Amy DeMicco and Matthew Harms—CB and DSRB alumni, respectively—both work for AstraZeneca in Sweden. Amy and Matthew bring interesting perspectives about the transition from academia to industry, finding jobs with a significant other, and living and working abroad.
The start of the journey: Amy completed her PhD in Craig Bassing’s lab (July 2015), studying how specific gene expression programs promote both normal lymphocyte function and suppression of malignant transformation. Matt completed his thesis and a brief post-doctoral fellowship in Patrick Seale’s lab. There, he investigated the role of a transcription factor, PRDM16, in the identity and function of brown adipose tissue. During his job search, Matt became aware of open postdoctoral positions at AstraZeneca. The metabolism group of AstraZeneca is based in Gothenburg, Sweden, so Matt knew he would have to relocate if he was offered the job. Big companies sometimes help place significant others, so since Amy was close to graduating, AstraZeneca passed around Amy’s application to their various research divisions. At the time, Amy hoped that she would get the job at AstraZeneca, but she made sure to set up a few back-up plans, which included interviews for academic postdocs at local universities in Gothenburg. Someone in the department of respiratory and autoimmune diseases at AstraZeneca saw Amy’s experience with B cells and flow cytometry and asked her to interview for a senior research scientist position. Matt ended up accepting a postdoc position at AstraZeneca, and Amy joined as a senior research scientist.
Life in Sweden: Many people who move to a foreign country for work go through two phases of emotions: initial excitement and interest, then a realization of being a bit out of place. Amy and Matt were no exception, especially during this past holiday season since they stayed in Sweden for Christmas. But things are getting better. To combat the “fish out of water” feeling, Amy and Matt started taking Swedish lessons. Amy mentions that all Swedes speak English well, but only if they need to; most Swedes assume you speak Swedish since you’re living in Sweden. Matt echoed these sentiments, claiming, “Going to the doctor is slightly different. Understanding pension is slightly different.” One advantage of living in Europe, which perhaps alleviates the feeling of being isolated in a single place, is the accessibility of other countries. Matt said that a recent trip to London only cost them 30-50 USD roundtrip. Ultimately, Amy and Matt see this as a positive experience—as an opportunity for character development and as a chance to explore Europe.
If you’re wondering what day-to-day life is like for a post-doc and staff scientist at AstraZeneca, both Amy and Matt admit that it’s remarkably similar to what they did in graduate school, which isn’t surprising. What is quite different to Matt is the work environment. As a post-doc, Matt is one of 30 on the AstraZeneca campus out of a total of 2,000 people on site. Aside from being in the exceptional minority, Matt says that the mindset of a pharmaceutical company is a paradigm shift for him: everything is on a massive scale—tens of thousands of compounds are screened per project—and the questions and priorities that pharmaceutical research have are very different from academic research. As a small molecule company, AstraZeneca is earnestly trying to develop the best, safest drugs for the market. Amy’s position as a senior research scientist is more product-driven. She has less freedom, compared to Matt, because, as she says, “You do what the project wants you to do.” While Matt is trying to publish, Amy is contributing to a team that’s trying to get a product out into the market. As for long-term career goals, before moving to Sweden, Amy was interested in intellectual property and patent law. She hopes to transition to a position within AstraZeneca that would give her more relevant experience in perusing those original goals. Matt’s end goal is to move away from the bench and gain more of a leadership role to direct projects himself. Disclaimer: This goes without saying, but what is true at one company may not be true at another. Amy and Matt’s only experience with pharma is in Sweden, so they didn’t want to generalize about this situation in other countries like the US.
Advice to current students: If you’re looking to do a post-doc in Europe, Amy stresses that PhD’s from the US are viewed highly there, and coming out of Penn, you’re phenomenally trained, so it is quite possible to find a position. Not a lot of people realize how good their training is and how successful they can be, so be cognizant of that. In terms of a postdoc in industry, Matt says that it’s good to be aware that there are cycles of applications, so reach out to the HR department, follow companies on LinkedIn, and even cold call if you’re not sure. Other positions in pharma or at other companies hire randomly, so keep your ear to the ground. Networking is and continues to be a key way to get one’s foot in the door. Both Amy and Matt encourage students to go to Career Services. Matt especially felt that the “practice interviews” gave him a taste of the non-science part of interview days, sometimes called the “values” interview. Essentially, Matt’s prep for this boiled down to practicing the stories that conveyed he was a positive and sane person. For some final words of wisdom, Amy and Matt encourage students applying for jobs to be confident and to show them what you’ve got.