Postdoctoral training is intended to provide new Ph.D.s in science with advanced research experience under the guidance of a successful senior scientist. This typically lasts from 1-5 years, and results in an independent researcher with several research publications as first author. In response to the current difficulties with finding a job as a faculty scientist in academia [e.g., 1], questions are arising about whether this advanced research training as a Postdoc is necessary. The intriguing possibility that the years of postdoctoral research training are not needed is nicely described by Erika Check Hayden with a new article in Nature, “Young Scientists Ditch Postdocs for Biotech Start-ups” . Today’s dispatch looks critically at the pros and cons of skipping postdoctoral training by starting a small business where the new Ph.D. is the owner and chief researcher.
Is postdoctoral training in research absolutely necessary to be a good scientist?
Postdoctoral training has been regarded for a long time as an essential prerequisite to hold a faculty position in academia. However, many doctoral scientists working in industry have been hired without postdoctoral training, and went on to produce good research results; this is made practical by the facts that: (1) new research staff in industry usually receive a special intensive training period upon starting their new job, and (2) industrial research often involves working within a small or large team of co-researchers. If one looks only at doctoral scientists working in universities, some science faculty also can be found who were hired having no postdoctoral training (e.g., in departments of anatomy or computer science). Thus, the answer to this question clearly is ‘no’!
Why is postdoctoral training still deemed so essential for faculty scientists?
Postdoctoral research training is required in academia because new Ph.D. scientists need several qualities not provided by their graduate school education: (1) full independence as a researcher, (2) experienced judgment for designing and evaluating research experiments, (3) wide practical knowledge and experience with conducting research projects, getting results published, obtaining research grants, presenting reports at science meetings, dealing with bureaucrats and the public, (4) in depth knowledge in a science specialty, so teaching can be done with confidence, and, (5) understanding the business aspects of being a faculty scientist. New Ph.D. scientists generally only have limited expertise with a few research methods and approaches; being a postdoc greatly expands their hands-on experience, expertise, and critical judgment.
How will this new arrangement operate, and what will it lead to?
New Ph.D. scientists now can found a small business where they are the owner, chief executive officer, and principal researcher . First and foremost, this new career pathway requires one very determined individual with total commitment to making this unconventional activity succeed. Support funds for early stage financing must be found, and are available from start-up organizations, venture capitalists, and biotech incubators . Those associates not only provide money to get a lab furnished and staffed, but also give valuable advice about handling business concerns; that is particularly important since new science Ph.D.s usually have zero experience about business and financing. Lab space is available for rent or at some university-based incubator facility. Research technicians, managers, accountants, lawyers, etc., all can be hired as needed, and as funding permits. Some individuals already are doing this, thereby avoiding the need to spend more years as a postdoc before starting independent research .
The original aims of this new career path are to skip the postdoctoral period, yet immediately start doing research, receiving a good paycheck, and being an active part of science. After early stage financing is obtained, continuation of research depends on success of the business (i.e., generating profits, persuading investors to buy stock of the new company, outdoing commercial competitors, and having good luck). Ideally, some large industrial company will buy the promising small business and then take care of all financial matters. Note that being successful at research is not enough; one must also be successful at business! Industrial research is different from academic research, and industry accepts that business must direct their research activities!
What problems will this new career path face?
Many non-science problems can arise in any small business, particularly with development of new commercial products, marketing and advertising, and increasing sales. I know of one young doctoral physicist who formed a small service business with several colleagues over 30 years ago; his venture collapsed when alternative methods developed that were less expensive. At some large industrial labs, there are quite a few graphic stories where company administrators suddenly cancelled an entire large research project for business reasons; if this arises within small research companies, then everything stops.
Thoughts about business and science!
Businesses exist to make financial profits. Scientific research exists to find new knowledge and to test the truth. These 2 are fundamentally different! Although science at universities conducts basic and applied research as part of its traditional mission, today academic research increasingly is just amother business entity where money is everything, and faculty scientists are hired to increase their academic employer’s profits by getting research grants. Hence, many faculty scientists researching in academic institutions already have merged their science with a business! The destructive problems in academic research will recur within new small research businesses!
A fusion of business with scientific research seems to me to be full of difficult problems. Success will not be easy! The new article by Hayden explicitly states, “Most young biotech firms fail” , but does not identify the causes. I feel that the chief cause is the inherent conflict between science and business. Ex-Postdocs can either seek the truth or they can seek money!
Some brief discussion!
In my opinion, deserting the postdoctoral experience altogether is not a good answer to solving current problems for postdocs. I suggest and urge young postdoctoral scientists who are dissatisfied or feel trapped to: (1) devote much more attention to seeking good science-related openings outside academia (see: “Postdocs in 2016 Need to be More Clever, Not More Angry!” ), (2) recognize the basic purposes of science and of business, and, (3) closely inspect what is displayed in the incredible photo in Hayden’s article , showing the courageous young and eager biotech scientist, Dr. Ethan Perlstein, standing alone inside his empty business “laboratory”!
Fusion of scientific research with a small business might work for certain new science Ph.D.s, but that is not a general possibility. The result could be exchanging one problem for others!
 Powell, K., October 26, 2016. Young, talented and fed-up: scientists tell their stories. Nature (Oct. 27) 538:446-448. Available on the internet at: http://www.nature.com/news/young-talented-and-fed-up-scientists-tell-their-stories-1.20872?WT.mc_id=SFB_NNEWS_1508_RHBox .
 Hayden, E.C., 2016. Young scientists ditch postdocs for biotech start-ups. Nature (News, Nov. 1, 2016) 539:14-15. Available on the internet at: http://www.nature.com/news/young-scientists-ditch-postdocs-for-biotech-start-ups-1.20912 .
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