Rick H. Fields is a Thin Film Materials Science postdoc working in a large industrial research center in California. His name has been changed to protect his identity.
As long back as I can remember, I always intended to obtain a doctorate degree in the sciences. As my father had done, I planned on joining the ranks of industrial researchers to advance technology for the profit of the company, the benefit for consumers, and possibly society. During my graduate career, I visited and interacted with many researchers from industrial, national, and university laboratories. I was truly fortunate in that I had numerous possibilities after graduation. However, my goal of obtaining a permanent research staff position at a California company limited my choices to a handful of companies. From the beginning, my job search focused on a particular company. Let's call them Company X. I was attracted by the productivity of numerous highly respected scientists of Company X's research center.
Despite being actively recruited by Company X, I was unable to secure a permanent research position as I had hoped. Instead, I was offered a postdoctorate position by a reputable researcher at the company. Despite my high ambitions, I decided that an industrial postdoc would provide me with extensive exposure within the company and potentially lead to a permanent position. The experience would also make me attractive to other potential future employers. Eighteen months have passed since I made the decision. I will try to shed light on the positives and negatives of pursuing an industrial postdoc position based on my experience and that of fellow industrial postdocs.
High-tech companies hire industrial postdocs as a recruitment tool and to do exploratory research beyond the scope of the designated program. If one has not decided whether to pursue an academic or industrial career, an industrial postdoc position is an excellent opportunity to observe the environment and demands of an industrial researcher. The secrecy and motivations behind industrial or applied research is an entirely foreign world for most graduate students when emerging from an academic environment. You will be reeducated in terminology and processes not listed in graduate textbooks or academic journals. You may find yourself operating state-of-the-art research and manufacturing equipment supported by an active supporting staff of technical engineers. The competitive race for cutting-edge technology requires large-scale but selective capital investment by high-tech companies. The highlight of my postdoc experience is my professional and personal associations with the collection of motivated and talented engineers and scientists. These experts were readily available to dispense advice regarding a wide variety of disciplines and problems. An advantage of the "temporary employee" status of postdocs is that I was "excused" from most of the bureaucratic requirements imposed by corporate management. Financially, industrial postdocs are paid competitively with similar positions at national labs and considerably more than academic postdocs. Industrial postdocs are also invited to participate in the company stock purchase plan and other employee discount programs.
The disadvantages of being an industrial postdoc are numerous and complicated. Your experience may vary greatly from mine depending on the industry, corporate culture, your attitude, and your supervisor. Being in industry, one must naturally expect to focus on an aspect related to commercial technology. Basic science research does exist within industry, but such opportunities are few and with limited funding due to marginal interest from management. Because you are regarded as a temporary employee, the company is obliged to protect its many industrial secrets by denying you access or exposure. I found this unbelievably frustrating and detrimental to my scientific development. Despite the availability of experts and equipment, I became aware very quickly of the limits and closed doors. I am not permitted to attend the weekly group meetings nor other internal discussions. I flourished in the openness of the academic setting, but wilted in this stifling environment. After some time, one simply loses interest in the projects of the other group members. To avoid disclosure problems, you may be assigned projects only distantly related to product level technology; however, if your research results suggest a new area of unlicensed technologies, you will experience great difficulty in publishing or disclosing your work outside of the company. All external publications and presentations must go through a process of managerial approval to determine if the research results are proprietary. Similarly, internal collaborations are encouraged but limitations to external collaborations exist due to financial and proprietary constraints.
There are a number of more subtle and circumstantial disadvantages to the industrial environment. If you design and construct an analytical or characterization tool, your association with the equipment can create the dangerous situation of being reduced to a glorified technician. Postdocs in this position resented the narrow focus of their position and felt abused. In the industrial management scheme, a hierarchy of decision-making and control exists where the focus of research is often dictated from above. The external control can create situations of unwanted interference. I soon also realized that my position placed me at the bottom of the pyramid of power. The progress of my work was impeded by delays because my samples were often deemed "low priority." As a postdoc, you are granted a limited travel budget to attend conferences in your field which is subjected to managerial approval. Despite the competitive pay as a postdoc, the postdoc salary is only 50% to 70% of that of the researchers and supporting engineering staff. Due to the temporary employee status, I am denied certain benefits given to permanent employees such as a dental plan and contributions to a retirement account. Postdocs are not eligible for pay increases during the length of their contract and ineligible for variable pay such as bonuses. Finally, working for 2 years for a company does not guarantee any position, let alone a research position. Many of the retained postdocs are often placed in engineering positions due to the lack of new research positions.
During the 18 months of my postdoc, I often asked myself if I would have made the same decision. Although I am very happy with my fellow co-workers, I continually suffered from an overwhelming sense of frustration that never abated. I found the environment to be confining and it limited my productivity. I wanted to contribute more, but my enthusiasm was often doused by the policy of confidentiality. In hindsight, I probably should have increased my options and pursued my goal of a permanent industrial position to greater lengths. In the months remaining in my postdoc, I will seek a permanent position at an industrial research center. The change in status may eliminate the frustration of closed doors, but I realize that many of the limitations I listed are intrinsic to the industrial environment.