By far one of the most popular non-clinical career choices for physicians is a job in the pharmaceutical sector. Pharmaceutical companies need physicians to help them in various areas including designing research studies, evaluating drug safety, and communicating their message to other physicians. Like many non-clinical jobs, pharmaceutical jobs for physicians include both part-time and full-time positions. Many doctors look to part-time non-clinical roles to supplement their clinical income or to “test drive” a non-clinical career path. Others move directly to a non-clinical job.
Pharmaceutical jobs for physicians also range from entry-level positions that may not even require residency training to leadership positions on either the scientific or business side that may require secondary degrees such as a PhD or MBA. Perhaps one of the most common slots with a pharmaceutical company is as a medical science liaison (MSL). But there are also opportunities in pharmacovigilance, medical education, research, medical affairs, clinical trial monitoring, and other areas within the industry.
Common physician roles in the pharmaceutical industry:
- Medical science liaison
- Medical education
- Clinical research and trial monitoring
- Medical affairs
The overall market for physicians seeking work in this sector is strong. While competition for any specific job may be stiff, there is still a large unmet need for these positions overall. For example, OnlyMedics is a specialist recruiting company that focuses solely on recruiting physicians for positions with pharmaceutical companies and related industries. It currently lists nearly 100 such jobs. When you include part-time positions and the more entry-level jobs where medical education may be a plus but experience or a license is not required, there are several thousand jobs at dozens of pharmaceutical companies available nationwide.
As befits the competitive nature of these positions, physicians who work for pharmaceutical companies are reasonably well compensated. The average annual salary for an MSL, for example, is $158,668 according to Glassdoor. Depending on your current geographic area and specialty, this may or may not seem like a good salary. Indeed, the same website lists the average salary for physicians nationwide as $218,770 (with a very wide range from $120,000 to over $300,00 per year). However, this brings up an important point for anyone considering a career in the pharmaceutical industry, or any other non-clinical career for that matter: it’s vital to consider not just salary, but also total compensation, overhead and other expenses, and opportunity costs and lifestyle changes when considering leaving your clinical practice behind.
A spotlight on a few of the most popular pharmaceutical roles for physicians
Medical science liaison
Let’s look now in more detail at some of the pharmaceutical jobs for physicians, starting with the above-mentioned MSL. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, an MSL is a combination of an educator and relationship builder with key opinion leaders in a therapeutic area. They are the eyes and ears of the medical affairs department. MSLs have been jokingly referred to as being like drug reps on steroids, though they actually have no formal role in sales. MSLs communicate with and educate physicians (and sometimes laypeople) on the medications produced by the pharmaceutical company which employs them. Not all MSLs are physicians, some are nurses with graduate degrees, PhDs in the life sciences, or pharmacists. Not only an advanced degree, but also several years of clinical experience is generally required, often in the specific specialty or therapeutic area in which the employer’s drugs are used.
Because this job involves both networking and education, it may be a good choice for an educator or other physician comfortable with public speaking as well as other extroverted physicians who don’t mind travel. Travel, to visit hospitals, offices, and physicians in the field, is either one of the major advantages or major disadvantages of this career choice depending on how you feel about travel. It’s not all field work, however. MSLs are also often subject matter experts and resources to internal colleagues and participate in product development throughout the product’s lifecycle. Due to the rapid growth in recent years of both numbers of MSL positions and in educational standards for the job, there is now an international society of MSLs dedicated to the professional growth and development of those in this field – the Medical Science Liaison Society.
If travel and public speaking do not appeal to you, perhaps a career in pharmacovigilance is more to your liking. This field is also known as drug safety and deals with data collection, analysis, detection and ultimately prevention of adverse drug events. Another advantage of this career path is that, unlike an MSL position, this job does not usually require residency training, board certification, or even prior clinical experience. Therefore, it’s an excellent choice for a medical school graduate who has difficulty matching with a specialty training program or perhaps one who has decided that patient care is just not right for them. In addition to a medical or scientific education and background, other valuable skills include written communication skills (especially scientific writing), understanding of the medical regulatory environment, and a working knowledge of medical coding.
A typical job description for a physician involved in pharmacovigilance might include:
- Ensures compliance with applicable regulatory requirements
- Participates in creation of organizational strategy, goals, and objectives for the pharmacovigilance department and aids in implementation of the business plans to support both local and global safety strategies
- Maintains awareness of new and emerging safety concerns
- Provides input into responses to inquiries from regulatory authorities or health care professionals on safety issues
- Aids in the development and updates concerning safety for the product label and any other documents
Compensation for a pharmacovigilance professional varies widely depending on both prior experience and years in the drug safety profession. Starting salaries are in the $70,000 range but can climb rapidly to over $150,000. Managerial and leadership positions are also available. Drug safety jobs are listed on general search sites such as LinkedIn and CareerBuilder as well as on specialty websites like Pharmiweb.com. Many pharmaceutical companies also regularly advertise for pharmacovigilance positions on their own websites as well.
Clinical trial monitoring
Closely related to positions in pharmacovigilance are jobs in clinical trial monitoring. Physicians on this career path may work directly for the pharmaceutical company itself or for a partnered contract research organization (CRO). Salaries for these positions are generally on par with entry level pharmacovigilance jobs and job requirements are similar too. However, some clinical trial monitoring positions are temporary, part-time, or can even be done at home, making them excellent opportunities for physicians looking to supplement their income or at a time of transition in their clinical career.
One thing that most physician-level jobs in the pharmaceutical sector have in common is that they generally deal with the later stages of drug development and use as opposed to the research and development of new drugs. Some MDs and especially MD/PhDs and those with strong bench research backgrounds may pursue the latter path, but most physicians looking for non-clinical roles will pursue the former. Particularly for those physicians looking for leadership positions, a medical affairs job with a pharmaceutical company might be a good fit.
While MSLs, pharmacovigilance specialists, and others may be under the umbrella medical affairs within a pharmaceutical company’s organization, by a specific job in medical affairs I mean generally a headquarters-based, leadership position covering such areas as:
- Subject matter expertise – educating both colleagues and consumers
- Regulatory review – ensuring that all educational, technical, and promotional documents are accurate and adhere to the guidelines mandated by appropriate regulatory bodies
- Liaison – interfacing with professional associations, disease advocacy groups, patient support groups, etc
- Support marketing – providing medical input and expertise for promotional materials and reviewing them for accuracy
Depending on the size and structure of the pharmaceutical company, medical affairs physicians may also be responsible for R&D functions such as study design and monitoring, even if they don’t do the research themselves. Likewise, they may perform pharmacovigilance or MSL duties directly in smaller companies or supervise them in larger ones.
As managerial and leadership positions, medical affairs jobs usually pay in the six-figure range. The median annual salary is $105,000 and almost all such positions include benefits. Rising to the level of medical affairs medical director at a large pharmaceutical company can more than double this base salary. Generous bonuses and profit sharing plans are also common at this level.
To earn these types of salaries, you generally need to have significant clinical experience. Experience with the pharmaceutical industry is also desirable although this can be indirect, for example, as a clinical trial investigator or academician. Excellent interpersonal and communication skills are essential, as are demonstrated leadership and project management skills.
As more physicians look into non-traditional – often non-clinical – jobs, many are finding rewarding, fulfilling careers in the pharmaceutical sector. There are thousands of such jobs available all over the country and even the globe. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, an excellent writer and verbal communicator or a shy bench researcher, at the beginning, middle or end of your clinical career, and even if you’ve never practiced traditionally at all, there is likely a job with a pharmaceutical company that is right for you.