If you’re an MD and would like to pursue a career in clinical research there are lots of options. It might be a bit tricky to take the first step and land your first job, but as you gain experience there are numerous opportunities. The most common route for a medical doctor in clinical research, is to start as a clinical research associate (CRA). this is the best way to gain experience, and then many doctors move on to project manager (PM). These two positions ,CRA and PM, are the fastest way to get your foot in the door. You may also get in contact with head hunters that can help you get into the Pharma industry.
Expect 3 years to master the CRA duties
It takes 3 years to master the CRA position, it’s not an easy job. It doesn’t matter if you’re an MD and very smart, since there are lots of guidelines and regulations you have to learn. Things that you weren’t tought in med schol for sure. I am telling you, you do automatic job the first year, and after a year you realize you missed things on all your medical charts so you’ll have to go back. After about two years you start to become more proactive and can work more effective.
A skilled CRA is proactive
Usually after 3 years you start to be proactive. That’s why it’s a job that people stay in for sometimes 10-15 years, because they love it. And as you get comfortable in your job, you become proactive, you know how to save time, you know how to negotiate, organize, prioritise and it’s just a piece of cake. But it takes at least three years to get there. Everyone who came into my office and I told them it would take them at least three years, they’d look at me with a smile and think I’m not serious. But it takes time, believe me I have done it. If I had not done the job I wouldn’t be able to tell you this, but it takes three years. We’ve seen many CRAs leaving after two years to go for a promotion in another company, and we end up doing six months of cleaning; cleaning the charts, cleaning other people’s work – cleaning everything, because they hadn’t had a chance or reached a level or being proactive and realising all the things they’ve missed. So it’s not an easy job, but it’s a fun job!
I mentioned earlier it’s really the best way to be successful as a project manager while you are in the Pharma.
As a CRA doors will open
– “I don’t really like this job. I’m more interested in drug safety, or I’m interested in regulatory affairs”.
The goal of your supervisor is really to promote you and to keep you. When you’re excellent people want to keep you, and they’ll do everything to keep you in the company. If you want to go into sales and marketing, they will make sure that you have a transition to go to sales and marketing. That’s why people stay there for such a long time.
I was moved around by the wave of opportunities. I have three kids, I was pregnant three times. I missed opportunities because I was on maternity leave, and then I came back and some opportunities came up when I returned from the leave, that I wouldn’t have had. People stay there for a long time because it’s rewarding. Like I said, the best time to find a job is when you have a job. That will be your case in a couple of years once you’ve put your foot somewhere. Again, you may find yourself having other interests somewhere else, and you may get promoted – you’ll see.
Medical Science Liaison – MSL
The next set of positions, the most popular ones, are the Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) and Scientific Director and/or Medical Advisor. These jobs didn’t exist 15 years ago, and now they are very popular. They are very much geared towards PhD students. So we’re going to do the same exercise, we’re going to tell you what it entails. MSLs are usually:
- Home-based positions
- you travel a lot of time, combined East or West coast
- You manage 15-20 doctors
You work with top doctors. Those are key opinion leaders, people that are on all the boards, publish a lot and on the forefront. They are not people who prescribe medication, they’re just thinkers who come and one day say “we’re going into that direction into disease management”, and everyone follows them. They’re the gurus. So you deal mainly with those doctors.
You also have to write a visit report. You’re speaking a lot about information and clinical data, safety data that the sales representative is not allowed to talk about.
The main safety concern is not out there yet, but usually the big doctors and the gurus are aware of, so you may be asked to come and make a presentation to the pharmacists at the central hospital. to talk about the recent side effects of products, which is this new oral anticoagulant drug supposed to replace Cumedine. So you have to be able obviously to be comfortable presenting clinical data.
Scientific Director & Medical Advisor
For the Scientific Director or Medical Advisor position, usually you start as an MSL. It usually takes about three years also to master the position before you move to Scientific Director or Medical Advisor position. If you’re an MD most of the time you can switch right into this position. But again, try to do the MSL job first because you’ll have to manage a team of MSLs and if you don’t understand your people it’s pretty hard to gear them into the right direction. It is;
- Involves a little bit less travel
- You’re responsible for Canada
- You work mainly with people at the main office and also the people in the US
- You review the visit report of the MSLs
These positions for Medical doctors are mainly medical affairs positions, remember medical affairs post-marketing, after the drug is approved. I spent my last 8 or 9 years working in medical affairs, sometimes I would write clinical protocol with the investigators in collaboration with the MSL and the medical advisor. You write publications, you write posters, your present them; there’s a lot of stuff you do as MSL and Scientific Director, it’s more science-focused. When you’re in medical affairs it’s very important because if you’re interested into that position as a PhD, you will often see in the job description “ability to manage or execute medical affairs plan.” So what is a medical affairs plan exactly?
The plan is basically what you’re going to be doing in the next two to three years in order to develop doctors or rising starts. Sometimes you have doctors ageing in their 50s or 60s, and you see this nice younger surgeon at 35 years old who’s a great speaker, and when he says something everyone goes to that direction. And maybe you want to work with this doctor in the future. You want to be able to publish your data, you’re going to target the scientific conference you’re going to attend and write a report and report back to the company and to your peers. It’s a very nice position. You also manage a small budget for doctors, usually it’s not more than half a million dollars. You prepare a lot of slides for your presentations to hospitals, sometimes you present to the ministry of health and sometimes you give training to the sales rep. you participate in advisory board; we have this new drug, these are the results, what are the safety concerns – usually the doctors and the scientific doctors are all aware of the drugs that are going to be launched on the market.
You help the Pharma companies to target. This is going to be an issue for you guys, you may want to handle this; your price may be an issue. Your drug is only given twice a day, yeah through CT profile but this is concerning to me, I will not prescribe your drug because of this.
So doctors help pharma companies orientate their drug development. So here again the Scientific Director and the MSL work hand in hand together, you rarely work alone as I said earlier, there’s a lot of teamwork.
Skills and requirements for an MD
Skills required for Medical doctors are exactly the same as for a CRA and PM; the soft skills, interpersonal skills, verbal and written communications. These all come in from job descriptions. If you go online and look at job descriptions, it’s always the same words that come back again and again, it’s all the same. But it’s true, in reality that’s what you need. You need presentation skills, you need to be at ease presenting clinical data. You don’t have to be a wonderful speaker, you just have to be able to present clinical data in a clear and concise way. And because you’re managing a medical plan budget, you need a lot of business skills. For disease areas, it’s great if you’re working in oncology and you’re hired in oncology as your safety net, but your background in science isn’t enough to get you into the position.
Training on the job
In the company there’s a lot of training. People will train you various stuff, e.g:
- The disease
- they’ll train you on the practice
- business skills
- project management
As soon as you get your foot in the door there’s a lot of opportunities for training. Jump on any training you can get because first of all it’s free, and as corporations in Quebec we’re obliged by law to save a certain portion of your revenues to spend in training, I think about 5%.
Is the MSL position something for you?
So MSL is a very popular clinical research position for MDs, and very stimulating and rewarding. So if the science and presenting is your thing, you’re going to love this job. You’ll be presenting to doctors, pharmacists or whoever – you’re going to love it! It takes three years to master the position. And here when there’s an opportunity to move to be a senior MSL or assigned to scientifically direct another company, you’ve been there three years and you’ve done a great job, they’re going to ask you if you want to be a Scientific Director. When you’re good in your position, promotions happen naturally. And if you don’t like it and want to go into clinical research, your supervisor will ensure that you go into clinical research. We have fellows that wanted to go into marketing, so we arranged them to go into marketing. So once you’re in there there’s a lot of opportunities to move within the company.
Again, it’s the same story as before, the best way to be a Scientific Director or Medical Advisor; that is if you’ve done the job before because they you understand the problems there are. It’s also the best way to find another job when you’re employed, but in your case you aren’t employed yet. But be patient and learn the basics really well. People who move too quickly, when I get a CV and the person moved every two years, every employer wants to hire someone and keep them forever. That’s totally unrealistic, but you want to have someone who’s going to stay with you. So if you see the person has moved every two years, and it takes three years to master the position, you look and you put the CV aside. So once you get into a job stay in the job unless you really don’t like it. Don’t try to move too fast, you’re going to regret it. Master the basics first, it’s very important!