Factors to Consider for Industry Postdocs

Oct. 28, 2018

Are you in between academia and industry, and need help deciding which path to go down?

There are pros and cons to either approach. Ultimately, the decision comes down to what’s a good fit for you. I wanted to try something other than academia and still have the flexibility to go back. I chose the Merck Postdoc program because it offered the best of both worlds. The program’s primary focus is to publish original research, which was a huge motivator for me. If I decided industry wasn’t the right fit, I could lean on my publications to go back into academia. However, if I like industry research, then this postdoc gives me the experience necessary to begin my career.

While doing my postdoc at Merck, I have seen both great opportunities and great challenges. As you read them, ask yourself if this is something you want in your career.   

Opportunity: More Resources

In my opinion, the financial resources available to you are the biggest advantages. While not all industry postdocs (or projects) provide the same budget, my experience has been that resources are plentiful. I can outsource parts of my project to Contract Research Organizations and spend money on reagents and equipment that save time and make things easier. I have access to state-of-the art tools and can tap into an extensive network of expertise across the company. More importantly, I’m managing a budget and planning for a multi-year research project—skills that I will be using in the future.

If personal finances are a motivating factor, then it’s important to note that my postdoc position pays significantly more than the NIH guidelines for a postdoc salary. The benefits and relocation packages were also generous.

Challenge: Bureaucracy

When I was setting up academic collaborators, it took several months of negotiation before we landed an agreement. We had to discuss publication rights, intellectual property rights and pay schedules, which made for a slow start to my postdoc. However, I learned from the experience and have a much better understanding for how these agreements are structured and how long the process takes.

Opportunity: Defined Postdoc Tenure

My postdoc program has a defined time limit. The expectation is a 2-year postdoc, with the option to extend to a third year if the project requires additional time. I saw this as a huge “pro” over a loosely defined academic postdoc. I’ve heard too many stories about 7-year postdocs with no end in sight and controlling principal investigators who dictate when a postdoc is ready to advance their career. I know these experiences are the exception rather than the rule, but the stories were enough to make me carefully weigh my options.

Challenge: Restrictions on What To Share

When it comes to publishing or presenting your research, occasionally conflicts with the company’s business interests can arise. A company may have interest in withholding data or publication due to the current business landscape or the work of competitors. In our program, postdocs are typically shielded from these problems by working on projects that are precompetitive. However, there are rare cases where timing of a publication becomes a careful business consideration. These are definitely points to consider, especially if your career plans hinge on your ability to publish prior to the completion of your postdoc. That being said, Merck’s postdoc program has a particular emphasis on publication, and the majority of the postdocs publish in the first 2 years.

Opportunity: Chances for Professional Development

Opportunities for professional development and growth are plentiful in industry if you are willing to pursue them. As a full-time employee, I have access to hundreds of online courses on a variety of topics. My company has generous education assistance packages if I want to go back to school or pursue a professional licensure. I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a mentor to current Ph.D. students participating in our Co-Op program. I joined the Toastmasters International group within my company to help build my oral presentation and communication skills. I serve as the president of our Postdoc Association, which is an outstanding opportunity to grow and show my leadership and management skills. All of these activities were points of emphasis in my recent year-end review, and my management took note.

Challenge: Business and Scientific Rationales Competes

I have a fair amount of success at pitching and pursuing side projects, however, the decision to fund and pursue a research project has to be in line with our current business need. One of my favorite responses when asked why our company should pursue a certain line of research is: “We want to stand out as an industry leader in scientific excellence and innovation. One of the best ways to demonstrate that leadership is through high-impact publications.”

Industry postdoc positions are not for everyone, but for those of you want to experience applying your research to discovery, I can confidently say there are phenomenal opportunities in industry for those willing to take a different career path.

J. Allen Goggins

J. Alan Goggins is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Biologics and Vaccine Bioanalytics Group at Merck, Kenilworth. Outside the lab, Alan serves as the President of the Merck Postdoc Association and as ASM’s Young Science Ambassador for New Jersey. Alan obtained his PhD in Biomedical Sciences (’16) from the Microbiology and Immunology Department at the Tulane University School of Medicine. As a graduate researcher, Alan studied infectious disease immunology and vaccine design, with a particular emphasis on the CD4+ T cell response. Alan obtained his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health from Western Carolina University (’10), where he conducted undergraduate research in vector ecology and vector biology. 

Author: ASM Careers

ASM Careers
ASM Careers staff.