Massachusetts General Hospital's Tooba Cheema is considering a career in industry, while Christopher Tsang at the University of California, Berkeley, sees himself one day working at a mid-sized biotech. Erroll Rueckert, who holds appointments at MGH and the Broad Institute, is not yet sure which professional path to take. "I haven't made a clear-cut decision on whether to try to stay in academia or not," Rueckert says. "It's very important to know what the options are."
Cheema says her colleague's attempt to resolve the tough choice between the two paths is not unusual. More out of the ordinary is that he has considered leaving. "There is a growing need for postdocs to explore careers outside of academia," Cheema says.
She and Rueckert, along with Berkeley's Tsang, are among a small but growing group of postdocs working to make information on non-academic careers accessible through industry exploration programs, and are taking charge of their own professional trajectories in the process.
Cheema and Rueckert, former co-chairs of the Massachusetts General Postdoc Association, continue to help develop its Industry Exploration Program, which, in collaboration with the nonprofit MassBioEd Foundation and MGH's Office for Research Career Development, provides postdocs with opportunities to visit Boston-area biotech and pharmas for a day "to interact with industry scientists [and] learn from their experiences," Cheema says.
As an MGH postdoc in 2009, program founder Adnan Abu-Yousif says he'd learned plenty on how to succeed in academia, but "for those interested in learning more about careers outside of academia, no way to engage industry professionals existed." So he made an elevator pitch to MassBioEd's Bob Bondaryk for what was to become the program Cheema and Rueckert now help lead. By April 2010, having completed site visits with their initial industry partners, Abu-Yousif and his colleagues wrapped up the program's pilot phase and published a Nature Biotechnology paper on it.
Last year, Berkeley's Tsang stumbled upon Abu-Yousif's paper while searching for Bay Area jobs. Shortly thereafter, he spearheaded an effort to launch a similar program on his campus to make it simpler for postdocs and industry partners to interact. "Everyone knows about the San Francisco biotech cluster, but because they're private companies you can't just walk in and talk to people, so it's kind of a black box in that way," Tsang says. "I wanted to set up this program to lower the energy barrier to get to know people inside these companies because it's just too difficult to do so otherwise."
To date, postdocs involved in the Boston program have made six visits to five companies — AstraZeneca, CFRx, EMD Serono, New England BioLabs, and Millennium Pharmaceuticals — while those in the Bay Area have visited BioRad, Life Technologies, LS9, Novartis, and QB3.
"For me, going on visits to different companies [from] small biotechs to large pharmas, just understanding the differences between [them] — the dynamics and the culture — has been extremely useful, something that I would not have been able to get from the actual companies' Web sites," Cheema says.
But postdocs aren't the only ones who profit. Participation "has been beneficial to companies because it buys them exposure to potential colleagues and future hires, and ... helps initiate potential scientific collaborations and improves the company's perception among the postdocs [in academia], so it's a win-win partnership," Cheema says.
Rueckert adds that industry scientists have also said they enjoy taking part. "It's a morale-builder [to] provide guidance and mentor people who are interested in making a transition like they have," he says. And, according to Cheema, some mentoring relationships have lasted beyond the site visits.
Industry exploration programs "should be available to postdocs across the US — not just in Boston and San Francisco," Tsang says, adding that they are "not difficult to set up if you have a good group of people that are willing to devote a bit of their time."