Starting at the bottom rung

This post was prompted by some conversations I’ve had recently with recent PhD graduates at industry networking events.  These kinds of events are great opportunities to meet people working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. You can learn about the day-to-day reality of the industry, get insight on recent developments, and sometimes get leads on new opportunities.

However, I’ve met a few people at these events who make a terrible impression. They pout and complain about the challenges of the job search, and generally appear shocked that biotechnology companies didn’t knock down their doors with fabulous offers after they graduated. It’s an attitude of entitlement that is very off-putting.

Look, I get it.  You’ve spent years of your life, and probably tens of thousands of dollars in real and opportunity costs to earn a specialized, rarefied degree that places you among the elite of the educational system. You’ve worked incredibly hard, spending long hours in the laboratory and developing advanced skills in technically challenging fields.  You’ve managed complex projects; you’ve published in prestigious journals; you’ve presented at conferences with leading experts.  You’re self-directed and motivated. And then, when you get that degree and walk out of the lab, looking to put your smarts to work away from the bench… employers aren’t interested.

It’s a shock to the system to realize that after spending years developing your skills, managers consider you unseasoned and inexperienced. If you’re lucky, they will offer you something with entry-level responsibilities — and a salary to match. It’s a blow to the ego — and frankly, feels insulting. It’s especially toxic when you compare yourself to successful new lawyers and MBAs, or to the lucky few PhDs who manage to step from the lab into high-paying roles, such as medical science liaisons. Believe me, I know — I’ve been there.

My advice is: Get over yourself.

There’s no shame in starting at the bottom rung — and employers are right: the business world is very different than academia. There are different stakeholders, different pressures, and different priorities. Getting your feet wet at the entry level gives you a chance to learn those differences and then prove yourself. All those skills and personal strengths you developed in grad school — project management, determination, perseverance and communications — will let you advance quickly once you’ve had a chance to adapt.  The thing about post-PhD careers in the pharmaceutical industry is this: getting in is the hardest part. Once you’ve opened that door, you will have the opportunity to follow a very satisfying trajectory.

Don’t settle for something terrible — but don’t let your ego stop you from taking a first step, either. You may have earned a PhD, but in the business world, you’ve still gotta pay your dues.

Good luck in your search.

Posted: July 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

How to make a great impression in a Medical Science Liaison interview

Dr. Samuel Dyer is a former Medical Science Liaison and MSL manager who has held leadership roles in Medical Affairs for companies including Bristol Myers Squibb, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Abbott and Genentech.  He is the founder of Medical Science Liaison World, a website dedicated to providing career guidance for MSLs. I recently spoke with Dr. Dyer, and have offered to share some of his career advice with the readers here at the Your First Pharma Job blog.  In this article, Dr. Dyer gives some great suggestions for making a great impression at your medical science liaison job interview:

Keys to Researching Pharmaceutical, Biotech, or Medical Device Companies for a Medical Science Liaison Interview

by Dr. Samuel Dyer,

The key to successful interviewing is preparation. This preparation includes performing thorough research on the company that you will be interviewing with.  Too often MSL candidates seek to limit the research stage and as a result appear disinterested and uniformed during the interview process. Insufficient preparation can seriously jeopardize your chances of moving forward in the interview process and ultimately obtaining a job offer.

Areas of Research

Many hiring managers and other interviewers will disqualify those candidates who don’t seem to have in depth knowledge of the company and its products especially those that the MSL will be working with.  Your research should include:

  • What products the company manufactures – or if it is a big company, its blockbusters?
  • What is its history, mission and goals?
  • What is the company’s primary Therapeutic Area or Disease State focus?  Who are its primary customers?
  • Is the company a National company or does it maintain a global presence in its specific market or the Pharmaceutical Industry?
  • How large is the company in terms of number of employees and revenue generated?
  • How is it positioned in the industry so that it differentiates itself from its primary competitors?
  • Who is the leadership team composed of? What are their backgrounds?
  • How does the company carry out corporate responsibility in terms of social and environmental issues?
  • Find out if the company is on the Fortune 500 list and where it is positioned?  Find out how it was positioned in the prior year and ask why the change?

Thoroughly researching a company will prepare you to be able to confidently and accurately respond to questions regarding these topics. There are a wide range of research tools that MSL Candidates can utilize to research a pharmaceutical/biotech/medical device company.

Tools for Research

  • The company’s website for its history, mission, marketed products, research pipeline, organizational structure, and staff bios.
  • Read any press releases as they will highlight current news, such as new product offerings or staff changes.
  • Review industry-based publications not only to obtain information regarding your target company specifically but to obtain the latest news related to industry trends and issues.
  • Use Google alerts to stay current with regard to company news.
  • Use social media to keep current on company and industry news.  Follow key decision-makers on Twitter and search for their profile on LinkedIn.  Use Linked In groups to establish a presence and build rapport with company and industry insider.
  • Online directories such as Bloomberg and Standard & Poor’s also provide financial and market data on many types of businesses. 

Discuss the Research

At some point during almost every interview you will be asked to describe how well you fit into the company culture and values, along with what you know about the company beyond the information contained on the company website. If you have performed sufficient research, this will give you an opportunity to potentially stand out from other less prepared candidates by allowing you discuss and share relevant responses to these questions. Taking the time to show interest in potential employers will likely result in their showing interest in you as well.

Whether you’ve succeeded in getting a job interview, or are still in the process of conducting informational interviews, you can use this advice to boost your knowledge and show off your awareness of the key issues facing individual companies and the industry as a whole.  It’s a great strategy for making the best possible impression and boosting your chances of getting your first pharma job.

Posted: July 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Interviewing, Medical Science Liaisons | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

How to take the stress out of arranging informational interviews

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I am a strong advocate of the informational interview as one of the most important tools in the job seeker’s toolbox.  I believe this is especially true for job searches in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, because talking to people provides a much better opportunity to share your knowledge and enthusiasm than a resume or online job application can provide.  There is an enormous amount of research proving that informational interviews are far more effective at leading to job offers than almost any other job search method.

However, I also know that there’s a reason that people don’t use this method very often: it can be terrifying.  For many people, just the idea of calling up a stranger to ask for help with a job search is enough to send stress levels through the roof. They’re afraid they’ll get yelled at for bothering someone, make a bad impression, and blow their chance at a better life.

Well, I know how you feel.  In my former life as a pharmaceutical headhunter, and in my current career in business development, I have cold-called thousands of biotechnology industry professionals.  Believe it or not, I have done this despite the fact that I’m basically pretty introverted.  Making these calls hasn’t ever been easy — but I’ve developed strategies that have helped me develop a career based on my success at this task.  Here are a few things you should try:

  1. Start with a script. Write down what you’re going to say. Keep it simple – don’t use big words where a small one will do – and keep it conversational in style. Practice reading it out loud, and if it doesn’t feel natural, change it up. I’d suggest starting with something like this: “Hi, my name is ___. I’m hoping you could help me. I’m just looking to get my start in the pharmaceutical industry, and I’m trying to learn more about careers in ____. I wonder if we could schedule a 10 or 15 minute call so I could ask you a few questions about your job and the kind of work you do.”
  2. Practice makes perfect. Practice reading your script until you get comfortable with it. You shouldn’t be trying to memorize it – just getting familiar with the rhythm and the idea of saying these things out loud, so it doesn’t feel awkward when you do it for real. Call up your own voicemail and practice saying it into the phone. Call up your friends and try it out on them. By the time you speak to a ‘real’ contact, this should feel like a conversation you’ve had a thousand times before.
  3. Lower the risk. Use skype, or a cheap long distance plan, and make your first few calls to companies in another state. You’re unlikely to ever actually apply for a job there, so it won’t matter if you stumble or lose your nerve. When you do start making calls to companies of interest, start with the ones that interest you the least. By the time you work your way up to the people you really want to impress, you’ll be far more comfortable — and you’ll be able to show off some of what you’ve learned from your previous calls.
  4. Lower the risk – 2. Start by calling people in more junior roles. You’ll be able to learn a lot from them, but they won’t really be in a position to make or break your career. If you’re lucky, they’ll still remember the challenges of starting out and will be more willing to share their time with you as a result. However, on the flip side, be aware that more junior people often don’t have as much flexibility with their time.
  5. To begin, just schedule. Your goal with this initial call will not be to have the full conversation – it’s just to set a time for that conversation. This will give you more time to prepare, and takes the pressure off your contact because you’re not expecting them to drop everything right away.

Basically, that’s it.  If you’re comfortable, and polite, I think you’ll find that people are nicer, and much more receptive than you might expect.

Once you do score an informational interview, there are plenty of guides online that will give you suggestions for getting the most out of it. For me, the key points are to keep it short and to the point – aim for no more than 15-20 minutes; use the interview as an opportunity to clarify your understanding – which is a chance to show off what you already know; DON’T directly ask for a job – this is a violation of the ‘social contract’ of an informational interview; and finally, DO ask for referrals to other people you can talk to.

Hope this has been helpful.  Good luck with your search!

Posted: July 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Informational interviews, Interviewing | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Happy Pride! Being LGBTQ in the pharmaceutical industry

It’s LGBTQ Pride Week here in Toronto so I thought I would share a collection of interesting articles about being ‘out’ in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

You might also be interested in checking out the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals.

Posted: July 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

Chemistry job prospects getting better in California

A recent article at Chemical & Engineering News summarizes some encouraging indicators that the job market may be picking up for scientists with a chemistry background, at least on the west coast:

the employment picture for some chemists on the West Coast may finally be brightening. Although growth in job volume for chemists was “flat to declining” last year, it is now “definitely picking up,” according to Alan E. Edwards, a senior director for the Americas Product Group in the scientific arm of Kelly Services, a staffing services company. “I would say that California is climbing back and is now well out of the trough it was in.

According to a 2011 survey of biotechnology CEOs, a majority of firms in this area plan to increase their workforce over the next two years.  However, many of the jobs will be short-term in nature, so chemists may need to get used to the idea of jumping from contract to contract. And while the demand for analytical and quality control chemists is increasing, medicinal chemists still find themselves competing with cheaper, internationally outsourced labor.  As a result, many are exploring ways to take their skills from the benchtop and are looking at other career prospects, such as business development.  As one says, the switch to a technical sales support role

“has been a great learning experience and helped to broaden my skill set—something that is critical to my career,” he says. “The landscape of R&D and manufacturing is changing faster than ever, so the ability to wear multiple hats and contribute across classical departmental boundaries is key.”

Posted: July 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Chemistry | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »