For Qing Cao, securing a coveted two-year postdoctoral position at IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., provided “the perfect start” for his career, he says.
Like many postdocs in industry, he was able “to conduct scientific research at the very frontier using state-of-the-art research facilities and to work within an extremely diversified team of experts,” says Cao, who completed a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2009. In addition, he received a salary and benefits package that was much more generous than what he could expect to get in an academic postdoc position, he says. Moreover, after completing his fellowship in November 2011, he transitioned into a permanent position as a research staff member at the company.
However, finding postdoctoral positions in industry is not easy, as competition for these jobs is fierce. More Ph.D.s in the chemical sciences—even those who had aspired to move straight into permanent jobs—are vying for postdocs in industry, academia, or elsewhere as the U.S. unemployment rate for chemists remains high (C&EN, July 23, page 6).
Although supporting data are scarce, the number of industrial postdocs available to chemists may be dwarfed by the number of postdoc positions available in academia or government labs. That’s been the observation of Patricia Simpson, director of academic advising and career counseling and placement at UIUC’s School of Chemical Sciences. Only a few companies, including Dow Chemical and Intel, have recently recruited postdocs from the school’s pool of graduates, she says.
One bright spot, however, is that some companies in the pharmaceutical and other industries are now expanding their postdoc programs, thereby creating a precious sliver of opportunity for top-notch Ph.D. scientists, including chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers, who are willing to work hard to find and excel in these roles.
Running with bone-lean staffs after layoffs precipitated by the Great Recession and other market pressures, companies are eager to recruit more postdocs with fresh ideas needed to spark innovation.
“In the face of increasing market pressures from generics and follow-on biologics, and more stringent drug approval criteria, many pharma firms are opting to energize their research base by continually bringing in a cadre of energetic, ambitious, bright, young scientists through postdoc programs,” notes Vishva M. Dixit, vice president of physiological chemistry at Genentech, who manages the company’s postdoc program. “To sustain long-term growth, there has to be some investment in innovation, and building a postdoc program is one way to do that.”
Still, some question the motives behind company efforts to recruit more postdocs, arguing that they are simply tapping a cheap labor source to help bulk up their dwindling ranks.
“Although some companies certainly may be exploiting new Ph.D.s in this way, larger companies generally hire postdocs to explore interesting, fundamental science that does not immediately fit with their goals or within their pipelines,” says the blogger known as Chemjobber, a Ph.D. synthetic chemist who tracks chemistry employment and was a postdoc at a major pharmaceutical company until 2009.
That’s been a major motivation behind a new postdoctoral research fellowship program that Merck & Co. is now preparing to launch, according to Christopher J. Welch, a senior principal scientist at the company. As postdocs come into the program, “they won’t be just turning the crank, doing routine work at a low price,” he says. Instead, they will be involved in “cutting-edge science with the goal of rapid publication of their findings in high-profile journals.”
“By focusing the scientific passion and new perspectives of these postdoctoral fellows onto some of our most pressing scientific challenges, under the guidance of seasoned Merck mentors, we will be well positioned to step up the pace of scientific innovation to continue to drive the development of future medicines and vaccines,” Welch says.
The new Merck program will add 15 to 20 scientists per year over the next three years, building to a “steady state” of about 50 fellows by 2014, according to Welch, who is cochair of the program. The postdocs will come from scientific disciplines from genomics to biology to statistics to all branches of chemistry and biochemistry, and will be spread across the company’s U.S. sites in one-year appointments that are renewable for up to three years, he says.
To kick off the program, Merck is inviting its scientists to submit proposals for research projects in which they could mentor a postdoc. The top projects and mentors will be chosen by a committee chaired by Welch and Robert A. Kastelein, scientific associate vice president and cochair of the program. Beginning later this month, Merck will recruit postdocs through its website to fill the newly created positions.
While Merck scientists remain focused on proprietary research aimed at areas such as developing the next blockbuster drug, postdocs will be working in a precompetitive space, developing enabling tools and techniques that will be critical to the pharmaceutical industry in the next few years, Welch says.
In addition to training a small number of scientists who may eventually be hired as permanent employees, he adds, the program will “enable us to seed the outside world with folks who will be valuable future collaborators for Merck as they go to work in academia or at another pharma company or a supplier or vendor firm.”
Recognizing the many benefits of postdoc initiatives, Roche continues to expand the postdoctoral fellowship program it launched in 2008. The program aims to “reward our best scientists by providing them with a postdoctoral assistant who can support them in conducting novel research on the frontiers of science,” according to Klaus Müller, who cofounded the program and now manages it in retirement as a consultant to the firm.
At Roche, each postdoc also collaborates with an academic partner from a top university around the world on projects that run up to four years. Consequently, the program is also meant to strengthen international scientific exchange and nurture the development of innovative specialist knowledge, new ideas, and creative talent, Müller notes.
The company currently employs 110 postdocs around the world. Müller expects that number to grow to 125 by the end of 2012 and expand even further in 2013.
Placed either at top-ranked universities or at company sites, Roche postdoctoral fellows come from all disciplines of pharma discovery and early development, including informatics, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and synthetic chemistry. In projects aimed at breaking new scientific ground, fellows might explore the chemistry behind novel pharmacology concepts or develop miniaturized flow chemistry that integrates biology, Müller says.
The firm shares the progress of its postdoctoral projects through an annual symposium, during which fellows present their work and network with one another to identify potential synergies in their research.
Roche’s Genentech unit operates its own postdoctoral program, which maintains a pool of 110 to 120 biochemists and other scientists. The Genentech fellowships run for three to four years and target basic science research that is isolated from any product-related projects, according to Dixit.
“Since the inception of the company, postdoctoral fellows have been an essential part of our culture, making major contributions to advances in biotechnology,” he notes. Many of the fellows bring in new expertise or techniques that “substantially enrich our research environment and push the horizons of our knowledge base,” he says. In addition, Genentech benefits from exposure to postdocs’ rigorous research, which is published in frontline journals, he notes.
Postdoc programs are also gaining favor within smaller firms in the pharmaceutical industry. Wolfe Laboratories, a contract research organization based in Watertown, Mass., continues to expand its program, according to Janet Wolfe, the firm’s chief executive officer. The company is now recruiting to fill a postdoc position that will involve a collaboration with Merck—in an arrangement that was conceived of prior to the inception of Merck’s new postdoctoral program. That postdoc will focus on understanding the pharmaceutical and physicochemical properties of formulations and their impact on in vivo performance, according to Caroline McGregor, director of basic pharmaceutical sciences at Merck. The goal of the research will be to “help inform the rational design of new formulations,” adds McGregor, whose team will sponsor the project.
The postdoc will work at Wolfe’s facilities but will also be mentored by Merck scientists.
In addition, Wolfe is looking to fill another new postdoc position, which will extend its collaboration in antibody-drug conjugate research with the University of Kansas’ pharmaceutical chemistry department. The scientist hired for that role will work with department chair Christian Schöneich. Meanwhile, another postdoctoral fellow, Nicholas Boylan, who earned a Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University earlier this year, is continuing work with associate professor Jennifer S. Laurence.
“Our postdoc program allows us to extend our scientific capabilities in a way that meets the needs of our customers,” which are developing a broad range of compounds including small molecules, biologics, and targeted therapeutics, Wolfe says.
Outside of the pharmaceutical industry, some companies are also beefing up their postdoc programs. In North America, BASF is partnering more closely with its R&D community to expand the specific scientific areas in which it offers postdoctoral opportunities so they align with the growth sectors the firm is now targeting, says Bernadette B. Palumbo, BASF’s director of staffing and university relations.
Historically, BASF has used postdoc programs, mainly in Europe, to staff joint laboratories at Heidelberg University and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, both in Germany, and the University of Strasbourg, in France. It will now work to build new partnerships with North American-based universities, Palumbo says.
“As a result of this program,” she says, “BASF will gain access to new ideas, techniques, and capabilities needed to maintain our position in the chemical sector.”
To meet the rigorous goals of their postdoc programs, companies are recruiting only exceptional scientists—in an employment market where they can be choosy. Roche, for example, can sometimes select from 50 to 100 applicants for a single postdoc position, according to Müller. It screens for candidates who not only demonstrate excellent technological and scientific competence in their area of expertise, but also are “broad-minded, with a curiosity and motivation to explore related fields,” he says.
As Merck staffs its postdoc program, it will be “looking for people who are truly passionate about science and have a proven track record of doing things aimed at changing the infrastructure of science,” Welch says. “From our experience, past performance is a good predictor of future success.”
Genentech’s Dixit makes the same point. He scrutinizes candidates’ graduate school records, gathering feedback from their mentors and checking whether they have published as a first author in top journals and how often their work has been cited.
Dixit also gauges candidates’ motivation and resolve. “Many people who apply for postdocs are under the impression that they will have bankers’ hours. They expect that they will drift in at nine in the morning, have a cappuccino, have a lunch break, and then maybe go for a swim or a run in the afternoon. So I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse them of that notion and stress that there are no set work hours. I tell them, ‘You have a project, and your mission is to make that project work regardless of what it takes.’ ”
For most would-be industrial postdocs, the hard work begins early—even before they get an interview for a position. Finding an opening involves much more than surfing the Internet, notes IBM’s Cao. He advises postdoc seekers to “locate the active leading industrial researchers in their area of interest—either from publications or conference presentations—and contact them directly for postdoc positions.” Cao also enlisted the help of his Ph.D. adviser, John A. Rogers, to find his IBM postdoc position with David B. Mitzi, a renowned expert in the area of solution-processed inorganic semiconductors.
As is the case in any job search, networking is key to unearthing postdoc opportunities. That was true for Vincent Carroll, who finished a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at UIUC last month and will start in a postdoc position this week at Molecular NeuroImaging, a New Haven, Conn.-based company that provides research services to pharma and biotech companies. Carroll found his job through a previous member of his research group, whom he met at a conference. That contact forwarded his cirriculum vitae to an acquaintance who leads the research group at the company, he says. Consequently, Molecular NeuroImaging hired Carroll before it even advertised for the position.
Making the effort to find an industrial postdoc position can reap big rewards. Ingmar Polenz, who is now working in a one-year postdoc position with BASF at Harvard University’s School of Engineering & Applied Sciences, says he is gaining experience in advanced research, becoming familiar with industrial R&D, and building valuable connections with Harvard scientists. Also, when he completes his postdoc, he will transition into an R&D position with BASF, says Polenz, who earned a Ph.D. in polymer chemistry from Chemnitz University of Technology, in Germany, this February.
Genentech’s Dixit encourages postdocs to do all they can to “maximally leverage” their experience—mainly by conducting and publishing outstanding research. A postdoctoral fellowship “is arguably the most important part of your scientific training, which has been long and hard. And it’s most certainly a springboard to your career,” he says. “That experience may ultimately determine whether you will be asking, ‘Do you want ketchup with those fries?’ or whether you will be positioning yourself to eventually run an organization.”