Friday, March 18, 2011

The perils of industrial postdocs

A constant reader writes with questions about an industrial postdoc. There are a few concerns:

Missing the seal of approval: Let's not be coy about this: we all know that there are informal networks of  (insert famous professor's name here) Group Alumni within larger companies (especially Big Pharma). While their power and influence is probably overemphasized, I'm sure that it does skew hiring at least a little bit. Those of us (myself included) who did not do postdocs with the Blank Group are excluded from those networks. An industrial postdoc further excludes you from those networks.

Whether or not it will matter is a different story. Trouble being, of course, that if you take an industrial postdoc, your new network is within your company and will probably not extend elsewhere very far. (Unless, of course, your company is so huge and your reputation so strong that you're a star, no matter what.)

Exploitation: I think we've all heard the stories about companies that bring in postdocs basically to hire cheap labor. It happens; I have seen it.

How do you avoid it? Ask the terms of your employment as an industrial postdoctoral fellow. What is the point of your postdoc? Is it to do your own research? Is it to help other people in their research? Can you publish your findings? Are you put on a project to make money immediately or develop new science?

Are you being considered for a position within the company afterwards? In larger companies, quite often the answer is: "No, we view this as an academic experience. After your X years are up, you're expected to go elsewhere." Also, there's the question of past history: have you hired postdocs before? Did they publish? (Did you allow them to publish?) Where did they go after they left? Is this an appropriate learning experience?

Pay now or pay later?: Industrial postdocs are typically paid higher than academic postdoc salaries (10 to 35%? SWAG) I view this as a double-edged sword. As a Ph.D. chemist, you're trying to grow a ten to twenty year career. Taking a higher salary that closes off other networking and learning opportunities may not be a good idea. But if your industrial postdoc offers training that cannot be gained elsewhere, why not?

If I were to rank these concerns, I would rank the most important concern as: exploitation, then networking concerns and then pay. Good luck to all of those considering industrial postdocs; just remember to consider them carefully.

15 comments:

  1. CJ: Would you recommend caution even for considering at a Big Pharma company?

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  2. How common are industrial postdocs? I know my company doesn't do them. I don't know anyone who has done one.

    Some companies I know of do graduate fellowships which they use to evaluate potential employees.

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  3. The trouble with industrial medchem postdocs is that it is so hard to get publications out of it. When your series are related to a clinical candidate you will be able to present your story only few years after it went into clinic.

    It looks lame when you have in your resume "patent application, submitted with patent office" and "manuscript in preparation", or one BMCL crap communication with 12 other people to show for your time there.

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  4. My view of industrial postdocs is quite different, but I'm pretty sure the company I worked for was an anomaly. The postdocs most definitely made better money ($60K, I believe). As milkshake said, they didn't publish much, but most were able to secure at least a couple patents. My company was one that hired postdocs on to full time positions, and those that didn't stay didn't seem to have trouble finding employment elsewhere.

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  5. I HAVE BEEN HEARING THAT MANY BIG PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES ARE HIRING FRESHLY MINTED PH.D AS A POST DOCTORAL FELLOW TO PARTICIPATE IN THEIR ONGOING MEDICINAL CHEMISTRY PROGRAM. FOR COMPANIES IT IS WIN-WIN SITUATION IN THAT YOU GET SIMILAR SKILL SET AT LOWER WAGES (COMPARED TO REGULAR HIRING SOMEONE WITH 2+ POST DOCTORAL EXPERIENCE POST PH.D). IF THINGS DOES NOT WORK OUT YOU ARE ASKED TO LOOK FOR JOB ELSEWHERE AND IF YOU ARE GOOD YOU ARE ABSORBED.

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  6. A5:39a: I actually did one with a B.P. I had a *fantastic* time, but I think mine was very, very situation dependent. Make sure you ask pertinent questions and get things in writing, I suppose.

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  7. In industry, sometimes getting an agreement in writing is not good enough. Management changes fairly often (sometimes as much as 2 yrs then out) and a new manager doesn't feel bound to an agreement made by a predecessor. Just my experience but I've known of people who got stuck in "temporary" assignments by this very thing.

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  8. Another thing to consider is that much of the chemistry industry in general is shrinking. An industrial postdoc at the company I work for has done a good job, but there is a hiring freeze now when they are about at the end of their contract.

    I know of another industrial postdoc who was fantastic but their contract concluded just as the company was the second major layoff since they had started their postdoc. Additionally the company hadn't hired any permament medchemist since before they started.

    A5:59a: If you think that 'doing a good job' at a Big Pharma will automatically cause postdocs to be absorbed or even give someone job security, you are for a very RUDE WAKE UP CALL. I suggest you stop listening to your academic or non-Big Pharma friends, and take a look at what has been happening in Big Pharma for the past few years. You may wish it worked the way you described, but it doesn't.

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  9. Blank Group discrimination is unfair. I came from a Blank Group. I know I have gotten some opportunities because of having Blank Group on my resume. I got some really valuable experience in industry after Blank Group. Because of that industry experience I was very successful when I started a new industry position. However, when a new position opened, everyone assumed that my success was due to Blank Group not the previous industry experience. So what did they do? Call up Blank professor to fill the position.

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  10. DAMN! Now that's a no-win situation, anon 6:21!

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  11. A6:21p: I'm sorry to hear that. I don't mean to discriminate against Blank Group members; I have typically found them to be as sharp as I might expect.

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  12. anon 6:21 back:
    CJ: I was not referring to you when I was talking about Blank Group discrimination. I was agreeing with your post! Sorry for the confusion. It is unfair to think one should want to hire from a certain professor, I certainly don't. I attribute the ability to make almost all of my current contributions from my valuable industrial experience NOT my professor.

    I think that there should be less emphasis on hiring fresh out of college (from blank professors), and hire those who have been laid off from industry with good experience.

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  13. @Anon6:21 / 7:07 - I agree about the general "unfairness" in hiring from the same few labs - which seems to disproportionately affect med chem and synthesis, FWIW - but that doesn't stop big pharm from doing it. During my last med chem jaunt, I could count on one hand the different schools my coworkers hailed from.

    Hey, maybe that's part of the reason B.P. is in such a funk...inbreeding over successive generations tends to increase recessive traits!

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  14. recessive traits such as advanced skills in penis jousting ;-)

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