5 Expert Tips for Physicians Transitioning to Pharma Abroad

Hippocratic Adventures is all about taking your medical training and going anywhere in the world.  While the focus of this community is international clinical practice, physicians are also uniquely qualified to work in various non-clinical industries.  

This is the first of a three-part series in which I share insights on the types of work, transition and application process, and lifestyle of a physician in Industry based on my almost decade of experience working for pharmaceutical/biotech, digital health, and consumer health companies in the U.S. and Europe.    

In THIS blog I’m sharing my 5 tips for any physicians looking to transition into a pharma position abroad. 

The term ‘Industry’ broadly refers to companies involved in the development and sale of medical products, which include prescription medications (pharmaceutical/biotech), over-the-counter products (consumer health), medical devices (e.g., pacemakers, insulin pumps), or digital therapeutics/wellness apps (digital health).

Tip #1: Choose a Country That Has Industry

For any physician moving abroad who plans on applying for Industry jobs, make sure you choose to move to a country with Industry.  

This may seem obvious, but there are a few countries outside the United States that stand out for this:

  • Europe:  UK, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland
  • Asia:  Japan, China, Singapore

These countries have their own companies (e.g., GSK in the UK, Sanofi in France, Bayer in Germany, Novo Nordisk in Denmark, AstraZeneca in Sweden) and also serve as bases for multinational American companies, sometimes for tax benefits, such as in Switzerland and Ireland.  

That said, Industry is everywhere, but in countries not listed above, the majority of the Industry roles are in the sales and commercial areas.  If there are any physician roles, they will most likely be in medical affairs and require local language and professional networks, making them next to impossible for American-trained doctors.  

In terms of roles for American physicians, these positions are most often at the headquarters or larger offices in countries that will have research and development departments with the capacity and need for physicians in various roles.  

Also, any physician role that does not require working with local doctors or hospitals will be in English, so if you are like me and don’t know any other languages, Industry offers a route to living abroad while continuing to work in English.    

Tip #2: Start Networking

This is less about local networking and more about networking with your colleagues in the U.S.  Internal referrals are the lifeblood of Industry jobs.  I was the outlier in terms of my first recruitment out of fellowship.  

Every other role I have gotten has been because a colleague at the company submitted an internal referral on my behalf. This type of internal referral can be done for job openings anywhere in the world. 

It is almost essential for getting an interview, especially outside the U.S., where there are fewer jobs and sometimes more competition.  

Tips #3: Focus on U.S.-based Companies and Roles Described as ‘Global’  

This often means that the job will report to a manager in the United States.  This was how I was able to get a position in Sweden.  I currently work at an American company.  The role is a Swedish job, based in Sweden, but my supervisor is American and at the company headquarters in the U.S.  

From a culture and work perspective, Americans like working with other Americans, and being an American in an international position is an asset to those working with you from the U.S.  

This process is easiest if you already have the ability to work in the country you are living in, which I did through my husband’s visa.  If you don’t have this, don’t worry, as these companies have the resources and support to sponsor you for a work visa if needed. 

Tip #3: LinkedIn IS Your CV

In terms of updating your CV, I would revert back to the lesson from my first hire: Focus on your LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn is your Industry CV, and you should think of emphasizing the aspects of it that speak to the job you’re interested in.  

For example, if you’re interested in clinical research, discuss any research you have done, even if it’s back in medical school.  If you’re looking more toward medical affairs, be sure to mention the specialty groups and networks you are a part of and if you have presented at any international conferences.  For pharmacovigilance, highlight any public health interests or projects you have been a part of.  

Lastly, I know we have Doximity as a social network for doctors, but I’ve never used this platform or been contacted for jobs through it like I have with LinkedIn.

Tip #4: No Industry Experience? No problem!

Unlike the meticulous planning of the rest of my medical career, my transition to Industry was much more random. Towards the end of fellowship, I was feeling burnt out. It was around this time that I serendipitously received a LinkedIn message from a recruiter who was looking for an endocrinologist for an Industry role. 

I naively wrote back saying I was ‘almost’ an endocrinologist, but I had never worked outside of a hospital and academia.  Could I still apply?  He immediately replied with ‘Of course!  You are just the type of applicant we are looking for!’

So, I interviewed, liked the people I met with, and then I ended up taking the job. The interviews were honestly very laid-back. They knew I had never worked in Industry, but they—like me—were endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, and infectious diseases physicians who had transitioned. They knew what it took to become a doctor, and they knew I could learn everything else on the job.  

Keep this in mind when applying for your first Industry role.  Physicians in Industry – myself included – will not expect you to know how it works because you have never done it.  We just want to know you and see how we will work with you.

Tip #5: It’s (NOT) all about the Benjamins

The salary, equity, and bonuses are significantly less abroad than in the United States.  Much like with clinical practice, physicians are not paid as much working in Industry abroad.  In fact, the pay cut can be huge, and in my case, my salary is less than half of what I would make in the U.S.  

While this can be challenging with student debt, it has to be weighed with your overall lifestyle and life goals.  Living in Sweden, traveling easily around Europe, and exploring the world are trade-offs for a U.S. Industry salary and benefits, but you have to make that decision for yourself.

Now we’d love to hear from you! 

Have you made the transition from clinical practice to Industry or Pharma? What’s one thing you wish you had known before? Let me know in the comments below. 

Ready to take the leap into Pharma abroad but feeling a bit lost? Wish you had a trusty guide to light the way? Well, guess what? Your wish is granted! Dr. Bryan McColgan is here to mentor you through this exhilarating journey. Click here to discover how he can help you transition into the world of Pharma/Industry Abroad.

👉 Want to live life on your terms? Don’t miss your weekly dose of wisdom, inspiration, and practical advice for your life abroad. Sign up now, and let’s turn your dreams into reality together! 🌍

Dr. Bryan McColgan is an endocrinologist and entrepreneur who recently founded BabyMoon Family, an online resource for queer men embarking on family building through surrogacy.  He has lived abroad in Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Switzerland, but Sweden is the first country outside the US that he has lived in since becoming a physician. You can learn more about his move to Sweden here.  He’s also excited to help you transition to Pharma/Industry Abroad. Click here and learn how!

In his free time, he enjoys exploring nature with his fiance, Victor, and dog, Ruth (whom you can follow on Instagram @corgiruth). He is also an avid science fiction reader and enjoys all things Harry Potter and Disney. More info is available at https://www.bryanmccolgan.com.

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