Pharmaceutical industry watchdogs have long looked to 2012 as the year of the steepest drop off the industry's so-called patent cliff, and so far this year companies have indeed lost a record number of patents on blockbuster drugs. These and other changes in the industry have led to years of lower corporate earnings, massive layoffs (of scientists and other workers), and experiments in outsourcing all sorts of activities that once were done in-house, including early-stage research and development.
But a knowledge-intensive industry like this one cannot thrive for long by shedding expertise. Sooner or later, companies will have to figure out how to innovate their way back into the black, and that will require people with good ideas. One cost-effective way pharmaceutical companies are looking to find such people—with fresh minds and good ideas—is by creating or expanding postdoctoral programs.
These programs look like a good deal for scientists seeking scarce jobs in the industry, offering a benefit that's increasingly rare these days in the private sector—on-the-job training—along with a long-term audition in front of hiring managers at desirable employers.
Merck has had local postdoc programs before, but in the coming weeks it plans to launch its first company-wide program, which will accept between 15 and 20 postdocs for 3-year stints at Merck's various U.S. campuses. Within 3 years, Merck hopes to have a “steady state of around 50 postdocs” scattered throughout the company, says Christopher Welch, a Merck scientific strategist who is based in Rahway, New Jersey.
After years of watching its competitors develop postdoc programs, Merck decided to build a program of its own as one of several strategies to enhance innovation at the company, Welch says. “Some of our leaders have framed the question this way. They said, 'We know you've always been innovative and on the leading edge, … but now we're asking you to ramp up the pace of innovation. How are you going to do that?' … A lot of different thoughts came in and one of the big ones was a formalized postdoc program.”
Many Merck postdocs will be selected based on how well they match up with specific company needs, Welch says. To identify those needs, once a year Merck will put out a call for project proposals to staff investigators. The winning scientists will hire and mentor a postdoc to work on their projects. The postdoc positions, which Welch says offer “competitive” salaries and full employee benefits, are renewable for up to 3 years—but Merck is taking a hard line with the 3-year cutoff. “We looked into a lot of postdoc programs around and saw [that one of the major problems] is the perpetual postdoc situation, where folks can't find a job, so they hang on and it turns ... exploitative," he says.
From a postdoc's perspective, being fired after 3 years is hardly a better outcome than continuing to be employed as a postdoc. So in order for the program to attract good people, Welch says, they'll need to place its postdocs into permanent jobs. "The long-term success of our program is really going to critically depend on the successful placement of the exiting postdocs," he says.
Merck will likely hire a small number of its postdocs straightaway, Welch says. "Absolutely, it gives you an early view of talent and undoubtedly there will be a few of these folks who find their way into a permanent Merck position." But that's not the company's only definition of success; a job with another company will also be considered a positive outcome. "Those are all companies we're working with on a day-to-day basis, so we're seeding these places with people who understand Merck, have contacts with Merck scientists, know how we work and how to work with us. And that will be beneficial to us in the long run."
Like Merck, Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company (Lilly) has traditionally used a "push" strategy in its postdoc hiring, seeking scientists with skills to meet particular company needs. Now it's expanding its program to include a "pull" component , says Dale Edgar, a research fellow for science and technology partnerships. With Lilly's new Innovation Fellowship Awards, Edgar says, "Lilly identifies really great talent on the basis of individual applications and research proposals. We're looking for new, innovative ideas, things we haven't thought of before." Ten awards per year are expected over the next 3 years; so far seven fellowships have been awarded. These fellowships last up to 4 years, and over that span postdocs who do the full term would receive nearly $500,000 in stipends and funding. Lilly postdocs will have both an in-house mentor and a mentor from academia.
Will Lilly offer jobs when the postdoc period is over? "Lilly has hired from its postdoc ranks in the past, but it's important to emphasize that whenever Lilly does a hire, it's a competitive hire," Edgar says. Still, experience in the company may give Lilly postdocs an advantage. "Certainly [it] does give some insight into the talents and skill sets of the individuals."
Switzerland-based Hoffmann-La Roche (Roche) established its first formal postdoc program 4 years ago  with the explicit aim of using it as a "talent search," says Basel-based Klaus Müller, who manages the program. The program currently has about 100 postdocs and continues to grow; Müller expects that number to plateau near 130 in a couple years. A postdoctoral stint at Roche lasts at least 2 years and can be renewed for up to two more. Of the approximately 30 postdocs that have finished the program so far, Roche has hired "a good dozen excellent postdocs, and we plan to take in even more of them," Müller says.
While identifying potential employees is a major goal of the program, Roche also uses the program to build relationships with academia. As at Lilly, Roche's postdocs have an academic mentor in addition to one from the company, so every postdoc award seeds an academic-industrial partnership. In many cases, Müller says, postdocs split their time between a Roche campus and an academic lab.
The postdoc program at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research  (NIBR), which has 11 campuses throughout the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia, also aims to use its postdoc program to build relationships with academia. Over the 8 years of the program's existence, about 15% of its postdocs have ended up with jobs in academia, says Leslie Pond, who manages the program. Sixty percent have taken jobs in industry research roles, and about 20% chose nonresearch roles. Five percent left the field. Novartis doesn't view the program as a way of discovering talent for its own labs. "Occasionally someone might be hired [but] the vast majority of postdocs have not been hired by Novartis. … We think of this as a training program, as postdoctoral programs are by definition."
To help the roughly 40% of postdocs who don't wind up working in industry find jobs after their postdocs, Pond says, NIBR is ramping up career development over the next year, implementing programs and workshops to instill "soft skills" including scientific presentation, scientific writing, and grant writing. In the current climate, that seems like the ultimate irony: a pharmaceutical company teaching its postdocs the skills they need to work in academia.
Michael Price is a staff writer at Science Careers.