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Careers for postdoctoral scientists: Beyond the ivory tower

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Moving from an academic environment to an industrial laboratory can prove difficult because of the need to adapt to a different culture. Here, we provide tips on how best to make a seamless transition.

The majority of postdocs carry out their fellowships at universities, but large numbers find their first job in industry. The transition can prove difficult because of the different mindsets of academe and industry. Ph.D. scientists who choose to carry out their postdoctoral studies in industry face similar problems. However, companies can help to smooth the transition, and individual scientists can take their own steps to prepare for life outside the ivory tower. This supplement outlines some of those strategies.

A Lot of Commonality

The move from academe to commerce doesn't necessarily mean a definitive change of mindset for Ph.D.s who choose industrial postdoctoral projects and academic postdocs who set out on careers in industry. "There's a lot of commonality," says Linda Burkly, a distinguished investigator in molecular discovery at Biogen Idec. "The individual should have very strong scientific credentials and a strong research background. We are also working on cutting-edge research in the industrial community."

Stanley Crooke, CEO of Isis Pharmaceuticals, points out other resemblances between the two types of organization. "If industry is recruiting scientists at the postdoctoral level, it wants them to be scientists; we're not interested in their being business people," he explains. "And the demands of a good industrial lab are very similar to those of a good academic lab."

However, scientists who move from the ivory tower to the commercial world must prepare to fit into a different culture. "There tends to be a bit more structure in industry," Crooke says. Roberto Polakiewicz, chief scientific officer of Cell Signaling Technology, points out that the cultures of different corporations can vary markedly. However, he says, "The main issue is that you're coming from an environment where there's academic freedom. In the university, you can choose your project, as long as it's funded, and you do your work. You're encouraged to have a lot of interaction with your fellow postdocs. In industry it varies. Some pharmaceutical companies have very open-ended projects. But generally there's less academic freedom and more restriction to a project."

Patricia Andrade-Gordon, vice president for biology research and early development at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, points out that the industrial environment involves positives and negatives when compared with the ivory tower. "In industry, while you have access to more resources, you also have less flexibility to choose your research area, as your goals are linked to company focus," she says. "Time management is likely the greatest challenge faced during the transition from academia to industry. In industry, objectives are defined for the year, and performance is directly linked to your ability to deliver against those goals, whereas academic postdocs may have more flexibility."

Industrial Attitudes

Industrial attitudes toward teamwork can also challenge academic postdocs who become new employees. "The main difference is the degree to which we work in teams in the industrial setting. There are project teams organized to investigate molecular pathways and advance therapeutic targets to a development stage," Burkly notes. "This is new in some respects to academic postdocs. They may be used to networking and collaborating in their labs, but the main difference in industry is the team environment. Teams are composed of scientists with different backgrounds and expertise, brought together to energize and move things more quickly toward the goal – the development stage. When postdocs or new employees get onto a project team, they may find it hard to figure out their roles on the team – how they are supposed to function and provide leadership with respect to their own skills."

Polakiewicz echoes that sentiment. "In academic labs it's more individual work," he explains. "In industry, postdocs may see themselves in a team situation in which they have to do certain things. They are company projects, not their own, although the situation varies from company to company."

Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), confirms the importance of industrial teamwork from the point of view of the postdocs themselves. "We've heard from some of our members who are engaged in basic research that the differences are in terms of the team effort," she says. "In the academic environment, there's much more independence and more opportunity to pursue your own ideas. In industry, new ideas are evaluated on the basis of the company's overall goals and commercial needs. So you need to coordinate your work much more with others in your research team than you would in academia." On the other hand, Reed points out, "There is a trend in academia toward more collaboration and teamwork."

Academics who move into industry, whether before or after working on their postdoctoral projects, face a particularly substantive issue that has strong impact on their mode of thinking. "You have to grapple with the publishing policy, particularly if you are in an industrial postdoc program," Crooke says.

A Different Sense of Community

Scientists who choose to do their postdoctoral work in industry must deal with another significant alteration in mindset. "Another major change to account for is the difference found in most industrial environments as compared with academia," Andrade-Gordon says. "The same sense of academic community does not exist, for the most part, for the industrial postdoc, unless there are significant numbers of postdocs within a given department. This can present a major challenge for maintaining that sense of common-ground community found in academia, where you are surrounded by other postdocs, graduate students, and professors, all with similar pressures."

Reed echoes that point. "Informal enquiries show that our members found a larger community of people to interact with in the academic environment," she says. "They could assume that certain core facilities would be available. It was easier for them to stay current with research in their areas; you can't assume that in industry."

On the other hand, industry seeks and values the new ideas that incoming or former postdocs can bring from the academy. "When I was in R&D at SmithKline in 1981, I put probably the first postdoc program into industry," Crooke recalls. "One of the fundamental reasons that academic scientists seem to have longer careers before they become outdated is that they have reactions with new blood. So I felt a postdoc program would delay the obsolescence of our R&D people. It would also give us an opportunity to identify outstanding candidates for jobs, and vice versa. Also, there's no place to learn drug discovery and development except in the pharmaceutical industry."

The learning process can lead to a dead end. "It's probably a one-way road when you switch to industry," Polakiewicz asserts. "An industrial postdoc implies that you'll stay in industry, because it's harder to publish high-profile papers. Some companies have restrictions on publishing."

Of course, many scientists who transfer from academia to industry have given the move plenty of thought. "I haven't experienced new employees having particular difficulties finding their place," Biogen Idec's Burkly says. "In the process of making their decision to leave the academic community and come to industry, they have asked many questions, identified key differences, and shown themselves to be aware of the way industrial projects are managed."

Do You Belong?

How should young scientists go about deciding whether or not they belong in industry? "The acid test is to question what you want to do with the information you have on enzyme X," Crooke says. "Do you want to spend you life on it or to engage in enzyme X with an application in mind? I had a postdoc or two who had highly focused interests; they wanted to know about DNA polymerase rather than wanting to know about DNA polymerase so that they could use it to make a drug. They were not ready for industry."

Polakiewicz makes the point more pithily. "You should have a very good self-explanatory process, specifically with what you want to do and the sort of career path you want," he says. "More often than not, the decision is a point of no return."

That process should include a personal inventory. "The first thing is to bring an asset of skills that have value; you had better know something," Crooke says. "Second, have a respect for the process. The two tough things in life are being a good parent and making a drug. So a postdoc should come in with respect for the drug discovery and development process. Don't come in if you are looking for a place to park or to make money. The person who cares and commits is successful."

Scientists should take care to prepare for the interview with a potential industrial employer or postdoctoral supervisor. "If you're interviewing for a specific position, ask very detailed questions about expectations, resources you'll have access to, and how your work will fit into the larger goals of the company," the NPA's Reed advises. "Be very savvy about what you're going to be asked to do."

The NPA also has advice for postdocs who think that they might want to work in industry. "If you're not interviewing for a specific job, we recommend informational interviewing about what a job in industry might entail and what type of facilities you might expect," Reed says. "Many companies consider this informational interviewing perfectly acceptable and valid."

The Corporate Interview

Certainly corporate interviewers take all their conversations with young scientists seriously. "As someone who interviews a lot of potential hires, I try to make sure that the individual is well suited to the situation," Biogen Idec's Burkly says. "You want the individual to be happy and you want to be happy with him or her. Even if candidates don't realize what questions to ask, you try to get them to understand what they're getting into."

Successful interviews represent just the start of a process of introducing young scientists to the industrial life. "When they have started in their new position, they're mentored by their line manager and project leader," Burkly continues. "They have the opportunity to meet and talk with peers and colleagues who will be on their project team to get an understanding of the history of their project and the various perspectives that other scientists bring to it. In this way they can get a sense of where each person on the team is coming from and how they themselves can bring value."

Industrial managers agree that effective mentoring is critical. "For academic postdocs, the transition needs to be on the job, aided with the help of mentoring programs," says Johnson & Johnson's Andrade-Gordon. "Pairing a postdoc with an experienced employee to shadow and learn from has proven to be a very successful model for us." Beyond that, she adds, "We take career development very seriously. The success of newly hired scientists is part of the accountability of their supervisors. We have our First Friend program, which identifies a permanent employee from the same department or team to welcome the new employee and to assist him or her with making introductions to others, as well as helping with passwords, training, learning the new systems and databases, and obtaining information on who to go to when questions arise."

Special Care and Feeding

Scientists who carry out their postdoctoral studies in industry require special care and feeding. "The principal responsibility is between the supervisor and the postdoc," Crooke of Isis Pharmaceuticals explains. "We have a technology base that takes a while to learn. Every day we have people making presentations of their work and program reviews. Postdocs are expected to participate in them and learn from them. You learn by osmosis to do what you do well and to understand how it fits in the process."

Reed sums up what a Ph.D. or postdoc might expect at the start of research in an industrial lab. "We're not aware of any structured or defined transition programs," she says. "But like most jobs, if you're coming into an entry-level position, there's a certain amount of on-the-job training – whether you've been in academia or any other kind of setting."

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