Big Pharma Ramps Up Postdoc Programs

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.

“The long-term success of our program is really going to critically depend on the successful placement of the exiting postdocs.” —Christopher Welch

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.

New ideas at Merck

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.

Pulling postdocs at Lilly

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.”

An expanding program at Roche

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.

Connecting at Novartis

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.

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