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Careers Work in Mysterious Ways


For the past 3 years I have been working as a clinical research scientist at Boehringer Ingelheim Canada Ltd./Ltée (BI). BI is an independent, family-owned pharmaceutical company with offices around the world, including one in Canada. Prior to joining BI, I received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Toronto in 1992. Following this, I did a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health, after which I held a 2-year grant from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

So how did I arrive at my current situation, working as a clinical research scientist? My decision to move from academia to industry was based on a number of factors. My grant was at an end and I wanted to move to a more secure situation, particularly because my wife and I had recently had our first child. Fortuitously, at about the time my grant was coming to an end, a friend of mine who worked at BI asked me if I would be interested in a clinical research scientist position. I was excited to take on a new challenge and saw this opportunity as a way to move my career forward. Moreover, joining BI afforded me the opportunity to remain in the local area, which was an important consideration for my family.

Within a week of joining BI, I found myself whisked off to Germany for a meeting where it seemed everyone spoke in three- and four-letter acronyms (ICH, GCP, TPD ...). I had entered a new world indeed! (One piece of advice to anyone entering industry: Get hold of your company?s acronym dictionary as quickly as you can.) On the downside, my wife now complains that when I speak about my job, I talk only in acronyms! However, in my 3 years at BI I have learned not only industry-speak, but also a tremendous amount about clinical research and drug development. I think the willingness and ability to continually learn are key qualities that one needs in this industry. I also believe that these are qualities that are selected for, and nurtured, in academia.

Another key asset in this job is the training in the scientific method that I received during my tenure as a doctoral student. At BI I wear many hats and perform many functions, the most interesting of which is that I am part of an international team charged with developing the phase I to phase III clinical research program for a new chemical entity. As a member of this team, I also develop research protocols and write trial reports and scientific papers. Needless to say, this is another facet of my job in which my Ph.D. training is put to good use.

I also have local duties, which include managing clinical trials that implement the protocols developed by the international team. In this capacity, I recruit research physicians to conduct the trials, organize and chair meetings with the investigators to discuss the protocols and the trials, and work with the onsite monitors and in-house data managers to ensure the integrity of the data collected during the trials. Project management skills are critical to success in this job, and these are skills that can be acquired through training (there are many programs available) and more important, through doing. [Editor?s note: Keep an eye out for an upcoming Next Wave series on project management training.]

One functions within a team framework in industry. This was one of the things that took the most getting used to in my transition from academia to industry. As a researcher in academia, you get accustomed to being self-sufficient. In industry, you have to rely on others to carry out key functions that are necessary for you to do your job, and this can be a source of frustration. Again, your ability to manage this situation is paramount to success in getting the job done, and your ability to communicate is also important.

So what?s a typical day on the job? Well, there really is no typical day. And this is one of the most enjoyable, and demanding, aspects of this job. You need to be flexible and be able to solve problems on the fly. The ability to prioritize is essential, as are good organizational skills. You will very quickly come to be dependent upon your Outlook calendar or, better yet, your administrative assistant to organize your business life. However, your hard work will not be in vain. You will be well compensated in industry, and there are a number of opportunities for career advancement. However, if you wish to remain a scientist and not move into management, there may be a lower ceiling with regard to advancement.

There are rewards other than money that motivate me in this industry. I love being involved in shaping the development of novel therapeutics. I also enjoy being involved in exploring and refining the methodology we use in clinical research, something that I am afforded the chance to do working at BI. In addition, meeting and interacting with some of the brightest minds in science is tremendously exciting and invigorating.

Of course, each job has downsides. With a young family, the most significant downside to my job is the amount of traveling that is required. I have to travel to international meetings within the company, as well as to investigative sites that we use in our clinical programmes. Additionally, there are training courses and scientific conferences that I attend that are important to my development and growth as a clinical research scientist. Therefore, I spend a fair bit of time away from my family.

If the situation at BI is any indication of the job market trend, the demand for scientists in clinical research appears to be increasing each year. As a consequence, it is likely that we will see more and more universities offering courses in drug development in the near future. An unmet need at the moment is for research into clinical research methodology. There is tremendous interest--and cooperation--among the big pharmaceutical companies at present to tackle such topics. I am optimistic that there will continue to be many opportunities for scientists in clinical research. So do your homework, familiarize yourself with clinical research and drug development as best you can, and complete your doctoral training.