A Postdoc’s life in Industry

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Knowing why I made the choices I made, and assembling them as a straightforward strategy, is one of the reason my CV was pushed on the top of the pile for the position I have now: for a year and a half, I’ve been working in the Research & Development department of a big pharma company as a postdoctoral scientist in neuroscience.

If I start from the beginning on, here is my path so far: I’m a biologist by education; I did a bachelor in physiology but already knew by then that basic science wouldn’t satisfy me in the long run. I needed to see the applications of my work, and therefore put into perspective the research I’m doing. I decided to take my chances in a biotechnology engineering school, consciously pointing my career towards applied science. After graduation, I decided to give myself a chance as an engineer in a research lab. However, I realized that such a position wouldn’t challenge me enough or offer sufficient managerial possibilities to keep the job interesting for the next 40 years. So, the PhD came into play accompanied by a clear knowledge of my professional objectives and field of interest.

After a PhD, a lot of options are accessible in the pharma industry, spanning from preclinical research to medical science liaison or clinical trials (to only list a few). What makes a PhD-holders profile attractive is mainly the capacity to learn new techniques or processes from scratch, adapt quickly to new projects and switch between complex tasks. Therefore, many positions will be fitting. One ‘just’ has to know what his/her professional interests are because you will inevitably be screened for your work objectives: there is nothing less attractive for the industry than people who are not sure where they are heading to. But that is of course not all. Compared to academia, social behavior and team skills are much more relevant in the industry, even when one stays in research. Therefore, flipping your CV and your mindset when applying to industry positions are a must: team effort and collaborations are much more valued than individual achievements. This will become evident during the hiring process: first, applications are screened by the human resources department which will only look at how your CV and cover letter match the job advertisement’s keywords, inevitably bringing up ‘communication skills’ or ‘team player’. When this first stage is through, scientists get to see the applications and will decide to push it further, generally with a phone call. Only later on comes the on-site interview, usually a full day of presentations and meetings at different hierarchic levels. And meeting face-to-face with people will be the final test: to equivalent scientific profiles, social behaviors will make the decisive difference.

It was my will to stay in research while shifting to the industry. One of the questions I get the most is how much my position differs from a postdoc in academia. I, however, would like to point out how similar it is. As a postdoctoral scientist, a minimum of 60% of my time is spent in the lab: I design, plan and perform experiments in collaboration with technicians, I develop methods if needed, analyze my data and compile my results for various presentations. The other 40% consists of desk work and meetings: I have to keep my literature up-to-date, document my experiments thoroughly, go to or organize multiple meetings, internally and externally. I’m expected to publish at least part of my data and therefore open up the visibility on our research. The main differences between academia and industry lie in the structure of my work: annual and adaptable goals are set together with the upper management, updates are regularly given to all projects collaborators, the internal network is cultivated every day through meetings and presentations and, most importantly, the professional development of every employee is valued. Research is flexible, yet efficiently implemented in the various projects by being aligned to scientific goals. Freshly obtained data directly impact the decision process for the next experimental steps without delay and always incorporating possibilities of collaborative work with other teams/departments.

Overall, I particularly enjoy the goal-driven and efficient environment that the industry is providing. My everyday work comes out intense and concrete, combining experimental science and communication skills in the most rewarding way. I definitely get there a challenge that will drive my career ahead and to anybody who wants to galvanize science with other fields, I can only advise!

Disclaimer: I work for AbbVie, but the opinions represented here are my own and not those of my employer.

Written by Florie Le Prieult; Edited by Fazi Beckbulat and Isabelle Arnoux.

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