We caught up with recent Immunology PhD graduate, Ann McPherson, to discuss her career moves after graduation and her advice for those about to embark on their own post-PhD plans.
Since her undergraduate studies, Ann has been interested in the life sciences. However, for someone who entered graduate school with a strong desire to push the frontiers of knowledge, academia quickly lost its luster. While her project on TRAF1 signalling downstream of 41BB receptors ultimately ended well, Ann came to recognize that her passion for molecular research wasn’t what she thought it was when she started her PhD. Feeling a bit lost, she looked outside of the lab for a concrete course of direction. She found her first hint in a medical marketing class offered through the University of Toronto’s MBiotech program. The course provided a broad overview of different pharmaceutical careers, from sales to medical sciences liaison (MSL) to health economics. It was here that she learned about drug development—from discovery to approval to marketing. And it was here that she recognized that she “had a lot of soft skills to develop outside of the lab [since] I knew I wasn’t going to stay in academia.”
Her approach for this was to step outside of her comfort zone. The first step was gaining leadership experience, mainly by working for the Graduate Student Union (GSU). As GSU Finance Commissioner, she oversaw the union’s budget and made decisions on how it would be spent in the upcoming school year. Reflecting on that period, Ann states, “I remember my first meeting thinking ‘Ohmigosh, what do I do, how do I actually do this!?’ [laughs]”. But her laughter highlights a serious point. While terrifying at the start, the GSU position allowed her to gain confidence and grow both personally and professionally: “It required a completely different set of skills than labwork; taking control of a room, motivating people, [and] working with a lot of different personalities…in contrast, your labwork is much more independent.”
She quickly finished up her own labwork and graduated in 2013 with a goal to enter the pharmaceutical industry. Here she hit a roadblock. While the GSU position was transformative for her, Ann kept running into the problem of “missing tangible real-world experience.” Interview rounds would progress quite far, but ultimately she needed to find a stepping-stone to get her foot in the door. Thankfully she found a job with BioBasic selling lab reagents to pharmaceutical and biotech clients. Ann stayed at that role for a few months, which gave her real work experience and helped her with interviews.
She eventually settled into pharmaceutical sales at a smaller company—Medical Futures. This was the job that enabled her to truly enter the industry and gain valuable commercial experience. She explains, “A lot of people in the pharma industry stress how important that experience is…you need to understand the sales calls, and what ultimately brings in the money for the company.” Moving up the ladder, those sales skills become crucial when you start handling larger client interactions, helping you transcend to “selling a big idea as opposed to just a product.”
There are no traditional career paths anymore; you need to learn how to recognize the right opportunities and seize them.”
For Ann, gaining those sales skills was a steep, albeit rewarding, learning curve. However, once she knew her company’s products and the competitor’s products very well, she felt less and less intellectually stimulated. Again sensing a weakness in her situation, she jumped at the opportunity to try freelance work for a medical communications company (Snell Medical Communication). This company worked with large pharma clients, specifically providing strategic and tactical support to their health economics divisions. For Ann, this meant edging out of her comfort zone again: “[It was] a whole different field for me—I was learning a lot and projects were very engaging.”
Unfortunately, the situation became a bit overwhelming on top of her regular sales job. She reflects, “At some point I had to tell [Snell Medical] that I couldn’t do this anymore. I need to focus my energies on my next career move.” They countered with a full-time medical writing job offer.
Ann turned it down.
This might seem surprising to the readers trying to break into their own non-academic careers. Why would you say no to a solid offer in a such an uncertain climate? Ann’s choice, however, highlights a common approach in building her career, and one that she admits is nearly impossible to get right—knowing which opportunities to take and which ones to pass over. In her case, she felt too strongly that her skill set would revert if she only did medical writing as a job; she craved the client-interface and more opportunities to grow, and explained as much to Snell.
Ultimately, things worked out. While she courted interviews for MSL positions (which almost all went to internal candidates), Snell Medical returned to Ann with a better offer. This time she took it. Now she works as a medical writer and liaison for their health economics division. This entails working on several projects on any given day; her most recent one has been organizing an advisory board meeting on positioning the value of a pre-Phase III drug to payers. Her clients need to understand the epidemiology of the disease, its burden and current costs to healthcare systems, and the studies they can complete to show the value of their drug, should it successfully go to market. What she loves about her current position is the dynamic environment, her evolving client relationships, and above all, the opportunity to grow.
Fittingly, her ultimate advice for current graduate students is, “PhD students need to approach their studies with an open mind. You should always seek to grow personally and professionally throughout your entire graduate career, whether you plan to stay in academia or not; it doesn’t hurt to have other skills or options.” This strategy is one that Ann continues to employ in her own life, and we can’t wait to see where it takes her next.
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