With more than 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry, preceded by a decade as an independent researcher in academia, Chemistry of Life Processes Institute’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence William Sargent shared his perspective and advice about potential science career opportunities in industry with the most recent crop of CLP graduate student trainees.

At a recent ‘Lunch and Learn,’ Sargent described his industry career trajectory as a series of upward movements that started with working in the field with sales reps and quickly progressed to senior-level positions at Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals, Lorex Pharmaceuticals, Searle, Pharmacia and Pfizer.  As president and general manager of Lorex, he oversaw FDA approval for direct to consumer advertising for their lead product Ambien®.   He also led the international launch of Sutent® for renal cell carcinoma and gastrointestinal stromal cancer while senior medical director and team leader for the anti-angiogenic portfolio at Pfizer.

Pharmaceutical Industry

Sargent outlined a number of job opportunities within the pharmaceutical industry.  Regulatory affairs, for instance, a field once dominated by lawyers, is now primarily the domain of scientists who need to speak and understand the language of scientific reviewers at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Regulatory affairs is the conduit from the pharmaceutical industry to the people at FDA who are conducting the drug reviews. The kind of people you run into at FDA generally are very, very good scientists. It’s a lot of fun if you like working on project teams.”

Scientists (MDs, PhDs and PharmDs) are also in high demand for the clinical phase of drug development. “They’re the people who look at the FDA-required end points, design drug trials and write the clinical protocols.”

In addition, Medical Affairs groups in pharmaceutical companies are staffed by scientists who negotiate between marketing and clinical development and discuss clinical trial realities with marketing.  The objective is to enhance information provided to marketing about the drug that will better inform physicians about the appropriate use of the drug.

“The pharmaceutical industry really does expand not only your vision of drug development, but it also expands your knowledge of patient and physician needs due to the extensive travel you have to put into it.”  Sargent estimates he spent about 40 percent of his time spent outside of the office.

Medical Communications

After spending 10 years with Pfizer traveling across the globe, a London-based medical communications company recruited him. In this role, Sargent conducted many group conversations with practicing physicians to decipher how to triage patients into different therapeutic regimens. His company would present a patient history and then listen to the doctors’ thoughts about how to treat the patient.

“The engines of the medical communications industry are medical writers.  If you like to write, it’s a perfect place for you. We’d take a contract to write a manuscript and the medical writer would then go to the literature, get caught up on that particular aspect of medicine, and then interact with the authors to plan out the paper.”

In addition to a scientific background, a good medical writer is task-oriented as well as creative, says Sargent. Skilled medical writers can look at things differently and explain very complex subjects to an audience that may not be as well versed in that specific aspect of medical treatment.

Medical writing is also a good choice for people who like the freedom of working from home.

“I had one medical writer in Colorado,” says Sargent. “He would go skiing in the morning and write for eight hours after he went skiing. That was during the winter. During the summer, he played golf in the morning and wrote in the afternoon and evening. It’s a very nice lifestyle.”

Earlier in his career, Sargent noted that most scientific career opportunities were within the pharmaceutical industry, but that is no longer the case.

Government Funding Agencies, Investment Firms and Reimbursement Agencies

“Anybody who comes into your labs selling something is from an industry that you potentially could work in,” says Sargent.  “Anybody who touches a lab, or a research facility, or a pharmaceutical company needs scientists at some point to develop products, represent them and to talk to customers.”

Other examples of industries that hire scientists include:

  • National funding agencies like the National Institutes for Health, National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.
  • Patient support organizations, such as JDRF (The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) with about 25 MD/PhDs in their New York office alone who support more than $100 million in basic science and clinical research
  • Venture capital firms and investment banks that depend on scientists to evaluate the science for a particular drug before investing
  • Reimbursement agencies like United Health Care that need scientists to determine which drugs to include in their formulary for reimbursements

“Today, there are numerous and varied careers for basic science PhDs.  Your first job is the entry point from which you can get in the stream of things, shoot off and away you go.”

by Lisa La Vallee