With the increasingly competitive nature of employment in academia, a growing number of newly minted Ph.D. graduates are turning to industry for their postdocs and beyond. Meanwhile, Canadian companies researching and developing products and technologies continue to seek highly qualified researchers to help keep them competitive in national and global markets. In an effort to bring together early-career scientists and potential corporate employers, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) offers Industrial Research Fellowships (IRF) that allow postdoctoral scientists to do research in industry.

"With the IRF, we're hoping to give research graduates exposure to the industrial milieu and give them a chance to work with research groups and leaders in Canada's private sector," says Tim Russwurm, team leader in the Scholarships and Fellowships Division of NSERC.

Taking a Chance

Even though the participating young scientists are important beneficiaries of the award, a host company has to submit the application. That means that anyone who is interested in participating in the program must first locate a company that's willing to host them.

At least 2 weeks before the deadline for the fellowship application, the host company must send a one-page letter of intent to NSERC, outlining in brief the postdoc's intended project. "They have to show what the candidate's involvement would be, and how the candidate's involvement will be incrementally beneficial to the company," explains Russwurm. The company--not the applicant--then submits the IRF application to NSERC.

Reviewers--researchers from various government departments--look for young scientists with academic excellence, research potential, communication skills, and evidence of good interpersonal and leadership skills. Meanwhile, the company needs to ensure that the research provides the appropriate degree of challenge suitable for someone with a Ph.D. The potential employer must provide evidence of the company's commitment to the fellow and the project, as well as the chances for permanent employment.

To get their foot in the industrial door, Russwurm advises prospective IRF applicants to check with their Ph.D. supervisor about possible contacts in the private sector. "A lot of professors are doing contracts with companies today, so this may be the best point of contact," he adds. Applicants can also find a list of potential host companies on the NSERC Web site. Over the past 2 years, 148 companies have participated in the program. Most tend to be small to medium-size businesses, although there are a few spinoff companies originating from university research programs in the mix.

Those applying to the more general NSERC postdoctoral fellowship (PDF) program can also indicate their interest in the IRF directly in their application. These applications are ranked by the fellowship selection committee, and a line is drawn below which, NSERC judges, the qualifications no longer merit funding. "Above that line," as Russwurm points out, "everybody is a meritorious candidate, but unfortunately [many are] below the NSERC budgetary cut off."

Some of these scientists get a second chance, as their names are placed on an IRF inventory list for companies to browse. From the 2004 PDF competition, 84 applicants were placed on the IRF inventory list; for 2005, with an increasing number of those showing interest in the program, this number has already ballooned to 127. "Companies can browse through this list of preapproved candidates and search for a good match to fit their own research program," he adds.

Part of the Team

According to statistics, most past industrial postdocs have been satisfied with their IRF placement. Since 1981, 60.5% of fellows have been offered permanent positions at the host company upon expiration of the award. For Russwurm, this means that both parties were satisfied with the experience.

One of the conditions of the program is that the postdoc must become an employee of the company. Although it's up to the fellow to negotiate with the company, NSERC does expect fellows to receive a salary and benefits package comparable to that of other employees with similar qualifications. Paying a competitive salary to IRF fellows is easy, because NSERC subsidizes them to the tune of $30,000 per year, an amount that the host company is required to supplement with at least an additional $10K. Most companies provide a larger supplement, so that the average salary for IRF fellows is nearly $52,000 per year.

These figures, Russwurm says, are in line with industry standards, which tend to be higher than academic pay. This is a major selling point of the IRF for early-career scientists who otherwise may be relegated to much lower salaries within university settings. Russwurm has noticed, however, that in a few cases the pay may not be the best the field can offer, but the research is very interesting.

This can happen when working for a smaller start-up company, in which there are more risks and potential payoffs. But the IRF applicant has to make this decision. "You see a small company that could end up being one of the big multimillion-dollar enterprises, and if you are at the ground floor, there is a chance you may end up being the director of research. Inversely, the company might go under. That's the risk of being at the start of one of these companies. The other route is to go to Merck or IBM and play it safe, but the chance of becoming the VP of research is probably very low," explains Russwurm.

Waiting Time

As Russwurm sees it, the job market shows that there is a great need in industry for well-trained scientists. "By getting more highly qualified people into industry, we think we can increase Canada's R&D capability," he says. Even though traditionally universities have been training their Ph.D. students to go into an academic career, many have not ended up going in this direction because of all the opportunities becoming available within industry. "This appears to be making the IRF more and more popular over the years, and this has been translating into more applications being received," Russwurm says.

The IRF program provides financial support to allow fellows to do a 2-year postdoc at research facilities in Canada's private sector. The fellowship is restricted to Canadian citizens and permanent residents and can be held for a maximum of 2 years. Applicants must have received their Ph.D. within the past 5 years. The most popular fields in the last few years have been in the life sciences, such as biochemistry and microbiology.

Four IRF competitions are scheduled every year, 3 months apart, and Russwurm and his team at NSERC have just finished processing the first round applicants for 2005. With more than 50 graduates having already applied this year, there is about a 60% increase over what was seen in 2004. "Last year there were 121 nominations with an 81.9% success rate, while in 2003 it was 78.5%," says Russwurm. To help increase the number of awards in the future, NSERC has increased its annual budget for the IRF program in 2004 by $400,000 to reach a new plateau of $5 million.

Not all applicants accept the nomination. Only 95 postdocs last year actually accepted the industrial postdoc offers. Because there is about a 3-month processing time from when the application is sent in and the offers go out, sometimes candidates find other employment and therefore pass on the IRF.

This turnaround time seems quick by the standards of government agencies. But Russwurm reveals that, starting this September, NSERC will be moving to a slightly different review process that will speed things up even more. The goal will be to cut the waiting time to only 6 weeks from receiving the application to informing the candidate. Just as in the world of business, competing for the best people to do leading-edge industrial research often means getting to market before anybody else does.

"Industry usually needs a faster turnaround time than academia, so we're streamlining because we think that it will better serve the fellows and Canadian industry--as well as make the IRF more popular in general," Russwurm adds.

For more information on the Postdoc Fellowships in Canadian Industry, visit NSERC's Web site.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor of Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.

Andrew Fazekas is a correspondent at Next Wave and may be reached at afazekas@aaas.org.