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The postdoc series: Postdocs in industry

Postdocs based in industry can give young academic researchers an insight into how the other half lives.

For PhDs that don’t feel quite prepared enough to go straight from academia into industry, there is a half-way point. Many life science and biotechnology companies work in partnership with academia to create industrial postdoc positions.

Timothy Allsopp heads up the bio-hub Neusentis, a part of Pfizer that delivers ‘new science therapeutics’, with a particular focus on pain, sensory disorders, channelopathies (disorders related to ion channels) and enabling stem cell technologies. Neusentis hires researchers straight out of academia for their postdoc positions because of their research focus and the intellectual input they can offer the projects, says Allsopp. By offering an industrial focus, companies like Pfizer give young researchers an opportunity to experience different working environments. “We want to give them a positive experience whilst working on applied science projects.”

“We realise that postdocs are at the point in their career where they want to combine their previous experience and turn it into something new,” says Allsopp. So, the young researchers are not just given a project; they are required to use their previous training. The projects can be either blue-skies research or more applied, but either way the postdoc takes the lead on a project and will be pushed towards publishing in hig profile journals, adds Allsopp.This is similar to the description we had from Katrin Arnold, a recruitment manager for the Pharma Research & Early Development (pRED) sector at Roche, at the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston in 2014. Although given an initial research question at the beginning of their fellowships (2-4 years), young researchers are allowed to guide this research as the work progresses.

The links with academia aren’t completely cut either. At Roche, the postdocs have an academic mentor and a commercial one. This connection makes it easy to get back into academia at the end of the fellowship if the researcher wishes to do so. Pfizer offers the same.

Xiaomo Jiang is currently doing her postdoc with Novartis, working in the Developmental Molecular Pathways Department, trying to understand the underlying signal mechanisms for specific diseases. For her, a postdoc in industry was a chance to try something new. “I didn’t know anything about industry and I wanted to learn.” She also applied to academic postdocs, and had the luxury of making a choice between those or this one in industry. “I think I knew what an academic postdoc position would look like,” Jiang says. Working in industry provides her with stability and the resources she needs to do the basic research she is interested in. “In academia you’re always looking for money and struggling for resources. That problem doesn’t exist in industry.” One of the benefits of her postdoc is that although she’s only working on basic research, she gets a look-in at the pipeline work — something she sees herself doing in the future.

But what about other research disciplines? Is it as simple for physicists as it is for biologists? Karen Kaplan wrote a very interesting piece for the Nature Careers section in 2012 that gives an insight into postdoc positions for physicists. Crystal Bailey, the education and careers programme manager for the American Physical Society (APS), “rarely advises physics graduate students to pursue a postdoc, unless they are certain they want a career in academia or they need a job while they consider their options. Physics postgraduates are, she says, far more likely to get full-time permanent employment in the private sector, for which a postdoc is largely irrelevant.”

As Jiang mentioned, one of the challenges that industry postdocs don’t face is trying to find funding for their research, especially if they continue to work in industry. In the next post we’ll explore some of the funding opportunities and challenges that academic postdocs face.

If you’ve missed the other parts of this series, catch up here:

Part 1: Insights, options, careers

Part 2: What is a postdoc?

Part 3: The plight of the postdoc

Update 23/3/15: Xiaomo Jiang’s name was misspelled in this article. This has now been updated. Apologies to Ms Jiang.

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