STEM Postdocs in Industry – Online Q&A

On June 25th, Career Services hosted an Ph.D. alum for an online Q&A on postdocs in industry.  She shared her experiences first as a postdoc, and now as a scientist, with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.  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 (https://careerservices.upenn.edu/resources/handshake/) today!

Click here to visit the notes from our online Q&A with a postdoc from Merck back in May!

How she began to think about a postdoc in industry

  • Took 6 years to complete her PhD – she came to Penn with wide ranging interests and not one specific career goal in mind
  • Chose a lab where she thought she could explore a lot and accomplish her work without being in a hyper-competitive environment – this was a good choice and allowed for career exploration
  • At 4.5 years into her PhD program, she began to think about post-doctoral opportunities – at the time, had interests in both academia and industry
  • As she explored, she recognized she was less interested in grant writing and had a strong desire to work on science that had applicability to real work problems – industry seemed to be a good fit
  • She realized she could accomplish this both through working in academic labs or industry – she also saw a postdoc (academic or industry) as being a good opportunity to pivot in another direction
  • She had always wanted the opportunity to live in NYC – began to explore opportunities there
  • Some industry roles are very specific and they are looking for very specific skills

The structure of the Regeneron postdoc program

  • Regeneron has a focus on hiring accomplished scientists, not people with a specific set of skills. This model appealed to her as a way to gain exposure to a different area
  • Regeneron’s postdoc program is unique in that they have specific roles to fill, but also want their postdocs to explore their own research interests
  • Postdocs are specifically paired with a mentor outside of their own field to expand their knowledge base
  • Senior scientists propose to leadership their ideas for postdoc projects – a portion of these are then accepted by leadership and available as opportunities. She could indicate her interests in certain projects as a part of the application

What the application and interview process was like

  • Deadline to apply was in December – postdoc application open during the fall semester
  • 2 phone interviews with scientists, who were interested in learning deeply about her thesis work – needed to be prepared to speak about the science
  • Final interview was an entire day with other candidates – individual interviews with scientists who had postdoc positions
  • She received an offer and accepted – but was not clear what project she would be working on until after she started. She could have more aggressively pursued projects of interest before she started but was very distracted by finishing her thesis

What she did as a postdoc and what she liked about it

  • Each “class” of postdocs is about 10-12 people – she was a part of a genetics group and was a postdoc for 2.5 years – this has since changed and most work as a postdoc for 4 years
  • There is a postdoc committee which meets weekly – all postdocs and VP-level scientists – the postdocs present on their work and get feedback (both on science as well as presentation skills – this was invaluable)
  • All postdocs take a basic statistics class and also have the opportunity to teach a class to younger employees (usually techs) – they also offered an course series on immunology. Many other resources to do training on various topics
  • Excellent community of scientists who were eager to learn and share with others (both postdocs and senior scientists)
  • She worked on 1 primary project during her time as a postdoc, but picked up 4-5 smaller projects based on her own personal interests and project needs
  • Expectation that postdocs will submit one paper during their time – this is why they extended the timeframe to give postdocs time to write the paper
  • While the rigor of the work is similar to academia, the lifestyle is different. She works 8:30-5 most days – postdocs are very protected at Regeneron to make sure they have the time to finish their work and publish
  • Her free time is very much respected – she is rarely required to work or respond to work questions outside of working hours
  • Financial compensation was slightly higher as an industry postdoc than in academia; but she also received additional benefits (stock options, retirement plan, etc)

Transition to Scientist role from Postdoc

  • She wanted to stay at Regeneron but wanted to pivot to human genetics analysis and not work at the bench
  • Applied to scientist positions at Regeneron and elsewhere – received multiple offers but ultimately stayed at Regeneron
  • Now she is working in a mix of genetics and immunology and her team does genetic analysis of infectious disease – she works with academic partners and other pharma firms to do genetic sequencing – working to target diseases with antibody technologies
  • As a scientist, she now is looking more at the big picture and her timelines are narrower in focus (and she has more meetings)
  • More defined role as a scientist than as a postdoc – less freedom to explore interests as a scientist

What would she recommend to students

  • She wishes she had thought more ahead of time about what her interests were professionally
  • Students should begin thinking about their future plans 1-2 years in advance of when they might finish
  • Spend time looking at job descriptions and see what kind of skills/experiences industry is looking for – if you do this far enough ahead of time, there is time for you to gain skills and experiences that would be helpful
  • Start applying during your final year – sometimes having an offer in hand can accelerate your time to finish thesis

Future plans/advice for COVID-19

  • There is still a lot of hiring going on – less so in R&D because of the need to be physically present, but many groups (including hers) are fully up and running
  • The best skill she learned at Penn was how to ask a good question – this has continued to be a well-utilized skills
  • She had no previous genetic data analysis experience but had good science skills – she knows she can continue to learn and pivot
By Dianne Hull
Dianne Hull Dianne Hull