As a third year Ph.D. candidate in biology, I am constantly bombarded with questions from concerned loved ones: “When are you graduating?” or “What will you do with your degree?” My unexciting and somewhat embarrassing answer to these questions is always, “I don’t know;” and the truth is, how can I know? I have been immersed in an academic setting for twenty years now. I know little about life outside academia, and I’ll admit—I’m a little terrified about leaving a university setting. It’s hard to make an informed decision about your future when you know little about the options. My professors and mentors, as brilliant as they are, are really only suited to advise me on pursuing a career in academia. So, how does one break the mold?
In order to educate future scientists on alternatives to academia, I want to initiate a dialog about the variety of careers available to soon to be Ph.D. graduates. This post is part one of a two-part series that is aimed at informing those interested in a science-related career about viable options aside from academics.
This post is focused on postdoctoral (post-doc) fellowships in the private sector—or what I’ll refer to as industry. For those who do not know, it is standard to do a post-doc after completion of a Ph.D. in the life sciences. A post-doc is an independent scientist who is conducting research in a lab (usually) distinct from the lab where they did their dissertation work. Post-doc fellowships are highly variable and last roughly from two years to seven years, although longer post-docs are not unheard of. Post-docs generally come in two flavors: academic and industry.
To shed some light on the industry post-doc experience, I interviewed a recent Indiana University Ph.D. graduate who broke the mold and chose industry over academics. Dr. Josh Plotnik graduated from the Genome, Cell and Developmental Biology Program in November, and is now post-doc’ing at AbbVie, “a research-driven biopharmaceutical company.”
Q: Why did you decide to do a post-doc in industry?
A: I decided that I wanted to do a post-doc in industry because ultimately I wanted my career to have the maximum benefit to patients as possible. An industry setting allows me to be on the front-lines of scientific research to benefit those in need.
Q: Can you describe the process you went through to find post-doc positions?
A: It was a long process starting about 10 months before graduation. Lots of applications [were] sent and many hours [were spent] searching company websites and job boards.
Q: Did you apply for any academic post-doc positions?
A: I did. [It] was mainly for a backup in case I didn’t find a good fit in an industry position, but professors were generally receptive to cold-emailing them with a cover letter and resume.
Q: What are your responsibilities in the lab? Do you work closely with other lab members? Do you collaborate with other labs?
A: In my position, my responsibilities include asking fundamental questions that will push our knowledge of small-cell lung cancer forward to ultimately provide new treatment options to clinical trials. As a post-doc, I am largely separate from general pipeline work, but collaborate with a number of internal experts to guide my research program.
Q: What are your goals after your post-doc?
A: My goals would be to transition into an area (Emerging Science, Translational Oncology etc.) within AbbVie as a Senior Scientist.
Q: What would you recommend students to do to learn more about industry?
A: Talk to people in industry. Ask questions. We in industry have been in your shoes so try to make some contacts and get people on the phone or through email. Science is still a small community and you never know who will be a colleague 10 years from now or will get a pile of resumes with yours in it.
Q: Is there any advice you have for students who either want to go to graduate school or are currently in graduate school?
A: If you want to go to graduate school, make sure you get into research labs as an undergrad. Try to spend a summer doing research. You’ll know by the end of it whether or not graduate school is the right place. For those in graduate school – network, network, network. But for both undergrads and graduate students, become an expert in a topic but always keep learning new things.
If you are interested in learning more about industry, the Department of Biology offers a Biotechnology Seminar Series where speakers, often from various biopharma companies, give presentations on a wide variety of topics.
Stay tuned for my second post in this series about life as a scientific writer!