By Minkyoung Lee, PhD candidate in Biozentrum, University of Basel


Broaden your doctoral or post-doctoral opportunity in biomedical research from Basel, CH to Boston, USA!



One of the first things many of us think about when we hear “higher education” is academia or university. However, higher education and research exist outside of academia as well, namely through earning a doctoral degree or doing a post-doctoral opportunity in the industry. This application is initiated by the needs from the industry itself as well as from students. Traditionally, companies or employers have hired highly skilled workers who already have doctoral degrees from certain areas. However, in an increasingly diverse, complex, and high-tech era, the industry rather prefers to train or discipline their employees with their knowledge and perspectives within their system because higher education provided by universities might not fulfill their needs or requirements in terms of specific research topics, as well as cutting-edge technologies and techniques. Universities certainly can be innovative, but their usual area of focus is basic science and pedagogy, which are not the primary skills or interests for companies that are looking for potential employees that can work with state-of-the art technology and applied science to make innovative products. As for the students, many of them want to work in the industry at the end of their education. Thus, many prefer to learn more relevant skills to meet industry prerequisites to be competitive. In contrast to an apprenticeship or traineeship, such programs allow students to simultaneously obtain industry experience and obtain a doctoral degree, which can be use outside of the industry as well. Further, post-doctoral experience in the industry can be considered as a stepping stone to the next career opportunity. Ultimately, both students and potential employers can benefit from this liaison between academia and the industry. Therefore, I would like to introduce some cases in Basel, Switzerland and Boston, United States, two cities which serve as global hubs for bioscience and pharmaceutical research.


Academic career opportunities in the industry: some examples from Basel and Boston

Through the Global Perspective Program (GPP) 2017, I had an opportunity to visit the Novartis Institute for BioMedical Research (NIBR) in Boston, which is a top pharmaceutical research institute. In house, they run both doctoral and postdoctoral programs in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). PhD students and post-docs practically work at the NIBR but are simultaneously registered at the university which awards them a degree and helps them produce publications with academic mentors. Novartis was founded in the Basel area, Switzerland in 1996 and is most famously known for its medication called Gleevec for leukemia treatment (1). There are several Novartis research institutes around the globe but I would like to highlight two noticeable research centers: one is located in Basel and the other in Boston. NIBR Basel, co-located with the corporate world headquarters, is an inclusive part of the Bio-Valley, Europe’s biotechnology hub located in the Tri-border region between Switzerland, France and Germany. Drug discovery here primarily focuses on autoimmunity, transplantation, and inflammation, as well as musculoskeletal diseases, neuroscience, and oncology. On the other hand, NIBR Cambridge is located in close proximity to multiple eminent academic research institutions (e.g. Harvard, MIT, and Tufts Medical School) and innovative biotech companies including numerous start-ups. NIBR Cambridge is home to research in the areas of oncology, ophthalmology, and cardiovascular and metabolic-related diseases (2). The reason for establishing this independent research center was that Novartis wanted to keep basic and applied scientific research together. This innovative company uses its capital to support more than 6,000 scientists with an aim to understand diseases and develop novel products with significant benefits for patients. Normally, Masters student can apply to individual labs in the NIBR institute first and get a position. Then, they can get a PhD degree from a partner university like University of Basel or MIT after writing their thesis and attending some designated courses which are similar to traditional academia. After their PhD, post-docs can also work at the NIBR with a contract. NIBR incubates them with a nourishing environment. Working at the NIBR lab can be similar to traditional academia but projects can be geared toward more applicable science. In addition, students can develop a valuable perspective on not only scientific methods in industrial science, but also the corporate culture inside pharmaceutical companies. Afterwards, they can go back to academia or continue their career in the industry.


Friedrich Miescher Institute (FMI) in Basel is also quite a unique non-profit biomedical institute. Mainly funded by Novartis, they are not directly targeted for drug development and have interests in various topics from the fields of epigenetics, mechanisms of cancer, to neurobiology. Scientists at the FMI have access to world-class research and cutting-edge technology and are fully supported in their professional development. With abundant infrastructure and generous funding, they have been ranked as the most favored post-doc institute in the world several times. As a case in point, an American professional magazine for the life sciences called The Scientist announced this result in their 10th Annual Best Places to Work for Postdocs survey in March, 2012 (3). Veronika, one of our GPP 2017 participants, is a PhD student at FMI.


Hoffmann-La Roche is another top tier pharmaceutical company that was originally founded in Basel, Switzerland in 1896 but became a global company. Tamiflu is one of its well-known products, an antiviral medication used to treat and prevent influenza A and influenza B (4). They also have a lot of internal labs as well as various founding sources including the “Postdoc Fellowship (RPF) Program” which bridges researchers in academia to their company. The purpose of this fellowship is to foster creative science as a basis for innovation and seek new scientific knowledge; exploit emerging science, technologies and methods (5). My lab also got its grant to tackle some oncological approaches such as inducing cancer in zebrafish model. At that time, Roche provided us not only fellowships but also mentoring through different perspectives; for example, as we hadn’t researched beyond blood vessel development which has a logical link with cancer study. In addition, by bridging from PhD to Post-doc, Roche offers Roche Internships. Scientific Exchange (RiSE) program invites PhD and medical students to gain insight into drug discovery and development at one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies (6). After this internship, students’ experience and acquired skills from the industry help many in their employment in the private sector, either at Roche or at other similar companies.



There are numerous opportunities in pharmaceutical companies that can help PhD candidates’ and post-docs’ career not only in academia, but also in the industry. While taking advantage of the availability of cutting-edge technology and qualified infrastructure in the industry, we can also acquire higher education from a university, providing us with a diversity of experiences and qualifications that can open many avenues for our career. Therefore, these opportunities provided by Novartis or Roche can be an ideal opportunity to take, especially to scientists who are constantly looking for updated knowledge and desire a career in the industry.