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Using a science PhD to build a marketing career

By Sophia Donaldson, on 12 June 2015

John Paul gained a PhD in Cell Biology from Manchester University. Here he tells us about his current role in pharmaceutical marketing, as an account manager at Circa Healthcare.

How did you move from academic research to marketing?

After my PhD I worked for three and a half years as a post-doctoral researcher. In the last year of my post-doc contract I started to weigh up my options. My boss had offered me a contract extension and future assistance in developing grant proposals to obtain my own funding so I could start the process of being independent/having my own projects and students. However, I was having reservations that setting up my own research group and constantly applying for grants wasn’t for me. Having an outgoing and sociable personality, I decided that I should look for a role that would use my scientific background but also allow me to interact with people rather than with plastic dishes and cells (I spent lots of hours in cell culture labs!).

I looked into many roles in which scientific knowledge would be useful in communications; advertising/marketing was just one. I was very lucky in that I obtained a job in a pharmaceutical advertising agency due to a family connection.

What does a normal working day look like for you?

I’m generally office based, although I probably travel to meet clients or attend extended brand meetings at least once a month. I work within the accounts team and am a point person for both national and global pharmaceutical brand managers. My roles include developing strategic (short and long-term) marketing plans for the products and defining the tactics that need to be developed to drive the marketing initiatives. I then work with my creative team (writers, designers, web developers etc) to create the tactics, on time and within budget, and liaise with our clients to ensure, prior to being released to market, the content created communicates the messaging they desire.

What are the best things about working in your role?

No two days are the same; working on a variety of products with different marketing campaigns and product life cycles ensures there is a variety in my workload, which keeps things interesting.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

All clients have budget limitations and it is often challenging to manage expectations, or to explain to clients that when they change the project scope and we need to do something different to meet the new needs, that we most likely need to re-estimate the project or adjust timelines – although this may sound like what would be expected, it is often not the case. Ensuring projects stay on budget (and on timeline) is essential not only for clients but also for your team and your agency’s business – if you constantly go over budget you are a less profitable company, and if you constantly fall behind timelines your clients will not be happy for very long. As such keeping projects on budget and on timelines is challenging but essential to maintaining good business practice.

Is a PhD essential for your role?

No, although a scientific background has been very useful to help understand on a molecular level how products work/how they stimulate their effect in comparison to competition (helps to define differentiating factors). Although a science degree is not essential, all employees need a degree; most of my colleagues in the accounts team hold business and/or marketing degrees.

What skills do you use from your PhD in your current role?

The majority of the marketing managers I work with are doctors, and some are even specialists (e.g. cardiologists), who have transitioned into a business and marketing role. As such my degree allows me to engage in detailed scientific discussions on the products and the market competition with clients, which I believe they appreciate, as many account leads do not have a scientific background. Also being able to develop concise but detailed presentations (verbal and written) are skills I refined during my PhD studies and use regularly now.

Where do you see yourself going from here?

Becoming an account supervisor, and so being responsible for more strategic development projects/less tactical projects, leading pitch projects and presentations and managing a team of lower level account personnel. Following this, progression to director of client services – i.e. overseeing all account personnel and management of client relations.

What top tips would you pass on to a PhD student/post-doc interested in this type of work?

More and more pharmaceutical and healthcare agencies are looking for people with science degrees when recruiting for new account team members so just apply! Be confident and direct; demonstrate your passion to join the organization and the ability to communicate scientific matters clearly. Although having a science background is great, having some knowledge of business practice and basic marketing would be very helpful and also very appealing for employers. If time permits there are great courses online which can assist with this, and there are some great books out there for people who need to know the basics.

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