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Physician leadership development programs with pharma companies

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Physician leadership development programs can be an efficient way to transition from traditional medicine to a rewarding and lucrative career in the pharmaceutical or medical technology industry. These programs are developed and sponsored by large companies that see the value in introducing early-career physicians to the range of roles in the industry that require the knowledge, experience, and clinical expertise that doctors and healthcare professionals have to offer.

The program ends up being symbiotic – the participant benefits by gaining valuable skills and familiarity with the field (in addition to a regular salary), and the company benefits by acquiring a physician leader who not only understands the nuances of the industry, but has been specifically trained in the values and processes used by the sponsoring company.

Many of these programs are highly competitive, but young US-based physicians who have excelled in training shown an interest in clinical research, drug development, or advancing health technologies along the way will typically find themselves to be competitive applicants.

Let’s get down to it with five of the best leadership development programs for physicians in the pharmaceutical industry.

GSK’s Esprit R&D and Physician Development Programme

GSK’s Esprit R&D and Physician Development Programme looks really fantastic. In fact, I applied for it several years ago. Unfortunately, got this response:

As you may expect, we have received many applications for this opportunity, and although your application was given consideration, we have identified several candidates whose background more closely matches the job requirements. Therefore, we regret to inform you that in this instance, your application has not been successful.

But, during the course of the application process, I did have the opportunity to speak with a couple of GSK insiders about it, including one who was participating in the Esprit program herself. She had excellent things to say about it, including that it was a great learning experience, challenging, and allowed her to connect with GSK leaders in a broad range of positions.

The program includes a series of rotations that vary depending on the individual’s interests and previous experience. They can be in manufacturing, project management, clinical affairs, strategy development, supply chain, and other divisions, and can include a range of therapeutic areas. GSK indicates that the program has a breakdown of 70% on-the-job experience, 20% informal learning, and 10% formal learning.

The Details

Length: 3 years

Location: Opportunities are available in the US, UK, Japan, and China (you need to be able to speak the local language). Certain rotations can be an a different country than your main location.


  • Physician
  • A demonstrated record of delivering significant value through industry experience
  • Proven scientific and theoretical capability

Application process and timeline:

  • The recruitment cycle starts in the summer with an in-depth online application
  • Online tests
  • First round interview, which can be in-person, on the phone, or online
  • In-person second round interview with other candidates, known as the “assessment centre”

Start date: March

Compensation: Salary, annual bonus, healthcare, time off, pension plan, and more

Not to be overly exuberant about this one, but I would have seriously jumped at this opportunity if I’d been accepted. The program itself has a lot to offer, based on my findings. I also did a rotation at GSK as a resident and got the sense that they are an excellent company to work for.

Novo Nordisk’s Pharmaceutical Medicine Programme

I looked heavily into the Novo Nordisk Pharmaceutical Medicine Programme around that the time that I applied to GSK’s program, and was quite impressed by what they offer. The issue for me was the location outside of the US. If you’re in a position to be able to live abroad for a couple of years, this program is definitely one to consider!

This program has a true global focus and aims to prepare physicians in pharmaceutical company divisions where medical knowledge and expertise is needed. It accomplishes this with three long rotations over the course of the program, in the areas of global safety, global development, and global medical affairs. Each participant has an individual course plan for training that complements the scope of work in the rotations.

While GSK makes no promises about permanent jobs following their rotational program, Novo Nordisk explicitly states that physicians will be offered a position within the company upon program completion.

The Details

Length: 2 years

Location: Denmark


  • MD
  • 2-5 years of clinical or scientific experience
  • Completion of an internship
  • Preference is given to specialists in endocrinology, cardiology, and gastroenterology
  • No prior industry experience (they state that pharmaceutical industry experience would over-qualify you)

Application process and timeline:

  • Online application opens in February

Start date: September

Compensation: Competitive salary, annual bonus, re-location assistance, budget for training

Abbvie Physician Development Program

The Physician Development Program at Abbvie is aimed at identifying and molding future leaders for their pharmaceutical R&D team. In involves 6-month rotations in clinical pharmacology, medical affairs, pharmaceutical development, and pharmacovigilance and patient safety. An industry postgraduate course is also a component, along with mentorship and coaching from Abbvie’s senior leaders.

This program appears to have more of a focus on clinical trials than some of the other programs discussed here, but doesn’t look any less fantastic for a physician looking to get into the pharmaceutical field.

The Details

Length: 2 years

Location: Chicago


  • Physician with a US license
  • Completion of residency, with preference given to certain fields corresponding to the company’s therapeutic areas of interest
  • Published research and data analysis experience
  • Candidates with clinical research experience are preferred, such as those with a PhD, MPH, or completion of a research fellowship

Application process and timeline:

  • Somewhat unclear. It appears as though you apply through Abbie’s main application portal, though I didn’t find this particular program listed as an open position.

Start date: Not specified

Compensation: Salary and benefits

Lilly Visiting Scientist Fellowship Program

Moving from Chicago does to Indy, up next is the Lilly Visiting Scientist Fellowship Program. This one takes a broader range of participants, including those PharmDs, PhDs, and masters in addition to MDs. Unlike the rotational programs already discussed, Lilly’s program places fellows in a single department for the entire 1-year experience. Participating divisions include public policy, patient outcomes, new product planning, clinical research, medical affairs, and others. Participants do, however, work closely with other departments through their various projects.

Personally, I prefer the idea of a rotational-style program for exposure to several different roles for physicians within a pharmaceutical company. But if you don’t have an MD, don’t want to commit more than one year to a program, or have a specific functional area that you know you’re interested in, Lilly’s program could be a great fit and looks like it has a lot to offer.

The Details

Length: 1 year

Location: Indianapolis


  • MD, PharmD, PhD, or Master’s degree within the last 3 years
  • Outstanding scholastic achievements
  • Exceptional communication and leadership capability

Application process and timeline:

  • Online application through Lilly’s main job portal beginning in November
  • Screening interview
  • On-site interview in January
  • Candidates selected in early February

Start date: June/July

Compensation: Competitive salary, relocation, vacation, health insurance, life insurance, and more

Becton Dickinson Technology Leadership Development Program

Becton Dickinson differs from the other companies discussed here in that it focuses on diagnostic products, instruments, and reagents instead of drugs. Nonetheless, this can be fitting for many physicians, especially those with an engineering background or interest in medical devices.

Like Lilly’s fellowship program, BD’s Technology Leadership Development Program is open to certain non-physicians. It consists of three 1-year rotations that increase in complexity and responsibility as the program progresses. Their website suggests that there is significant tailoring of the program to the particular interests and experience of participants. Areas of assignment include R&D, strategic innovation, technology development, and more.

The Details

Length: 3 years

Location: Rotations are generally in multiple locations, including New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, California, and Utah


  • MD, PhD, or MS
  • Academic and research distinction
  • Experience or interest in medical technologies

Application process and timeline:

  • Online application due in December
  • Skype interview or local interview (such as on campus)
  • In-person interview day with other candidates

Start date: Unknown

Compensation: Not listed on website, though a couple of users on Glassdoor report an annual base salary of $56,000 to $66,000.

There you have it! Five incredible-sounding programs for early-career physicians wanting to break into pharma or devices. I have to admit that writing this almost made me want to pause my current career and give one of these programs a try. (But then I remembered how nice it is to be done with training and having a “real” job..)

Was this list helpful? If so, I’ll try to write an additional post if I come across other comparable programs. Let me know if you apply to any of these programs or have participated in one of them!

12 thoughts on “Physician leadership development programs with pharma companies”

  1. Hey, I was thinking of applying to the GSK Esprit program. I’m a cardiology fellow now. I have completed a fairly traditional clinical track so far, published a couple things, no clinical trial or pharma experience. Based on when you applied, does this make me competitive at all?


    • Yes, it does sound like you’re competitive. I was in a similar position in that I had published a few times, but no real clinical trial or pharma experience… but I was at the end of a 3-year residency; I would expect that having fellowship experience on top of that is impactful – especially in an area like cardiology that is so relevant to GSK’s products. I suggest stressing any components of your research or other work that required skills in stats or data analysis. Also, any projects you’ve been involved in that have a global reach, and any work outside of hospital medicine that could demonstrate your knowledge of the business side of healthcare. I think you should go for it! It really looks like an awesome program. If you don’t get accepted, all you’ve lost is the time you spent filling out the application. (That reminds me – I recall the application being quite in depth with several short essay questions. So just be prepared to spend some time on it.)

  2. L4Z, thanks so much for taking the time to reply to me. I am sorry I am just now seeing this. I went for it and sent in my CV and cover letter. I didn’t see any essays or questions on the application, hopefully I didn’t miss anything… I applied to the PMP program as well, which I would have never heard of without this post. Thanks again for sharing and taking time to respond to me.

  3. Stay away from Abbvie’s physician development program. The old style of management (from Abbott days) using fear and intimidation rather than open and agile thinking to motivate is the rule. There is very little to support for new members. The current management for the program is through HR (and not R and D) who don’t have the strategic mindset (or understanding) to help develop physicians new to industry. Further, Management is lacking in management skills, maturity, people skills, and diversity training. Indeed they are downright vindictive. Abbvie is extremely beaucratic and hierarchical and people won’t even acknowledge your existence. Beware of this program.

    • Thanks so much for this info! This was one program that I personally don’t know much about, but included because Abbvie such as well-known company and they have a formal program specifically for physicians… there just aren’t very many of these available. But if it’s a poorly run program, then it’s not worth it for MDs to spend 2 years of their life trudging through!

      • Actually many people inside and out at AbbVie have been very happy and very successful in the program, and if you want to truly do clinical trials rather than some of the more operational type jobs then it is more useful experience than what a lot of primarily clinical MDs would get out of an entry level job without doing a development program.

  4. Thanks for the feedback! Also, L4Z do you recall how long it took for you to hear back after your application for Esprit? I applied approx. 1 month ago the deadline for this year was 2/26/18 and I still haven’t heard back from them. Thanks!

    • I believe it was just over a month before I heard from them after submitting my application, though I don’t recall how close to the deadline I applied. The waiting is rough.. best of luck to you!

  5. Hi! thanks for the information. I am a pediatric hematologist-oncologist who wants to move to Chicago for family reasons. I was thinking of applying to the PDP Abbvie program. Little scared after reading one of the comments above. Also, what is the salary thats offered for these programs (if you know).

    • There’s no harm in applying, and learning as much as you can about the program, the company, and the culture during the interview process. You can always turn down an offer if you don’t feel good about it. I don’t think you should rule it out just based on the feedback and comments here! Unfortunately, I’m uncertain what the compensation is for these programs.

  6. Thank you so much for this amazing list! I am considering a career pivot, and this list is perfect for places to target. I was wondering if you could share any other programs you may have came across, these 5 are great but look competive and I want to keep my options open.

    • You’re welcome! Glad this is helpful. Right now I’m working on an article about fellowships and internships with government agencies, and that will hopefully be posted in December. If you haven’t already, please sign up for our email list – each Friday we send out The Stampede which is primarily nonclinical job opportunities, but I try to include training programs or fellowships that are accepting applicants as well.

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