How physicians can find jobs in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries

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Fifteen years ago, my career path took a detour. As a two-physician household, we were managing my husband’s match and my job interviews in the cities he was considering.  Boston, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles – could you get any more diverse? Definitely, an awkward way to interview; hard to sell excitement when it was clear that it really depended upon “the match.”

Boston! As soon as we got the match results [Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)] Sports Medicine fellowship, I called the section head; her first words: “Oh no …”. What? Due to budget, two positions that had been available, one a clinical research role (the one I wanted!), and one a clinical role had been combined into one job.  I didn’t want the clinical role; I wanted to be a clinician-researcher.

During fellowship, I tried basic research (fail!) and also clinical research (yes!). Given this, I pursued a master’s degree in clinical research as part of an NIH (T32) grant during my fellowship.  Thus, my planned path as an academic clinical researcher.

When the clinical research job at MGH fell through, I was frightened. We were moving, and I needed to support our young family in an expensive city.  Although accepting the clinical role would have been the easy route, given the prospects for a pediatric endocrinologist in the area were limited, I decided to evaluate other options. I’m proud that I was able to follow my heart and not take a job offer because I felt “I had to.”  I counsel physicians to evaluate what they want from their career and keep after that vision; don’t settle.

The “wait it out” approach worked well because a pharmaceutical representative encouraged me to send my resume to a pharmaceutical company in the Boston area. There was a job opening in the endocrine business unit for a medical affairs director.  I had no idea what those terms meant.  The company was using a recruiter to help fill the role, and she was incredibly helpful, preparing me for the people I would meet and questions they would ask.  I was offered the job and jumped in headfirst.  The responsibilities of the role included management of a phase 4 (post-marketing) registry allowing me to be involved in clinical research.

I spent two years as a medical affairs director.  Reflecting back on all the learnings, it feels like I was there for five! I learned about the functional areas of regulatory, marketing, sales, legal, clinical. I had the opportunity to interact with academic experts, completely revamped the phase 4 registry, and organized meetings for the more than 100 principal investigators and study coordinators.  I had three “bosses” during the two years and learned different management styles. One of those managers was a mentor and encouraged me to get my master’s in business administration (MBA) through an executive MBA program.

A recruiter “cold call” piqued my interest; a job at another pharmaceutical company; unique in that it included both medical affairs and clinical development responsibilities (in pharma/biotech, these are separate functions with distinct roles and responsibilities). From a career perspective, this was an opportunity to gain phase 1 through 3 development experience under the mentorship of a seasoned expert.  Using my negotiation skills, I got the EMBA program covered in my salary and benefits.  A great example of another lesson for physician colleagues – ASK! Ask for what you want; The worst n is you are told “no” BUT you could also be told “yes!”.

Fifteen years into my career, I’ve worked at six companies and strategically chosen roles to round out my experience; always with the goal of becoming a chief medical officer (CMO). Eleven years into my career, I took my first CMO role at a gene therapy company; employee #7!  It was fascinating to learn about a completely different area of medicine, as most of my career had been focused on rare diseases and/or endocrinology.  At this company, I had the opportunity to “take the company public,” meaning we did an initial public offering (IPO).  This was a lot of work condensed into a short period of time.  As part of the IPO team with my CEO and CFO, we traveled all over the U.S. in 4 days and ultimately took our entire company to NASDAQ to “ring the bell.”

I’m now CMO at a private biotech company focused on developing therapies for patients with rare endocrine diseases. We are conducting a trial in the U.S., Europe, and Israel.  I mention this to raise the possibility of travel in pharma/biotech roles.  In most companies, roles are both “functional” (i.e., clinical development, medical affairs, marketing) and geographic (i.e., global, regional). I’ve had both global roles, being responsible for the entire world strategy for a therapy, and U.S. specific roles where I’ve focused on the U.S. only.  Some roles, like medical science liaison, are smaller areas of focus (state or several states).  I enjoy travel and have been able to do so extensively; however, there are roles where travel is limited.  One of the great things about physician roles – there is a broad range of careers that can be had, and it’s likely there is one to fit your life needs!

There is a need for physicians in pharma/biotech, and physicians need to more exposure to this career path.  I encourage doctors to network; connect with people to learn and make your name known.  My final piece of advice is to understand how all of your past experiences, whether leadership, management, or research translate into supporting your resume for a role in pharma/biotech; do not undersell your experience!

Nerissa Kreher is a pediatric endocrinologist and founder, The IndustryMDCoach.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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