Career Building in Nontraditional Postdoc Tracks

Career Building in Nontraditional Postdoc Tracks
Reported by
Hannah Rice

Posted March 24, 2015

Presented By


On January 29, 2015, the Academy's Science Alliance presented Nontraditional Postdocs to help young scientists understand the differences between academic and industry postdoctoral positions and plan for nontraditional careers. The speakers reviewed the hiring process and the structure of postdoc programs and considered challenges and opportunities in industry. The discussion explored postdoctoral career paths in drug discovery and applied research and featured advice on how to secure a nonacademic position.

Karen Hanson Widbin described Pfizer's postdoctoral program, which provides academic-style training in an industry setting where postdocs can learn about the drug discovery process. Working in diverse therapeutic areas and disciplines at Pfizer R&D sites in the U.S. and the UK, postdocs receive support from Pfizer through its centralized governance of the program, annual retreat, and professional development and networking opportunities, when postdocs can interact with colleagues, external scientists, and other postdocs. Postdocs develop projects collaboratively with research mentors, present at scientific meetings, and publish in academic journals. Their progress is periodically reviewed by a multidisciplinary committee to keep projects moving toward a successful and timely conclusion, Widbin reported. "That's one of the things that our postdocs really appreciate," she said.

Susan D. Croll discussed the postdoctoral program at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which pairs postdocs with a traditional research mentor as well as a senior-level scientist career mentor in a different research division. Postdoc projects are intended to be flexible and to "allow room for creativity and critical thinking" in a research area that is distinct from the main therapeutic areas employees work on. The program also includes career training, teaching, and publishing, and postdocs mentor high school and college students and present at conferences. "Our goal is to make our postdocs successful no matter where they go," Croll said. "We spend the third year trying to prepare them to be competitive in [their chosen] environment."

Top: Postdoc programs aim to deliver high-impact research. (Image courtesy of Karen Hanson Widbin)
Bottom: Career development is an important aspect of postdoc training. (Image courtesy of Susan D. Croll)

Uzi de Haan talked about the Runway program at Cornell Tech, an applied sciences graduate campus in New York City. The Jacobs Technion–Cornell Institute at the university, a partnership with the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, aims "to do out-of-the-box things and experiment with new approaches," he said. "We are not organized according to academic discipline but according to application area": healthier life, built environment, and connective media. Most postdocs choose between a career in academia or in industry, he explained, but the Runway program aims "to offer another option"—entrepreneurship. The idea is to "take a technology and apply it ... and have an impact; this is best done through a company," de Haan said. Postdocs receive funding for a start-up and guidance from academic and business mentors, and the university receives shares in successful ventures.

At Cornell Tech, postdocs work in multidisciplinary project areas in science and technology. (Image courtesy of Uzi de Haan)

Postdoc programs rely on rigorous academic credentials when selecting candidates. Some companies, such as Regeneron, prefer to employ postdocs immediately after graduate school, because the training provided most benefits early career scientists, while other programs are more suited to those pursuing a second postdoc position. At the Runway project, candidates need "the courage to get out of their comfort zone, and basically jump off a cliff," de Haan said. He argued entrepreneurial positions will be "the postdoc of the future," with start-ups driving innovation in science and technology.

The panelists also talked about postdoctoral funding and whether candidates must secure grant funding while in the program. For tech start-ups, grants are ideal funding sources because the capital is non-dilutive. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is difficult to balance requirements for grants, often awarded by government agencies such as NIH, with the company's interest in retaining privacy and intellectual property rights to the technologies and products developed. At Regeneron, a third-year postdoc planning to return to academia would be encouraged to collaborate with an academic researcher and to seek opportunities to apply for grant funding through the partnership.

Asked whether there is a place for dry lab fields such as computational biology in industry, Croll pointed to molecular profiling, proteomics, and genetics as areas where such skills are needed. Widbin described potential for publishable results as most important in project selection, not field of study. In choosing postdoc candidates, companies look at "publication history and innovation" during the doctoral years: "Creativity [is most valuable], no question," Croll said. As part of the Runway program application, candidates are required to write an R&D "opportunity statement" outlining an idea for applied research; the idea should be reasonably defined, de Haan explained, so that the project can get started quickly.

As one audience member pointed out, entrepreneurship requires skills not typically covered in graduate school, such as financial planning and business savvy. In the Runway program, postdocs complete boot camp entrepreneurial training with the school's MBA students, focused on the tech sector. Each start-up company is also given legal and accounting services. "The reason why we work with cohorts ... is we find that peer learning in this situation is very important, because all of them are going through the same problems," de Haan said.

The panel closed with a Q&A with postdocs from the three programs, who discussed the flexibility of their projects and opportunities for innovation and creativity within each program. They also described learning the drug discovery process, bringing drugs to market, and filing patents as rewarding aspects of a nonacademic postdoc experience.

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Presentations available from:
Susan D. Croll, PhD (Regeneron Pharmaceuticals)
Uzi de Haan, PhD (Cornell Tech)
Karen Hanson Widbin (Pfizer)

How to cite this eBriefing

The New York Academy of Sciences. Career Building in Nontraditional Postdoc Tracks. Academy eBriefings. 2015. Available at: www.nyas.org/IndustryPostdoc2015-eB

Postdoctoral Programs

Pfizer Worldwide Research and Development Postdoctoral Program
Pfizer's postdoctoral training program focuses on the study of disease biology, drug delivery, and drug mechanisms of action, as well as the engineering of novel therapeutic proteins, vaccines, and nucleic acids.

Regeneron Postdoctoral Training Program
Regeneron's postdoctoral training program in the biotechnology industry focuses on biomedical research and includes meetings to foster scientific rigor, creative thinking, critical reasoning, and career advancement.

Runway Postdoctoral Program
The Runway postdoctoral program at the Jacobs Technion–Cornell Institute allows recent PhDs interested in technology entrepreneurship to apply their research and launch new ventures.

Articles and Websites

Balbes LM, Balbes Consultants LLC. Transferring your PhD chemist skills to a nontraditional career. American Chemical Society.

Beyond the Tenure Track: The Definitive Guide for PhDs' Success Beyond the Academy
A career consultancy blog for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty exploring and transitioning to careers beyond academic teaching and research.

Carron L. The changing PhD: how can higher education institutions prepare science PhDs for alternate careers? In Progress. 2013.

D'Ecclessis M. 11 Alternative careers for PhD students. Next Scientist. 2013.

Dumont EL. Remodeling technology transfer. Nat Nanotechnol. 2015;10(2):184.

Herman C. The beauty of transferable skills: how grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path. Chemical and Engineering News Blog. 2011.

Ju M. Jacobs Institute at Cornell Tech launches postdoc program. Cornell University. Cornell Chronicle. 2014.

Mintz CS. Nontraditional career options for life scientists. American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. ASBMB Today. 2010.

Mungai PT. Succeeding as a "failed" scientist. American Society for Cell Biology. 2014.

New York City Economic Development Corporation. Applied Sciences NYC.
Information about New York City's initiative to establish top-tier applied sciences and engineering campuses.

Powell K. The postdoc experience: high expectations, grounded in reality. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science Magazine. 2012.


Yaihara Fortis-Santiago, PhD

The New York Academy of Sciences

Yaihara Fortis-Santiago is the program manager for Science Alliance, the Academy's professional development branch. She develops workshops and courses that provide early career scientists with a range of soft and business skills essential for all careers, working with career development offices and student and postdoc organizations to implement professional development programming. She holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brandeis University and completed the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Science Foundation.


Susan D. Croll, PhD

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Susan Croll received her PhD in neuropsychology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She was a postdoctoral fellow and then a scientist at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, studying the therapeutic potential of protein growth factors. In 2001 she started a laboratory at CUNY Queens College, studying the effects of BDNF and VEGF growth factors in epilepsy and other neurological diseases. She maintained her association with Regeneron as a consulting scientist while in academia and returned to the company in 2011, where she continues her research. She has also directed educational programs at Regeneron, including the postdoctoral program, the Kids' Science Day program, and a high school mentorship program. She now holds dual roles as director of the pain, addiction, and neurology area and director of the postdoctoral program. She is also an adjunct member of the neuropsychology doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Uzi de Haan, PhD

Cornell Tech

Uzi de Haan is the founder and head of the Bronica Entrepreneurship Center (BEC) at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology and the director of the Runway Program at the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion–Cornell Institute. His expertise is in early-stage entrepreneurship and the commercialization of intellectual property at universities. He researches technology transfer and emerging ventures, and established a minor track in entrepreneurship at Technion before launching the Runway program in 2014. De Haan holds a Master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and a PhD in industrial engineering and management from Technion. Following postdoctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles, he worked at Philips Electronics for 27 years. He has served on the boards of several start-up companies.

Karen Hanson Widbin


Karen Hanson Widbin is the manager of operations for Pfizer's Worldwide R&D Postdoctoral Program. She works with the program's director and governance team and is responsible for program development and the day-to-day activities of the program office. She has provided organizational oversight for industry postdoctoral programs since 2007, and has worked on Pfizer's R&D program since its formal launch in 2010. She holds a BA in business administration from Boston University.

Postdoc Panelists

Andrew Baik, PhD

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Emmanuel Louis Pierre Dumont, PhD

Cornell Tech

Christina Eng, PhD


Hannah Rice

Hannah Rice is an editorial associate at the New York Academy of Sciences.