Postdoc in the German Life Sciences Industry

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Bettina Dupont, Labtimes 06/2012

University research isn’t every graduate’s cup of tea. Luckily, alternative job opportunities are provided by the pharma industry. Lab Times talked to Jasmin Sydow and Nils Koenen who made their way into industry and haven’t looked back.

After successfully defending your thesis, the burning question is about how to proceed with a career. Some scientists decide to work as a postdoc in a research-orientated pharmaceutical company. Such posts are advertised on the career pages of company websites, including Roche, Merck and Novartis. Though rare, these positions offer the opportunity to do research-focused work in a commercial environment. Industry postdocs are usually employed on fixed-term contracts but have access to internal job offers.

Jasmin Sydow at work (Photo: Roche)

Glowing molecules at Merck

Nils Koenen did his PhD in chemistry and has been working as a postdoc for Merc­k in Darmstadt since May 2011. He analyses new dyes for organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), in which organic molecules glow in response to an electric current. OLEDs are, for example, used in digital display monitors. Koenen is also searching for new applications for OLEDs in the life sciences.

Originally, the scientist had applied for a lab manager position with Merck. But the post was given to an internal candidate. When the company offered him a two-year postdoctoral contract, he didn’t hesitate to accept it. Since then, he has applied for three patents and is optimistic about his chances of getting a permanent position with Merck. The company also gives him the opportunity to publish.

Koenen had previously worked in a related field. As a synthetic chemist, he had the appropriate skills and experience for his postdoctoral position. Compared to academia, he is much more involved in current projects. “Work is more focused and the deadlines are tighter,” Koenen tells us. In this way, he is learning the ropes to become a lab manager. “At Merck, teamwork and meetings are more common than at the university,” the chemist remarks. He strongly recommends becoming a postdoc in industry. Five to ten postdocs work for Merck in Darmstadt at any one time.

Therapeutic proteins at Roche

Jasmin Sydow has been working as a postdoc for Roche in Penzberg for two years. She is a fellow of the Roche Postdoc Fellowship Programme of the Pharma Research and Early Development organisation. The programme was created to promote collaboration with academic research groups and to foster scientific innovation in the company. Proposals for a postdoctoral position are submitted by Roche scientists and are approved in-house.

Worldwide, the company employs up to 100 postdocs for two to four years in discovery research, translational medicine and early development. Postdocs have mentors both at Roche and at an academic institution. Once a year, the company hosts a postdoc symposium.

Sydow conducts research at the interface between protein analytics, structural biology and bioinformatics. She is developing methods to predict the biophysical properties of therapeutic proteins by analysing their amino acid sequence. Why did she choose a postdoc position? “As a postdoc in industry, I continue to be involved in research. At the same time, I am gaining insights into the work environment in a global corporation,” the scientist explains.

After a PhD in biochemistry, she had the appropriate specialist knowledge for an easy start. She finds research in industry exciting. At Roche, being a team player is more important than in academic research.

Jasmin is collaborating with different departments in the company to achieve a common goal. However, compared to academia, areas of work and working hours are less flexible. Since there are strong links to academic research, though, it is also possible to return to academia. “Every three months, I have a meeting with my academic mentor. I present the latest development of my project and discuss it with him,” Sydow reports. Roche Postdoc Fellows are expected to attend scientific meetings and international conferences. Publications are mandatory and it is possible to patent new inventions.

Fitting expertise crucial

“A leading position in our company immediately after the doctoral degree is somewhat unusual,” says Hubert Kettenberger, Sydow’s supervisor and lab manager in Pharma Research at Roche. “Scientists who become group leaders at Roche often have done a postdoc project before – many of them at a university or research organisation and only a few in our company,” he explains. “We advertise our postdoc positions on the company’s career web pages and on job websites like www.jobvector.de and www.stepstone.de. We also advertise in scientific journals like Scientific American.” Candidates are selected after an interview and based on their scientific quality. For postdocs in basic research, the right scientific expertise is crucial. Additionally, they should be team players because the projects demand collaborations between different experts.

Synthetic chemist Nils Koenen is happy to work as a postdoc with Merck. (Photo: Rouven Linge/ Merck)

A rare opportunity

The Postdoc Fellowship programme is not primarily a tool for long-term recruitment. Nevertheless, last year Roche kept on 80 per cent of postdocs in its German company programmes. Most of them were promoted to group or project leaders, some chose a position in marketing or quality management. Scientists with a doctoral degree can also apply for the already established Management Start Up Programme or the recently introduced Expert Start Up Programme. In these programmes, which aim at permanent employment, they are trainee managers or project leaders.

Postdoc positions with Novartis

Fellows of the Presidential Postdoctoral programme conduct research for up to four years at the Novartis Institutes for Bio­medical Research (NIBR) in Switzerland, the United States, England, China, Italy and Singapore. Applicants should not have more than two years of research experience past their PhD. The selection process involves interviews and a research seminar.

Back to the academic biotope

Postdocs design their own research plan. They receive guidance from a senior researcher at NIBR and from an external academic mentor. Participants in this programme are expected to publish their work in top peer-reviewed journals and to present their research at international scientific meetings.

After a postdoc in an industrial setting, a professorship at a University of Applied Sciences is within reach. Applicants should have five years of practical professional experience after their PhD, including at least three years in a non-academic environment. “The latter requirement is also fulfilled by a postdoc in a company,” explains Kerstin Otte, head of the Institute of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at Biberach University of Applied Sciences. The more professional experience in industry the applicants for a professorship have, the better their chances of being appointed. “The majority of our applicants have done a postdoc – some at a university, many at a research organisation and some in industry. However, it is more common that applicants worked in industry after their postdoc and then joined us,” Otte says.

Jasmin Sydow and her supervisor Hubert Kettenberger have a keen and concentrated eye on therapeutic proteins. (Photo: Roche)

Why did scientists turn their backs on pharmaceutical research? The applicants for a professorship say they enjoy teaching. At a University of Applied Sciences, they appreciate the opportunity to combine research and teaching and to work with young people. As a professor, they can manage their time and plan the direction of their work more independently compared with employees in a company. Further reasons to join a University for Applied Sciences are the hunger for new challenges but also work overload, partially due to foreign assignments, and job insecurity in the industrial sector, explained Ulrich Eßmann, Dean of the Department of Natural Sciences at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences.

Some drawbacks

There are also some drawbacks. The pay, for example, is better in industry than at a University of Applied Sciences. Additionally, scientists who leave industry and want to do research usually have to find a new research topic, Otte points out. The career choice of scientists may, eventually, depend on their preferences for research, the academic microcosm and teaching.

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