Testing the waters

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
480,
Page:
576
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/nj7378-576a
Published online

Postdoc committees can give insight into industry career paths, argue Christopher Tsang and Michael Fisher.

Graduates are often faced with a dilemma: stay in academia or seek a job in industry? One of us (C. T.) met this conundrum after he earned his biochemistry PhD in 2007. With little knowledge of the biotechnology industry, he opted for more training, taking a postdoc position at the University of California, Berkeley. If the postdoc did not work out, he thought, he could investigate companies. Even so, he had difficulty learning what working in industry would be like.

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Many graduates and postdocs know surprisingly little about what an industry job entails. So we developed a mechanism that helps postdocs at Berkeley — and could help others.

It is called the Postdoc Industry Exploration Program (PIEP; see Nature 478, 277; 2011), and is run by the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association. Influenced by an industry-exploration programme that enrolled 37 science postdocs at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (see Nature Biotechnol. 28, 625626; 2010), PIEP was first launched in January 2011. It organizes visits to biotechnology companies to showcase their organization, research and work atmospheres, and allows postdocs to network with employees and recruiters to gain useful contacts and a feel for company culture. Postdocs are inspired by employees who have made the transition from academia, and get to see team-oriented environments and cross-departmental collaborations. Companies gain access to a highly qualified pool of potential recruits.

PIEP workshops train postdocs in creating a professional image and conducting informative interviews with contacts — particularly useful for international postdocs unfamiliar with US business customs. Postdocs also learn how to market themselves, on paper and in person. Seminars provide information about career opportunities and US work-visa requirements.

The PIEP committee surveyed 55 postdocs who participated in site visits in the first year of the scheme. Only 42% were very interested in industry before the visits, but that rose to 73% afterwards. This success led Berkeley's vice- chancellor for research, who had funded PIEP's pilot year, to commit another year of support, including funding for a programme manager.

Postdocs who want to start a similar programme need only a few motivated colleagues and contacts at companies and within the university. The Berkeley PIEP committee is made up of four postdocs, who each volunteer two hours of their time per week; each committee member organizes a site visit with a company's human-resources department and staff scientists. We have had to work closely together, offer support, exchange ideas and share responsibilities, while accommodating each other's heavy research schedules.

Some universities may not have the infrastructure to support or sustain industry-exploration programmes, but this is not an insurmountable obstacle. Postdocs can create such programmes by partnering with schemes that already receive university support. For example, Berkeley's department of molecular and cell biology sponsors a course that brings in doctoral-degree holders to discuss how they moved into a non-academic career. Although this course is aimed at graduate students, it is available to postdocs, and could be part of an industry-exploration programme. Postdocs at neighbouring institutions could also coordinate and pool resources to cover expenses for site visits. Instead of hiring a full-time programme manager, universities could offer stipends to postdocs willing to help out. Interested postdocs will probably still have to donate their time until their university provides financial support.

Postdocs want to make an informed choice between career paths. In our view, the keys to helping them are motivation and institutional support. Initiatives such as PIEP can benefit career-conscious postdocs struggling to sort out their next move in a tough economy.

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  1. Christopher Tsang and Michael Fisher are postdocs at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founders of the Postdoc Industry Exploration Program.

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