Selling Biotech


I bumped into Ed Bocko Jr. at the Science-Careers-sponsored career fair at the recent Drug Discovery Technology World Congress at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Bocko is the managing director of Protran Resources, a human resources consulting practice. Bocko is a contract recruiter. In a break between sessions providing resume advice to job-seekers, and in a subsequent e-mail exchange, I quizzed Bocko on his experiences hiring salespeople for the biotechnology industry.

Q. What kinds of sales jobs were you hiring for?

My experience is with biotech firms launching a drug newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration that's in need of an elite, experienced, and polished sales force to support the launch. Usually called area business managers (ABM), they cover a specific geographic territory for specific ethical (prescription) drugs in a distinct therapeutic area. These clients look for experienced sales representatives that have already developed contacts with key thought leaders in their specific therapeutic market to which they are looking to launch their drug. Many of these companies have a goal of hiring a turnkey sales force that will be able to go out and market the new drug as soon as it is approved with little turnaround time.

Q. What kind of people were you (and your client company) looking for?

We were looking for experienced pharmaceutical sales pros with 5-plus years of experience. We were looking for people trained by one of the top large pharmaceutical companies; who were already servicing the geographic area of interest; who were knowledgeable about, and had experience with, the designated therapeutic area. We were looking for high performers with excellent sales and awards records. We had a preference for people with field management and/or sales training or who had done corporate office "tours of duty." Excellent verbal, written, and personal presentation skills are essential for these jobs. We want people who were driven to succeed and eager to have performance measured constantly. Flexibility is also essential, since 12-plus hour days are common, as well as some weekends.

Q. Were these Master's, Bachelor's or Ph.D.-level scientists?

Some candidates seeking these positions have master's degrees. A master's degree is always a plus if this candidate is seeking to move beyond specialty sales (i.e., to regional sales manager). Few candidates that choose sales have advanced science degrees; most candidates with advanced degrees choose the medical/clinical science liaison route, or an alternate career path that allows them to better utilize their science skills. These people have been focused on climbing the sales career ladder and haven't wanted to take the time out to pursue an advanced degree. Most had B.S. degrees and a few had M.S. degrees. Common degrees include life sciences, business administration, or even liberal arts.

Q. What kind of experience were you looking for in the sales jobs? Did all the people you hired for the sales jobs have previous sales experience, or is this a job that someone might take right out of school?

Biotech sales forces are small, elite, experienced, and capable of running a total business. Many started right after college with major pharmaceutical companies, which hire thousands of salespeople annually.

Q. Are these the people you see going in and out of doctors offices with fat satchels full of pills? I've always thought that looked like an awful job.

Those are the ones. It is a tough job starting out, but this route is very popular because it allows someone to break into a growth industry. Many of the people we had interest in for the ABM positions "paid their dues" this way. And these people are given nice salaries compared to many other early-career employees, and perks including nice bonuses, stock options, full benefits, and company cars.

Companies often look to hire entry-level sales-rep candidates right out of college with little or no sales experience. They may also hire candidates with relevant science degrees.

Q. What personal characteristics were you looking for in the people you hired for these--the ABM--positions?

Personal and professional drive and appearance; self-confidence; ability to influence others; intelligent; excellent communications; integrity; extrovert; sincere interest/passion for therapeutic areas. These tend also to be fun people, with a sense of humor.

Q. What about the ABM jobs; are they GOOD jobs, jobs one is likely to spend a career at? Jobs people stay at for the long haul?

They are excellent jobs ... probably one of the classiest sales jobs of any kind. Many rotate into corporate assignments for some period of time ... some stay corporate in training, marketing, sales support, or product development ... many return to field selling later in their careers due to enjoyment of running their own businesses, working from an office in their homes and cars, and general freedom.

Q. How well do these jobs pay?

Base pay may be in the $60K to $90K range with commission/bonus potential of 15% to 25%; job includes all equipment needed to establish office in own home plus car or car allowance plus stock options plus some discretionary funds for hosting product-related events. Not for the faint-hearted or the noncommitted!

Q. They also aren't for beginners, as you've noted. If a young science student aspires to a job like this, what can they do to improve their odds?

They can take or audit some business classes when they're in school, nurture their verbal/oral and written communication skills, and brush up on their PowerPoint skills. Networking is also important; aspirants can seek summer or part-time jobs or internships in doctor's offices, pharmacies, clinics, or hospitals. They can talk to nurses, doctors, and pharmacists about their thoughts on and experience with pharmaceutical sales reps and meet with sales reps to discuss the career; better yet, ask for the opportunity to spend a day with them in the field.

Q. Are there any positions that you hired for where an advanced degree in the sciences would be an advantage?

We often looked for Ph.D.s, Doctors of Pharmacy, M.D.s, R.N.s, and registered pharmacists for medical/clinical science liaison (MSL and CSL) positions. These people provide educational field support to physicians, nurses, patients and their families, hospital pharmacies, HMOs, and the general public for the companies they represent. Their jobs are similar to area business managers, but they are not responsible for direct sales.

Q. You mentioned the science liaisons; are these jobs you can get right out of graduate or medical school? Or do they, too, require a lot of experience?

Often no experience is required, but personal characteristics are important, and similar to the ones listed above for sales reps. These characteristics are rarely fostered in the academic environment. Still, I have met a number of people who finished a Ph.D., M.D., Pharm. D. or Pharm. R. program who have found this to be a good alternative career. M/CSL is also a career path for experienced doctors and pharmacists looking for a career change.

Liaisons have many responsibilities. They manage studies, ensure timely presentation and publication of results, serve as clinical and information resource for physicians and other health care personnel, organize and present educational programs, and provide clinical training for field sales staff.

Compensation is roughly the same as what the ABMs earn, maybe slightly higher. Base salaries start around $80,000 and can go as high at $110,000. Bonuses for M/CSLs usually fall into the range of 10% to 15% of the base salary. Later, M/CSLs can become directors, managing a group of M/CSLs. They may also move into an inside scientific position or even go the marketing route, combining the clinical experience with the business/marketing side.

Q. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Many people choose a career in pharmaceutical/biotech sales because it opens doors. One day you can be marketing a "me too" drug for allergies and with experience you can move into a position selling a new drug that is extending the lives of cancer. Pharmaceutical/biotech sales gives you the ability to take your career in different directions, depending on your desires and talents. Your goal may be to be a successful career representative or to eventually be a CEO of a small biotech company in search of a cure for AIDS. Anything is possible.

Lori Winter, executive vice president of MBK Worldwide Search, assisted with this story.

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