Industry postdocs make the grade

By Edyta Zielinska

Sarah Hymowitz wasn't planning on moving into industry once she finished her PhD. She applied mainly for postdoctoral positions in academia, but also included one industry laboratory, whose work she greatly admired: Genentech, where she ended up at a protein engineering lab. Hymowitz had considered going back to academia after that, but said that her time at Genentech spoiled her for wanting to go anywhere else. When a position within the company opened up toward the end of her post-doc, she grabbed it. "It's a really nice balance of basic science and doing work that might help people," she says.

Others among the 90 postdocs at Genentech must agree. Genentech became the first company in the five years The Scientist has been surveying postdocs to make it into the top 15 Best Places to Work as a postdoc. Nationwide, nine percent of postdocs are in industry positions, while 80% are in academia and 11% are in government, according to the National Science Foundation.

No one tracks international trends as closely. Kristian Almstrup is a postdoc at Novo Nordisk in Denmark, focused on finding molecular biomarkers of type 2 diabetes. Almstrup's fellowship is part of a European Union sponsored program that partners academia with industry to address questions in genomics. He says the access to the best equipment and state of the art facilities are much better than in academia. (That includes such amenities as neck massages.)

Salaries can be slightly higher than average for industry postdocs; while academic salaries average $40,000 for US postdocs, according to the NSF, Genentech postdocs start at $49,000 and Schering-Plough postdocs start at $45,000.

There are industry postdoc detractors. Bill Lindstaedt, director of the career and professional development office at University of California, San Francisco, says that some industry postdoc positions can trap PhDs in "cheap scientist positions." The work is grueling, without much opportunity to publish, and the focus is less on the scientist-in-training and more on the company's pipeline.

That's certainly not true at Genentech, which has had postdocs for about 25 years, says Vishva Dixit, director of the company's postdoc program. Genentech checks in on postdocs' progress regularly and stresses publication as the major goal. "We view it as an instrument or a program that trains scientists who are capable of doing cutting edge and innovative work," she says. The company expects nothing less than publication in high-end journals. "The only way the program is judged by the company, and the only way that I am judged every year, is based on publication," says Dixit.

Other companies have also begun creating more structured programs for their postdocs. Schering-Plough Research Institute in Kenilworth, NJ, started to consolidate its postdoc positions about two years ago, modeled after a 20-year-old program in its Biopharma division in Palo Alto, California. Postdocs are given projects that don't involve the company's proprietary products or processes, so as not to conflict with publication. But in the event that a postdoc produces patentable work, Emma Lees, who oversees the Biopharma program, says the company works to ensure the fellow has an opportunity to publish as well.

Many programs like Genentech and Schering-Plough's have two- to three-year appointments, which are shorter than many academic positions. Hymowitz didn't see this as a disadvantage, however. She said the resources available in industry make it easier to get the work done quickly. She didn't have to spend time looking for funding or training graduate students or teaching, giving her more time for her own projects.

While industry postdocs are often considered "a one-way street," says Lindstaedt, because few return to academia, others, such as Novartis' Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship, launched in 2004, are designed to keep connections to academia strong. The fellows are required to find a second mentor in academia. Rajesh Ranganathan, director of the educational office at Novartis, says that asking postdocs to pursue projects of their choosing enriches the company's scientific research, while the connection with university faculty opens the door for fellows to return to academia as leaders.

While companies with a good track record for postdoctoral publications and mentoring can be a great choice for those curious about industry, Lindstaedt warns against jumping into an industry postdoc without doing careful research about the lab or the program. Hymowitz, whose postdoctoral work at Genentech earned her a patent, says she would recommend the experience to others. "But people should figure out if there's a scientific connection first", she says: The science needs to drive the decision.

*Ted Agres contributed to this article.

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