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Moving into pharma: a case-study

By Sophia Donaldson, on 14 December 2016

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Today’s interviewee has a PhD in Molecular Genetics and is now a Senior Health Economist at a major pharmaceutical company. We spoke to him about his career path and current role.

Tell us about your job.

I demonstrate the value of drugs we produce to the NHS. That involves assessing the clinical evidence, but also looking at things from an economic perspective. I work in respiratory medicine, so I deal with inhalers for asthma and COPD. If our inhaler keeps people out of hospital it has the potential to save the NHS money.

How did you move from a PhD to your current role?

I really enjoyed my PhD, but as I entered my final year I realised that my work wasn’t going to turn up anything particularly earth-shattering so there wasn’t much of a future in it. I also sensed that the academic environment could become quite cutthroat, and one of the reasons I’d originally entered academia was I thought it wouldn’t be very cutthroat, so I decided I should find something else to do.

I went to a careers fair and I came across a stand for a health economics market access consultancy. I didn’t really know what that was but it sounded interesting from the description, so I looked into it a bit and ended up getting a job with that consultancy.

Our clients were usually pharmaceutical companies, and the job involved reading a lot of clinical trial reports and summarising them, both in written summaries and using meta analysis. I was at the consultancy for four years before moving to my current employer – a pharmaceutical company.

What does an average working day look like?

I often have to meet with the rest of the brand team working on the drug – which will include a medical team, a marketing team, a patient advocacy team, myself, and occasionally some sales people – to discuss strategy. But I also get to do a lot of analysis and writing on my own, which I quite like. After my PhD it took me a while to get used to working with other people, and to build my confidence to speak up in meetings and deliver presentations, but over the years I’ve got much better at it.

How does your PhD help you in your job?

A PhD isn’t essential for my job (a lot of people will have an MSc in Health Economics), and for my previous consultancy role it was enough that I just had a life sciences undergraduate degree. But although I don’t use any of the detailed knowledge from my PhD, many of the skills I picked up have helped me to get jobs and progress in my career. Those skills include being able to use statistical methods, and scientific reading and writing.

What are the best things about your job?

One of the things that concerned me about my particular PhD is it felt quite distant from anything that helped someone with the diseases I was researching. Now that I’m working with medicines it’s easier to see how what I’m doing can help people. And although it wasn’t the case at first, now that I’ve progressed to a more senior role I have quite a lot of autonomy, so I plan my own projects.

What are the downsides?

I went the route of working for a consultancy before moving into a drugs company, and that’s the route that a lot for people will take now, as pharmaceutical companies often require previous experience. The way consultancies are set up is that they make more money the more work they give you. So the deal is that you’ll get lots of great training because you’ll have a variety of clients and projects, but it can be quite hard work on entry-level pay. The hours still weren’t the worst, maybe 9am to 7pm, and a bit of work on the weekends, but it was difficult to fit all of the work into regular 9 to 5 hours. The experience I gained in consultancy was invaluable though as it helped me get my current role. And apart from the occasional very busy period, the work-life balance is very good here.

What’s the progression like?

I would say that progression to the level I’m working at can probably happen at a lot of companies. But the next step will be to a management position, and because there are fewer management jobs, the opportunities to progress from this point will be dependent upon senior people leaving and vacancies coming up. So moving up a position may require moving companies.

What tips would you give researchers wanting to move into health economics?

If you have a life sciences PhD there are lots of market access consultancies that will be interested in you. To make yourself appealing in interviews make sure you’ve thoroughly researched the industry and the company, and can tell them why you want to enter the sector and what you’ll bring.

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