My Life as a Postdoc With Company ABO

(The author is currently a third-year postdoc in industry. His name and that of his company, which is based in the Northeast United States, are pseudonyms.)

I always envisioned myself as a stellar scientist. When I was an undergrad, I spent long summers in labs streaking out yeast and bacteria, feeding flies, making reagents, and finally doing experiments in crystallography. When I was in grad school, I spent 6 years at a "top-flight" institution with a teaching hospital conducting research in DNA structures. This was the path to glory, I thought.

I always thought I would end up as a PI at a Research I or II university in the South or possibly in the Midwest. Maybe even Texas. But I never thought I'd end up in a city where winter snow is far more common than in my hometown of Charlottesville, and where I'm constantly in danger of being run over by students on Rollerblades and bicycles.

I ended up in an industry postdoc because I was drawn by the lure of bleeding-edge technology. I'm not a computer geek or a hardware geek, but I do find "sexy" techniques that aren't available anywhere else to be irresistible. So when I went looking for a postdoc project, I found myself in a bar at a scientific conference talking with some fairly anonymous scientists, swapping stories about experiments gone awry and "dream jobs" involving some sophisticated biomedical technology and tools that I had only heard about in passing. Can't hurt to spread the word about your interests, right?

Well, I did get called on the carpet by my graduate advisor for talking about his work when he wasn't ready to have it "disseminated" in bars. (One of the other scientists at the bar was a friend of a friend of my advisor.) But I did meet someone, who I'll call Jaime, who later introduced me to scientists at "Company ABO." I ended up giving two informal talks where ABO scientists were present. Jaime later introduced me to Todd, who ended up hiring me (although not supervising me) at ABO. I did send out resumes for academic postdocs and industry positions, but none of my other job searches moved as quickly as the "accidental" job talk in the bar that got me the postdoc position at ABO.

As a postdoc in industry, I keep what seems like a fairly low profile among my academic colleagues. This is intentional and representative only of my personality and my career choices, not of industry postdocs in general. I'm working on a potentially hot project that could involve a couple of patents. I do publish (but my publications are necessarily delayed so that they don't affect the patent applications, especially the European ones). I do attend meetings. I actually attend a LOT of meetings.

But I haven't made the "big splash" that some of my academic peers have made by doing the seminar tour on campuses that are looking to fill either teaching or research faculty slots. So it seems to some (including one member of my former thesis committee) that I have vanished, despite the fact that I run into her three or four times a year at scientific conferences.

Why am I doing an industry postdoc and not an academic postdoc? Well, other than the proprietary techniques and technology that I have access to (at this particular company, which might have, in another life, been an academic lab), I enjoy the thrill of the chase. I enjoy seeing my ideas and those of the group I've joined put into application. And I enjoy the camaraderie of working in a group towards a common goal. This last aspect is definitely something that I didn't encounter--not to the same degree--in academia, where I felt more like a little gopher scurrying around.

We work long hours in my research group at ABO. I sometimes find myself spending entirely too much time in the lab or in my cubicle-style office. I'm here only for the science, but I also find myself periodically drawn to reports that I would not otherwise have read in academia: Nature Biotech, Businessweek, and even Genetic Engineering News. Granted, none of them make me a "money-grubbing scientist" (as I was once teased), but it does serve to illustrate a point: I am much more aware of who I work for and what our product pipeline is, far more than I would be of any equivalent long-term plans for a research group or research institution in academia.

So what is it really like to be an industry postdoc? Do I have angst about my future career moves? Do I find it too restraining? Where do I want to go next?

The answers are this: It's like being a postdoc anywhere else, as long as "anywhere else" is a focused, driven research group that has clear objectives in mind and clear deadlines. Your own "fate" as a researcher is that you're as good as your experiments. It's no different from academia. My particular research group happens to be very driven by new techniques and technology. I don't have career angst because I'm enjoying myself too much. I figure I can find a job as a researcher at another biotech or pharmaceutical company somewhere, as long as the American craving for new drugs and medical procedures stays hot. (My patent filings and publications will help.) If not, then I'm confident I can find something research-related to do. I don't find an industrial postdoc too restraining because, as I said, I'm very motivated by technique and technology development. Another factor may be that I tend to have an engineer's mentality about publishing and research, even though I'm trained as a scientist. (I get the most satisfaction out of helping develop a scientific application.)

I'm also very goal oriented. There are some days at work when I will get caught up in a wave of adrenaline when an experimental series works and I think. "Yes! Yes yes yes! We could crystallize/clone/build an artificial liver if we had to by next Tuesday!!!" After the adrenaline high wears off, I realize how stupid that sounds. But it's a very heady feeling that I think most scientists can identify with.

Industrial factors which I understand and tolerate: Secrecy agreements. Material transfer agreements. Review of all scientific communications by company lawyers before you send off publications or meeting abstracts. (I'm on good terms with them because I actually give them their copies 7 working days in advance, rather than 2 days like some of my labmates.) The inability to talk shop our projects than in mostly vague terms (or really gritty experimental details) with other scientists, academic or industrial. (This last one took some getting used to, but most industry scientists quickly develop a code for communicating important things.)

Industrial factors which I don't tolerate very well: HR departments. Crowded commutes and public transportation. Snippy corporate librarians. The taxman's bite. Not being able to drop into a random department's seminar and quiz the speaker. (Although ABO does invite scientific speakers about once a month.) Expensive coffee. Working in a drafty renovated warehouse. Having to dress up (I'm normally a sloppy dresser) at least twice a month for a "corporate inspector's tour" (e.g., investors).

I am admittedly a fan of my postdoc experience. The salary is definitely higher than an academic postdoc's, but it mostly makes up for the higher cost of living in my metro area. (Including my extremely high car insurance.)

Do I plan to go back to academia? Quite frankly, no. But industry is definitely not for everyone. If you still cling to the idea of the completely "information is free" research enterprise that pervades most academic institutions, you won't like it here. But if you enjoy conducting research that develops or builds an application or new technology or a new technique, then you will probably find an industrial postdoc palatable.

Do I intend to keep doing research? Yes, I do. I realize the long, long hours will probably require a sabbatical or 2-month vacation at some point. I realize that I'm in an extremely competitive field. And I realize that I'm not where I hoped to be when I was in grad school. But now that I'm here, I tell myself that I can't believe that I was supposed to end up anywhere else. (Of course, I just came off an adrenaline high due to some great experimental data.)

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