The Ultimate Guide 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 article, I’m drawing back the curtain and introducing you to Industry and what you need to know about it BEFORE transitioning into it. 

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).

Pharma Roles For Physicians

Due to compliance with the FDA and other international regulatory bodies, each of these therapeutic spaces offers similar roles for physicians.  

While each of these roles may vary slightly from company to company, the general descriptions and responsibilities of each job are as follows:

Clinical research: Design and run clinical trials (e.g., Phase 1, 2, and 3) to develop novel drugs, devices, apps, etc. This often includes medical monitoring or providing safety oversight for patients in the trials. These people also work closely with the regulatory team once studies are concluded to apply for the approval of the new product.

Medical affairs:  Develop the external scientific engagement strategy and potential expansion of a product’s indication (i.e. Phase 4 trials).  Regular work includes working closely with key opinion leaders in academia, attending conferences, and publication planning. 

Pharmacovigilance:  Responsible for the safety monitoring, review of adverse events, and preparation of safety dossiers of a product after it has been approved and is on the market.  

A physician transitioning to Industry could consider any of these roles.  However, like medical specialties, these Industry ‘specialties’ often attract a type of person based on their personality, experiences, and interests.  

As a generalization, these are the following ‘profiles’ for physicians in each area:

Clinical research:  Often have a background and interest in research that they have conducted in medical school, residency, fellowship, etc.

Medical affairs:  Extroverts who enjoy conferences and are good at networking, especially within their specialty.

Pharmacovigilance:  Generally have a background in public health or epidemiology and have an interest in medical safety. 

Just to reiterate, these are stereotypical profiles of physicians in these areas; A physician with any medical background and any interest in Industry can perform any of these jobs, and it’s also possible to change to other functions throughout a career. So, it’s not like anyone is ‘stuck’ within an Industry specialty. Still, just like with clinical practice, specialization and time in a function do help with reputation and career promotion. 

Personally, I have always worked in clinical research. However, based on the company and clinical development strategy, I have also had tasks that have overlapped with medical affairs and done projects with pharmacovigilance. In any job, you may find yourself working with other physician functions, as the lines are not absolute.

Bryan and his husband, Victor, on their wedding day in Stockholm. Photo Credit Dr. McColgan

What Life is Really Like in Pharma

Working in Industry is very different from working in a hospital, clinic, or university.  You are very much working at a ‘business.’  While we all know that hospitals, clinics, and even universities are also ‘businesses,’ the major difference with Industry is the pace, focus, and strategy of everything you are working on is for the betterment of that business. 

It may sound soulless, but the truth is that this business perspective means that work, research, and projects that create value actually get done.  I find this ability to accomplish tasks and working on a team towards a common goal engaging. Still, there are other pros and cons that you have to weigh when considering the overall lifestyle of working as a physician in Industry.

Pros:

  • Hours: The hours are significantly less and much more flexible. Especially after the pandemic, most physician work in Industry can be done remotely, so you are really free from the grind of a clinic, hospital, or on-call schedule.
  • Travel:  While less after the pandemic, there are still a number of opportunities where you would travel for work, including conferences, investigator meetings, advisory boards, and visiting clinical trial sites.  (If you’re reading Hippocratic Adventures, I’m assuming you like to travel as much as the rest of us).
  • Benefits: Equity, stock, and annual bonuses are great financial perks of working in Industry. Many companies also offer childcare, gyms, and restaurants on their campuses, so when you do go to work, there are nice amenities that actually make your life better.

Cons:

  • Meetings:  While you may not be seeing an endless list of patients in the clinic or hospital, you will have to endure a lot of meetings.  This does make being a doctor seem like a desk job in a way that I never felt when practicing, and it can be a little uninspiring.
  • Patients:  You would really only ‘see’ patients in Industry as a medical monitor, meaning the site investigator reaches out to you with a safety question for a patient in the study, and you review their medical records.  Patients are no longer the people we get to know, who trust us with their lives.  Even if you are as burnt out as I was, it’s still hard to give up on this special part of being a doctor.
  • Ownership:  You no longer get the credit for your work or research in the same way.  Everything you do is for the company, and any publications or presentations at conferences will not be your own.  You will never be the first or last author, and the company will sponsor an academic to present the results of your clinical trials.  Relinquishing this credit and taking a backseat to the Industry can be challenging.

Bryan and Victor visit one of Sweden’s largest wooden buildings, the church in the northern city of Kiruna.  Photo Credit Dr. McColgan

Transitioning to Industry is a deeply personal and subjective decision.  It’s important to think about what matters most to you, your career, and your life. For me, I was burnt out, and I felt I wasn’t having the impact that I wanted to have as a clinician. Also, I was frustrated at the slow pace at which academic research moved.  

Given these concerns, I adapted well to life in Industry, where the impact of developing a new drug or device can be huge, and the pace of development—while still on the order of years—feels much more rapid on a day-to-day basis than in academia. 

Two Ways to Work in Pharma, From Abroad 

Everything I have described above applies to Industry roles in the U.S. and abroad, but since this is Hippocratic Adventures, let’s focus on how to actually work outside the U.S. There are two paths to take to work internationally in Industry:

  • Get a U.S. position at a global company and transfer (most common).
  • Move to a country and apply locally (what I did and would not highly recommend).

The first option is much more appealing because the company helps navigate all the hard and cumbersome parts of moving abroad.  They will pay shipping and travel costs for you and your family, organize immigration paperwork and resident permits, help set up bank accounts, provide real estate agents or options for where to live, help navigate schools for kids, and connect you with other local and international colleagues to answer questions. 

They make moving abroad as easy as possible, and you land in your new country with a job that is likely similar to the one you have already been doing in the U.S.

This is not what I did, as I moved abroad following my husband.  He had always wanted to live in Sweden, and so in 2020, we made our way through the pandemic from California to Stockholm.  Fortunately, his company did help with some of the aspects mentioned above, but it still meant that I arrived in a foreign country without a job.  

Fortunately, Sweden is one of the countries that is advanced in terms of Industry.  

It’s (NOT) all about the Benjamins

The last point I will mention in terms of Industry abroad is that the salary, equity, and bonuses are significantly less 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.

Bottom Line 

Being a doctor can mean many things.  How you choose to be a physician, the work you do, the impact you have, and the country you live in are all open to you.  Industry is one path that can allow you to travel, live abroad, and have your own Hippocratic Adventure. 

Now we’d love to hear from you! Have you transitioned from clinical practice to Industry? What’s been the biggest joy and challenge in making this transition? Let us 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 out on 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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