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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 14, 2012

Do Industrial Post-Doc Positions Work?

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Posted by Derek

A reader sends along this query, which I thought asked a very useful question:

". . .as a member of a growing biopharma company I am tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of industrial post-docs from both a business perspective and the post-doc's experience. Specifically, we are considering adding one for a short-term (2yr) to add headcount to a project. This adds resources without the long term commitment and also gives the scientists on site a chance for a paper they otherwise might not have time to work on. The candidate obviously gets a well-paid post-doc experience, and an industrial foot in the door. But, does this model work? I imagine that if it were that cut and dried you would see more of them."

Good point. Industrial post-docs are still relatively rare, although I've certainly seen a few. Come to think of it, though, those were mostly in biology, as opposed to chemistry. So, what do people think? From my end, I'd say that traditionally, companies have felt that temporary positions are best filled with experienced temporary employees, who presumably don't have to be trained as much. And if you're going to hire someone to learn the ropes, they might as well be good enough to be brought in as a full-time employee.

From the other end, an industrial post-doc has always been seen as less prestigious than an academic one, and there are some hiring managers who probably don't know what to think when one shows up on a c.v. There's often a feeling that if the person did a really good job during the post-doc that the company would have tried to offer them something permanent. And since they didn't, well. . .

Even so, it does seem as if there are situations where an industrial post-doc could be a good fit, and in today's job market, anything looks good. Anyone out there experienced this, from either end?

Comments (36) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry)


1. MQD on May 14, 2012 7:39 AM writes...

Aren't there internships available for PhD candidates in chemistry who can go out for some industrial experience in between papers or research projects, while still pursuing the PhD? I remember GSK doing this and I think BASF still does. Not a post doc but more of a foot in the door and gives some valuable industry experience.

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2. Joe on May 14, 2012 8:15 AM writes...

Having been a industrial chemistry post-doc at a CRO in upstate NY for couple of years I believe that this system works really well. From the employer's perspective, you are getting a temp employee for couple of years and the overhead is relatively low compared to an entry level permanent position. You also tend to get a lot more in terms of productivity and initiative from the postdoc because if they do well, the employer might consider hiring them. Lastly, this also give the employer a chance to evaluate the person long term which is really not an option when directly hiring a PhD based on a day interview + recommendations. The flip side is that there is a learning curve. From the employee's perspective, it certainly gives them a foot in the door and significant exposure to industrial settings. I think the hiring managers will be thrilled to have people with industrial experience! Then they dont have to worry about how long learning curve/adaptation to industrial settings will take for their new permanent hires.

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3. FormerIndustryPostdoc on May 14, 2012 8:32 AM writes...

I finished an industrial postdoc at a Big Pharma company two years ago and had a mixed experience. On one hand, you usually get much more access to resources than you would in academia. You also get to ask "academic type" questions which you may not get to in a permanent position. And of course, the money is not bad at all (it leans more toward a permanent position than an academic postdoc).

At least in my case, the drawback was that I did not actually get to work on real drug discovery projects. My work was always considered peripheral to the main projects, partly because it had to be publishable at least in principle. In addition, especially in this climate, don't expect the postdoc to be turned into a permanent job; in fact that's precisely why they advertise postdocs, so that they don't have to offer someone a real job. In my case my postdoc was actually shortened because of the usual mergers and "transformations" that have riddled the industry like a cancer. I did not leave with any resentment since my co-workers had been extremely competent and supportive, and I got one modest publication out of the experience. But sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to have just waited for potential permanent job offers (I had two interview calls when I accepted the postdoc offer).

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4. Dan on May 14, 2012 8:41 AM writes...

@ Joe:

I've been pondering this venue for a while now. However, there's a flip side to the industrial post-doc: what's to keep the company from stifling your movement to a permeant position? From the companies stand point, wouldn't it be easier to keep a post-doc as a temp, especially if they're a superstar? Why pay someone more when they'll work just as hard, for less? I realize this a pretty glib interpretation and "demonizes" industry, but it's been my experience that when it get's down to it, the company looks after itself, not it's employees. Hence, I think it might be a little naive to depend on a permanent position in such a circumstance. Besides, technically it's post-doc position where, ideally, you hone your skills and collect the experience one needs to move on.

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5. John Wayne on May 14, 2012 8:43 AM writes...

I think it is a Brave New World out there. The pros of an academic postdoc is that they give you a chance to get face time within a company, you have good resources, coworkers will probably help you out because your project is academically interesting, and it pays better. The cons are that the company hired you specifically because they didn't want to commit to bringing in a real employee, and working at a lot of companies sucks due to the morale- and science-crushing changes that are being made.

When I went to graduate school I was told to finish a total synthesis while working for a mid-career, tenured professor that has placed a lot of students in the job you would like. My current advice when I mentor is to not go into chemistry unless you love it. If that is the case try to work for a professor that consults for the company you want to work; I'm not sure about the total synthesis thing anymore, but I thought it was a good teaching environment.

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6. John Wayne on May 14, 2012 8:45 AM writes...

Edit: the first academic = industrial

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7. MK on May 14, 2012 8:48 AM writes...

I took a position as a post-doc in Big Pharma after first doing a post-doc in Academia. Personally, I was looking to transition off the bench and considered the Industry postdoc an opportunity to get a broader view of what opportunities exist in Industry and to network on the inside as I was having difficulty getting a foot in the door otherwise.

I consider it a positive experience and was able to use my time to set up information interviews with various line functions (most people are very willing to meet informally and discuss candidly what they do and perceived pros/cons). I'm not sure how good the experience would have been if my goal had been to make my way up on the R&D side.

However, I was a postdoc 5 years ago and I see many of these opportunities for postdocs in Industry no longer exist.

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8. James on May 14, 2012 8:48 AM writes...

I'm on the biology side and have seen quite a few postdocs in early target discovery space (easier for them to publish on "undruggable" targets). We tend to "partner" the postdoc with an academic mentor as well as the in-house lab head, for networking and further support for any transitions to academia, publishing, etc. Several of the postocs have published papers in top tier journals as well.

The abilities/skills tend to vary (not too dissimilar from my experience in academia as a postdoc & junior lab head) - and, as in academia, this tends to drive their success/failure. Of the postdocs I've seen here - we have hired in a few (mostly project-based), several others have gone on to biotech, and a couple have made (or are in the process of making...) the move back to academia.

The challenge, as with any postdoc is getting a good project, and - given the general time-line constraints (no 5-6 year postdocs around...) - staying focused. There are some unique opportunities for postdocs in industry - getting to see the drug-discovery process, access to automation and the newest equipment, working in a "matrixed" environment - that may not translate totally in academia (can be a bit of a culture shock losing all the "toys"), but they generally get good training and do quite well.

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9. iridium(III) on May 14, 2012 8:56 AM writes...

@1 MQD: Yes there are graduate level internships available from numerous companies, however they are not extensively advertised. I myself applied for three this year (i'm a 4th year grad student) and was fortunate enough to land one in med chem (while getting a significant pay raise :D). So valuable industry experience will be had for sure. There are some good pros/cons above about industry vs. academia post-docs. @3 Formerindustrypostdoc: did you find your industry post-doc to be invaluable towards getting a permanent job after you finished? How did employers respond to this type of experience?

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10. Matt Jarpe on May 14, 2012 9:06 AM writes...

Industry post-docs can work well when both the company and the post-doc come at it from the right angle. The post-doc gets to use reagents and equipment that aren't available in an academic lab, and the company gets to ask questions that are off the critical path for the project but can still add value. I got to work closely with post-docs at Biogen-Idec and for the most part the experience was a win for the post-doc and the company. The trick was to help them choose a project that added value to the company no matter which way the results came out. One of the post-docs in our lab published a very nice paper that illustrates this approach:
This work wouldn't have been possible without the large amounts of high quality protein you can get from a process development group. It wasn't absolutely necessary for the project, but it can't hurt to know the details of a molecular interaction between your clinical candidate and its receptor. (I'm not at Biogen-Idec any more but it looks like they've still got the Neublastin project in their pipeline.)

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11. Chemjobber on May 14, 2012 9:35 AM writes...

I had an industrial postdoc at a very large pharma. I think it was ideal, in that it was the best of both worlds: access to industrial-level resources and experience, the independence of an academic postdoc.

My next job was at a very small company; there, the owner would hire postdocs as basically cheap labor. There was little commitment to honor the concept of a "postdoc" as a learning experience. Of all the postdocs that were taken on, only one of them ever managed to publish work, and he had to work on his research only on weekends and it was rumored that he paid for his reagents.

It's clear that if it's of truly mutual benefit, it's a great deal. But I suspect the balance will always be tipped in favor of the company.

Finally, as for the hiring-for-staff issue, The Blue Pill Factory made it clear (or so I thought) that I would not be given any advantage to be hired on permanently. As it was, it sure didn't seem like they were hiring, so it was moot.

I've linked my one post about industrial level postdocs in my handle.

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12. Wondering on May 14, 2012 10:15 AM writes...

@ Joe:

Did you get an offer for a permenent position at this CRO in upstate NY?

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13. Anonymous Academic on May 14, 2012 10:18 AM writes...

@4: "From the companies stand point, wouldn't it be easier to keep a post-doc as a temp, especially if they're a superstar? Why pay someone more when they'll work just as hard, for less?"

Well, since someone dug up this can of worms: I'm not sure this is that much worse than what academia does in practice. I've seen plenty of extraordinarily talented postdocs churn out paper after paper, waiting for a faculty position that takes them years to land. The big difference, I guess, is that in academia you can be reasonably confident that the top-level manager won't make much more than 4x your salary (excluding external consulting fees), whereas in Big Pharma, the top-level manager will be making about 40x as much. Given their enthusiasm for outsourcing scientific work, I always wondered whether the industrial postdoc programs were simply a scam to get American PhD-holders to work for less.

To be fair to industry, the one friend of mine who (very reluctantly) went the industrial postdoc route got promoted to full scientist after less than a year - the initial position was transparently a way to try him out with no commitment. In his case it was a small biotech startup, which hasn't existed long enough to become as cold and bureaucratic as Big Pharma, and it's worked out well for him. But his experience generally confirmed my suspicions.

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14. SomeGuy on May 14, 2012 10:19 AM writes...

I did an academia postdoc for three years (in biological research), then interviewed for an industry postdoc at a mid-size biotech. They actually hired me as a scientist instead because of my experience, track record and the fit of the position, but the model for our company is to hire postdocs with the understanding that unless they completely flame out, they will be promoted to scientist within three years (which is why I was willing to interview for the position).

This model does seem to work fairly well. The company gets a trial period where they get to evaluate the candidate with no absolute long-term commitment while the postdoc gets some incentive to work really hard for a few years in hopes of earning a permanent position.

Granted our company doesn't give out these positions very often, but I do think this is nice model that seems to work well for all involved.

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15. RespiSci on May 14, 2012 10:35 AM writes...

In my former biotech we had many industrial post-doc fellows as at the time there was a government grant program that covered 2/3 of their salaries with us supplementing the final third. As mentioned by others, the post-docs found the experience worthwhile in that they obtained industry experience (SOPs, protocols, GLP-validation etc) and having almost unlimited access to reagents and materials (in comparison to the restricted budgets of academic labs). The research questions were more industrial-focused but we included components or aspects that would allow them to publish. Most of the candidates opted for the industrial post-docs as they knew they weren't interested in continuing an academic career.

From the company's perspective, these post-docs allowed us a longer time frame to vet the candidates and see if we wanted them to join the team after the post-doc.

Now, down the street from us there was a Big Pharma which was (in)famous for hiring industrial post-docs and never migrating these candidates into full time positions. However, all the post-docs knew the score in advance and were not expecting job offers.

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16. Chrispy on May 14, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

One issue is that postdoc programs seem to be the first to get cut when a company starts swinging the axe. Come to think of it, not many companies even have postdoc programs anymore.

In hiring, though, I'd prefer someone with an industrial postdoc. They'll be more in tune with how to operate in an industry setting.

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17. kissthechemist on May 14, 2012 10:51 AM writes...

I've not been through the industrial post-doc experience but I did have a 3 month placement (that's UK english for internship I think)in Big Pharma during my PhD working solely on my research. This was quite common in the UK at one time, but I think less so now. Coincidentally, I had already done a placement year during my degree with the same company working on a med chem project. Long story short, I think the internship route can be a good one (for different entry levels) in that you get to experience the company/industry and their wiley ways up close and personal and at little personal cost (in terms of time and effort). I certainly enjoyed mixing with the talented chemists I met there. There's less room for exploitation too and if done properly by the company could easily be used (but probably never is) to select a candidate for hiring.

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18. Indy on May 14, 2012 11:26 AM writes...

"There's often a feeling that if the person did a really good job during the post-doc that the company would have tried to offer them something permanent."

In the mid 90's I did my postdoc in industry at a big pharma company. The company had a post-doctoral program and many postdocs in chemistry and biology.

We all asked the question about getting a full-time job there and we all were told upfront that the answer was "no".

The reason was that if the company started hiring postdocs as full-time employees those who weren't hired would have a more difficult time looking for a job as one could get the questions "so, why didn't they hire you? What's wrong with you?".

So it was better for all the postdocs that the company didn't do any hiring keeping things neutral for the postdocs.


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19. Steve on May 14, 2012 1:45 PM writes...

I interviewed at a small San Diego pharmaceutical company in the mid 2000s and was offered a post-doc position. I felt that I was worthy of a full-time scientist position. Their offer made me feel that they wanted to bring me aboard, but just pay me less. I was rather insulted by that, so I turned down the offer.

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20. Chemjobber on May 14, 2012 1:45 PM writes...

@18: Was this located in a city with a shape in the nickname?

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21. Kling on May 14, 2012 4:48 PM writes...

I was a postdoc at Genetics Institute about 20 yrs ago. It was a very good experience, having nearly infinite resource to do your own experiments. But what I found was that the experience is what you make of it, since industrial scientists are not driven to publish like academics, it was necessary to have the "fire in the belly" to take maximum advantage of the industrial benefits and be more agressive scientifically than your supervisor. And be nice too.

In my case, I got 3 publications and yes, I was hired into GI in a year and a half into the program.

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22. hn on May 14, 2012 5:08 PM writes...

Just watch out for very small companies, especially those run by former academics, hiring postdocs. Those are usually nothing more than an excuse to hire on the cheap.

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23. anonyMouse on May 14, 2012 5:58 PM writes...

In the (global pharma) companies where I've worked, post-docs in Europe seemed to be good deals, but not so in the US. European corporate postdocs were more numerous, better funded, and often were collaborative enterprises with research institutes. I wouldn't take a US pharma postdoc if I intended to take anything but a pharma job.

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24. anonymous on May 15, 2012 6:03 AM writes...

"From the other end, an industrial post-doc has always been seen as less prestigious than an academic one"...

I'd say Derek hit the nail on the head. I strongly suspect anyone attempting to leave an industry PostDoc for an academic position is SOL !!! Of course, there's always that bright and unlimited future in the pharmaceutical industry???

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25. bb on May 15, 2012 7:59 AM writes...

There are pros/cons to an academic vs. industrial postdoc and my perspective is coming from the biology end. With the former, you're likely to get better additional training and higher impact publications, whereas in the latter you are going to get practical drug discovery experience and/or exposure to the whole process, team-oriented research, etc.

Either way, coming out of grad school you are almost certainly going to need to have postdoc experience in order to get a scientist job at a company. I think the choice between which kind of postdoc to do comes mainly down to a personal decision on what you most want to gain out of the experience because companies will look equally favorably on high-tier publications or industry experience when hiring for a scientist position.

Although the lines between industry/academia are blurring, I agree that going from an industry postdoc to find academic positions will be tough and one reason why is that the tremendous resources and high-tech equipment you have at a company are not readily available at most institutions; therefore, your training and experience as a postdoc almost becomes moot when applying for academic positions.
(I am currently a postdoc at a pharma company).

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26. Laurent Wada on May 15, 2012 9:37 AM writes...

Where would be a good place for a biology PhD student to find a graduate level internship? Do you just search the company's webpage? Or do you have to know somebody?

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27. iridium(III) on May 15, 2012 11:06 AM writes...

@26 LinkedIn is a great resource and where I discovered the ones I applied for.

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28. Indy on May 15, 2012 11:26 AM writes...

@20: Don't thinks so. It's famous for making black powder for big booms. :)

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29. CR on May 15, 2012 11:49 AM writes...

19, Steve:
"I interviewed at a small San Diego pharmaceutical company in the mid 2000s and was offered a post-doc position. I felt that I was worthy of a full-time scientist position. Their offer made me feel that they wanted to bring me aboard, but just pay me less. I was rather insulted by that, so I turned down the offer."

I have yet to meet a post-doc that doesn't think this way.

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30. FormerPostdoc on May 15, 2012 9:03 PM writes...

What if the position was paid the same as an industry postdoc but had the title of Research Scientist or Contract Researcher? To the writer of the letter you received, it seems like that would be more helpful to the postdoc. She or he will finish and likely not have any papers. Would the readers be more interested in hiring an industry "postdoc" with 1-3 years experience or someone who had a job out of grad school working in a company for the last 1-3 years. The proverbial goal of a postdoc is to find a job after all. I was always curious about the role titles have on people's thinking.

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31. mad on May 15, 2012 11:12 PM writes...

For the past 20 years and maybe more "postdoc" was just another way of saying "not enough real jobs so we will milk you a bit more". Now its even worse.

Its such a shameful title, at least and industrial postdoc is rare enough to somehow seem special.

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32. bad_deal on May 15, 2012 11:13 PM writes...

Industrial post-doc should only be considered if one cannot get a full time position, but I feel it is always inferior. So perhaps it is better to just keep looking.

As a full time employee, one can always leave after a couple of years if something else is desired. On the other hand, it is good to have the option to stick around.

In academia, the post-doc is a a deal to exchange slave labor for pedigree. In industry, you are just being paid less than any of your colleagues. What is the upside? None ...

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33. bad_deal on May 15, 2012 11:14 PM writes...

Industrial post-doc should only be considered if one cannot get a full time position, but I feel it is always inferior. So perhaps it is better to just keep looking.

As a full time employee, one can always leave after a couple of years if something else is desired. On the other hand, it is good to have the option to stick around.

In academia, the post-doc is a a deal to exchange slave labor for pedigree. In industry, you are just being paid less than any of your colleagues. What is the upside? None ...

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34. SomeGuy on May 16, 2012 9:26 AM writes...


An industrial post-doc might not be the best position one can get, but it does get your foot in the door if you're coming from academia and want to work in industry. I was willing to take one even after three years of an academic post-doc primarily for the experience, though industry post-docs still pay tremendously better than academic ones, with benefits and options to boot.

Could you get a better position? Possibly. But how long will it take you to find one? And are you willing to give up the experience, pay and benefits you would be giving up in the meantime?

Everyone wants a perfect job. But I really don't understand the mindset of turning down a reasonable one in the meantime while you search for it.

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35. Postdoc4 OneYear on May 16, 2012 6:42 PM writes...

I was a postdoc in a pharmaceutical company back a couple of years ago. The company had a project which no one on site had much experience with and they were not sure if it was creating a permanent position for it. So I came in and worked it out, and was offered a permanent position, 1 year after I started which my contract was for 2 years. I turned it down, feeling there was not much left to do and was also dreaded of the intellectual isolation since I could not exchange opinions on my scientific field with others. It took them another year or so to find a replacement.

In my experience, I functioned as a permanent employee. I did not have a mentor. The stint helped me find my subsequent job since now I had industry experience. So industry postdoc, after all, can be a positive experience.

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36. postdoc2year on May 16, 2012 7:40 PM writes...

I'm glad I did my industrial postdoc. I did a postdoc at a top school but I didn't have a solid enough synthetic background to get a permanent med chem job. The industrial postdoc was a very nice change from the academic world, paid twice as much, had a good boss who did labwork himself, and worked 9-5 like a normal person. Also you end up with industry contacts that you'd never get from an academic postdoc and those contacts get you your next job. But what it really comes down to, is if you want to do med chem, get an industrial post doc in big pharma, where you'll do the real thing. Also, don't expect or want the post doc to turn into a permanent position. Its best that the company have a policy of not hiring postdocs, that way you don't look bad when the position doesn't become permanent (which could happen for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with your abilities). Lastly, work on a normal med chem program. Publishing is not important. Personal recommendations of your work, and what you have to say at the interview matter much more. You need to actually learn how to be a med chemist (and not just make compounds at the bench). You'll find that smaller companies and biotechs will value your experience coming from big pharma. Of course, I say all the above ignoring the fact that the job market seems really bad these days for med chemists. Still, if you're considering doing a second post doc because you can't find a job after the first, I'd do an industrial one, especially if you've already done time at a highly ranked school.

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