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Some Real-World Observations on Industrial Postdocs

I have a lot of colleagues in academia who ask me if they should do a postdoc in industry. Vaguely familiar friends of friends who I haven't spoke with in a while will also e-mail and ask me if they should do postdocs in industry.

I guess that they view me as a source of reliable information, despite the fact that I didn't do my postdoc in industry. (I did mine at a large, research-oriented state university campus.) I would also guess that their interest in industry has to do with the "I-want-to-get-out-of-academia-now" gut response that occurs when they realize that they're effectively finishing the 19th or 20th "grade."

The last two biotech/pharma companies that I've worked for have housed a number of postdocs who have been successful (or not) for a similar set of reasons.

It seems to me that there are a lot of exaggerated and a lot of underdiscussed aspects of doing postdocs in industry. So I'd like to share my observations, which obviously isn't an absolute set of rules. Of course, this may be the last time I ever write something for the Next Wave because I may have to hide out from irate scientists!

Observation #1.

Locating and getting a postdoc in industry is harder than most people initially think. It's who you know at a company. Plain and simple. Sure, you can apply for the job openings at the back of Science and Nature ... along with half your department. If your advisor or your softball buddy knows someone who knows someone, make use of this connection. Don't count on the usual job application process to drum up any interest in your CV. (The usual job application process usually isn't that effective anyway.)

Observation #2.

People never fail to ask if they will be allowed to publish in industry as a postdoc. Why? Are you planning to return to academia? Seriously, there is a gap in mind-sets here. Depending on your project's results, you may publish your findings. You will likely be able to attend scientific conferences and present posters or slide sessions. Will you be able to share potentially patentable methodologies with all your academic colleagues? Not until your company's patent people get through with your findings and their commercial potential. (This is a fact of life that is also starting to appear at many campuses thanks to university tech transfer offices.)

If the absolutely unfettered ability to publish is a primary concern for you in deciding whether to pursue the industrial postdoc, you need to think long and HARD about what you plan to do AFTER the postdoc. If you intend to look for another industry job, then the ability to share scientific generalities on your project, your meeting abstracts, patents you've applied for, and your supervisor's name at your last company will be more important than the fact that you've published in the journal Biophysical Communications. You need to be in a position where you can talk freely about the scientific merits of your previous project, the skills you can bring to the next company, and what you gained from your postdoc (as well as some documentation to back this all up).

If you intend to look for a faculty job after an industry postdoc, then you essentially need to take a very hard look at specific companies that either have a reputation for strong research divisions (where the publication rates are relatively high for industry) or at specific mid-size start-ups that rely on strong research. And don't think that a terrific publication record is all you'll need to move from industry to academia. Academics with strong research track records, such as Jeremy Nathans (now at Johns Hopkins University) and David Stokoe (now at the University of California, San Francisco), were able to move back to academia after postdocs at Genentech and Onyx Pharmaceuticals, respectively, because they took pains to maintain strong connections at academic institutions while they were "away."

Will you give up dreams of winning a Nobel prize if you do a postdoc in industry? Perhaps. But your odds of winning one in academia were very slim to start with. My observations here are that the most successful, happiest scientists in industry (postdocs or higher) have been those scientists who were goal- and project-oriented, focused, knew when to quit (and not fight the law of diminishing returns), and had a life outside of work. Not to say that they didn't occasionally put in 60-hour workweeks, however. Realism seems to be the battle cry here.

Observation #3.

Academics also ask if they will be seen as "selling out" by taking an industry postdoc. Frankly, I'm the wrong person to ask this question. I have a spouse and two dogs. And an ailing mother who may need to enter a nursing home. We're also thinking of starting a family. I enjoy the fact that we can afford to pay off our student loans AND have a car AND not eat pizza or noodles from a box every night. If selling out means not being financially strapped, then I'm all for it. What I don't advocate, however, is taking a job or postdoc with a company or project that you're not comfortable with. For example, if you're a plant geneticist and you're against the widespread use of pesticides, then you shouldn't apply for a postdoc or a job with Monsanto, a company that has a lot of solid projects in its pipeline but also produces Roundup pesticide resistant crops. (And no, I don't work for Monsanto.) Realistically: After 5 or 6 years in grad school, don't you WANT to make more than the NIH-mandated $26,000 a year?

Observation #4.

You really need to have a game plan. If you want a postdoc in industry strictly for the money, you probably won't enjoy yourself, even if you manage to get through the interviews. So ask yourself WHY are you doing a postdoc? The answer should not be "because it's the next step to take." Postdocs who have really benefited from the industry environment tell me that they take advantage of the company atmosphere to learn new techniques (most common response), learn to work in a group, learn about scientific expectations, and learn how to do research in a corporate environment. HOW you answer this question for yourself and your interviewers will be crucial in getting the job (because no one will hire you as a postdoc if they don't think you're honestly going to contribute something meaningful) and making the postdoc work.

Observation #5.

Research life IS different in industry, even for postdocs. I am qualified to comment on this. Life in industry tends to be more efficient than in academia. You're on company time, soldier. So surfing the Web for an obscure protocol that allows you to save money and avoid buying a $800 kit from Qiagen isn't worth it. Your postdoctoral advisor or job supervisor also will have far less tolerance for your penchant for playing Quake or Civilization on company computers. There will be a greater emphasis on professional behavior. (You know what that is, right?)

Observation #6.

There are no promises in any life, including a postdoc's. Even with the best-laid plans, both academic and industry postdocs can go awry. I think the perception that industry postdocs are more amorphous (so I'm told) has to do with the perception that industry SEEMS more amorphous to grad students and postdocs who have previously had little or no exposure to industry. So even if you are a total novice heading into industry, there is no reason not to get your future postdoc situation fully spelled out. This will provide you with a greater sense of certainty, regardless of the outcome.

Observation #7.

I'm an industry scientist. So this colors my thinking and my observations. But I've tried to be honest and realistic in my descriptions and my summaries based on my exposure to postdoctoral researchers in industry.

Good luck in your postdoc and job searches!

Allan Lanthes has spent the last 7 years working for biotech and pharmaceutical firms on the West and East coasts of the U.S.

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