The role of a scientific advisor and how to become one

Industry pharmacist Neel Bhatt gives his tips and advice on how to break into the sector as a scientific advisor.

The role of a scientific advisor and how to become one

Neel Bhatt is a pharmacist and scientific advisor at Sanofi

Every pharmaceutical company requires a team that forges the link between the science behind their product and how it is commercialised. The scientific advisor sits within the Medical Affairs department, which is responsible for maintaining that link. This exposes scientific advisors to a multitude of activities and initiatives that ensure medication and services reach patients and healthcare professionals with the highest level of professionalism and care.

This article provides insight into the role of scientific advisor and tips for how to become one.

1. Gain an understanding of the role

Before applying for any pharmaceutical industry position, make sure you do some research to better understand the role, the associated responsibilities and how it differs from other positions.

A scientific advisor works within the pharmaceutical industry and is not directly patient-facing or on the frontline, nor do they provide advanced services or advice on minor ailments. However, the role is similar to community and hospital pharmacy where all activities are highly patient focused, conducted with professionalism, and require effective leadership and professional judgement to deliver on main performance indicators.

Scientific advisors perform extensive appraisals of medicines product information and provide their professional opinion to various internal cross-functional working groups to support the delivery of various projects. In general, the function supports the Medical Affairs department with all relevant scientific activities relating to appropriate generation and dissemination of relevant pre-clinical, clinical and economic data in a specific therapeutic area.

We also carry out more specific activities which are highly dependent on which cross-functional therapy team an individual works in; for example, drug development, current product licence status or global business strategy.

Scientific advisors are governed by The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) who set industry standards and regulations.

In order to excel as a scientific advisor, a strong scientific background is essential. The role is open to various scientific disciplines which makes pharmacists ideal candidates. Having a good working knowledge and experience in clinical research and therapeutics is beneficial.

2. Develop the necessary skills

The science- and clinical-based MPharm degree, alongside work experience across pharmacy sectors, provides a good foundation for developing the transferable proficiencies necessary for entry into the pharmaceutical industry; however, this is just the beginning of your journey.

In order to thrive as a scientific advisor, look to develop your interprofessional skills to work cross-functionally. This includes the ability to critically appraise scientific data and communicate it in a way that is understandable to both medical and commercial colleagues, as well as external stakeholders and executive decision makers. The ability to marry detailed scientific information with patient-centred care throughout all activities is vital. Look for opportunities to do this in your current role; for example, becoming involved in the medicines information service at your organisation.

Scientific advisors must ensure that all activities they carry out comply with the ABPI Code of Practice and must therefore demonstrate ethical leadership to ensure other colleagues are also aligned. This is the case for any professional working in alignment with the ABPI.

3. Be proactive but be patient

In order to gain an entry level role as a scientific advisor, individuals need to be highly motivated to proactively seek opportunities. However, it is important to build a solid foundation of knowledge and relevant post registration experience first. This can take time to develop, hence patience, perseverance and determination are essential.

Take the time to learn about the pharmaceutical industry and the drug development cycle. Identify potential pipeline therapeutic products that will promote growth within a particular company. This will help identify further opportunities for career progression within the organisation. Also, familiarise yourself with the various pharmaceutical companies that have prominent product market status.

Explore industry career events and undertake work experience or shadowing opportunities to gain additional insight.

4. Show you are a team player

Within an organisation, individuals work closely with other scientific experts such as medical advisors, who at Sanofi Specialty Care are General Medical Council-registered professionals working within the pharmaceutical industry. Scientific advisors also work with medical science liaisons, who are field-based professionals required to travel extensively to establish a strong rapport with both national and international opinion leaders. In contrast, scientific advisors are head office-based employees.

Internal interactions are not limited to just the medical team. Scientific advisors can also work cross-functionally with marketing, pharmacovigilance and regulatory affairs.

Externally, physicians and nurses are the healthcare professionals scientific advisors interact the most with, but this will vary depending on the medical product, the type of engagement, interaction and relevance. Examples include reactively providing medical safety updates, assisting with patient support programmes and networking at congresses.

Scientific advisors can also work with research and development teams and have direct involvement in supporting clinical studies for the business.

This extensive collaboration with both internal and external colleagues means the ability to work within a team and relate to individuals from diverse backgrounds is a must. Look for opportunities to work with your wider multidisciplinary team to help facilitate this.

5. Network widely

The training pharmacists receive during their degree, preregistration year and working lives means as a scientific advisor, pharmacists are not limited to science-only industry roles. They also have the ability to venture into commercial, marketing, sales, public advocacy and many other career paths at any stage of their industry career, depending on individual interests and the desire to take on new roles. Progression within industry is assessed on the individual meeting and excelling in their annual goals and objectives with a proven high-performance track record.

Always be open to exploring other industry roles should opportunities arise. To help with this, identify any potential roles and therapeutic areas that you are particularly interested in. This inevitably takes time as working practice and clinical knowledge evolve. Having experience and knowledge of clinical therapeutic areas that are priorities for pharmaceutical companies is an advantage.

Reflect on your own experiences. Any learning is an opportunity to grow, develop and build character. Document this journey and reflect on the milestones achieved during this experience, giving you examples to draw upon in an interview.

Network with experienced industry professionals to gain insight and connections to industry, but also connect with like-minded individuals who have aspirations to enter industry to share knowledge and experience. Platforms such as LinkedIn are great for providing opportunities to engage and network. Utilise these resources as much as possible.

The transition from one pharmacy sector to another can undoubtedly be daunting, challenging and even exhausting. However, reflecting on the various skills you have developed and identifying how they can be transferred is essential. Many activities undertaken in your working practice develop your interprofessional, technical and leadership attributes and can be applied to a role within industry, be it medical, commercial or a supporting function.


Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, The role of a scientific advisor and how to become one;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2020.20208137

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