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Industrial Postdocs: Choosing an Industrial Postdoc to Finally Get a Life





All Ph.D. candidates face the same stressful question during the last stretch of the already-stressful-enough writing of their thesis: Should I do a postdoc or move on into the job market? Some choose to do a postdoc in order to stay in a university environment, either with the aim of becoming a professor a few years down the road or simply in order to keep the freedom and security they've learned to appreciate during their grad studies. Others go out into the real world and find a job to (finally) start a professional career and earn a reasonable salary. The scariest part of the decision is that there doesn't appear to be any shade of gray, only black or white. Wrong! There is a third option: an industrial postdoc. What makes it a good choice? You get to change scenery, you get out of school, and you finally get the impression that you're moving on!

I was lucky enough to do my undergraduate studies in a university close to my home, allowing me to avoid piling up debts during those years. Three months away from liberation (read graduation), I decided to do graduate studies 300 km away from my parents' home. A master's and a Ph.D. later, I have piled up quite an interesting amount of debt. I still think that becoming a university prof would be a great career, but I have had enough of the microscopic salary given to graduate students. What were my options? One. Get a job. Wrong again! The usual pep talks ("You may get a good scholarship," "Now is the time to do a postdoc, while you're used to being poor," and "It's only for one more year") can justify the choice to stick to the "school" bench and do a postdoc. So, yes, I chose to do a postdoc, but an industrial one, because it has a number of advantages not found in the more conventional academic postdoc. I want to introduce two arguments: things that I would like to have heard while struggling with my thesis and the orientation of the rest of my life.

First and foremost, most of us do a postdoc because we want to have the option of becoming a university prof. Well, the industrial postdoc has the same value as an academic one. It is a postdoc, done in the private sector. The nuance conveys a lot of advantages. Whether you're thinking about the work experience, the number of contacts that will be established in various segments of the field of business, the schedules often limited to daytime, or the better salaries offered in the private sector, it's hard to find matter for complaints! But it goes further than that. The education systems in place in Quebec, like that in the rest of Canada and in the United States, suffer from a reduction in income from public funds. This has caused them to turn toward industry and research done collaboratively between the university and the private sector: in other words, money from industry, matching funds from government, and applied research done in the university lab. Simple, efficient, and often the only possible avenue for research groups working in areas not in the category judged as "priority" by funding agencies.

Consequently, who do you think the universities will be tempted to hire to join the ranks of their professors? A professional who has acquired years of experience and notoriety in industry, or an expert in a narrow research area who has accumulated postdocs and contracts after contracts in a university lab? The evaluation of candidates is no longer based solely on the number of publications, but also on the capacity of a candidate to bring in research funds. Those who choose an industrial career, starting with an industrial postdoc, will have the postdoc (a prerequisite for the job), but they'll also have contacts in the industry, work experience, and probably brighter colors on their cheeks!

On a more personal note, in the past, my almost-absent tolerance of stupidity has made me complain abundantly about my (too many) professors who had never worked outside the walls of a university and yet were teaching courses on industrial practices! I wouldn't want to become one of those profs. My personal opinion is that if you're going to teach a class, you might as well give information that is realistic and up-to-date.

To summarize, I chose an industrial postdoc because it will place me in a strategic position to become a university prof. That was the professional aspect of my choice.

But there was a second aspect to my choice: the changes in my social life. Graduate students are often called "nerds" or antisocial. And it is quite easy for us to fit that mold, because most of us have little or no revenue and spend long hours looking at cells under a microscope or programming that boring mathematical process that no one wants to hear about. Let's just say that these are not necessarily hot topics for a conversation in a nightclub! The vast majority of my friends did not choose to do graduate studies and so have had jobs for about 6 years. They earn fairly good salaries, enjoy stable schedules, and some have even started their own businesses. Their discussions involve trips around the world, their new computer, the latest gadget they've added to their shiny new car, etc. The good graduate student "owing-more-than-I-own" that I am drives an 8-year-old car bought for peanuts from my parents who didn't want to see me quit school just because I hate public transportation--parents who have brought me along on vacation and who give me their new shirts, arguing that their old rags suit them better. I was never a completely impoverished student, but I have often been the friend who could not afford to join in. Was I going to stay like that until I reached 30?

The industrial postdoc allows me to earn a salary equivalent to what my classmates at the undergraduate level are making after 5 or 6 years in the job market. Special budgets are now reserved for industrial postdocs in a number of funding agencies, which are used to subsidize the salaries the employer pays. I only had to negotiate the rest of the salary, and I even got paid holidays.

After 6 months in an industrial postdoc position, I am entirely satisfied with the choice I have made. I keep good relationships with my alma mater, where I have made sure to spread the news that I am effectively doing a postdoc and will be ready to take over a prof position in a number of years, when I have acquired a good amount of diversified experience. I will attend an international scientific conference in a few months, where I will present some of my work. I work 40 to 45 hours a week (on weekdays and on the daytime shift only!), and I am enjoying a fabulous season of horseback riding on a thoroughbred named Tally. Thus, the industrial postdoc allows me to work on a structured research project without the aches and pains of student life.