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September 29, 2003
Volume 81, Number 39
CENEAR 81 39 pp. 57, 60, 62
ISSN 0009-2347

Opportunities may be harder to find than in academia, but they are worth the effort


The industrial postdoc position is a hybrid: It combines the best of the basic research experience of a traditional academic postdoctoral position with focused research in an industrial setting. Those postdocs who hold industrial positions benefit greatly from their advantages: exposure to the industrial research culture, decent salaries plus benefits, access to state-of-the-art research facilities and equipment, and the opportunity to work in team-oriented environments and with diverse managers and management styles. Industry gains because having a vigorous industrial postdoctoral program can be a successful recruitment strategy, as recent Ph.D.s are encouraged to pursue industrial careers.

Industrial postdoc positions are a small segment of the postdoctoral workforce. The problems that beset academic postdocs--low pay, inconsistent and inadequate benefits, and an uncertain future--appear nonexistent for industrial postdocs, which is probably why you don't hear much about them. That, and the fact that there aren't many of them at all. But this is changing.

The statistics on industrial postdocs from both the American Chemical Society and the National Science Foundation are sparse. A total of 48 people in industrial postdoctoral positions were identified through the annual ACS survey of new graduates between 2000 and 2002. Most of the industrial postdocs surveyed were working in development and design, research, or management. The most common employer was the pharmaceutical industry, followed by professional services and research institutions, and hospitals or clinical labs. The median salary reported during this period was $34,000.

Data from NSF are even less descriptive. The best source of information is the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), which provides demographic and career history information about individuals with Ph.D.s. SDR is a sample survey that includes only U.S.-educated postdocs and excludes foreign postdocs who earned doctorates outside the U.S. NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates, which is a census of people who receive research doctorates from U.S. institutions, asks only about postgraduation plans for further research.

According to Joan S. Burrelli, a senior analyst in the Human Resources Statistics program at NSF, the number of industrial postdocs in chemistry is simply too small to analyze in any meaningful way. Out of the 1,800 chemistry (except biochemistry) postdocs that were identified by the 2001 SDR, just 170 were in industry. Most of them worked in biotechnology, health services, and research.

Locating a postdoc job in industry is no easy task. Few companies have formal postdoctoral fellowship programs. Other companies will advertise individual postdoc positions occasionally, so you have to look out for these opportunities to appear in print or on company online job databases. Industrial hiring managers suggest that anyone interested in a particular company should, if possible, set up a profile on the career page of the company's website to receive e-mail if postdoc positions are posted, if possible.

BIOTECH GIANT Genentech, an early adopter of hiring research postdocs, has had a formal research postdoc fellow program since 1990. Bart de Vos, senior director of protein engineering who also heads Genentech's research postdoc program, says that when he joined the company back in 1988, there were a few research postdocs. They came on an ad hoc basis because staff scientists who were also faculty brought them in.

Genentech postdocs have many opportunities to participate in the company's research program and are encouraged to present the progress and results of their work. Current program activities include an annual off-site meeting for postdocs and their mentors, which is organized as a formal scientific meeting complete with presentations; twice-monthly on-site seminars where postdocs can present their work; and a seminar series where postdocs invite a slate of speakers.

According to de Vos, Genentech's program is composed of about 65 to 70 positions. Postdoc tenure lasts for up to four years. While most postdocs leave at the end of their tenure at Genentech, a select few are hired as permanent staff. He estimates that about 20% of the current research staff of about 575 was hired out of the postdoc program. Postdoc salaries start at $45,000, comparable to that of a research assistant, and the company offers a wide range of benefits.

"At Genentech, we look at how good [prospective postdocs'] science is--that includes publication record and the quality of publications--and we do look very carefully at the seminar they present when they interview. Most people we recruit come from academic labs, so we have the luxury of looking for scientific quality in general: Smart people can adapt to what we need them to do."

Ron Webb, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations for Procter & Gamble, says that, for P&G, hiring industrial postdocs is a fairly new process. "Ten years ago, we didn't do it," Webb says. "In the past few years, we've used it as a hiring strategy. It's a win-win."

Postdocs at P&G receive a one-year contract with an option to extend for a second year if both parties agree. Industrial postdocs get the same benefits as full-time employees do, such as vacation time and medical and dental coverage. The average salary is in the mid-$50,000s, about 75% of what a permanent P&G employee earns. If the postdoc is then hired as a permanent employee, the salary is adjusted accordingly.

The problems that beset academic postdocs appear nonexistent for industrial postdocs.

NEGOTIATING AN INDUSTRIAL postdoc where one doesn't currently exist is still another route. Richard Kho recently completed a two-year postdoc stint with San Diego biotechnology company Triad Therapeutics, where he performed computational biology and computational chemistry for various projects. Kho, who has a Ph.D. in environmental toxicology from the University of California, Riverside, saw an ad on an online job board for a research associate and applied. In his cover letter, he explained what he was looking for and was able to negotiate the research associate position into a postdoc.

"I knew that I wanted to go into industry, and an industry postdoc would give me a head start," he says. "Most scientist positions, even if they're entry level, require some experience, which usually means a postdoc." As part of the negotiation, Kho discussed with Triad the possibility of being hired as a permanent employee. He is now a Triad employee.

According to a survey of Ph.D. recipients (PDF file) conducted by the ACS Committee on Professional Training published in 2000, one criticism of Ph.D. programs is that they could do a better job of preparing graduates for a career in industry. So it's no surprise to hear from these industrial postdocs that the experience is a great way to learn about life in industry.

"It's a fast-paced environment where you have to produce according to deadlines," Kho says. "You learn a lot about industry and see what the real world is like."

"I wanted a flavor of what it was like to work in an applied, business-oriented environment," says Dalia G. Yablon, a Ph.D. in physical chemistry who is working as an industrial postdoc at Corporate Strategic Research in Clinton, N.J., part of ExxonMobil Research & Engineering. Part of her work involves establishing a nanotribology laboratory. Tribology is the study of interaction between two surfaces and involves the phenomena of friction, wear, and lubrication. At Corporate Strategic, she uses scanning probe microscopy to study friction and wear on a nanoscale. She also maintains her connection with her physical chemistry roots by monitoring changes in the physical properties of lubricants using different types of electronic spectroscopy, building on the general spectroscopy training from her undergraduate days.

Matthias Beinhoff completed his Ph.D. in 2002 at the Free University in Berlin, Germany. He applied to different groups in universities and to IBM Almaden because he knew its work. IBM Almaden is part of the Center on Polymer Interfaces & Macromolecular Assemblies. This materials research science and engineering center--which is a partnership among Stanford University, IBM Almaden, UC Davis, and UC Berkeley--is funded entirely through the NSF Materials & Physical Science Directorate's Division of Materials Research.

"I was not really looking for an industrial position," Beinhoff says, "but a good group or interesting work to do, and I had several opportunities. I chose IBM because of their good reputation, and one of my professors who knew someone there encouraged me to go. IBM gets lots of applications for postdocs, but there aren't too many openings."

Beinhoff's work focuses on polymerization techniques on a nanometer scale. He combines a nanocontact molding technique to prepare polymeric patterns on silicon or silicon oxide substrates with the subsequent growth of polymer brushes from these polymeric features to control their size and chemistry. Beinhoff uses nitroxide-mediated polymerization (NMP) and Ni(0)-mediated polycondensation to grow functional brushes. In NMP, the polymerization is controlled by a stable nitroxide radical that is present in the polymerization mixture (C&EN, Sept. 9, 2002, page 36). The goal is to develop a method to obtain optically and electronically interesting nanometer-sized patterns.

INDUSTRIAL POSTDOCS SAY they benefit most through the valuable interactions with people from other disciplines, as well as from the mix of basic and applied research in their work.

"One of the biggest advantages is that you get to work on a different set of problems than in academia and to interact with a much larger variety of scientists," Yablon says. "It broadens your thinking and your horizons to see how others think and what they worry about.

"I've been able to capitalize on my skills from my Ph.D. and apply them in a new field, like tribology, which I knew nothing about. The facilities here are very good. I'm working with mechanical engineers and chemical engineers in addition to physicists and chemists--different people and different backgrounds with different ways of thinking. Your research is still fundamental but targeted toward very different problems."

"The projects are closer to the real world," Beinhoff says. "I have gained more knowledge here and more insight than I would in the university setting. I thought I would have to reach just one target, but because this is a research center, there is both applied and basic research going on. Also, if I have a good idea, I can pursue it in my spare time.

"The facilities here are really good," he adds. "There are so many experts from different fields here, and everyone is helpful because they know that help will be reciprocated when they need it."

Some may worry that the emphasis on product development means that industrial postdocs can't publish because of the proprietary nature of industrial research. This is not necessarily a problem. Your ability to publish your research as an industrial postdoc will depend on the company's publication policy, according to P&G's Webb. He insists that a postdoc's work should not be proprietary "because this is a stepping stone. We want the postdoc to present and publish and be able to freely talk about what they work on here."

At Genentech, de Vos says, "we feel strongly that high-quality science is important. We train our postdocs to conduct high-quality basic research so they can publish in prestigious journals."

While the industrial postdocs speak favorably of their experiences, one drawback some mentioned is the limited networking opportunities, such as with students, other postdocs, or peers.

"Although we have a lot of seminars on-site, they're all very energy-oriented," Yablon says. "I was used to having a weekly seminar when I was in graduate school. I missed a bit of that and talked to my managers about organizing a monthly seminar just for the postdocs on site. We all give a seminar on a topic of our choice, and we don't have the pressure of talking about something related to the business. It's given us back a little bit of just listening to a variety of topics that aren't necessarily business related."

"I miss the interactions with students on campus," Beinhoff says, "and to have some things to do after work with other people. There are a few more postdocs here. But most of the coworkers are much older and have families, so there's not much of a social life. In a university, there are more people to do things with when the day's over."

ANYONE CONSIDERING industrial employment would do well to ask about the company's hiring policy regarding postdocs, because some companies will not hire their postdocs as permanent employees. Others hire only a very few.

Genentech makes it clear to its postdocs that their chances of transitioning to a permanent position are slim. "Our practical motivation is to recruit. We get people from the best labs across the country and abroad," de Vos says. "We want to keep the best from the program, so we maybe hire two or three in a given year."

"We'll have five to 10 postdocs working for us in any given year out of 1,000 Ph.D.s," Webb says. "Roughly 50% of our postdocs are retained as full-time employees. There are also some who prefer to move on to something else, and this is experience on their résumé. We see the postdoc as a potential employee, and while there are no promises or commitments that they will be hired, it comes down to finding the best employees for P&G however we can."

Kho says that, at Triad, "I had a definite two-year contract, but there was a discussion at the beginning that if things worked out they might be willing to hire me permanently."

Yablon says sometimes postdocs are hired on at ExxonMobil. "Officially, I'm here for two years, but extensions are sometimes an option," she says. "I will look for another industrial position when my contract is up next year. I think the postdoc experience will definitely help my chances."

Beinhoff says IBM Almaden may hire some of its postdocs depending on whether there are openings, but most are not hired. However, he says, "most foreign postdocs see this as an experience and want to go back [to their home countries]. IBM has a really good reputation in polymer chemistry, and the fact that I had a postdoc here will help my job search. I know some other German postdocs who did postdocs here, and none had a problem finding a job. In Germany, your Ph.D. work is considered more important than your postdoc work."

Industrial postdocs offer the opportunity to do great research and interesting science, motivated by different problems. So the $64,000 question seems to be: Why are there so few if the experience is so great? One possible answer is the limited amount of nonproprietary work that postdocs could be hired to perform.

Webb thinks that the use of industrial postdocs has grown, but not greatly. "I think it's going to come down to the size of the company," he says. "If a company has a small workforce, its demand for new employees is going to be low compared to Dow, DuPont, or P&G. I don't think you're going to see postdocs as relevant to the smaller companies due to the proportionately smaller workload."

De Vos believes that industrial postdocs are more suitable for biology Ph.D.s. "I don't see that it provides chemistry Ph.D.s with a big advantage. We've always had very few chemistry postdocs because our chemistry department is too applied and too focused on drug development to do much basic science," he says. "Smaller biotechs hire far fewer postdocs, but they tend to bring in people for a specific job and, if they work out, then will hire them."

Before making a decision about where to go next, analyze your goals and evaluate how far an industrial postdoc would take you. Perhaps you would be better served as a postdoc in a well-known academic lab before launching an industrial career. Working as an industrial postdoc is a good way to test-drive any interests you have in an industrial career, to compare industry with academia, and to leave the door open should you decide to pursue an academic career instead.


Does a top 10 pedigree help in landing a faculty job?
New rules make it harder for foreign graduate students to enter the U.S.
Innovative programs aim to prepare future faculty for teaching.
Interesting opportunities in industrial settings are rare.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Special Report

Does a top 10 pedigree help in landing a faculty job?

New rules make it harder for foreign graduate students to enter the U.S.

Innovative programs aim to prepare future faculty for teaching.

Interesting opportunities in industrial settings are rare.

Related Stories
[C&EN, November 25, 2002]

[C&EN, September 9, 2002]

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