Big pharma are starting to introduce academic-style postdoc fellowships, strengthening relationships between industry and academia.
Contributor Esther Cooke
Rightly or wrongly, postdoc positions within industry tend to have a less than stellar reputation. Rumours abound of a disregard for publishing papers, a lack of freedom to develop ideas and difficulty returning to academia. However, pharmaceutical companies, including Roche, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merck and NIBR, are starting to introduce academic-style postdoc fellowships, recognising the need to build relationships with universities. But what are the advantages of conducting research in industry, and how do these fellowships marry the two environments together? Moreover, will a postdoc in industry make it difficult to return to academia down the line?
At the recent Naturejobs Career Expo in London, Dr Katrin Arnold, a recruitment manager for the Pharma Research & Early Development (pRED) sector at Roche, spoke about postodoc opportunities in industry and addressed some of these questions. Roche is a large multinational company specializing in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. Based at six research sites worldwide, Roche’s pRED organization employs approximately 2,500 scientists and clinicians, including close to 100 postdocs. The predominant area of research is neuroscience, with a focus on neurodegeneration, neurodevelopment and psychiatry. Other research areas include oncology, infectious diseases, ophthalmology and rare diseases.
The Roche Postdoctoral Fellowship (RPF) programme lasts from 2 years to 4 years. Participants work either on drug discovery or on development of technologies. The programme differs from traditional industrial placements, bridging the gap between commerce and universities. As with academia, the main aim of the fellowship is to publish papers. Presenting at international conferences is also encouraged and there is an annual RPF Symposia.
Each postdoc at Roche starts out with a very specific research question. But, contrary to popular belief, fellows are able to influence this question as their work progresses and are encouraged to initiate their own research projects or collaborations. Postdocs also maintain a connection with academia — they have mentors in both the commercial and academic setting, and may divide their time between the two locations. Such a connection makes for an easy return to academia at the end of the programme, if desired. Alternatively, there are opportunities for progression within the company, including lateral career development in a different role or department.
If this sounds like the perfect position, you can find more information and job listings on the career section of the company’s website. But be warned: positions are highly competitive. Arnold stresses that applicants must have scientific expertise that matches the specific job description, adding “we do look for publications, even if you are at the end of your PhD”.
If you are battling with the idea of moving to industry, an academia-meets-industry postdoc fellowship may be the perfect approach, providing an environment with similar goals and set-ups to academia and leaving the door open for a return to working at a university. Joining a global pharmaceutical company leads to excellent opportunities to live and work abroad, as well as access to state-of-the-art equipment and typically a much higher salary than that of an academic postdoc.
So what are the downsides? On completion of the RPF, 31% of people move to work elsewhere in industry and 33% return to academia. On one hand, this demonstrates the flexibility of this type of programme; on the other, it suggests that many postdocs prefer the university setting. Perhaps the most off-putting aspect is the competitive application process, reserved for outstanding candidates with documented experience and expertise in the project area. Although the postdoc schemes offered by other pharmaceutical companies are likely to be equally competitive, a broader search would be worthwhile to find a position that is most relevant to your previous research experience — your best shot at a successful transition to industry.