How Physicians Get Jobs in the Pharmaceutical Industry (2022)

Are you wondering how physicians get jobs in the pharmaceutical industry? What kind of work do they do?

Are you a physician who would like to know how to leverage your skills and credentials to get a job outside of patient care? Do you know how to work with a recruiter to effectively find and market yourself for the right position in pharma?

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I had the opportunity recently to chat with Denise Milano Sprung, Founder and President of JA Pharma, Inc. She is a subject matter expert when it comes to physicians in this non-traditional career path. Therefore, I thought she would be the perfect person to help me understand how physicians get jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. Many of my questions have come from friends and in forums like our Women in Pharma Careers Facebook group.

Here is a summary of our conversation.

1. What positions in pharma are available to physicians?

Pharma/biotech companies typically hire physicians to work on clinical trials, medical affairs (like Medical Science Liaisons), or drug safety.

The positions that are a good fit for physicians are usually not temporary positions. Instead, they are for someone who truly wants to make a career change or shift. Pharma companies look for candidates who are passionate about drug development and interested in having a broad impact on patients.

Learn more about specific jobs that physicians have in pharma here.

2. What experience do physicians need to get those positions?

Physicians who currently work in or did their training in major medical centers tend to have the most exposure to clinical research. Experience working as a Principal Investigator (PI) or running trials as a sub-PI would make a physician an excellent candidate.

Denise finds that those who have worked in the academic setting may have an easier transition to pharma. This is because of their research backgrounds or exposure to research. Physicians with experience in early phase clinical trials or preclinical studies, as well as the combination MD/PhD degrees, can also be desirable.

In addition, sub-specialty-trained physicians are more marketable than those who are not. Oncologists, for example, who have some experience running clinical trials, would likely have an easier time getting hired than a family medicine physician. Experience in drug safety or pharmacovigilance would also be attractive.

3. What skills do physicians need to be successful in the pharma setting?

Having some business skills can really set a physician apart from the competition. Denise says that many physicians in pharma who are at the Vice President level often have MD/MBA dual degrees.

In addition to knowledge about the business of drug development, desirable candidates have good business etiquette. They know how to send appropriate emails, schedule meetings, how to leave a voicemail, etc. It is worth calling out that people in pharma want to work with those who are polite and courteous. We are always looking for good team members.

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These “soft” skills, especially good communication skills, are very important for physicians in pharma. In particular, physicians in the Medical Affairs departments or other departments that interact often with external stakeholders must leave a good impression about the company in those interactions.

4. What is the expected salary range to start? What kind of salary growth can a physician expect?

Denise says that for a key opinion leader (KOL) physician first joining pharma, the initial salary may be lower than in his or her prior position. However, the income potential can be really good for physicians who are successful in their pharma positions.

A hypothetical example she shared is: a median salary in the mid 200K range, plus a generous bonus target (sometimes, 30-40%), stocks, 401K match, and other benefits. A top performer in pharma will be able to surpass the income level of physicians in clinical practice. Of course, this depends on sub-specialty and location.

5. What are the differences between working as a practicing physician and working in pharma?

A change in quality of life is typically what physicians transitioning to industry will notice first. There is no call. The hours are mainly normal business hours. Of course, there will be some limited exceptions with deadlines that warrant working on the weekends or evenings. Conferences, of course, may extend into a weekend as well. These differences are definitely bonuses in working in pharma but should not be the main draw of the job.

Denise points out that if a physician wants to work in pharma, s/he will be geographically limited. For example, most major pharma companies will be located in or around Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco.

While opportunities for remote work may exist, Denise suggests that working remotely is not an ideal way to start a career in the pharma industry. Being present and seen at the company is important for promotion potential. Conversations in the hallways are critical for developing relationships with colleagues.

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6. How do physicians get jobs in the pharmaceutical industry by working with recruiters?

The recruiter will help to manage the application and interview process. This person should be knowledgeable about the position and company. In addition, s/he should know the job candidate enough to recommend a potential good fit.

A good relationship with a recruiter should be transparent. Physicians should require that recruiters not submit their resume/CV to companies without their consent. For good record keeping, Denise recommends that physicians who are job searching keep a spreadsheet of who sent their CVs to which companies. This spreadsheet can also include the candidate’s notes on impressions from interviews and other interactions.

7. What are some job hunting tips for physicians looking to transition to pharma?

Denise shared some tips for the physician’s resume/CV, which should represent what s/he brings to the table. It should include all pertinent information about the candidate in a professional summary (2-3 lines). The document should succinctly describe the current roles and responsibilities of the job candidate. Plus, it should include relevant experience (such as running clinical trials), board certifications, education, and publications. Lastly, the resume/CV should be easy to read for someone in terms of font size and organization.

She also emphasized that physicians who are interested in working in pharma should demonstrate the upmost level of respect for the process. Job candidates don’t need to grab offers just to have offers. They need to be careful about turning down too many offers. If they do turn down an offer, they need to provide a compelling reason for turning down an offer. The community of physicians in pharma is a small world. Thus, it’s important to be honest and upfront early in the interview process if it’s not a good fit.

Bonus interview tip

Physicians who interview for jobs in the pharma/biotech industry will very likely be asked during the interview:

“Why do you want to leave clinical practice?”

Denise says that many physicians make the mistake of answering this question by describing why they want to leave their current job. Or even worse, they share their current frustrations with clinical practice. Instead, physicians need to flip this question around to:

“Why do I want to work in pharma?”

Then, this becomes the perfect opportunity for the job candidate to show his or her passion about the company and the position. It's also the time for the physician to describe his or her aspirations for making a broad impact on patients. Essentially, the physician should talk about what s/he is running to instead of what s/he is running away from.

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Final thoughts

Physicians often have an uphill battle when it comes to making a transition outside of traditional clinical practice. Medical school and residency programs rarely, if ever, expose trainees to career paths outside of clinical or academic medicine. Yet, there are so many different ways that physicians can use their knowledge.

In the pharma/biotech industries, physicians can have the opportunity to think creatively and use new technologies to impact healthcare. To learn more about how physicians get jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, physicians can research companies and attend networking events or conferences to have conversations about these exciting activities.

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