Postdoc Programs at Pharmaceutical Companies: A Research Path Less Chosen
Pictured: Two scientists collaborating in a laboratory_iStock, PeopleImages
In the biomedical sciences, a postdoc (or two) is seen as the gateway for freshly graduated PhDs into long-term careers in academia or industry. According to a 2022 survey, 64.8% of life science doctorates opted for a postdoctoral position after graduation.
But most of these postdocs are at academic institutions, despite the fact that nearly half (46%) of science and engineering PhDs end up employed by industry. A 2006 National Science Foundation (NSF) Survey of Doctoral Recipients found that the number of life sciences candidates enrolled in academic postdocs was almost 7 times that of postdocs in non- or for-profit companies.
Even for graduates inclined toward pharmaceutical research, industry postdoc roles often slip under the radar. Dedicated discussions about such openings barely exist on public forums owing to a low density of individuals with industry postdoc experience and the fact that only a handful of companies offer such programs.
“I do think that awareness is a problem,” Kelly Desino, scientific director of the community of science and executive sponsor for the postdoctoral program at AbbVie, told BioSpace. “We're working on [spreading the word] that we have a program [and] we’re growing it.”
The lack of awareness has led to preconceptions—for example, that industry postdocs in the field of pharma and life sciences are money-motivated and that the positions are less prestigious than posts in academia.
Outreach programs where academic researchers are exposed to the industry research environment are an effective method of fostering a comprehensive understanding of the opportunities and challenges that come with a postdoc at a company, Desino said. “We’ve also looked to see, can we establish . . . long-term and sustained interactions with academic institutes? [Having] this ongoing relationship with them, so that when a postdoc [position] or a proposal pops up . . . we’ve already got this talent pool that we’ve been engaging with.”
The Benefits of Doing an Industry Postdoc
For graduates interested in basic research, academia might seem like the only plausible option, but this is not the case. Novartis, for example, provides an Innovation and Discovery Fellowship that has two tracks. “[The] discovery track . . . focus is to do this kind of more academic type [research] and publishing your work,” Gianluca Etienne, a principal scientist at Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research and former Innovation Postdoctoral Fellow, told BioSpace in an email. “Then [in the] innovation track . . . people work more closely on pipeline projects and ongoing drug discovery projects.”
A similar approach of exploring fundamental science alongside translational research that can impact patients' lives is adopted in Genentech’s postdoctoral programs. “My research places me between Genentech’s Pharmaceutical Technical Development and Research and Early Development (gRED) functions,” Genentech postdoc Ratna Varma said in an email to BioSpace. “This allows me to leverage the expertise of not only performing basic science research but also employing the engineering mindset of process development toward my work, which pertains to developing human lung cell therapies.”
Another advantage of the industry postdoc is that monetary support for the research comes from the company’s R&D funds and does not solely depend on external grants. During the COVID-19 pandemic, postdoc programs dependent on the latter struggled with lab closures, salary freezes and basic needs. “I think people started getting more creative about where they were looking for their postdoctoral work,” Desino said.
Etienne added that industry postdocs also tend to come with higher salaries. “I know a lot of people are doing postdocs in academia [and] really struggling more to make ends meet,” he said. “And I think in industry, in general, postdocs have better pay than certain government-funded postdocs.” According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Professional Development and Career Office, industry postdocs earn some 20% more than academic postdocs and often get relocation funds, annual bonuses and retirement matching—benefits that are rare among academic postdoctoral positions.
In addition to the latest technologies, Etienne said, Novartis has been expanding its research programs to incorporate entrepreneurial and academic collaborations. He noted that during his postdoc at Novartis, he took part in evaluating biotech startups as potential collaborators. “So, you kind of get the newest science . . . from the startup new business world and then also from academia.”
One potential drawback, however, is that proprietary restrictions in pharma can limit a postdoc’s ability to publish their work or write funding proposals—something that could challenge a scientist’s reentry into the “publish or perish” culture of academia. Indeed, Etienne said that while Novartis does publish a lot of postdoc studies, there are certain topics that cannot be published if they are up for patent filing. Desino noted that organizers of postdoc programs at AbbVie are cognizant of this situation and therefore collaborate with legal teams to ensure their fellows can publish their work.
Nevertheless, researchers aiming for a career in industry (or still deciding on their career path) can benefit from a postdoc in the pharma industry. Desino emphasized that at AbbVie, the postdoc programs are designed to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas with different R&D groups within the company. Industry postdocs also allow young researchers access to the latest screening and automation technologies, alongside an opportunity to network with experts in the field.
Sanjukta Mondal is a freelance writer based in Kolkata, India. Reach her at email@example.com.