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Inside the Industry Postdoc Experience

Samir Tabash's decision to do a postdoc in industry was based on the fact that academic jobs for PhDs in his field--analytical chemistry--were few and far between in Canada. He felt that by doing an industrial postdoc, he'd gain valuable experience without necessarily restricting his subsequent options. "My main objective was to leave myself open to opportunities in both areas," he tells Next Wave Canada, adding that if he decided that industry was not for him, "there would always be the opportunity to go back to academia and do another 2-year project."

So after completing his doctorate at Queen's University, Tabash took a friend's advice and applied for a postdoc position at Cytochroma Inc., a small biotech company based in Markham, Ontario. A spin-off from Queen's University 7 years ago, the drug discovery and development company develops novel cytochrome P450s to generate improved therapies for skin diseases and cancer. He started at the company in 2002.

"In terms of learning potential, I thought that there would be more to learn in a small biotech company than in big pharma," he explains. He had observed that "what tends to happen in big pharma is that people get slotted into one area and they may not see the big picture." In a small biotech firm, by contrast, "you are part of the whole picture and you're more involved in what goes on in the entire company." Tabash has his own postdoctoral project that he developed with input from his advisor, but he also spends a portion of his time assisting in the company's drug discovery and development platform--its "lifeline" work. The opportunities in both industries are going to be different, he points out, and so when choosing between them a lot "depends on what you want to get out the experience" (see Box 1, below).

Being part of the 'big picture' in a biotech company can have its drawbacks, however. "The lifeline work that I do cannot be published," says Tabash, "You have to accept that as part of the job. In a small company, you will simply not get as many publications as an academic postdoc."

Postdoc--What Have You Done for Me Lately?

At last year's American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists annual meeting held in Toronto, a panel of scientists from industry and academia discussed the pros and cons of pursuing a postdoc in either environment. What they advised graduate students present at the workshop was that ultimately a postdoctoral appointment is a two-way street. Before making a decision about where to go for the next 2 to 3 years, it is important to analyse your long-term goals and judge the fit of the prospective lab, whether it is in academia or industry. The panel recommended that prospective graduate students ask themselves these questions:

  • Is this an environment I'm going to enjoy?

  • Does the advisor have a mentoring style to which I will respond?

  • Is acquiring the techniques used in the lab a component in my long-term research goals?

  • Are there plenty of opportunities to attend scientific meetings and network with other colleagues in order to broaden my exposure?

  • Am I going to meet postdocs from other labs?

  • Is the project portable? Can I take some of the data with me?

François Gervais's goal was to combine his interest in basic research with drug discovery--a goal that he wasn't sure was possible until he decided to pursue a postdoc in the pharmaceutical industry. Frustrated by the lack of information available about industry research at the university, Gervais's first insight into pharmaceutical research came toward the end of his PhD studies at McGill University when he attended a seminar given by invited speaker Don Nicholson, a senior director and head of biology at Merck Frosst Canada [Merck Frosst is sponsor of Next Wave Canada]. Gervais was so impressed by the apoptosis research that he later approached Nicholson about doing a postdoc in his lab, which is based at the Merck Frosst Center for Therapeutic Research. As a postdoc at Merck, Gervais was pleased to discover that there are "a lot of very talented scientists in industry who were able to devote some time to basic research."

"The nice thing about working for big pharma is that they can allocate resources for doing basic research," says Gervais, now a research scientist at the company. "As a postdoc, I was studying the role of caspase in Alzheimer's and Huntington's and the molecular basis of these two diseases," says Gervais. "The basic research nature of my work made it possible to publish without infringing on any other work, such as the development of [therapeutic] molecules."

It's the best of the both worlds, says Maya Saleh, who is currently a postdoc at the Merck Frosst Center for Therapeutic Research. "I don't really consider that I am doing an industry postdoc. I am doing basic research in an industry environment." The resources and technology available at Merck--in addition to her supervisor's excellent publication record--were the factors that most influenced her decision to do a postdoc in industry. "I think a postdoc here is great because all of the ideas you get excited about you can realise. There are none of the usual restrictions, like grant money or equipment." Saleh says that she can undertake projects that would be far too expensive to do in a university setting. She estimates that her project, a large-scale analysis of the gene profiles of individuals, will end up costing around a million dollars--research that "could have been done in an academic lab if the resources [were] available."

Saleh hasn't decided whether she wants to pursue a research career in industry or return to academia, "I have funding until 2005 so I still have time to decide." She has a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) industrial postdoc fellowship, where CIHR and Merck split the costs of her salary equally (see Box 2, below).

At Merck Frosst, basic research is conducted on a small scale compared with the rest of the company's activities. Of approximately 300 staff at the Center for Therapeutic Research, only nine postdocs and students are conducting basic research; the rest work in drug discovery and development. Communication between the drug discovery and basic research staff is kept to a minimum for proprietary reasons. "We are not able to attend their meetings, so we are kind of isolated from the rest of the company," says Saleh. "It is one of the disadvantages of industry. ... At least in academia you have the opportunity to attend a lot of seminars and interact with a lot of other postdocs and students. There are more opportunities to discuss your research."

Testing the Waters

According to the postdocs that Next Wave Canada interviewed, it is becoming more common for Canadian companies to hire postdocs that come with their own stipend, or at least a portion of it. To that end, federal funding agencies have programs in place that provide assistance to postdocs who would like to get a taste for industrial research in a Canadian company. One such program is NSERC's Industrial Research Fellowship ( IRF). The IRF pays fellows CA$30,000 per year for 2 years and the employing company kicks in an additional CA$10,000 or more annually. The next deadline for applications is 8 August 2003. The competition results are announced in October. Note that you are responsible for contacting an eligible company and negotiating the details of your position first. The company then applies for the IRF award from NSERC.

The CIHR/Rx&D Research Program is a partnership between Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (Rx&D) and CIHR [also a sponsor of Next Wave Canada], and was established to provide an opportunity for health researchers to work in close cooperation with Rx&D companies. CIHR has teamed up with a number of companies, such as Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and AstraZeneca Canada Inc., to offer postdoctoral fellowship positions in several therapeutic areas of interest to the companies. Details of fellowships available through this program can be found on the CIHR Web site.

Although networking opportunities with other scientists might be fewer in large pharmaceutical companies than they are in academia, the opportunity to publish postdoctoral research results is offered by some, but not all pharmaceutical companies. "Merck promotes publishing as a part of the growth of the researcher in the company. We are encouraged to have an active research program in parallel with drug-discovery activities," Gervais explains.

Danielle Salha says that the ability to publish her vaccine research was a priority for her when she joined the multinational company Aventis Pasteur as a postdoc a year ago. Salha says that postdocs are kept separate from the mainstream drug-discovery program of the company and are free to publish and present their work once it has been cleared of proprietary value. "The projects are more academic in nature but are related to Aventis Pasteur's interests," Salha adds, "We [postdocs] are responsible for how much we put into the project and what we get out of it, as far as publications go." The company employs five postdocs at the company's immunology and microbiology research labs located offsite at Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto.

But in the world of big pharma, Gervais warns, not all other companies encourage publishing and may take a more defensive position regarding the release of information. "You just have to go to PubMed and type in different company names, and the search will show a huge difference in the number of publications generated by these companies and that alone reflects the philosophy of the company." He advises prospective industry postdocs to look closely at the conditions of their contracts, as well as the publishing record of the company, before signing on, because it could have serious implications downstream. "There is a risk that as a postdoc you are not even free to go for job interviews or give a seminar on what you've been working on because of proprietary information--it can become a nightmare," he advises. "Its one thing to get the experience in industry, make contacts, and know what's happening there, but people should never lose sight of the fact that its important to publish--that should remain the number one priority for anyone who wants to do a postdoc."

A common misconception among graduate students is that doing a postdoc at a pharmaceutical company will greatly improve their chances of being hired later on. On the contrary, large companies in Canada do not view their postdoctoral programs as recruitment tools and in many cases actively discourage the notion in their potential postdoc recruits. "I was told by Merck right from the beginning that the expectation of getting a job offer at the end should not be there," says Gervais. At Merck, he explains, postdocs are only offered a position in the company on rare occasions, "because the philosophy at the company is to recruit people from diverse backgrounds. ... Big companies, including Merck, want to hire strong scientists with good publications. They don't necessarily care where they come from." The intention of the pharma industry postdoc, he advises, should be to get the industry experience and then move on to another company.

The situation is different in some companies in the biotech industry, however, where postdocs are more likely to be groomed for a particular role in the company. "Doing a postdoc in my company is really considered an entry point," says Robert Foldes, president and CEO of Cytochroma, who went on to say that the different hiring philosophies of the two sectors reflect their needs in terms of human resources and skills. "In my position, I wouldn't bias the hiring [of a scientist] based on publications because it's not an academic position. I am looking at their experience and leadership potential, definitely not their publication record."

Hiring issues aside, Salha believes that her postdoc at Aventis Pasteur is better preparing her for a job in industry. "I've been exposed to what they do and I am more used to the corporate environment. I feel that my chances to get a job as a scientist in industry are better in general."