A different kind of postdoc experience

For decades, a postdoctoral appointment in a university laboratory has been the “default” next step for new Ph.D. researchers in biomedical sciences and, increasingly, in other sciences as well. In those positions, scientists encounter such well-known issues as low pay, long hours, and little or no preparation for career opportunities outside academe.

A small number of postdocs, however, “do not face the same problems as academic postdoctoral researchers,” states the U.S. National Academies’ 2014 report, . In fact, these scientists’ “roles are better defined, salaries are higher, terms are shorter, and the connection to career development is clearer.” These fortunate few work not at universities but in training positions in industry, national laboratories, and other government entities, and they constitute about 11% of the nation’s postdocs, the report states. (The apparent precision in that number is misleading, because little is known about the true number of postdocs in this country.)

Encouraging postdocs to develop outside of the lab … is beneficial for the company and for the postdoc.

As I reported in April, I had the opportunity to meet some industry postdocs at the Leaders of Tomorrow (LOT) Summit, held at the Gaithersburg, Maryland, headquarters of MedImmune, the biologics R&D arm of the international biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. The setting, attire, and general vibe at that event bespoke a culture quite different from academe. Although these postdocs are active in research, the talk largely centered on moving scientific advances through the complex drug-development process to the marketplace and the clinic—and on the skills and strategies needed to build a career in industry. MedImmune is one of a number of companies that have postdoc programs. These programs have much in common.

How does the experience of doing a postdoc at a company such as MedImmune compare to doing one at a university? “There’s a lot of similarity,” says Sarah Conley, who, having spent 4 years as a postdoc at the University of Michigan before starting at MedImmune almost 2 years ago, knows both environments. MedImmune’s “strong emphasis on publishing our work [is] very much the same as in academia. … [The company] is really good about letting us have freedom to develop our own ideas.” Each postdoc works “on a project you can present to the global scientific community” via publication, adds Marina Carla Cabrera, who became a MedImmune postdoc after receiving her Ph.D. from Georgetown University.

A different emphasis

What makes a MedImmune postdoc position different from the typical academic postdoc is the company’s basic motive for discovery, says Lei-yun “Janney” Weng, who earned her Ph.D. at the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai, spent 3 years as a postdoc at the Baylor University medical school, and then followed her Baylor mentor when he moved to MedImmune. In academe, publication is an end in itself, and it’s often the end of the researcher’s interest in a question, she says. But at MedImmune, it’s just one step of several that hopefully will lead toward the company’s ultimate goal: translating research results into treatments. That priority influences the design of research questions, Weng notes, and encourages scientists involved in basic research, including postdocs, to participate in “very dynamic” collaborations with translational and clinical groups. Weng finds that “nothing is more rewarding” than seeing research contribute to treatments that help people with serious diseases.

This juncture between basic research and the drug development process first began to interest Conley when she was still a postdoc at Michigan, where she had an “amazing experience” in a “world-renowned research lab.” She participated in collaborations with small biotech companies and big pharma. “During my years there, I decided that that was really what I wanted to do: work in industry and in translation … and [be] able to make therapies as well.”

At MedImmune, she has become “really interested in research project management,” a very important skill at companies that take on projects as complex as drug development. “I’ve been shadowing the project managers here, and they’ve been very supportive of me doing that. They have allowed me to take part in training classes … here on campus. They also nominated me to participate in the [company] internship program that allows scientists to participate in the research review committees” that decide which projects to pursue.

When it comes to learning, the MedImmune postdoc experience “exceeded my highest expectations,” especially concerning “topics I would not have had at an academic institution,” Cabrera says. In addition to her research, she also served, with encouragement from company leadership, as president of the committee that organized the LOT Summit. “I find that if you are really devoted and committed to doing something, you can find time to do it,” she says. She spent lots of evenings and weekends organizing the event, which she sees as “extremely important to have in the [Washington, D.C.,] region to [help it] develop as a biotech hub and also for … my own professional development. Encouraging postdocs to develop outside of the lab … is beneficial for the company and for the postdoc,” Cabrera says.

Developing the skills needed to plan and execute research that leads to treatments is central to Cabrera’s career ambitions. It is also company policy. “MedImmune’s postdoctoral program, launched in 2011, is designed to cultivate and encourage the scientific leaders of tomorrow and help provide them a ‘launching pad’ into careers within the biopharmaceutical industry and academia,” says a company statement provided to Science Careers. “Postdoctoral scientists participating in the program are provided the opportunity to perform high-impact, cutting-edge research in a cross-discipline, state-of-the-art scientific environment, with the aim of their work being published in a scientific journal. In addition to developing their scientific capabilities, participants are also provided a chance to learn more about various career paths in the life sciences. … In line with the entrepreneurial spirit that pervades the culture at MedImmune, the company encourages its postdoctoral program participants to explore other career avenues and further diversify and expand their experience once their three year term in the program has concluded.”

Another difference from academe is financial support for research. “I was lucky coming from a lab [at Michigan] that didn’t have financing issues,” Conley says, but she knows that securing adequate funding is a major, and for some insurmountable, challenge in many academic labs. At MedImmune, though, “we have amazing resources.” Research at the company is funded internally, “so we don’t have to spend our time on writing grants.”

Choosing industry

Conley recommends a postdoc at a company like MedImmune to “anyone that’s interested in working in industry” and also to “people who are interested in other career pathways that might not be the scientist track. My eyes have really been opened, since joining MedImmune, to what other opportunities there are for scientists, [including] business development, project management, … [and] other things.” Weng strongly advises scientists interested in an industry postdoc to evaluate companies carefully and seek one that places a high value on research.

Previous postdocs have moved on to other employers, very often in the biopharmaceutical industry, where they work in research, regulatory affairs, and a variety of other endeavors. To date, none of them have been hired as permanent MedImmune employees. The postdocs interviewed declined to name their salaries, but they say that compensation is “very competitive” and includes the same fringe benefits other company employees receive.

Some people considering a move from academe may encounter resistance, warns Weng, because “a lot of professors and mentors believe that for a Ph.D. to move to industry, that’s a failure or a shame. My suggestion is not to take those [ideas] seriously.” The important thing, Weng says, is “what your attitude is. You make a choice not [in order] to please your mentor or your parents. It’s about you, what you want to do, what kind of science research is interesting for you, and what kind of career path you want to take.”

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