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THE PROS AND CONS OF DOING AN INDUSTRIAL POSTDOC

THE WAVE OF THE PRESENT

Almost all young scientists who are about to complete their Ph.D. degree or an academic postdoctoral position face these same questions: Do I want to continue working at the bench? If so, do I want to remain in academia or work in industry? For those who wish to continue working in the laboratory and remain in basic research, it is "almost always" necessary to complete at least one tenure as a postdoctoral fellow. A postdoctoral position is one which allows a recent Ph.D. graduate the opportunity to work on a different academic project from the one where they completed their degree and benefit from the expertise which has been developed by a new laboratory.

Interview Process Differences

Postdoctoral positions are typically held in academic institutions such as universities, hospitals, or other government research institutes for a term of 2 to 4 years and are meant for the postdoc to "grow scientifically" and bolster their publication record. Interviews for these positions, if any, are usually very informal. A postdoctoral position is usually created by the project supervisor (e.g., university professor) and is mainly dependent on the supervisor's access to research funds to cover for expenses such as salary, reagents, equipment, and travel for conferences. The salary for these positions may also be paid for by a scholarship that is held by the postdoctoral fellow.

Searching for an industrial postdoc may be very much like looking for a permanent position, particularly if the company is expanding and open to the idea of keeping you for the long term. In order to be nominated by an eligible company, you have to be fortunate enough to have your name chosen from a sea of curriculum vitae. If so, you will usually be asked to appear for a formal (often full-day) interview including a 45 to 60 minute presentation on your most recent work, followed by a scientific evaluation by a review committee and a company profile evaluation by the department of human resources.

At this time, it is the responsibility of the candidate to negotiate the salary and fringe benefits of the postdoctoral position. Keep in mind that the company is required to "top off" the value of any external fellowship you may have by a minimum value. [My Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) industrial postdoc fellowship is worth C$30,000 per year for up to 2 years.] The most recent figures indicate that the average annual salary of postdocs with my fellowship is approximately C$44,000 plus other fringe benefits. The salary and fringe benefits will vary depending on the host company.

In the event that your interview was successful, the company will then inform you (by phone or mail) that you may be hired as a postdoctoral fellow provided that you are successful in obtaining an industrial postdoctoral fellowship from NSERC or another granting agency. The selection criteria for these fellowships is usually based on the academic record, research potential, communication skills, and interpersonal abilities of the candidate as well as the scientific merit of the proposed research project. The proposed research and development activities are usually written by the company and are derived from the company's short- and long-term objectives or plans.

In some cases, however, a company may ask the postdoctoral candidate to prepare the research proposal in order to evaluate the candidate's potential for "creative thinking" on a particular project taking place within the company. If the application is successful, the candidate will be offered a temporary contract covering the period of financial support from the granting agency (usually for 2 years).

The Tax Differences

To the dismay of many postdoctoral fellows in academia, they are often not eligible for fringe benefits offered by the institution where they are working, nor are they eligible to contribute to a pension plan and deduct those amounts towards income tax savings. Unfortunately, in the view of Revenue Canada, salary paid directly from a postdoctoral fellowship is considered as a bursary or "other income," and not considered as "real employment."

Hence, most postdoctoral fellows in Canada are not eligible for registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) contributions and the income tax savings which these plans offer. To my knowledge, this is the only type of position (at least in Canada) where one goes to work (and usually works very hard), pays income taxes, contributes to society, and does not have the right to enjoy the same benefits as other working people, such as university professors, lab technicians, administration, etc.

In the case of an industrial postdoc, even one subsidized by a research grant from NSERC or some other government body, the postdoctoral fellow becomes a salaried contract employee of the company. NSERC, or any other granting agency, reimburses the company (and not the postdoctoral fellow) every 4 months to help offset the cost of your salary. For this reason, Revenue Canada allows postdoctoral fellows who are holders of these types of awards to contribute to their own RRSP plans and receive the income tax deductions from these plans. This makes a huge difference in your actual take-home pay.

The Work Environment

In academia, it is very common for post-docs to make their own schedule. In the university setting, it is not unusual to see postdocs coming into the lab in the afternoon and not leaving until very late in the evening. In an industrial setting, however, arriving for work in the afternoon may be frowned upon even if you are putting in the hours.

Although most universities and companies share similar "written" guidelines involving laboratory safety and other precautions, companies (particularly pharmaceutical and chemical companies) tend to be VERY strict in enforcing these rules as compared to academia. In university labs, for example, it is not uncommon to see students or postdocs eating lunch or drinking coffee in the labs at their desks, whereas eating or drinking in a company lab would be strictly forbidden (yes, even if it is coffee!). If you wish to eat or drink in a company, you may do so in the cafeteria, library, or offices that are not in proximity to any laboratory.

The Type of Work Done

The laboratory techniques used in industry are very similar to those used in academia, except the equipment and instrumentation found in industry are sometimes more accessible and modern than those found in universities. However, it is the application of those techniques, as well as the objectives, which differ significantly. In academia, the priorities are to teach, advance knowledge for knowledge's sake through publications and conference proceedings, and maintain financial support for these research activities via research grants. In the R&D based industries, the priority is to the shareholders by maximizing profits through product development. It is perfectly understandable that shareholders of any company are looking for a return on their investment. Shareholders or potential investors will mainly judge a company on two things: current and prospective profit levels and the potential market value of products that are in the company's development pipeline. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, the development of a candidate drug for a particular disease state will be the key priority. So the work will generally consist of selection and validation of targets for therapeutic intervention, designing high-throughput screening assays which may be used to evaluate libraries of compounds (many thousands) for their effectiveness in producing the desired result toward the targets, and optimizing any "hits" from these screenings so that they may become candidate drugs which may be sent for phase I clinical trials, and hopefully beyond.

Does this mean that companies only care about product development rather than basic research or publishing? If so, what do these differences mean for the industrial postdoc? The answers to these questions often depend on the size (and attitude) of the host company. Here are some general observations I have made: Large pharmaceutical companies generally have more resources (both equipment and people) than smaller ones. Research scientists employed by large pharmaceutical companies are encouraged to publish scientific articles using data that the company considers nonproprietary. In some companies, particularly the large ones, it is actually frowned upon if you are not publishing on a regular basis. Therefore, doing an industrial postdoc at a large company is more likely to resemble one that is located in an academic setting. That is, your focus and attention is to publish papers and not to participate very much in the mainstream drug discovery program of the company.

In a smaller company, the postdoc experience may be a little different. Smaller companies may be looking to bring in someone with an expertise or training that does not already exist within their facility. Hence, doing an industrial postdoc in a smaller company may not only involve trying to publish but also to provide an additional expertise or insight which may assist in the firm's drug discovery program. Therefore, it may be more common for industrial postdoctoral fellows located in smaller companies to be more active participants in the mainstream "core" projects, whereas within larger companies, it is more likely that your expertise already exists.

Hire-Backs

The majority of NSERC eligible companies in Canada will consider their postdocs for permanent positions following completion of the fellowship. Surprisingly, however, many companies (often the large ones) are not in the habit of keeping their postdocs--some even have strict policies against it, stating that if you postdoc there, they won't consider you for permanent research positions that open up. For these companies, you may be better off being a successful postdoc from a highly recognized academic lab in order to be considered for a permanent industry position. So it may be a good idea to ask about the company's policy regarding its postdocs during the job interview, if you haven't researched it before then.

The good news, however, is that the latest statistic from the NSERC is that over 60% of their fellowship holders are retained permanently by the host company. This may mean significantly better odds than for most people who are in the hunt for employment. For those who have not been retained, having had some industrial experience is still a robust combination to have on your C.V. and will be looked upon favorably by another potential employer. For young scientists who wish to work in industry, getting their first step in the corporate door is an important, but often difficult, step. So yes, industrial postdoctoral programs like those offered by NSERC are a great way to make that first step.