By: Justine Calise, PhD, Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell/Feinstein Institute for Medical Research
Speakers: Lydia Grmai, PhD (moderator), Jon Cruz, PhD, Natasha Emmanuel, PhD, and Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, all current postdoctoral researchers.
Many of us recent PhD graduates are thinking about a postdoc, but are not sure whether to do it in academia or industry. Of course, the right choice for you will be determined by a variety of factors, including your career goals, your network, the network of your PI, geographic preferences, salary expectations, how well you fit in to the lab (given you had the opportunity to visit) and also—many people do not like to hear this—luck. The panelists in this session provided attendees with all the information they could and answered questions to help us decide what is right for us.
The panel discussion was held with three postdocs: two from industry and one from academia. Jon spoke on behalf of Regeneron, Natasha for Pfizer, and Bianca for Columbia University. In the context of this article, the traditional postdoc is in academia, and the non-traditional is in industry. The questions asked can be broadly divided into three themes: the application process, the experience of the postdoc itself, and work/life balance. Below are the questions and answers discussed in the session.
Do employers look at your research skills? Jon mentioned the main selling point was showing that you were able to do science, not specific skills. Being able to do science means having the ability to design and conduct experiments, analyze data, form conclusions, write papers, and present data. Natasha also said to showcase the fact that you are a good scientist and have publications. Good news, fellow PhDs, we can do and have done this! For some job postings, however, specific skill sets may be important.
When is a good time to start applying for postdocs or other opportunities? This can vary tremendously from person to person. Jon recommended a few months before defending, but this can be tricky if you do not know when you are defending. Natasha’s recommendation was a year before defending, although in her case she got lucky because she found a job when she was not looking. Bianca started looking in February when she knew she would be defending in April. She said you need to be able to mold your thesis work into a good scientific story. Once you can do this, start looking! You can also ask your PI if it is an appropriate time to start looking.
What about negotiating your salary? At Regeneron, the salary is set each year and there is no negotiation. At Pfizer, you have a little room to negotiate. Bianca said in academia you can negotiate based on what you are bringing to the lab. Convince them you are worth more money!
How should you tailor your application to a company? Jon stated that those at Regeneron want to get a sense of your ability to do science. In other words, they want to know you can see a project through, design well thought-out experiments, formulate conclusions, write, and present—typically all skills learned in grad school. Natasha said it is not a bad idea to do an academic postdoc before going into industry, and also suggested finding an academic postdoc in a field related to the interests of a particular company.
How much did your grad school skill set help you? Jon reiterated that you have to be able to do science. Natasha said her experiences had helped her, so showcase your stuff! Bianca learned a very niche, technical skill, in vivo cell imaging, and so the future PI trusted her to be able to learn others. An important point made by all three was that seeing a project through from beginning to end is very marketable.
How do you tailor your CV for academic or industry postdocs? Have someone look at your CV, such as a person who has served on hiring committees, and ask them to advise you. Jon recommended including any keywords mentioned in a job posting in your CV/resume.
Will companies sponsor H1B visas for non US citizens? This was one of the first questions asked, since a big proportion of the attendees were not US citizens or permanent residents. The panelists confidently assured us that it was no problem and Regeneron and Pfizer would support visas.
Note: Personally, I am not so convinced. Several outstanding scientists I know have been unable to find positions in the US simply because they are foreign, and companies are not willing to sponsor them. Likewise, visa and sponsorship policies may vary per the current administration. Either way, proceed with caution.
Have you considered doing a postdoc outside the US? There were limited comments from the panelists because none of the panelists had experience with this, nor did any one of them consider going outside the US for a postdoc. However, Bianca mentioned she had heard from colleagues that finding a traditional postdoc was the same process outside the US and domestically. Finding a non-traditional postdoc position might be equivalent to finding a non-traditional postdoc in the US as a foreigner with the added stress of dealing with private industry visa sponsorship (see previous question).
Are grad students competing with other postdocs for industry postdoc positions? At Pfizer, no. They only look at grad students who would be doing their first postdoc. At Regeneron, yes, but Jon was unsure of the numbers. His advice was to just focus on your abilities that showcase you can do science.
THE POSTDOC EXPERIENCE:
What is your day-to-day work like and how is it different in a traditional vs non-traditional postdoc? Natasha said industry is similar to academic research in that there is a big focus on publications. She spends 70% of her time doing research and the rest of the time reading and in meetings. Jon agreed with Natasha’s comments, and said he has 6-7 meetings each week and more presentations. Bianca spends 80% of her time with benchwork and 20% in meetings.
In industry how much room is there to work on side projects? This came up presumably because many people think industry is primarily interested in pipeline projects. Jon and Natasha said there is freedom to pursue side interests as long as you are not too scattered or unfocused.
What type of research questions are pursued in a traditional vs non-traditional postdoc? Natasha came in with a project proposal attached to the job description, so she was locked in to a project from the beginning. Jon said once you are accepted into Regeneron’s program, you can pick whatever project appeals to your interests.
What are your favorite things about your job at Regeneron? This was directed at Jon. His favorite aspect was that he does not have to write grants, but cautioned this is not a good thing if you want to go into academia.
In industry is publishing still a high priority? At Regeneron and Pfizer, yes. At Regeneron, postdocs should aim for a 2nd year submission.
What about mentorship? Bianca said you need to be self-motivated and seek out mentorship because it is not assigned to you like in grad school.
How accurate is the stereotype that academia is purely science-driven and industry is product-and money-driven? Jon and Natasha agreed that while it sounds funny, this is also kind of true. However, it depends on your position. For example, the “Product Development” division fits this stereotype more than a preclinical division.
Do the companies hire postdocs for permanent positions? This depends on job availability. At Pfizer, 30% of the postdocs stay in the company, while 40-50% move to other industries, academia, or pursue other options. At Regeneron, Jon noticed 8 out of 9 postdocs stayed in the company, and 2 of the 8 stayed in the same department.
How did you make your decision? This was directed at Bianca. She was originally offered—but turned down—a non-traditional postdoc at Janelia to start her own small lab. She described it as a “pre PI-ship.” However, she was not yet ready to direct her own lab, and wanted to stay on the discovery side of research where she would be able to pick up techniques as a scientist before committing. Or, before becoming “terminally differentiated,” so to speak!
What about work life balance? Comment on “grad student guilt” or “postdoc guilt.” Natasha and Jon said industry is very “9-5.” Hours are fixed but sometimes people stay late if needed for deadlines. Bianca said in a traditional postdoc, it is what you make of it. This means it is up to you to determine your priorities, and to build a personal lifestyle that works best for you.
How supportive are these postdocs of motherhood? Natasha said Pfizer gives mothers 3 months of fully paid leave plus 3 months of unpaid leave for a total of 6 months. Bianca said in her case, having a child was frowned upon and that she only had 6 weeks unpaid leave. There is no universal safety net for guaranteed leave in the US, so if you are trying to decide if you want to have a baby in the US, it is crucial to find out what your leave benefits are and factor this into your decision.
The concluding remarks were on the process of finding a postdoc. You will not always hear back from PIs or companies you reach out to. Many people are intimidated by the process and worry about finding something in a timely fashion, or make the wrong choice. These are understandable concerns—I had them too! Natasha started by applying to what she considered the “hardest” positions first. Jon applied to many positions and he said something worked out eventually. Just keep trying and embrace that perseverance that got us through grad school!
Author description: Justine is a (newly minted!) PhD graduate from the Feinstein Institute for Medical research. Her PhD work specialized in human B cell immunology and genetics.
Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org