Is an Industrial Postdoc Right For You?

by: Elaine To
*This article was originally published on the Scizzle blog

In recent years, postdoctoral opportunities in industry have been on the rise. Notorious for higher pay, access to greater resources, and providing a leg up for future industry positions, these positions offer many advantages over traditional academic postdocs. However, they are not for everyone; certain aspects are cause for caution. Here’s a list of questions you need to answer when considering such a position and some tips for searching out opportunities.

Questions you need to answer:

1. Are you comfortable with closing the door to an academic career? Or do you want to leave it open?

Industrial postdocs are excellent opportunities if your goal is to stay in industry, but depending on the postdoctoral program and company, returning to academia may be difficult. Academic scientists need quality publications during their postdoctoral training, and not every project in an industrial setting may be designed to do that. Additionally, it is sometimes in the best interest of the company to dissuade publications, keeping discoveries and technologies confidential for profitable development. Thus many industrial postdocs get patents, which are a mark of success for the postdoc while also protecting the company’s business aspirations. However, publications tend to be more valuable to an academic hiring committee than patents. Patents often have a large number of authors and it can be difficult to discern each individual author’s contribution. Lastly, it is unlikely that you will be able to turn your postdoctoral research project into your lab’s research focus as a PI. This is not to say all industrial postdocs close the door to academia, but a warning to choose wisely with these caveats in mind.

2. What is the company’s goal in taking you on as a postdoc?

Be wary of companies that may just be trying to take advantage of you and pay less for what should be a full time employee position. Postdoctoral positions, whether in academia or industry, are meant to be training periods. Ensure that you are not being hired to perform a single specialized assay for the entire period of time. You should still be exposed to new techniques and concepts, even if you start out doing what you’re familiar with. Try to determine who you will be reporting to and gauge whether they have the time and scientific knowledge to mentor you in your chosen project(s).

An additional question that will help you understand the company’s goal is what are the differences between a postdoc and a full employee at this company? Will you be able to work on what interests you, or only what’s assigned to you? Are all the benefits the same?

3. After the postdoctoral position ends, is there the possibility to join the company afterwards?

Some companies actively refuse to hire their postdocs. In a roundabout way, this is actually beneficial for the postdoc. If a well-known company gains a reputation for hiring their postdocs, the postdocs they don’t hire may have the following stigma attached to their subsequent job search: “Well if XXX company didn’t hire you after your postdoc with them, you must not be very good.” Other companies will not guarantee a job after the postdoc, though it is likely if you perform well. These companies are viewing the postdoc period as a time to both train you and test you. While this state of affairs offers greater security, be wary and have a solid plan in case they do not hire you. If the company is small, it is entirely possible that they do not have a position open at the end of your postdoctoral training.

How to search out industrial postdoc opportunities:

If you read my previous post on how to jumpstart your non-academic job search, the major point I emphasized was the value of networking. That is just as applicable here, whether the company you’re targeting has a formal postdoctoral program or not.

Large companies including Genentech and Novartis have formal postdoctoral programs. The positions are often advertised online and easy to find. Compared to these announcements soliciting applications, the idea of networking into a position is scary, especially when we’ve spent our lives filling out such applications to advance our career (undergraduate, graduate, fellowships, etc). However, postdoctoral positions in industry, particularly at large reputable companies, are highly desired. Just like every other job announcement, the human resources department will be bombarded with hundreds of qualified applicants for that single position. Unlike the previous graduate or fellowship applications we’ve filled out, the human resources department may not have the scientific expertise required to adequately judge your fit for the position. If somebody in your network already works with the company, you can ask that individual to contact the scientist behind that advertised position and see if s/he is willing to do an informational interview with you. At the end of that interview, if you decide you still want to apply for that position, let the professor know to keep an eye out for your resume.

Smaller companies may not have formal programs and may have never even thought of taking on postdocs. Networking is also your way in here, though you could use it to ask for either a full time position or a postdoctoral position, depending on your career goals. Companies are sometimes more willing to take on a postdoc because it is a smaller investment with the same potential for gain. Even if they have no advertised positions online, ask if they are interested in discussing the possibility of a postdoctoral position. You may be able to inquire directly without a networking connection, though networking always helps. This cold calling method may also work with scientists in larger companies, if you’re able to identify who you’d like to work with.

My experience is an example of networking success and how much the job search relies on serendipity. Early on in my search, a chance met friend from an online dating site connected me to a biotech recruiter who worked closely with several companies in my targeted geographical area. After a brief rundown of my skills, she took my resume and passed it on to the company that ultimately offered me a postdoctoral position. Without my friend, or the recruiter (who I now consider a friend as well), the company and I would have never found each other. I’m both grateful and thrilled for the opportunity. Be on the lookout for further posts on the industrial postdoc experience after I start!

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