Exploring Uncharted Research Avenues: The Fascinating World of Postdoc Programs in Pharmaceutical Companies

In the dynamic realm of biomedical sciences, postdoctoral positions are often regarded as the stepping stones for freshly minted PhDs, offering pathways into promising careers in academia or industry. Astonishingly, a 2022 survey revealed that a substantial 64.8% of life science doctorate holders opted for postdoc roles post-graduation.

However, here’s the twist: while a significant chunk of these postdocs typically find their footing in academic institutions, the industry beckons, with approximately 46% of science and engineering PhDs eventually joining its ranks. Yet, there’s a glaring mismatch. A 2006 National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctoral Recipients unveiled a startling statistic – the number of life sciences scholars embarking on academic postdocs was nearly seven times greater than those venturing into non-profit or for-profit company postdoc roles.

Even among those passionate about pharmaceutical research, the realm of industry postdocs often remains elusive. These opportunities are shrouded in obscurity, with scant discussions in public forums. The scarcity arises due to the limited number of individuals with industry postdoc experiences and the relatively few companies offering such programs.

Kelly Destino, the scientific director of AbbVie’s postdoctoral program, acknowledges the challenge, stating, “I do think that awareness is a problem.” However, she’s determined to change that perception: “We’re working on spreading the word that we have a program, and we’re growing it.”

This lack of awareness has birthed misconceptions. Some believe that industry postdocs in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors are solely motivated by financial gains and that these roles pale in comparison to their academic counterparts in prestige.

To bridge this awareness gap, outreach programs play a pivotal role. These initiatives expose academic researchers to the dynamic research environment within the industry, offering them a holistic understanding of the opportunities and challenges that come with a company-based postdoc. As Destino puts it, “We’ve also looked to establish long-term and sustained interactions with academic institutes. So when a postdoc position or proposal arises, we’ve already nurtured a talent pool through ongoing engagement.” The future of postdoc programs in the industry looks promising, with increasing efforts to illuminate the path less traveled.”

The Benefits of Doing an Industry Postdoc

For recent graduates drawn to the world of fundamental research, academia may initially appear as the natural route to pursue. Yet, there’s a fascinating twist in the plot. Take Novartis, for instance, which offers an Innovation and Discovery Fellowship with two intriguing tracks.

Gianluca Etienne, a principal scientist at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research and a former Innovation Postdoctoral Fellow, sheds light on this: “In the discovery track, the focus is on academic-style research and publishing your work. In the innovation track, people delve deeper into pipeline projects and ongoing drug discovery endeavors.”

This dual approach of exploring fundamental science while contributing to translational research that directly impacts patients’ lives is also championed by Genentech in their postdoctoral programs. As Ratna Varma, a Genentech postdoc, explains, “My research bridges Genentech’s Pharmaceutical Technical Development and Research and Early Development (gRED) functions. This allows me to harness not only the art of basic science research but also the engineering mindset needed for process development, particularly in the realm of human lung cell therapies.”

The allure of industry postdocs doesn’t stop there. Unlike their academic counterparts, these positions enjoy financial backing from the company’s R&D funds, avoiding the uncertainty of external grants that plagued many during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Kelly Destino, the scientific director of AbbVie’s postdoctoral program, this shift prompted researchers to explore new avenues for their postdoctoral work.

Moreover, there’s a financial incentive. Industry postdocs often come with more attractive salaries, providing a stable financial foundation. Gianluca Etienne highlights this, stating, “In academia, many postdocs struggle to make ends meet, while in industry, postdocs generally enjoy better compensation than some government-funded positions.” According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, industry postdocs typically earn around 20% more than their academic counterparts and frequently receive relocation benefits, annual bonuses, and retirement contributions—a package rarely seen in academic postdoc roles.

Intriguingly, the industry offers access to cutting-edge technologies. Etienne notes that Novartis not only leverages the latest technologies but also fosters entrepreneurial and academic collaborations. During his Novartis postdoc experience, he had the unique opportunity to evaluate biotech startups as potential partners, thus gaining insights from both the startup and academic realms.

However, there’s a caveat. The proprietary nature of pharmaceutical research may limit a postdoc’s ability to publish or write funding proposals, potentially posing challenges if they decide to return to the rigorous “publish or perish” environment of academia. Etienne acknowledges this issue but notes that Novartis diligently navigates these waters, ensuring that their fellows can publish their work in collaboration with legal teams.

Despite these considerations, a postdoc in the pharmaceutical industry offers tremendous benefits for researchers eyeing an industrial career or those still weighing their options. At AbbVie, for instance, postdoc programs are meticulously designed to foster idea cross-pollination among various R&D groups within the company. Moreover, industry postdocs open doors to cutting-edge screening and automation technologies while providing opportunities to network with leading experts in the field.

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