Interview with David Willer, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor at GlaxoSmithKline

You have an impressive and extensive academic history, including a PhD and multiple post-doctoral fellowships. Is this level of academic training generally required to apply for a position in Medical Affairs? What were the most beneficial skills you gained from your graduate/post-graduate studies to prepare you for your current position?

Having a “D-degree” (ie. PhD, PharmD, MD) or extensive post-graduate credentials is certainly not a pre-requisite for transition into industry positions. However, some roles will have minimum qualifications that may include a high-level of academic accomplishment. Your career runway or potential can be longer if you bring high-level academic standing to the start of your career.   It is becoming more rare for individuals to move into Medical Affairs roles directly following completion of a BSc degree, and we see more and more candidates entering the workforce with MSc, PhD, MD, and MBAs etc.

Graduate and post-graduate studies are a tremendously formative period in anyone’s academic or professional career. These years should be teaching you “how to learn” and “how to apply knowledge”, problem-solving, critical appraisal skills, generating hypotheses and approaches to address them, working independently, and leveraging the experience of people around you.  These are all skills which are readily transferable in the professional workplace, and set you up for future success.  A conscious effort needs to be made during this time to build professional connections, explore opportunities to work outside of your comfort zone, lift your head up from the lab bench and think more broadly about how your efforts can lead to advancements in science and human health.

What was your career trajectory immediately after finishing your graduate studies and how did it lead you to where you are now?

My career path was originally fashioned on the traditional approach to becoming a principal investigator in a University setting. That is, complete grad school, do one or two postdoctoral fellowships, publish, publish, publish, get my own funding, and look for a faculty posting.   I made a very conscious effort to do post-doctoral studies in a well-established lab at a reputable institution, which meant I had to leave Canada. Importantly, I was thinking long-term about research gaps within Canada that I could fill following my studies.   Moving into Academic leadership and research requires the stars to align, and only a few successfully make that transition.   As my colleagues and friends from undergrad, grad-school, and post-doctoral studies moved into academic roles and industry roles in equal measure, I was afforded a window into the many opportunities that lie outside of the traditional academic path.   With a more sophisticated view of what might be out there beyond the campus walls, I began to appreciate the impact that I could have on public health within Canada and beyond, and explored opportunities to bring my skills and passion for infectious diseases and vaccines into a different setting.   After my PhD, two-postdoctoral fellowships, close to 9 years managing a research lab, I decided to take a leap of faith, bet on myself, and explore new challenges in the pharma sector.   Now that I am fully invested in this change, it is amazing how many opportunities lie ahead.

What are your day-to-day roles and responsibilities as Scientific Advisor at GSK? What do you enjoy most and least about this position?  

The role of Scientific Advisor within Medical Affairs can be likened to the quarter-back position in a football team.     I have to determine our strategy against the opposing team, read the defense, ensure I have all the right players with certain skill sets on the field, call the plays, and ultimately have some accountability for our success or failures.     Moving away from the analogy, I provide medical and scientific expertise and leadership to help develop and implement strategies that drive advancement of our medicines. This involves a tremendous cross-section of specific duties, while working in a cross-functional capacity with my internal partners (eg. clinical, marketing, commercial, regulatory, safety etc.).     The great part about the role, is that the day-to-day aspects are so varied.   One day I may be in Ottawa presenting to Health Canada, and the next I may be reviewing applications for research funding from experts across the country, or I may be conducting a training session for the sales force.   One key motivator, is that I am surrounded by extremely talented individuals who are all engaged and passionate about making a real difference in someone’s lives.

One key aspect of the industry in general, compared to academia, is that companies really invest the time, energy and money to develop individual talent and capabilities, and it becomes a constant journey of self- and group-improvement.     There are very few downsides to working in a pharma or industry environment. It can take some adjustment when working towards strict deadlines, and having accountability for every action you take, but I find this type of setting is extremely productive and results driven, while we are still able to maintain a real focus on the patient.

How do you imagine your career progressing in the immediate and distant future?

After being in the Academic setting for so long, I came into industry quite late, so I continue to look for opportunities for advancement at a relatively aggressive pace.  There are many questions that I ask myself.   Do I want to experience a role with increased people management, one that has project management scope, increased external focus, do I want to move away from being focused on one particular disease state and focus on something broader, or do I want to stay in my current role because it is so fulfilling? All good questions.   Only time will tell, but if you have some sense of where you want to go, start thinking about what core competencies are going to be required to get you there, and take any opportunity that you can to increase the breadth of your skills sets.    Put your hand up and say YES to every opportunity.

One of the key pieces of advice that I would offer to anyone considering a transition or job within the private sector, is to be open to something completely different.   If the focus of your studies and/or research has been oncology for example, don’t let that sway you away from opportunities in other areas. Just because I have been focused on Medical Affairs, doesn’t preclude me from taking a job in sales or marketing.   In fact, I can almost guarantee you, that every high level executive or CEO, has cut their teeth in the field selling products.   As mentioned above, your skills are transferable!! One of the key aspects of the transition, is landing your very first job within industry.   Once you are “inside”, your eyes will open up to the opportunities and you can then acquire the skills you may need to move into your next job.   Leverage your professional network, take advantage of LinkedIn, ask for informational interviews, be inquisitive, be curious and ask questions.

What would you say are the most important skills or attributes that someone should have to succeed in Medical Affairs? Are there any qualities or experiences that would set a candidate out from the crowd when applying to these positions?

Many of the skills that you gain during graduate or post-graduate studies are extremely valuable.   One thing that we are often looking for, is someone who is a great communicator.   Furthermore,   people who can take initiative, go beyond their day-to-day responsibilities to try to find a better way, individuals who put the success of the team before their own success, someone who is intuitive and can work without much direction, someone who can manage stress and can prioritize, and someone who is always looking to improve. Working in the private sector is about working together.   You have to be able to play with everyone in the sandbox!   All of these things are important in setting you up for a successful transition.

Standing out from the crowd is difficult, so take the time to critically evaluate your skills and where there is opportunity for you to grow or improve.   Think about how you would make “your brand” and how you can leverage your experiences to the benefit of a company. Think about the “so what” of your accomplishments.   What does publishing papers, or receiving scholarships, or leading a student group say about you and your potential?

Do you have any other advice for graduating students hoping to start a career in Medical Affairs?

Be proactive in establishing your professional network, look for any and all opportunities to speak to people with various jobs in industry, and be open to ANY opportunity that may present itself.   If you land an interview, and you will, be genuine, ask questions and prepare, prepare, prepare.   There are jobs for everyone. It may take some time to find your niche, but you will all be successful. That I am sure of.


Interview by LSCDS Exec Member Ashley Weiss

Ashley is a PhD candidate in Rama Khokha’s lab nearing the end of her degree.  She aspires to join a career in Medical Affairs, Scientific Writing or a related industry.  She can be found on LinkedIn here.