Dr. Tom Novak, VP of Strategic Partnerships at Cellular Dynamics International.

Dr. Tom Novak, VP of Strategic Partnerships at Cellular Dynamics International.

Dr. Tom Novak is the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Cellular Dynamics International (CDI). He also happens to be one of our corporate neighbors at the Buck Institute. SAGE recently interviewed Dr. Novak about CDI’s work on the CIRM Human iPSC Initiative, which is generating the world’s largest human patient-derived iPSC bank. During the interview, Dr. Novak graciously offered to discuss his thoughts in a separate interview on how postdocs can successfully transition from academia into R&D positions in industry. Given his academic experience (PhD from Caltech and Postdoc from Yale) and industry experience (Wyeth-Ayerst, Roche, Fate Therapeutics, CDI), Dr. Novak has great advice for students and postdocs on how to successfully transition from academia to industry. Read below to find out all the tips and secrets on how to get that industry job you’ve been so excited about!


Q: What can postdocs do to prepare themselves for a successful career in industry?

Build a solid record of accomplishment (domain knowledge, papers, and technical skills are the most important), and be able to explain clearly what you’ve done, what you know, and what you’d like to do in the future. Try to learn a little about life in industry.

Some good blogs and websites to expand your knowledge are:

All cover various aspects of the biopharmaceutical industry. In the Pipeline is read by just about everyone I know in industry. It’s a great source of information on what pharma R&D is really like on a daily basis, plus it has links to dozens of other worthwhile sites. Though focused more on chemistry than biology, I consider it a daily “must read”.

Q: What are the top 5 qualities that industry is looking for when hiring for a PhD level scientist position?

  1. Relevant domain knowledge (e.g., broad knowledge of immunology if you’re applying for a job in inflammatory diseases).
  1. Proven record of accomplishment. This is a combination of publications, receipt of grants or fellowships, good recommendations from PhD and postdoc advisors, invitations to speak at meetings, and awards.
  1. Technical skill set. Obviously if the job requires you or your lab to perform, say, hippocampal slice electrophysiology, you had better have that skill! Since you’ll often be teaching your research assistants how to perform experiments, you’ll need to understand them yourself. With the advent of “Big Data”, companies are increasingly looking for scientists with a good grounding in statistics and the ability to exploit large datasets.
  1. A demonstrated appreciation for the company and its goals. You should know what the company does (Develop drugs? Technologies? Perform a service?), and how you can help them.
  1. The ability to work as a member of a team. No one person discovers and develops a drug or a new technology by him or herself. Everything is done as part of a team. You can meet the 4 criteria listed above and still be a bad hire if you are a pain to work with.

Q: How important is your academic publication record when applying to an industry position?

This is pretty important because it’s one of the few concrete ways to demonstrate accomplishment. The completion of a set of experiments that attempt to explain some phenomenon and an ability to convey it in a concise, engaging and intellectual manner is an important skill in industry. You probably need at least one first-author publication as a grad student and one as a postdoc to be competitive. Publications in top journals may help you get an interview, but they won’t help you get the job if your interview goes badly.

Q: Can you give advice on how to apply for jobs and how to prepare for an interview?

  • It starts with your CV. There is no right and wrong way to format this, but it should make clear why you are nominally qualified for the job. Compare yours to your friends. See if there are formats/fonts/layouts that you like better. Are you underselling yourself? Overselling? Try to strike a balance. And by all means check grammar and spelling (and not just using the built-in spell-checker!) That won’t pick up “form” if you meant “from”. Experts suggest reading it from the end to the beginning since it’s harder to subconsciously glide over words that way.
  • Spend the time needed to put together a solid presentation on your work. I’ve never heard of an entry-level PhD candidate who was hired without giving a seminar. So spend some time preparing a good talk. This doesn’t mean just taking figures from your papers and pasting them into PowerPoint. You’ll likely need to trim them down and make them more understandable to an audience that won’t have the paper in front of them. The goal is to tell a story that people can follow and get interested in, not to blow them away in an avalanche of data. Try to send your audience away with one take-home lesson. Talks are very different forms of communication than papers. Make sure your talk reflects that understanding.
  • Once you have your slides assembled, practice the talk, preferably in front of friends and colleagues who don’t all work in your lab and know your subject cold. You want feedback from folks who don’t have the same in-depth knowledge you have, as this is most likely what your job seminar audience will consist of. Listen to their feedback. What was clear and what wasn’t? Edit your slides and do it again. Once I was at job seminar given by a candidate I was to interview later in the day. As soon as the seminar ended, I received an email telling me the candidate was being sent home immediately because his talk was so bad. You do not want to be this person! Also, keep in mind that industry operates on a different timeframe than academia. When industry posts a job they want to fill it as soon as possible. You may find yourself invited to give a talk a couple of weeks after applying, so it makes sense to put together a talk as soon as you have enough data. You can always refine and augment it later if you have time (and more data), but you don’t want to scramble to put something together on a moment’s notice.
  • Most companies perform a preliminary phone interview. This will be with either the hiring manager or with a recruiter (headhunter) the company has retained to prescreen candidates. The hiring manager will likely ask different questions than the recruiter so try to find out who will be conducting the phone interview. Note that if it’s the recruiter, you may have a follow-up phone call with the hiring manager before you get invited for a visit (and give the all-important job seminar). Regardless of whom you talk to, you should do some homework on the company beforehand. What do they do? What products do they sell? If it’s a pharmaceutical company or a biotech, what therapeutic and disease areas do they work in? Have they been in the news lately? Knowing this information won’t guarantee you the job, but not having it (especially given the ease of finding it on the internet) can get your application tossed, as it shows an unforgivable lack of effort.
  • Assuming you pass the phone screen you will be invited to the company to give a talk and meet potential colleagues. Even with web-based videoconferencing capabilities, most companies will want to size you up in person. They’ll pay all travel expenses. Your job is to show up on time, prepared to interview. Make sure you get your schedule at least a day in advance and do some sleuthing on the people you will be meeting. What do they do? Where are they in the reporting structure? What papers have they published lately? What do their labs do? Have your talk on your laptop and on a memory stick. You may also want to email it to the hiring manager just to be safe (this is sometimes not advisable, especially if your talk contains unpublished data). Some hiring managers (my wife, for example) will ask to see your slides ahead of time so she can give you her impressions. She works at Genentech, which is unlike any other company I know of in terms of the wringer they put prospective hires through. For that reason she tries to help out candidates she’s interested in so she can get the process over with quickly. She’ll often suggest wholesale changes that will make your talk more successful. If your hiring manager asks to see your slides beforehand, it’s your call, but it can often be helpful (remember, they want you to do a good job because they’ve already narrowed the candidate list to just 2 or 3 people, and you are one of them). If the hiring manager doesn’t offer to review your slides, see if you can find a friend in industry that will. They will likely point out ways to make your talk more industry-relevant.
  • Dress appropriately for the interview. Ask the hiring manager about the dress code. Some places are very casual, and others more formal. If in doubt, it’s better to overdress than underdress.
  • Show up on time. Enjoy the day. No one knows more about your research than you. Remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Try to determine if you could work with them and be happy. Would you enjoy living in the state/city the company is located? Send a follow-up letter or email thanking them for their time and letting them know you remain interested in the position (but only if you really are).
  • Lastly, I’d suggest that you apply for any job that you are plausibly qualified for. For example, if a job were posted from the Oncology therapy area they would prefer someone who has worked on cancer. However, they would likely also consider candidates who worked in signal transduction, genetics, cell biology, metabolism. You just need to highlight how your background and skill set fits the listed job requirements. Also, don’t take a list of job requirements too literally. I’m not alone in saying that while I may list 10 requirements, I’d be happy with 6 and will likely hire someone with only 4! Don’t be the person who doesn’t apply because you only meet 8 of them. These requirements are wish lists…someone who fits perfectly probably already has a job, and I couldn’t afford them anyway.
  • Every interview is an opportunity to see where you can improve your preparation, your narrative and your talk. Don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to get an interview. Follow up with recruiters and hiring managers to see where you fell short and put that information to good use in your next interview. Every interview should make the next one better.

Q: A lot of biotech and pharma job descriptions ask for previous industry experience. How do postdocs overcome this hurdle?

Ignore it. Obviously, you would be foolish to apply for a director-level position right out of your postdoc. Those higher-level jobs require both supervisory experience and an understanding of the drug discovery process, which you’ll only have with “prior industry experience”. However, entry-level PhD positions don’t need this. Companies will often put it in the job description as a way of reminding applicants that industry is very different than academia, and industry experience is highly valued. I’ll explain why in my answer to the next question.

Q: What are some key differences between industry and academia that postdocs should be aware of?

Academic science encourages and rewards going off on tangents and general stick-to-it-iveness. As long as you can successfully get grants, your career is where you decide to take it. In industry you’ll work on a project team only as long as that program is active, and getting a program started requires the approval of a lot of higher-ups. Discovering and developing a drug is expensive and time-consuming, so the projects that are blessed by management get enormous resources. However, when the decision is made to kill a program it is dropped immediately and everyone gets reassigned to other projects. This way of working is very different than academic science where persistence can be a virtue.

Although every company’s scientific culture is different, in general, publications are less important than in academia. In most cases, one can’t publish on active programs anyway so it would be wrong to rate your contribution based on publications. What matters more is making objective contributions to the programs you are working on.

Another obvious difference between academia and industry is that one rarely applies for grants in industry. This is usually only done in small start-ups as it can be an important source of non-dilutive funding. Larger companies usually pass on grants because the amount of money they offer is too small. (As an aside, US academic science is unbelievably productive on a dollar basis. The amount of money industry had for supplies and equipment made my head spin when I started my pharmaceutical research career, and I had done my postdoc in an HHMI-funded lab!)

Although many (most?) academic biologists are technically working on biomedical research, the focus is on uncovering new knowledge. Industry, on the other hand, exploits this new knowledge in its attempt to develop drugs that help patients. A colleague of mine once described the difference to me as “Academics read a paper and say ‘what’s wrong with this?’ while industry scientists read the same paper and ask ‘how can I exploit this?’” Industry is the epitome of applied science, and getting products out the door (be they drugs, diagnostic kits, instrumentation) is the ultimate goal and primary focus.

Q: Besides being an R&D scientist, what other industry careers are open to postdocs coming straight out of academia.

That’s a tough one for me to answer since I went the R&D route. There are certainly a lot of jobs that scientists can and do transition to in Pharma (regulatory affairs, clinical operations, clinical pharmacology, business development, project management, etc.) but this usually happens after a few years in industry, not right out of a postdoc. One possibility is journal editors/reporters. Journals like Nature and Science have correspondents who cover the science space, in addition to section editors who recruit reviewers and make decisions on submitted manuscripts. I don’t know what qualifications they require. Other venues, like websites, magazines, and newspapers also hire science reporters. One can also work as a Legislative Assistant. Many legislators (at least at the national level) have a staff member focused on science and technology. Patent law firms often hire PhDs to help write patents; in time, many become Patent Agents (meaning they passed the USPTO Bar but are not attorneys). I also know of people who went to work at the NIH to work on study sections and in various Institute offices; some go to the FDA as well. How many of these jobs are open to someone coming out of a post-doc I really couldn’t say. Venture capital firms also hire PhDs to help them evaluate investment opportunities in the biotech space. The hours are brutal but the salaries high.

Q: What have you most enjoyed about industry and what have you least enjoyed?

I like knowing that my efforts are being directed towards helping patients. The biopharmaceutical industry gets a lot of well-deserved criticism for its sins: high drug prices, limited or dubious drug efficacy, misleading direct-to-consumer advertising, off-label promotion, etc. But I feel that the R&D level, where I’ve spent my time, is innocent of those charges. We were truly focused on discovering and developing new medicines to treat unmet medical needs.

I also enjoyed having to broaden my knowledge base. As a grad student and postdoc I often felt my knowledge was an inch wide and a mile deep (go ahead, ask me anything about the mouse IL2 promoter or about CD45 splice variants!) Once in industry, I had to learn about human physiology (portal circulation anyone?) and parameters important to drug development: exposure vs dosage, acceptable toxicity/efficacy ratio, good vs. bad animal models, PK/PD/ADMET, bioavailability, metabolites, CYP-induction and inhibition, and on and on and on. I also had to learn about drug discovery: subjects like high-throughput screening, hit-to-lead activities, and lead optimization. It is like learning a whole new subject, and one I can say I never thought about as a grad student or postdoc. After all, I never determined in vivo drug exposure when I ran an animal experiment as a postdoc. For me, the applied aspects of drug discovery and development were fascinating and intellectually stimulating.

That said, there are plenty of things I don’t like. In large companies there is an excessive amount of upper management that needs to be fed. One spends an inordinate amount of time writing reports and making PowerPoint presentations. Decisions are not always explained honestly; this can lead to frustration or worse, cynicism. Big Pharma companies used to be led by scientists; now they are led by bean counters. Much of the merger activity of the past 20 years has had more to do with acquiring assets (i.e., approved drugs) than strengthening research. In fact, the number of jobs that Big Pharma has shed in the last 20 years is well over 200,000. This lowers morale and destroys loyalty. The pay is good, but successful drug discovery requires more than well-paid employees. Because most upper managers have never worked at the bench, they too often lack an understanding of what motivates drug hunters.

Biotech companies, generally being smaller, retain more of the scientific enterprise that Big Pharma is losing. However, being smaller they are at risk of going under, having massive layoffs (to “extend the runway”), or being swallowed up by larger companies. This last is often financially rewarding for the founders and earliest employees, it usually puts a lot of newer hires out of work with no big payout. These companies also follow an odd pattern in that the drug discovery group’s reward for success is to be laid off in order to conserve money for clinical trials. Sounds strange, but it makes sense.

The best advice I can give anyone considering a job in industry is to manage your own career. Don’t expect your employer to show any more loyalty than is financially prudent. Learn as much as you can about the whole development cycle and seize opportunities when you see them. Find a mentor and learn from him or her. Don’t stay if it isn’t fun. Probably the biggest challenge in biopharmaceutical research is that the product development times are so long (averaging about 15 years) and the failure rate so high. Therefore, most of us in the field will retire without ever having working on a compound that made it to market. If that depresses you, choose another avenue of work.

Q: Do you have any other comments or advice on this topic?

All things being equal, a lot of Bay Area companies (this is probably true for San Diego and Boston-based companies as well) give preference to entry-level candidates who went to college, grad school, or did their postdoc in California. Because the cost-of-living is so much higher here many candidates from the heartland choke when they see what rents and houses go for (and how little you get for your money). California-based companies have learned to stop wasting a lot of time trying to recruit people who will never make the move to here. Candidates who have lived in the state presumably know what they’re in for and are more likely to accept an offer. Since companies want to fill openings as soon as possible, you have a natural advantage when applying in state. Despite this, don’t concentrate solely on California. Apply widely unless you’re geographically restricted by a spouse or other commitments.

In my experience most job candidates (not necessarily hires) come from personal referral, not through replies to job postings. Therefore, build a network of friends and colleagues that you can use when you go out into the job market (and return the favor once you have a job).