What is a postdoc in the industry all about, and what is it like to do one abroad? Filip is a former Weizmann student and is currently pursuing a postdoc at Roche in Switzerland. Roche is a healthcare company founded in 1896 in Basel (Switzerland), now spanning more than 100 countries. It develops innovative medicines and diagnostic tests. Large companies such as Roche offer postdoctoral programs in their R&D centers. These positions are competitive, since they enable graduates to work on cutting-edge innovations within the industry setting, facilitating transition from academia. Filip succeeded to get a Roche Postdoctoral Fellowship at Roche and shared his experience with us.
What do you do in your current position?
“I`m working on intracellular trafficking of adeno-associated viruses (AAVs). I am developing in vitro models to better understand the processes influencing transduction by viral vectors. Understanding differences between in vitro and in vivo transduction is important part of the work as well. The project is closely connected to the gene therapy efforts of the company. Like other companies, Roche is trying to develop novel approaches to treat different genetic diseases with gene therapy modalities, and AAVs are one of them.”
What are the main differences between research in academia and in industry?
“I think that in general, funding in industry is better, so you can do a lot without worrying about money as much as people sometimes do in academia. Researchers do not need to write grants; projects receive funding internally with appropriate justification. We have cutting-edge facilities and a lot of high-quality equipment to perform experiments on a larger scale than in academia. Some experiments or analyses can even be outsourced and performed by external companies. Basically, every lab can be accessed to use the equipment, and we can freely share expertise within the company without being worried about a scoop.”
“I would like to emphasize here, that Weizmann is a really exceptional and unique institution, with many well-funded labs and cutting-edge facilities, where researchers work together in collaborative spirit. It probably does not represent well the average academic research center.”
“Another important difference is organization. Traditional lab structure with lab head, scientists and technicians working on advancing molecules to next phases is slowly being replaced by more agile styles of working, in which individual contributors can propose projects and recruit team members from other employees with matching expertise.”
“Company research efforts are very focused and well-planned; side-projects that are scientifically interesting but don't help achieve project goals, are not being prioritized. Projects often span across different departments and need to be well orchestrated, with everyone having to focus on his working package and project deliverables. I noticed that there is a big emphasis on respecting each other`s time, starting meetings on schedule and planning well ahead. Staying long hours and working overtime is definitely not encouraged. All of these are probably also influenced by general Swiss working culture. There are different management approaches and working styles, and there are many ways to succeed, it`s enriching to experience that. In terms of working culture and organization, industry in Switzerland definitely differs quite a lot from academia in Israel.”
When and how did you decide to move to industry?
“When I arrived in Switzerland, I first started a postdoc in academia. Unfortunately the project didn’t receive funding, and corona happened. I knew it would take much more time to bring the project to successful conclusion, so I decided to try something that would open more doors for me. Postdoctoral fellows at Roche are still encouraged to publish in high impact journals, but at the same time you also get “2-3 years of industry experience” that you often see in job adds. After my postdoc at Roche I could either go back to academia, or continue in industry. Many people stay in industry after their postdoc in a company. They are better candidates for permanent industry positions, because they already know how the company functions and how to find themselves in this environment.”
Is it necessary to move abroad in order to have a successful (academic) career, in your opinion?
“It really depends. If you find a good place where you are happy, it’s nice to stick to it. Weizmann for example is a world-class institution that is very comfortable to work in. If you can continue working on a subject that you love, among supportive people and whilst continuing to publish, it can be great. Having a comfort of knowing the place well can make your work much easier. Maybe, after some time, you get tired of the environment, even a good and supportive one. It is “material fatigue” of some sort. Then you think the grass must be greener elsewhere. Well, it might not. If you move, you have tons of other things to worry about besides science, at least at the beginning. So there is a lot of benefit in staying. I know people who stayed at Weizmann for their postdocs after PhD, and then they successfully competed for tenure-track positions outside of Israel. ”
“On the other hand, there is a risk that we feel too comfortable if we stay, and we stop learning and being productive. Then we become like well-buttered sufganiyot. This might be less good for the science and our professional development. I believe that sudden changes can teach us a lot, even if they don`t lead to where we initially planned to be. Even if we fail due to unknown difficulties, we still win the experience. It’s a good decision for people who are more adventurous to live in some other country, to challenge themselves a lot and explore something new, see how things work in other places.”
“In the end, I think it is not necessarily worthwhile to follow cliches: “if you want to achieve X, you must do Y”. We are all unique regarding our preferences, and there could be many ways to go there, so I think it is worthwhile to have an open mind or catch unexpected opportunities. And no matter what we do, the future is uncertain anyways.
Do you have any advice about moving to another country?
“You first need to look ahead and make sure that you know what you are getting into. You need to do some research before you sign the contract, ask yourself: 'what quality of life will I have, for what they are offering me? What compromises will I have to make in order to work on this dream project or dream job?' Postdoctoral positions in Switzerland are well-paid, whereas for example living in San Francisco, London or New York on postdoc salary might not be so easy. Check the living costs, apartment rents, food, but also potential time wasted for commute, climate, safety, inclusivity of the culture. Do you have friends around, people you can rely on during the crisis? Will it take a lot to learn the language? Can you have some sort of private life there? All important things to take into account, to create a stable basis of new life.”
“It’s also important to see what is the visa situation, and your perspective for further stay. You don`t want to be in a situation in which you invest time in the project and then your visa is not extended. This can put a lot of pressure on you, especially when your project isn’t going well. Ask yourself: can you continue living your life there?”
“After you arrive, ideally you first find a place that is comfortable to live in, while fulfilling all the bureaucratic requirements. After this, you find friends, bond with people and try to create a friendly and supportive environment around yourself. Take some time to be in touch with people back home. Take vacation to visit them and to get to know the new place you found yourself in. If you plan to stay longer, learning the language is also a good thing to do. In-person language courses help to meet other expats.”
“With a safety net and well-balanced life it is easier to focus on science, but it is good if you can try to focus on your work from the very beginning, and get to know yourself as reliable and skilled. Practically, things never go exactly as planned, and we often must do everything simultaneously, facing all kinds of “adult life” problems. Often in very different environments and in some sense of isolation, while having to be productive at work. Then I think it is best to prioritize, be patient and resilient. In critical moments, remember the bright sides and what you have achieved already. If you feel low, reach out to others. If things don`t go well at the beginning, I think it is worthwhile to wait a bit longer before deciding to quit. Things will work out this way or another eventually!”
What do students need to think about when searching for a job in the industry?
“It is not easy to combine finalizing your PhD thesis with searching for a job. Sometimes it is beneficial for the PI to keep a postgraduate a bit longer. If one is in good relations with the PI, I would encourage the person to stay a bit longer in their PhD lab, and search for a job in this extra time while doing paper revisions and training other people for example. If you are not sure what you want to do, be open-minded about it. Contact people directly, create a network.”
“Send as many applications as you can, because statistics matter; give yourself a chance to be interviewed. Write a good CV and profile it directly to the position you are applying to. Some companies use algorithms to pre-screen the CVs, searching for keywords. Companies will look for the best match for the project, so your expertise matters. Make sure you don`t omit any technique you know or skill you have. When you write a motivation letter, focus not only on what you were doing, but mention what you achieved, and mention the soft skills. Make sure that you emphasize your transferable skills.”
“Remember that companies also struggle to get good candidates, it won`t be easy for them to find someone who 100% fulfills the requirements. If you want to know more about the position, you can write directly to the hiring manager, it is no shame to write a nice email and ask. If you fail at the beginning, don`t give up and keep trying. When it comes to industry positions, be open-minded and accept that you are not going to get the highest position at the beginning. Start somewhere and see if you like it, take a risk. In academia, your path is much more defined; in industry there are more possibilities.”