307173)

I work as a research computer scientist, and I can tell you that Java will probably be of little help to you. Most work in this field is done on specially-built machines or clusters, so portability is not nearly as big of a concern as performance, and in terms of performance you cannot beat compiled languages like C or FORTRAN. The main thrust of general numerical analysis, scientific computing and data analytics these days seems to be high performance parallel computing, be it CPU clusters or GPGPU programming via CUDA and OpenCL - Learn these things and, more importantly, learn how to think about problems in parallel. You should also brush up on your C and C++, and learn how to optimize CPU code using profilers and/or assembly code.

In terms of furthering your education, I'd suggest choosing an application field (which you seem to have found in geology) and start working with that field in a computational capacity right away. When I was an undergrad, I got dual degrees in Computer Science and Physics with a minor in Math, and now I develop physics simulations and collision detection algorithms on the GPU professionally. You probably don't necessarily need another bachelor's or a master's here - get yourself a GIS Certification or something similar and start developing / publishing a few open source personal projects in the field to build experience. They'll be useful when applying for the jobs you want, since they show both experience in the field and passion for it.

If you want to go for an MS, there are plenty available that would be useful to you. Georgia Tech, University of Washington, Columbia and Texas A&M all offer fully-online MS programs in Applied Mathematics and Computational Science. If you go this route, just make sure you can document some sort of experience with your chosen application field. These degrees are fairly generalized, if not abstract, and will teach you computational techniques for solving just about any type of generic mathematical or scientific problem, from physics to geology to bioinformatics to financial analysis, but most companies want to see at least some familiarity with their field of application - it makes you stand out.

Most importantly, don't get discouraged if you need a few years of grad school and a year or two of lower-end grunt work to get where you want. Computational research is a pretty damn awesome career, so stick with it and you'll get where you want to go.

Good luck!

An innocent abroad.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307187)

... However, I've become gradually disillusioned with the financial-obsession of the business world and would like to work for the overall betterment of humanity instead. With that in mind, I'm looking to shift my career more toward the scientific research side of things....

May I suggest that you do a course in sociology, with the aim of understanding how the world works?

People WON'T just give you money to do the things you want to do. People will give you money for doing things that THEY find useful. So you have several options:

1 - work at a job you may not like, but one that gives you the money and the time to do some of the things you DO like...
2 - find (or set up yourself) a job you do like doing, and accept the lower pay/harder entry requirements/lower job security etc
3 - live off the state and bum around....

All Science is Computer Science (1)

InfiniteZero (587028) | about a year ago | (#44307263)

All Science is computer science nowadays, and I'm not even a computer scientist. So yes, there are many fields that are in great need of computer scientists and/or programmers. For example this guy, who popularized the term "connectome": []

And BTW, his excellent TED talk: []

Seek centers of research (1)

SirGarlon (845873) | about a year ago | (#44307293)

Research is not just academic: there is a lot of research going on in biotech, pharmaeceuticals, defense, aerospace, and government. There are also think tanks and the like, which probably crunch a lot of numbers. In most cases, research laboratories and institutes are anchored near major universities.

I would suggest you relocate to a geographic area where a lot of research gets done. Boston [] , DC, and the Research Triangle [] spring to mind, but that's because I live on the East Coast. Los Angeles County has Caltech and UCLA so that is probably a safe bet on the West Coast. I'm sure there are others. Any state capital will have its public health, environmental, and similar agencies located there.

Try a location-specific search of the job listings for one of these areas (with loose technical criteria and strict geographic criteria) and you'll get a good idea of what jobs are out there and what skills they're looking for.

Look closer at scientific publications' authors (1)

psychogre (1475893) | about a year ago | (#44307347)

If you peruse the scientific publications of your interest (mainly geology?), note the various authors' affiliations - in addition to universities/colleges, some will be from government agencies and/or their contractor companies. That will give you a good starting point to ask around about openings and/or other companies doing similar work.
I've been working 20+ years for a contracting company, doing space science data analysis and research for a government agency. Projects change every so often (keeping things interesting!), and I get co-authorships on the occasional publication. While my Bachelors degree is in *solid earth* Geophysics (+ unofficial CS minor), the strong programming skills with a math/science background has worked out very well for my situation. Hope it does for you also.

whole-genome sequencing analysis software (1)

the.original.drg (2970441) | about a year ago | (#44307365)

If you could see yourself liking biology, we're at the point where DNA sequencing of (micro-)organisms is becoming super cheap. You could get into writing software for analysing DNA sequences. There's going to be a need for software capable of handling many whole genome sequences in a short amount of time. There are currently both open- and closed-source options, so you could go either route.

If you want to get an idea if that sort of programming would appeal to you, there's a free online set of problems called "ROSALIND" (, which teaches the biology alongside getting you to develop your own solutions to the posed bioinformatics questions (in any programming language you like).

Yes, such jobs *do* exist (1)

QilessQi (2044624) | about a year ago | (#44307381)

You sound a great deal like me, and -- speaking from personal experience -- what you want is possible. :-) I'd look within NASA, definitely.

And ignore the bitter folks here who are whining about how they're looked down upon by the PhDs. That's certainly not a universal experience -- I have coded for PhDs at a couple of research institutions and always got along well with them. Just remember that you have to give respect to get respect, especially if you're the new kid in the lab.

You'd probably want/need the edge of a Masters in the research-related field, more than a Masters in Comp Sci. People will value you more if you have solid footing in both the programming domain and the problem domain.

Final bit of advice: don't hide your passion about wanting to work for the betterment of humanity. I have been upfront about that in my interviews, and it always resonates with the right people. Many of those PhDs in the sciences have similar passions.

Start helping humanity right now (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307385)

Every day is filled with opportunities to help humanity. Those opportunities rarely have anything to do with your particular job function. Stop waiting, start paying attention and acting.

Be vigilant (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a year ago | (#44307541)

As many others stated, you should probably be looking for one-off projects funded with the help of grants. Just remember to keep looking. You never know when the opportunity might come up. I've recently been lucky enough to be drafted as a designer into a project encompassing aspects of fire safety: fluid dynamics simulation for vehicle fires, fire-fighter squad command simulator and fire engine driving simulator. All thanks to a grant from the West Yorkshire Fire Department. You might want to stay in touch with your college lecturers as they will probably be the first to know about any grants and opportunities that pop up in your area and might give you a heads-up if you let them know you're looking for something. Good luck :)

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