PhD Alumni Spotlight: Merck Postdoc Online Q&A

On May 5th, Career Services hosted an online Q&A with a Penn alum and current Merck postdoc.  Below is a snapshot of the advice offered to students thinking about pursuing postdoctoral opportunities in industry. As always, students interested in postdocs can schedule an appointment with a career advisor to discuss their approach and strategies. Schedule a telephone or video appointment via Handshake ( today!

How he became interested in industry

  • He studied immunology because he wanted to develop medicine that could help people in his lifetime.  Vaccines are a good way to do this & why he found immunology interesting.
  • He wanted an exposure to what it takes to get a drug “across the finish line” – he is in early discovery but can see drugs through each phase.  He participates in a lot of meetings and professional development opportunities with other teams – he loves learning about the process.
  • Currently planning to stay in pharma when he is finished with his postdoc, but doing a postdoc allows some level of flexibility to return to academia (although most PhDs who do an industry postdoc stay in industry)

The structure of the Merck postdoc program

  • Currently they hire 20 postdocs each year for a 3 year postdoc
  • Each postdoc has a mentor (Senior Scientist) and a management sponsor at the VP level
  • Scientists at Merck send in a proposal for a postdoc, the request goes to the executive committee for funding
  • He meets weekly with his mentor and once a year with his sponsor
  • He is expected to publish one paper each year
  • Candidates apply to a specific postdoc, so you know what project you are working on during the application process – the legwork has been done on the timeline before you start so when you start the postdoc, you hit the ground running
  • They know you are still learning as a postdoc, and it is designed to be a learning opportunity – there is a learning curve but not particularly steep
  • Merck’s philosophy is that if they don’t have a skill set or ability within their organization, they will find a way to teach it – lots of opportunities for learning

What the application and interview process is like

  • All postdocs are posted on Merck’s website and candidates have to apply through the website
  • His advisor at Penn reached out to a connection on his behalf, which is helpful, but everyone must apply through the website
  • He submitted a two page resume and a cover letter – the resume needs to be more concise than an academic CV – needs to show relevant skills and interests to the position and not everything you have ever done.  Very helpful to have a summary statement at the top of your resume summarizing relevant skills and experiences
  • His first interview was a phone screening – they had a conversation about the timing of his PhD defense date and availability – need to have a good idea of timing for this interview
  • Second interview was all day onsite – meet with 5-6 senior scientists all day, including lunch.  Day concluded with a job talk – need to make this forward thinking.  An overview of your research but with 3 solid points which put your research into the context of the position you’re interviewing for.
  • He is classified as a full-time employee and gets the same benefits as non-postdocs
  • No one will ever have every single skill or experience listed in a job description – if something is interesting, students should apply.  If your skill set is wildly different than what they are looking for, you may need to rethink whether you are a good fit.

What he does as a postdoc and what he likes about it

  • There are misconceptions out there that industry are not as academically rigorous – this has not been his experience.  His work is academic in nature, and he is required to publish every year.  The timeline is different than academia in that they are actively working to get a drug to market and the legwork and timeline were done before he arrived.
  • His day to day is similar to being a PhD student in that he goes into the lab every day.  More meetings than in academia – lots of professional development opportunities, department meetings and outside speakers – Merck has a seminar series in which they bring in academic faculty
  • Biggest different in the day to day is the timing – he works 9-5 – no evenings and weekends.  No expectation that he be “on” on evenings and weekends – very little email traffic and no expectation that he would respond before he returned to working hours.  He enjoys the lack of pressure to think about work all the time.
  • He works in a lab with other PhDs – but he is working with people more widely ranging in age than in academia – which makes for a different (but good) dynamic

What did he do as a student to make him a good candidate for this role – what would he recommend

  • The more you can explore different career paths as a student, the better – you will be better positioned to understand what skills you need to develop before going onto the job market
  • Students should participate in non-research activities at Penn – this will benefit greatly no matter what you want to do – he was a Penn Biotech Healthcare Group member and served as a leader in the organization.  It was a great learning experience and helped him to understand he did not want to do consulting or more business-focused activities.
  • If your lab allows internships, they are a great option
  • Keep an open conversation with adviser – will help you to know when you can start applying for jobs

Future plans/advice for COVID-19

  • He plans to stay in pharma and work as a senior scientist
  • For these roles, you really do need postdoc experience – either in industry or in academia.  Rare to find a senior scientist without postdoc experience
  • Merck continues to hire during the pandemic – timelines may shift, but interviews and hiring are happening.
By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs