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Transitioning to a non-clinical career as a primary care physician

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Q Right now I’m working in a traditional outpatient PCP role. I’d like to change to a non-clinical position, hopefully something in pharma, but I’m not sure specifically yet. I’m open to making an abrupt switch to a permanent job, or trying to get my foot in the door with something like consulting or part-time work to start off. But I feel stuck because everyone views me as a PCP. Even when I meet new people I’m often introduced as a PCP. Even my LinkedIn will tell you then I’m a PCP.

I’m not sure how to start demonstrating that I’m interested in a pharma job. If I mention that I want to get a job in pharma, people always ask what I’m going to do. It’s uncomfortable when I tell them that I’m really not sure or that I don’t have experience pharma. I feel like I need to overcome this or I’ll stay a PCP forever. What can I say to people to be persuasive about my desire to make the change?

A We tend to get pigeonholed when we’ve been doing a certain job for a long time or have become known for being good at something in our companies or our fields. Great news, though – not only can you overcome this, you can actually use it to your advantage.

Be sure you’re not viewing yourself as primarily a PCP anymore. Your own mindset will impact how other people are viewing you. Convince yourself (if you haven’t already) that your experience and knowledge makes you a great candidate for a clinical trial monitor position, or a medical director position in medical affairs, or whatever role you feel you’d be most happy in. You can do this by writing down a list of your skills, and a list of skills needed in the new role, and cross-walking them.

For example, a pharma medical director needs to provide a clinical perspective and expertise in the therapeutic application of the company’s product. Having treated countless patients in the outpatient setting, you are most likely very attune to which drugs are best suited to various presentations of the diseases you commonly treat. You know what the side effects are, how patients typically respond to them, and the impact they have on the disease.

One more example. A medical director might need to identify and develop relationships with key opinion leaders within a therapeutic area. As a primary care physician, you’ve probably done enough CME, gone to enough conferences, and read enough journal articles that you’re aware of certain names that seem to always pop up for a certain disease. Or, you’d at least have the skills to do a little bit of research to figure out who some of the big names are in that area based on their publications, academic titles, etc.

You can also give some thought to how you present yourself to others in conversation. If you start off telling people, “I’m a PCP, but…”, they will automatically think of you a PCP first – no matter what comes after the “but.” On the other hand, if you say something like, “I’m a physician with 8 years of experience in direct patient care and am currently transitioning to my career to the field of drug development.”

If this feels too aggressive to you before having your first official role within pharmaceuticals, you could try something like, “I current do primary care, though over the past few years I’ve developed a keen interest in drug safety…”

Focus on the aspects of your primary care practice that have gotten you interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry in the first place. These might be:

  • Observing your patients benefit from newly approved drugs
  • Referring eligible patients to clinical trials
  • Monitoring for and managing side effects of medications
  • Staying up-to-date on advances in primary care

In terms of using your long-standing PCP label to your advantage, consider this:  The fact that folks view you so strongly as a PCP probably indicates that they feel you’re quite good at it. If they have confidence in your work as a PCP, they are likely to think highly of other professional work that you do.

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