What I've Learned from My Guests

In this solo episode, John explains why landing your first pharma industry job may be easier than you think.

In a recent webinar, a valuable discussion unfolded, shedding light on the allure of Pharma jobs: unveiling their attractiveness, potential for higher income than clinical work, and offering effective tactics to secure your first job in the industry. Today, John presents an excerpt from that very presentation, offering you valuable insights and guidance.

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Compelling Advantages of Nonclinical Pharma Careers

Among the various nonclinical job options (consulting, hospital and health systems, pharma, medical writing, governmental roles, and education) pharma emerges as an attractive industry. It represents a significant portion of the United States healthcare spending, possibly more than 10%. 

Here is a summary of the features that make the Pharma Industry so attractive to clinicians:

  1. Huge Industry: Pharma constitutes a significant portion of healthcare spending. And it provides ample opportunities for diverse roles and job types tailored to individual interests.

  2. Entry-Level Opportunities: Transitioning from clinical practice to pharma offers a fresh start. And it leverages your expertise and experience while embarking on a new career trajectory.

  3. Career Advancement: Pharma offers growth and advancement prospects. Job options range from entry-level positions to leadership roles, welcoming physicians of varying backgrounds and experiences.

  4. Status and Leadership: Physicians are valued for their unique skills and expertise. Many take on managerial and leadership roles due to their respected status.

  5. Work-Life Balance: Nonclinical roles in pharma generally promote work-life balance. They offer predictable working hours and generally avoid the demanding schedules of clinical practice.

  6. Performance-Driven Compensation: Unlike volume-based clinical work, pharma compensation is based on job performance and the ability to increase revenues or reduce costs.

Exploring Opportunities and Roles in Pharma Companies

Pharma companies have various divisions, including finance, sales, marketing, manufacturing, human resources, and legal and regulatory. However, physicians aiming for nonclinical roles often find opportunities in research and development (R&D) and medical affairs, particularly in clinical development involving human trials.

Medical affairs offer a broad range of roles, while safety and pharmacovigilance open up numerous job prospects for physicians. Contract research organizations (CROs) are vital in supporting pharma companies by providing flexible employment options and handling various tasks, such as clinical design, decentralized trials, medical writing, and safety management for multiple pharmaceutical clients.

Choosing between direct employment at pharma companies and CROs depends on individual preferences and circumstances, with both options offering distinct advantages. For physicians seeking a swift entry into the pharmaceutical world or proximity to their current location, CROs present an accessible and attractive alternative to explore.


By exploring nonclinical opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry, physicians can embark on fulfilling career paths that cater to their interests, skills, and desire for a more balanced professional life. Many physicians are surprised to find that the obstacles to securing a job in the pharma industry are not as high as perceived.

This is evident through the experiences of the colleagues John mentioned with no prior pharma experience. Pharma companies highly value physicians' capacity to acquire new skills and their sincere dedication and enthusiasm.

The full webinar describes four other physicians' journeys, along with tactics for a successful career shift. For those interested in exploring more about pharma industry jobs, the complete one-hour recording can be accessed at The Wonderful World of Nonclinical Pharma Industry Jobs.

NOTE: Look below for a transcript of today's episode. 

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Transcription PNC Podcast Episode 311

Landing Your First Pharma Industry Job May Be Easier Than You Think

John: My goal today is that when we're done, you'll be able to describe why you're qualified for a pharma job, whether you're licensed or not licensed, whether you have any experience or not, and so forth.

The next thing I want you to understand and be able to verbalize is to list the reasons why you'll earn more in pharma job than you would in most clinical jobs eventually. That's not on day one necessarily, but in actual fact, you'll probably earn more in salary doing something in pharma than you will in your clinical job. And then the third is that you'll be able to implement strategies for landing your first nonclinical pharmaceutical industry job.

Now, when I talk about nonclinical jobs, there's at least nine major industries. You've got consulting, you've got hospital and health systems, you've got pharma, you've got medical writing, there's a bunch of governmental jobs, there's educational jobs.

But why pharma? Basically pharma is a huge industry. It makes up and consumes about 10% of the healthcare dollars in the United States, at least last I checked. It might be more now, honestly, because I have not seen so much drug advertising in my life since the pandemic. Maybe it's more than 10 or 11 or 12%. It's huge.

And there's a lot of job types in pharma. Depending on your interests, you're probably going to be able to find a job in pharma, unless you want something where you're 100% remote working from home. UM for insurance companies, you can do that. Probably not going to find a pharma job where you can do that, although there are some jobs where you can do some remote work.

The other thing is that this is an entry level job for us. When we're physicians and we're looking to go into pharma, for most of us, we haven't done anything in pharma in the past. So, we are starting from the bottom, but obviously it's at the peak of our career wherever we are. We're taking everything we've learned and we're going to apply it to that new job. But in stepping into that new job, you're just beginning. And so, there's a lot of steps you can still go through if you decide to look for advancement.

And for physicians, there are jobs in pharma for those that have 10, 12 years of experience, have multiple specialties, MBA and all that kind of thing. To physicians who don't have a license and they haven't done a residency. There are plenty of jobs for those and everything in between.

The other thing is that your status will grow over time, meaning that you will move up. It's natural because you're working on a multidisciplinary team, and there are some things only physicians can do in pharma. And on top of that, people look to physicians as leaders and managers. And so, there's always progress and more status and more responsibility if that's what you want.

And then the other thing is there's work-life balance. There's no such thing really as a 60 or 70 hour a week job in pharma. There might be times when you have to do something like that, depending on the level that you're at and what your role is. But typically you're going to work 40, 45 hours a week in almost any of these jobs.

And the way that you earn your money for the most part is just by seeing patients and doing procedures. It's completely volume driven. If you want to say, "Hey, I want to increase my income by 50%, what does that mean?" You got to see 50% more patients, do 50% more procedures or a combination of the two. Basically what you're saying is you have to increase your hours unless you can get a little more efficient. But mostly efficiencies are what they are.

The EMRs don't seem to be getting any easier. And so, you're locked in, you're basically locked in for the next 15, 20, 25 years to whatever you're doing. And if you want to try and make a little more money and get some bills paid off ahead of time or some loans, then that just means you got to not have time with your family, not see your kids and get burnt out. And so, that's the big difference between almost every nonclinical job and being a practicing physician.

So, let's talk about pharma. You have to have an understanding of pharma. We don't really get a good understanding in training. Yes, we hear about phase 1, 2, 3 studies, phase 4, post release, monitoring and patient safety and maybe drug safety, medication safety.

But do we really know how a pharma company works? Do we know how it's set up? I want to spend maybe five or 10 minutes the most, just so you understand, because then you'll understand where your options are for a job in pharma. And if you haven't really explored this before, then this is going to be important. You need to figure out where to go, what direction to take, because you can't really learn about everything in pharma in a short period of time. It helps if you understand it, and you can narrow it down.

There are usually about I'll say seven major divisions in almost any large pharma company. I'll start with the ones that you are not going to work in. Finance is huge. Sales and marketing, huge. Manufacturing, so far no physicians involved. Human resources, no physicians. Legal and regulatory. Well, if you're a MD/JD that might be an option. You can do that, but probably not.

Really it boils down to two major divisions and sometimes safety is broken out. But basically you've got research and development and medical affairs. There are obviously multiple. But to take it to the next step, the main departments within those major divisions are three, but might be four if you include one. One is regulatory. We don't do much in regulatory unless that's where they maybe will employ technical, medical writers that help translate the medical legal stuff into the package inserts and things like that.

But the big one is clinical development. Clinical development is kind of a piece of R&D. Because research and development can include preclinical research and development and bench work and things like that, animal studies. But once you get into human trials, now you're into clinical development. There are people in there, and I'll talk about them in a minute.

And then you've got medical affairs, which is another big massive area with different kinds of jobs. And I'll talk about the purpose of that. And then safety and pharmacovigilance, which is another area where there are a lot of jobs for physicians.

Now, there's one big thing, one big player in pharma that I haven't talked about. What about a CRO? What is a CRO? It used to be a contract research organization. Now when you start looking at contract research organizations or CROs that way, you'll come up often with a clinical resource organization.

At this point, I think they basically are very similar, if not the same. When I see something that's a CRO, it's usually smaller and focused on just two, three or four major activities of a pharma company. When I get into clinical research organizations, they seem to be bigger.

But the reason I bring up a CRO is because they hire a lot of these jobs, which support the pharma companies. Think about it this way. Pharma companies are like hot and cold. In other words, they spend years and years. I don't know how many years, it takes at least some eight to 10 years to bring a new drug to market. They spent all this time getting ready to release it, and then it's time to release it.

And leading up to that for about a year and then after it for about a year, there's a lot of activity that wasn't going on. And so, rather than hire a bunch of new people, have worked them for nine months, a year, two years and then firing all of them, they hire people from CROs. And because CROs serve multiple clients, multiple pharma companies, they can balance things out and try and maintain a steady crew of people that have long-term longevity with the CRO, but not with the pharma company.

Now, when they hire you, you work for the CRO, but there are relationships with pharma companies where you're simply a contract person. You may be someone who can be contracted and then hired, or they may actually do the hiring for the pharma company and you're actually employed by them. So it can work in different ways. Parexel, PRA Health, ICON, some of you may have heard of these. PPD. These are common CROs.

Everything from clinical design to actually running the studies, decentralized clinical trials across the country, medical writing, and then they help with clinical monitoring. They help with safety, they help with biostatistics, help with managing and handling patients. They'll do almost anything that a pharma company needs to do on a contract basis.

The advantage to this for you is that it's easier to find employment with a CRO than directly with a pharma company. Now if you're someone who has a master's degree in medical research and you've done studies as an undergrad or while you were in med school, you've got a master's degree in some related area, you could probably start with just applying it at pharmaceutical companies and maybe you already have contacts with them, which would be great, and there's no harm in doing that.

But at the same time, if you're someone who doesn't have any of those things, doesn't really have an obvious segue into pharma, but you're still interested in pharmacology, you still have managing drugs, and you have other interests, you like the lifestyle. You've read some of the information about the FDA and about clinical trials, you love looking through studies. Then a way to short circuit or shorten the process is to look at CROs as an option. And you should look at both really. And particularly if you're in a location where you don't want to travel or you don't want to move to another city or something for a job, you should look at both, see which pharma companies are nearby, which CROs are nearby.

Let's go through each of these departments and just quickly kind of give you an idea of what they do. Clinical development, pretty straightforward. These are the kind of jobs you'll see when you're looking on LinkedIn or Indeed and other places. Actually, the three places you should look for jobs when you really start looking and actually, if you're interested, you should start looking at job descriptions now, not because you're ready to apply, but you need to know what are the requirements, what's mandatory, what's nice to have, what's the language, what lingo comes up over and over that maybe you've not heard before because then it'll point you in the direction of things you need to learn.

But these are terms used in the clinical development part of pharma. Principal investigator, clinical researcher, medical director, medical monitor, and clinical research associate. There's others but if you see those kinds of terms, then you're probably talking about a clinical development job.

Medical director is pretty generic and you're going to find that in all divisions where there are physicians involved. Medical affairs, huge part of the company. Like I say, that's the company that has to take this new drug, and even before it has been finally approved by the FDA, get ready to get it out into the world, I guess is how I put it. And that includes everything from education and logistics and getting it delivered and advertising and marketing and all those things. There are people in that division or department that do those things. So, you might see a CMO, you might see a senior medical director, medical director, associate medical director.

And the other big one, which is very attractive to people who are getting started in pharma, is a medical science liaison. Now, if you get into safety or pharmacovigilance, it's the same thing. You can have medical advisors there a little more common, medical director, medical writers there as well as possibly the regulatory. And then safety scientists.

I bring up safety scientists because in one of the scenarios I'm going to talk about in a minute, if you're looking for a job in safety or pharmacovigilance, which are basically synonyms, different companies use different terms, and you do not have a license, you do not have a residency or board certification. The extent of your patient contact is basically in medical school. Then sometimes you can get a job as a safety scientist, which I'm going to explain in detail later. Notice medical is not in that term.

All right. Now I want to talk a little bit about compensation. It kind of gets back to what I was talking about under the objectives and when I made the statement about potential income. I don't have salary surveys for all of these different areas. It'd be almost impossible to do a salary survey for something let's say like a medical director in medical affairs because there's different medical directors over different areas.

There's a lot written about medical science liaisons. If you look up MSL or medical science liaison annual salary, it will pop right up and they do it every year. And the 2022 is the one I'm referencing here. They probably will publish the 2023 if they continue to do what they've been doing in early 2024.

But let me just say a little bit about salaries. A medical science liaison is probably like a medical monitor or something along those lines. Let's say even an assistant medical director. It could be down in the $180,000, that region. I think even medical science liaisons can sometimes start at $160,000. But you have to understand that a medical science liaison can be a physician, can be a PA, can be an NP, can be a PharmD. It's even possible sometimes they'll call some that's an MSL. That's a kind of master's or maybe even a bachelor's degree.

But a physician MSL is not the same obviously as a nurse MSL. And so the physicians get higher pay closer to $180,000 and the salaries go up from year one at about $160,000 let's say for the non-physicians and $170,000 for the physicians up to $220,000, $230,000 after 10 years. Now, most physicians in that period of time will have moved up the ladder, but just gives you an idea about jobs.

The other thing I found in talking with lots of physicians who have converted from clinical to nonclinical or non-traditional jobs is that sometimes they have to take a little bit of a hit. But when you compare apples to apples, if you're working 65 hours a week and getting paid, I don't know, $230,000 in a family practice clinic or something, and you become an MSL at $190,000, but you're working 45 hours a week, you can kind of do the math.

And then the other thing you can realize there is that the lifestyle is better because you have better work-life balance, as I said at the beginning. And you have absolutely no risk of being sued. I should add that to the beginning of this presentation on a comparison. If you work for pharma and other nonclinical jobs for the most part, you'll never be sued. It'd be one in a million. When you're a physician, it's more like at least 50% to 80%, depending, maybe a 100% in some specialties. So, you got to compare apples to apples.

But the other thing is, even if you do take a little dip, like I say, you'll very quickly move up in experience. You will be able to do a lateral move if you like, once you are experienced for a year or two. Because now you'll be able to apply for those jobs where they're looking for the experience and they're paying more or you'll move up in terms of promotions.

Physicians are usually one of the first ones that get promoted to the next job if they want to, if they want to take on more responsibility. But still, the hours are the same, the responsibility is different. It's maybe more, but you drop off the things that you don't need to do any longer. And so, you're still talking about a 40 or 50 hour job even as you move up the ranks.

Now let's get into the strategies to land your first job. I put it this way because that's really the crux of this whole thing. Once you've landed your first job in pharma or pretty much any other nonclinical field, that's where the biggest barrier is. That's the biggest challenge. And so, if you can get that first job, then you can A) settle in, enjoy your lifestyle, get to know your colleagues, learn what you're doing, look around, see if you like that job, and then decide, "Okay, I got some breathing room now. I can think about what do I need to do to advance, what do I need to do to get more of a salary?"

So, let's talk about some of those strategies now and break it down. And the way I'm going to do that is I'm going to use examples of people I've personally spoken with and the way that they did it.

There was a medical school grad from India and he came to the States, he passed his USMLE 1 and 2. Those are the exams you have to take. And then he decided he did not want to apply to a residency. He thought "I just don't want to go back and do three years of more work, get paid less than I really might be able to get paid doing something else." And he was really interested in pharmacology and thought strongly about getting a job in pharma.

Now, in the meantime, he did what a lot of foreign medical grads do is they keep busy doing things in the clinical setting. He started looking around and he spent a lot of time learning about the language, the vernacular in the safety field in pharma. He got involved in things. He learned a lot about patient care working as a doctor assistant. He knew about the EMR. He understood how quality in the outpatient setting was being assessed. I think he took some courses. He didn't get an advanced degree of any sort, and then he was able to, because he actually already met the requirements for a pharmacovigilance scientist because that's a master's level or a bachelor's level position. It doesn't mean he couldn't get paid more because he had the MD but a lot of the pharma positions are eligible for others than physicians.

And so, even if you don't have residency, a physician in pharma is usually at some level equivalent to a PharmD or a PhD. It's a simple way to think of it. And so, if they're willing to hire let's say a master's degree level for a pharmacovigilance scientist, they're going to do an MD as well.

But it's not going to get him at the salary that he wanted. He did that for a couple of years and then he started looking, he looked internally and he looked externally. And even though he only had two or three years of experience, he was able to convince another company to hire him on as associate medical director. And now if there's medical in the term most of the time except for medical science liaison, which includes those other specialties in other fields, but most of the time if it's associate medical director, medical director, executive medical director, that means it's a physician.

So, that's what he got. He got basically a job that most of the time would require at least five or six years of clinical experience after medical school. But he did it because he was able to start at that slightly lower position and then move up. Then I recently interviewed someone who went from family medicine to a primary investigator, which really intrigued me because when I thought of a primary investigator for some of these studies, I was thinking, "Okay, in my mind, the primary investigator is someone who comes up with the purpose of a study. They're interested in some topic. They say, okay, we need to do a study. We can use this drug or something that already exists and I'm going to design the study."

But it's not what a primary investigator is in a CRO or in most pharma companies. That would be a clinical researcher, although sometimes they will also be called a PI. But a PI, the way this physician is using it in this job is someone who's at a site and manages that site for that study.

The drug companies when they're trying to get a drug approved once they get to stage two and three, they need like 15,000 patients, I think. Something like that. It's an enormous number. And so, they've done it at multiple sites and they got to recruit to certain type of patients and randomize them and do that whole thing.

And that's done usually at a local clinical site, whether it's academic or it's a large group that's doing some kind of outpatient study. And so, they need people to basically take care of everything at that site, make sure all the protocols are followed, make sure the safety measurements are there. They may have to look at a patient if there's a question, should just be an inclusion or excluded. They'll look at paperwork or they'll actually physically look at the patient.

So, what she did, she was doing family medicine originally. She got a little frustrated doing just a broad family medicine. And so, she then started to add obesity medicine to her clinic where she was working. She was with a group though, she wasn't solo or anything like that. And after the pandemic, she was getting really burnt out and frustrated with that. So she decided to become a health coach.

And one of the things she did as part of that was she hired a business coach for herself. And so, she started to get coaching about how to create this business as a health coach, health advisor, how to set up a website, how to do your finances, how to understand accounting, how to manage things.

And one of the things they taught her was how to market both herself and her business. She used that to later on market herself and her profile LinkedIn to attract recruiters looking for these primary investigators. And she got in touch with a recruiter and basically that was it. It didn't take that much. I think the recruiter actually reached out to her, saw that she had these skills and a lot of it was just management and leadership skills plus her medical.

And so, she became a primary investigator. They trained her how to do that at the site where she's working or the company she's working for. It is a CRO. But she's put there and she may or may not end up working directly for the company. She doesn't really care at this point because her pay is good and her lifestyle's great and she's happy.

I think the barrier to getting an a pharma job is a lot lower than many of us have thought because all the guests I've had other than maybe one PhD and let's say maybe one who did have, definitely it was someone like Dr. Nerissa Kreher who's got a master's degree in clinical research. They didn't have any experience, but they had other experiences that demonstrated the skills.

And we're physicians, we can pretty much learn anything we put our mind to. They know that. They just want to make sure you're committed and you're not just doing the job or taking the job because you're just burnt out and you'll do anything. You need someone who wants to be in pharma.

Well, that's all we have time for today. During the complete presentation, I described the process that four other physicians followed during their pivot from clinical work to a pharma position. Then I summarize the other tactics to use during a career shift and share several free resources that can be obtained to help accelerate your pivot.

If you want to learn more about why landing your first pharma industry job is easier than you think, then check out the complete one hour recording of the wonderful world of nonclinical pharma careers at this link, nonclinicalphysicians.com/pharmajobs. That's all one word, nonclinicalphysicians.com/pharmajobs.


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