Having just completed my Masters defense, I felt my enthusiasm and confidence towards scientific research was not adequate to warrant tackling another minimum three years of PhD. Not seeing myself forging a research career, I decided to look for other scientific opportunities. This began first with a scicomms internship in DKFZ’s Press Office, before a chance reconnection to my previous employer (I worked a year before starting my Masters) presented me with an opportunity to re-join a big pharma in Hong Kong (moral of the story: your network counts, not matter what career stage you are at!).
My role was newly set up to assist one of the senior colleagues in managing a project on cancer diagnostics. The company was about to launch a targeted therapy drug, and biomarker testing represented the crucial first step to identify eligible patients for the medication. It certainly sounded interesting and challenging for a graduate who was facing somewhat of a brick wall in his overseas job-hunting experience. Hence I took the offer and jetted back home.
Nine months in, the position has since morphed to include other responsibilities clearly focused towards a marketing direction. As with many things, reality has often differed from expectations, for better or worse. I would not hesitant to say the transition from the overseas, academic research bubble to commercial responsibilities in the pharma industry has been rather steep and hectic. Here are seven thoughts on the corporate life:
- It’s quick
You’ll have time for a coffee, or lunch of course (although if you are really busy, you might have it together with your meeting or way later at 1500), but overall the corporate environment feels far more pressurized and hectic than life in the lab. Whereas research encourages time to explore hypothesis and technique development, the company strives to capture the best market opportunity and timing to maximize medication sales. Then there are uncontrollable external factors such as the availability and requests of your customers, whom you need to meet. So along comes a deluge of performance metrics, meetings, reviews, ad-hoc appointments and deadlines to make sure project progress are all on track.
Career aspirations hinges on these numbers and the result is an atmosphere that demands items to be immediately followed, reported and explored. Ditto emails and whatsapp messages – these fly in at any time. Perhaps even ‘meetings’ and key decisions played out over whatsapp group chats at 2200 in the evening (That said, this is perhaps a Hong Kong phenomenon, famed for doing and expecting everything fast. I read in Germany after work emails and calls are banned…).
- Communication is essence
All projects require collaboration, and in a fast-paced world I learnt that communication – especially verbal communication – is so so SO important to avoid unnecessary confusion, provide a clear direction and persuade others. I also learnt that not everyone listens or reads carefully and patiently, to which I am guilty on occasions as well. And make sure the communication aligns well with other colleagues – one does not want to give conflicting messages to customers (i.e. doctors).
- A clash of mindsets
Scientists like to obsess on details and precision, to investigate thoroughly and treat nearly everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. I soon learnt quickly that this approach is not valued as highly in business circles.
The business mindset, at least from what I experienced so far, demands actions done decisively and quickly. All problems are to be dealt along the way (with consideration to stakeholders). These probably can’t be learnt in lectures or courses – only experience and mistakes guides you. Oh, and of course the ability of your mentor (just as your PI in PhDs) matters. Being perfectionist – which is often a by-product of research training – could be hugely detrimental in the dynamic business setting.
- You need to be quite people-oriented
There is no way around this in the corporate environment – and this does not limit only to sales and marketing, but also other functions such as regulatory, medical etc. I do not mean this solely with being able to bond (or at least appear presentable and confident) with customers, but it is also quite important to make actively your presence felt in the company – voice up, be visible and be willing to participate.
- You’ll still learn about science
Granted, you’ll probably learn less in depth and less basic science depending which position you are in – but no one is stopping you from reading background theory as much as you like. The biggest perk, however, is you will be learning more widely and up-to-date with the latest trends in the pharma industry – in particular, clinical research findings, and gain insight into the equally interesting world of medical research – whether through clinical papers, conferences, or just simply a business dinner with your customer.
- You won’t fit with everyone in the office, but you have to find a way to get on with it
I was once a member of the organizing committee on one of the DKFZ Career Days in 2016. That was a lovely experience with equally motivated and responsible teammates – we clicked and things went very smoothly over the duration of the project. I guess such a team mixture is quite rare – the real world does not provide the same luxury at all. Your colleagues are no more graduates with the same ‘innocent’ and ‘youthful’ demeanour – but with varying experiences, perspectives, working style and dare I say, agenda. Such an environment could be quite confusing for a newcomer, but I committed to continue being myself, and work on inadequacies to strengthen working relationships… all in all, this brings me to…
- Never lose the big picture
I would be a joker if I said everything is ‘great’, work or colleague wise. And in honesty, filling out Excel sheets, constructing powerpoint presentations and having meetings could quickly become a mundane routine of trying to meet KPIs and deadlines. But that’s the bread and parcel of a working life.
Just a week ago I attended my first ever conference, in ASCO 2017 in Chicago, the largest and most important oncology gathering of the world.
As my first time attending an event of such scale (30000+ participants over five days of presentations!), I was not only excited by the many advances in science and cancer drug development, but importantly left with a sense of good-feeling – as being a bigger part in the fight against cancer, shouldered not only by doctors, but also researchers, pharma companies, patient groups, diagnostic companies and CROs. I guess this idealistic attitude is what that keeps you refreshed at the start on every Monday.
Finally, despite the plenty that has happened, I am somewhat surprised it has been only nine months so far. The learning process continues.
Lastly, in concluding this sharing (and seriously without trying to be hard-sell)…
Try one of the project management training provided by the DKFZ Career Service
The experience of organizing a career day as part of an organizing committee is a good preview at least of how teamwork and collaboration works in larger projects, and gives a taste the possible confusion, frustration and satisfaction one experiences frequently in actual office setting. Interestingly, some of the insights shared from such exercises turned out to ring very true in real-world practice (especially regarding effective communication). And let’s not forget the valuable connections you would get in the end… to go back to the point made right in the beginning!