Start-ups for Postdocs 101C: Life on the Inside

In previous articles, we have looked at some of the issues surrounding choosing a start-up company rather than a "conventional" academic career. Once you have identified a company you would like to work for, and have been fortunate enough to be hired, what will life be like in your new workplace? Working at an early-stage biotech company will be very different from working in academia, and it will likely provide some surprises to a postdoc or new graduate. In this article, we will explore some of these differences, and how best to adapt to this new, challenging, and exciting environment.

The Workplace

In an early-stage company, it is likely that you will be doing at least some administrative or secretarial work in addition to your scientific research duties. As well as being understaffed in these areas, start-ups are also typically lacking in employee amenities. Don't expect your own office, secretary, parking spot, and health club membership, at least not until the company grows significantly.

If you're joining a very early-stage start-up, don't expect anything at all. You will be lucky to have a desk in a corner of somebody's office and will probably be doing your own photocopying for a while. Get used to it. This is just one of the sacrifices you will have to make in order to participate in the long-term growth of an early-stage start-up. And as a side benefit, you will learn a wide variety of secretarial skills that you did not possess before.


The main reason anybody leaves academic research for industry is money. Don't let anybody try to convince you otherwise, least of all your prospective employer. Senior academics running companies may not have a clear idea of the salaries demanded by industrial scientists. It is your duty to inform them, by finding out from acquaintances in industry, what salary range you expect. Discuss with your employer what your title will be: postdoctoral fellow (least desirable), research associate (better, but could mean just about anything), staff scientist (much more respectable, and easier to compare salaries between companies), or Director of Research (you might as well ask). Salaries vary widely, but don't undervalue yourself--postdocs in industry earn far more than their academic counterparts, and staff scientist salaries are typically higher than those of junior academic faculty. (see Next Wave's recent article on the latest biotech salaries in Canada.)

Make sure you understand how and when you will be paid. The earlier stage that the company is in, the more important this becomes. Does the company have a payroll system, or will you be paid by check? How often? Who signs the check. Will they be in the country each time you need to be paid? Are there benefits? And finally (and most importantly), how much money does the company have in the bank? Don't be afraid to ask this last question--it is the most important one. For those paid on contract or as consultants, it is probably worth finding an accountant or other financial adviser to help you determine how best to declare you income for tax purposes. In some cases it may be advantageous to act as "self-employed" for tax purposes, at least until the company gets on solid financial footing and sets up a formalized payroll system.


In a start-up environment, it is likely that your role will encompass more duties than simple science. Photocopying may be easy enough to master, but how about revising a business plan, writing technical documents for regulatory or taxation purposes, preparing a cash-flow summary for your project, assisting with an audit, or coordinating with a space planner and contractors in order to design and build the company's corporate headquarters and laboratory space? You may find yourself at least peripherally involved in any of these activities, and more, especially if the company does not have an experienced business manager. These suggestions may help you to succeed in these unfamiliar activities.

  • Use others' expertise. Your company's accountant, banker, and consultants can all tell you what supporting documentation and information they will require, and they can probably provide you with template documents if necessary. Be wary, however, of spending long periods of time on the phone with professionals (accountants, lawyers, architects, and so forth). Lawyers, in particular, tend to bill in 10-minute increments, and may charge upwards of several hundred dollars an hour for their services. Be sure you understand what costs you are incurring, and whether your employer approved of these expenses.

  • Copy. Government funding agencies will have examples of documentation they require, many venture capital companies have guidelines on business plans, and there are any number of Web sites devoted to business education that will help you out with such arcane documents as cash-flow summaries, Gantt charts, and the like. With a little digging, you will be able to find examples of almost any business document you need.

  • Don't panic. You have completed a hefty chunk of postsecondary education already, know how to plan your time effectively, and can write intelligibly. Business-related documentation requires organization, attention to detail, and some understanding of the goals and objectives. The latter can be learned, and the former are qualities you likely already possess. And remember--by the time you have completed a piece of business documentation, you will most likely have learned much more about the process than your academic employers. Although there is no substitute for an experienced business manager (and you should find out before you join a start-up whether or not they have one), it is possible to learn much of this "on the job."

  • (For more information on drafting a business plan, see the excellent series of Next Wave articles by Charles Boulakia.)

    Summary--Is the Start-up World for Me?

    If you crave a higher salary, a goal-oriented workplace, and are concerned about a future career in academic research, it is probably worthwhile at least exploring industry. The start-up offers a number of advantages not typically found in more established, stable, larger companies. Although inherently risky, joining a start-up is perhaps no more so than embarking on a postdoctoral fellowship. Most start-ups will last at least a few years, and the experience and remuneration you receive from even a failed venture can be valuable additions to your skill set.

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