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Pharmaceutical Industry Roles for Physicians Seeking Nonclinical Career Opportunities

These days, many physicians are looking for nonclinical career options, and one popular nonclinical career option that is often suggested on our online physician communities is seeking a job within the pharmaceutical industry. However, it can be very hard to decipher what this concretely entails, as the options to work within pharma actually encompass a variety of roles. These roles are discreet in their focus but may also demonstrate a fair amount of overlap as the team works together to bring a drug to market and ensure safety. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into some of the ways that physicians can get involved with pharmaceutical roles either as a side gig, a part-time position, or a full-time position, and how to decide which of these roles may be right for you.

Pharmaceutical Industry Roles for Physicians Seeking Nonclinical Career Opportunities

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Nonclinical Roles and Career Options for Physicians Seeking Jobs in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Clinical Development Team

This is a broad term that encompasses many different roles for physicians (and others) that work together closely in the drug development process. Responsibilities range from conceptualizing ideas for new drugs to developing a research and clinical trial plan to prepare the drug to be presented to the FDA for approval, to addressing issues that come up along the way. These physicians may be involved in writing protocols for clinical trials and analyzing results along with other members of the team such as other scientists, pharmacists, and statisticians.  If you’ve heard someone say they’re a medical director at a pharmaceutical company, there’s a good chance this is part of their role.

The clinical development team can include people that either work directly for a pharmaceutical company or who work with the pharmaceutical company as principal investigators in academics, at dedicated clinical research sites run or sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, or out in the community. Some physician private practices use clinical trials as an ancillary income stream. See our clinical trials opportunities page for more about what the principal investigator does to help recruit patients into studies and treat and monitor those patients. Medical monitors also fall under this umbrella, and they are physicians that oversee trials without necessarily being the PI or sub-I. While they don’t get involved in patient care, they’ll make sure that the operations of the trial (e.g. compliance issues, proper data collection) are being conducted appropriately.

Who makes a good member of the clinical development team?

The physicians on this team may be people with clinical trials experience or extensive academic research, but they can also be physicians who simply have a lot of interest in statistics and clinical trials. If you loved journal clubs and evaluating evidence, this may be something of interest to you. Generally, it is better to be a physician in a field where there are lots of new drugs coming to market, like oncology, neurology, or rheumatology, but physicians in any field with an interest and prior experience could make great candidates.

Medical Science Liaison

A popular nonclinical career option for physicians in the pharmaceutical industry is the role of the medical science liaison. As the name implies, these people are the bridge between physicians, clinicians, and academics with the industry.  They will actually go out and speak to community physicians and key opinion leaders in private practices and academic centers to get a finger on the pulse of what’s necessary, how things are going, and how things can be improved. If their company has a product that they think the physician may be interested in for their patient population, they’ll chat with the physician about where there are opportunities to address needs that haven’t been met. They will discuss pros and cons of existing treatment options in order to better understand where a new product may fit into the ecosystem of drugs available to treat the condition of interest. Sometimes, this person may also communicate with patients and patient groups to see what their needs and feedback are as well.

Once the medical science liaison has gathered the information they need, they relay that information back to their parent company so that the company can take this feedback into consideration during development and research, as well as planning a go to market strategy. They may work closely with other physicians or clinicians employed by the pharmaceutical company (see clinical development team above) to develop a plan for what needs to happen to bring the drug to market, including further research that is necessary to prove that the drug in development is effective in addressing the needs of the patient population as well as addressing any concerns for safety, side effects, etc.

Additional roles you may play include:

  • Speaking on behalf of the company at scientific meetings and conferences

  • Helping to write manuscripts based on research from the clinical team or articles based on the information you’ve gathered

  • Hosting focus groups

Once a drug has gone to market, they may also be involved on the medical communications side of things.

Who makes a good medical science liaison?

Not surprisingly, this role requires good communication skills, networking capabilities, and emotional intelligence. You need to be able to effectively interact with physicians in different settings and specialties, as well as their teams, including everyone from the front desk staff to other ancillary staff. As mentioned above, you may also be speaking to patients or patient groups, so you need to be able to speak about the product in both lay terminology and scientific terminology depending on the audience. Depending on the scope of your role, you may need good writing or public speaking skills. Obviously, this role is better suited for people who enjoy communicating with others, as you will be out and about a lot.

Importantly, we often see questions in our physician Facebook groups about jobs that can be done for physicians who aren’t licensed or board certified, such as physicians who didn’t complete residency or who are international medical graduates who would prefer not to go through the board certification process in the US. This could be a great role for a physician in this position!

Drug Safety Physicians

As you would expect, a major piece of this puzzle in drug development is to make sure that the drug is safe. There are physicians whose dedicated role within the company is to focus on the risks associated with a drug and its overall safety. They are actively involved from early stages in conceptualization and development, through clinical trials where they monitor reported side effects and see if particular patients are more at risk for those adverse reactions, and even after a drug has gone through the approval process.

In this role, you may find yourself investigating a potential adverse effect related to the drug, and trying to determine whether the issue can be attributed to the drug. You’ll get a thorough account of the event of concern, take extensive histories from patients and clinicians, and then put the information gathered into context with other reports that have also been made. If you see patterns, you will flag and escalate these side effects for further review to determine if they need to be added as warnings. You may even be the reason a drug gets taken off the market.

Who makes a good drug safety physician?

People in this position really need to understand the clinical side of things, so it is a role that physicians who aren’t as into the research side of things but want to dive into a nonclinical role at a pharmaceutical company may consider. It’s also a great role for those physicians who aren’t in a field classically associated with drug development to think about, as it would be a great role for a primary care physician, internist, or emergency medicine physician who’s used to hearing about the clinical effects of drugs.

Medical Communications

This is another term that has some overlap with other roles, but there are almost always physicians involved in the outward facing communications from the company to both clinicians and patients. While it may seem that this is more of a marketing job, in an industry as regulated as the pharmaceutical industry, all communications have to be tightly controlled and conform to regulatory guidelines. The medical science liaisons discussed above may be involved in this process, as well as other members of the medical affairs team.

We often hear about physicians being speakers for pharmaceutical companies, and they could also be considered part of the medical communications team. Several physicians who eventually transition into full time pharmaceutical positions start out in this way.

Quick highlights on speaking for pharmaceutical companies as a physician side gig

What makes a good medical communications physician?

Shocker: you need to be a good communicator. You need to be able to take complex medical topics and concepts and distill them down to a way that those less intimately associated with a product will readily understand. You should enjoy (and be good at) speaking, writing, and presenting.


There are so many ways for physicians to get involved with the pharmaceutical industry in nonclinical or side gig roles, and figuring out which one is best for you requires a good understanding of what each role entails and determining whether it would be something you would enjoy.  See our other content on how to get nonclinical jobs and what they pay on our nonclinical careers page.

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