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Surviving Career Transitions


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-11-01-2002

Pharma is finally feeling the ill effects of the US economic downturn. In response, many companies are restructuring and downsizing. But pharma industry professionals are well positioned to take advantage of many avenues of employment, including other industries, entrepreneurial ventures, and consulting.

Pharma is finally feeling the ill effects of the US economic downturn. In response, many companies are restructuring and downsizing. But pharma industry professionals are well positioned to take advantage of many avenues of employment, including other industries, entrepreneurial ventures, and consulting.

Each year, a DBM survey examines the experiences of individuals participating in its career transition programs worldwide. In 2001, the researchers interviewed 28,233 clients in 45 countries who participated in customized, individual programs lasting three or more months. The most recent pharma-specific study included a sample of 605 individuals from the industry, representing participants from 27 countries. The majority of respondents were male; 36 percent were female. Typical respondents were in their mid-40s, had been with their previous employer for approximately nine years, and were most likely to be executives, managers, or professionals. The vast majority (62 percent) re-entered the job market because of an organizational change-reorganization, merger or acquisition, or downsizing.

This article discusses the various options available to pharma-industry employees in career transition. It also investigates and demystifies the pharma employment environment by providing insight into

  • the results of a typical job search

  • the job seeker's age and its impact on transition

  • self-employment and other non-traditional options

  • the importance of professional development

  • tips for career management.

A Typical Job Search

Perhaps propelled by the current employment environment as much as by their work preferences, many respondents in transition explored job opportunities that were different from those they left. Although most (69 percent) survey participants secured other full-time assignments, some (17 percent) chose self-employment. That proportion coincides with the number of individuals in the general population who elect to work for themselves, according to additional interviews with people in transition from all industry sectors.

In general, pharma workers in transition were also just as willing to explore employment possibilities in other industries as job seekers in the general population, where nearly three out of four (72 percent) changed industries. Of the pharmaceutical employees who switched, 71 percent moved into 28 different sectors-consumer products, food, communications, high technology, retail, and health services, among others. Of those, the greatest number (22 percent) took jobs in professional services.

Networking, a skill many turned to for the first time or decided to hone for career-transition support, helped 57 percent of research participants secure new positions. That percentage runs a bit higher than the general population's average of 54 percent. After observing the contribution that networking made to their job searches, many respondents decided to continue doing it at their new positions, because they say it enables them to acquire new skills, cultivate new business, and identify potential recruits.

Said one job seeker, "I truly believe that without my networking connections during my job search, I would not have broken into the pharmaceutical industry." Similar to others in transition, he found that meeting with industry insiders and acquiring valuable information from them helped him learn more about the market-an important asset, because most pharma employers say they want to minimize risk by ensuring that new recruits have specific, relevant industry experience. As a result, he secured a job after just three months of searching.

"The insight and additional connections I received as a result of my networking activity helped me not only meet with the right hiring decision makers at the right time," he added, "but also gave me the fodder to let them know I was well informed about trends and issues in the industry." (See "Working the Network.")

The Age Factor

Work and lifestyle preferences change with age, as do salary prospects, which increase rapidly to peak at mid-life, then plateau and decrease somewhat after age 50. According to the study, a job search for people 50 and older takes considerably longer than for younger individuals-typically six months, in contrast to four months for job seekers under 50.

One explanation for that trend is the tendency to build niche expertise in a specialty area of a company as an employee ages. Unfortunately, such areas are often the first to get cut when a company decides to streamline. According to industry insiders, after years of specialty experience, niche experts find it difficult to move to a more general role within the same company or at a different one. In such cases, consulting, self-employment, and early retirement are the most common options available.

John Walsh, a 56-year-old former senior executive with Carter Wallace, has found his job search difficult as a result of his age and long tenure with one company. "After 25 years with Carter Wallace, I found myself in the midst of an acquisition situation," he says. "Although I'm certainly open to full-time opportunities, either in the pharmaceutical industry or in other industries, there are few jobs out there that meet my experience, salary, and location needs."

As a result, John is considering consulting or self-employment. "Two months into my job search, I'm seriously considering consulting, and not necessarily in the pharmaceutical industry. I'd like to use my expertise in training and development in another way-possibly in the career management/ career transition industry."

In the Face of Tradition

Some people in transition consider starting a business or joining a consulting or professional services firm that may include ownership responsibilities. Before taking that plunge, it's important to be prepared for the common realities of entrepreneurial life, including

  • intense time commitment, especially during the start-up phase, when seven-day work weeks are typical

  • total responsibility for business decisions and their risks, including tasks that range from strategic planning to troubleshooting problems with the photocopier

  • isolation and difficulties replicating the sense of affiliation, security, and camaraderie found in a corporate setting

  • lack of consistent financial and professional support, as most entrepreneurial ventures cannot guarantee regular paychecks, subsidize health insurance costs, or ensure timely performance feedback and motivation.

Similarly, other alternatives to a full-time job-part-time work, job sharing, semi-retirement, and education-come with trade-offs that affect a worker's financial and personal life. Anyone considering such options must use a comprehensive process for researching the options and must know how to make the most of the career advantages inherent in each one. Those considering a career change should undergo an intensive self-assessment, talk to others in similar situations-through networking and conferences and seminars on the topic-and discuss the career change with family members that this transition will affect.

Johannes Dapprich, PhD, owner of Generation Biotech, left Orchid Biosciences three years ago to start his own company. "When Orchid changed its business strategy, I found myself at a crossroads," he recalls. "At that point, someone jokingly mentioned that I should open my own business. I thought, if not now, when? Owning my own company seemed like the right fit for me and ended up being the right option at the right time.

"Not to say it was an easy transition. There was a lot of sacrifice on my part and my family's part. It wasn't easy financially, but because I was able to research and plan for the switch and to utilize some helpful networking contacts, I've been able to reach a very exciting point in my life."

Professional Development

Shorter stints with employers, changing careers or industries, job-sharing, project-based assignments, and freelancing are all becoming accepted-sometimes sought-after-elements of a well-rounded career history, in part because they contribute a great deal to professional development. If those options further a job seeker's goals, they're well worth considering, because they contribute to a more flexible and diverse career history and allow job seekers more career options in the future.

Another way for professionals to develop a resume during transition is to invest in education. Innovation is key to pharma companies' survival, and keeping up with the information pipeline is critical. Many pharmaceutical insiders find it helpful to keep abreast of information by allocating time and resources for learning and development.

Dapprich also found external sources of education helpful when contemplating his entrepreneurial move. "I went to conferences and seminars to find out if this was the right move for me," he says. "I wanted to make sure I was well aware of the marketplace before making the move to own my own business."

Tips for Career Management

Today's employment marketplace offers no guarantees beyond the inevitability of change. Continuing career management is essential for workers and can help give focus to a work life that seems stagnant. Keeping the following questions in mind will help maintain one's employability:

  • What do I contribute?

  • If my job were open now, would I get it? Why or why not?

  • What would I do if my job disappeared tomorrow?

  • Am I learning?

  • Do my company's key players know who I am and what I contribute?

Helpful tactics include keeping up with networking contacts made during the last transition process and recording or articulating their career accomplishments. People can also add new dimensions to their career track by developing working relationships with executives other than direct managers and by seeking professional development opportunities ranging from formal training and special project assignments to volunteer roles with professional or trade associations.

Given the employment market's volatility, it is likely that even the most savvy and seasoned professionals will, at some point, end up in a career transition. It's important to make sure the next employment move is the best move. To do that, it's critical to understand a prospective company's culture, its managers' style, and its performance record. Following are tactics that can help determine whether a given employer represents a good match for a job seeker:

  • Network to meet and interview former employees as well as future peers and associates.

  • Ask to see internal documents-budgets, financial data, capital plans-and publications such as employee newsletters.

  • Ask about the company's managerial style-for example, how managers like people to communicate with them or how they'd resolve a philosophical difference.

  • Ask where interviewers see the company or department going in the next few years.

The answers to those questions will indicate whether the opportunity is likely to meet one's own development goals.

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