Neuropsychology in Pharmaceuticals (feat. Rob Silva)
Alumni Aloud Episode 20
Rob Silva is a Senior Medical Director – Neurology at Ipsen Pharmaceuticals. He earned his PhD in Clinical Neuropsychology from the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Rob talks about how to sell your graduate school experience and research skills to a hiring manager in the pharmaceutical industry. He also discusses the importance of informational interviews and preparing for your job search while you’re still in school.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Abbie Turner. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
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VOICE–OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie and I’m a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center. I work in our Office of Career Planning and Professional Development and I interviewed Dr. Rob Silva, who is Senior Medical Director in Neurology at Ipsen Biopharmaceuticals. Today in the office we have Dr. Rob Silva who graduated from The Graduate Center’s Clinical Neuropsychology program. And then did a postdoc and has had a bunch of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s going to be talking to us about all of the opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry and also offer some advice for students who are getting their PhD and interested in doing more research when they leave. So why don’t you first give us a rundown of what you did after the program.
ROB SILVA, GUEST: Sure. Ok so I graduated from the Clinical Psychology program which is housed at Queens College in 2002. After that I did a postdoc. My graduate work was in opioid pharmacology. After that I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in the Department of Neurology there working on in-vivo pharmacology related to movement disorders. I was there for three years. That’s when I made my foray after that into industry, into the pharmaceutical industry specifically. And I joined Sharing Plough, which is now Merck, for three years where I did a bit of clinical work in the hematology therapeutic area which was a little bit out of my domain. After that I joined a company called Sunovian which is a Japanese pharmaceutical company out of New Jersey and Massachusetts. And I was there for nine years, worked on psychology and clinical pharmacology programs there and worked on a team that was responsible for the successful authorization and launch of a typical anti-psychotic which was very successful. And as of about two years I joined a French pharmaceutical company called Ipsen. And working there in a similar capacity as Senior Medical Director in Neurology.
TURNER: Ok so right now you’re Senior Medical Director.
TURNER: Great, so in that job can you explain to us what your average day or maybe average week would be like? What kind of responsibilities do you have?
SILVA: Sure. So in my role as Medical Director, I am responsible for several different independent programs that are aimed at evaluating clinical efficacy and safety of pharmaceutical products. In this case, aimed at pain therapeutic carriers. So we are working on a couple of programs involving pain. Typical day for me is essentially, depending on the day and the program, it ranges from developing programs, working with the key opinion leaders in the United States and globally in these different therapeutic areas to establish what the therapeutic needs are. And creating clinical programs, designing and creating clinical programs that support the successful evaluation of that so clinical trials, etc. And ultimately filing those data with the health authorities in both the United States and globally. So ranges from that sort of strategic development work to operational work which is the basic machinery of conducting clinical trials, global clinical trials. Which you can imagine with hundreds or thousands of patients is a complicated endeavor. Lots of moving parts and essentially I’m responsible for ensuring that that gets carried out on time and gives us the highest probability of success.
TURNER: So it sounds like you’re managing a lot of research at this point in your career.
SILVA: For sure.
TURNER: So can you briefly explain how you moved through that? Like what your career trajectory would look like to get to your point.
SILVA: Sure, good question. So as I’ve said to various graduate students in the past is that you’re experience in graduate school is partly under your control and the experience that you get will have an impact on the ultimate job that you want to get. And so for me personally, I was involved in a lot of in-vivo work both in graduate school and my postdoc. And what I did was I realized a little bit late in the game, towards my postdoc, that I did not want to do an academic job and I did not want to be a professor or anything like that. And I was very interested in industry. I thought it was a dynamic area where the cutting edge was actually happening. So I tried to position myself and my experience and my research topics to have the maximum value with regard to the clinical impact of that work. So what I’m trying to say in short is that, I wanted to be in clinical, in the pharmaceutical industry. And to get there I needed to position myself and get the experience I needed to get there. So I selected a postdoc that was clinical in nature, on Parkinson’s disease and neuro-degenerative disease. And that was sort of my launching point. That gave me the ability when I first approached pharmaceutical companies, that gave me the ability to market myself and explain how I could do that job even though I had never had direct experience with clinical trials prior to that point.
TURNER: Great, and that seems like a good segway into our next question. So how do you make that transition from a grad student who works in labs, sometimes does stuff with mice, sometimes do stuff with pigeons depending on what lab you’re in. How do make that transition into a pharmaceutical company and convince them that you can do people trials basically?
SILVA: Sure. I think the first step is to understand the playing field and to look at specific jobs and to look at what their qualifications are. And I can tell if I’m telling someone to do that they’re going to get very scared very fast because they’re going to look at the jobs and in some cases not even understand the language or the terminology or the description of what the job is. That is commonly in my experience with graduate students, a real barrier for them to think outside the box and to think about a position or a career in a different area. And what I’m going to say is practically speaking, I find that most graduate students are talented. Of course they have to have base level talent, but most talented graduate students can adapt their skills from their graduate school experience directly to pharma industry, in my opinion. I think it just has to do with understanding the position and understanding what they’re going to expect of you and not feeling like you can’t do it. There’s a big weight on people’s shoulders when they think about this. They think, “I need to have the exact requisite skills to perform this job.” And that’s largely true, however it doesn’t mean that you can’t easily adapt your experience to be successful at a pharmaceutical company. But therein lies the biggest challenge, which is convincing a hiring manager at a pharmaceutical company that you can do that job.
And oftentimes, to my great surprise, people in industry don’t understand the sort of structure of what it means to be a PhD. They see PhDs from all over the world and don’t know exactly what it takes. And as a result they don’t understand that this person, yes of course this person can do the job. And that’s the barrier that you, the prospective employee, need to overcome. And you need to convince them and pull out from your experiences what you can do and how to do the job. And again that takes knowing the job to some degree, talking to people in that job, talking to people in that industry and trying to match what you have to that job. And that’s why I think in graduate school you have a unique experience to tailor your educational experience through courses, through fellowships, practicum, etc. Things that are going to get you where you need to be. And my description of this is of course very biased. It comes from a basic neuroscience to a clinical neuroscience but what I’m saying is it can easily be adapted to other domains within graduate school. Because one of the things that people don’t know about pharmaceutical industry is that it’s not just labs and it’s not just people tinkering around in labs. It’s an organization, a multi-faceted organization that has many different job functions within it. And talented people, like people who have PhD’s from institutions that are obviously prestigious or not prestigious.
I think that those people help their chances of getting there by knowing what the playing field and understanding what’s on the other side. And trying to avoid this nesting, this nice, comfortable nest that people exist in when they’re in an academic setting. I don’t mean jobs, I mean graduate students specifically. Oftentimes we’re told what our courses are, we’re told “this is the general framework your research should be,” and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re actually here to be trained to perform a job. And it’s not purely an opportunity to follow your scientific interests. Ideally you want both, you want to be able to follow your scientific interests while getting an education that’s going to land you a job that you want. But you have to consider both sides of the coin.
TURNER: So then let’s talk about the practical advice you have to fill in that gap. So you did mention talking to people in the industry. So as graduate students we should be reaching out to people that already have jobs in these fields and then doing some what we call informational interviews right. And what kinds of things should you ask people in industry?
SILVA: Good question. So people in industry are… if you can find someone in industry, not just the pharmaceutical industry but in any industry I guess. If you can find someone to explain or have some description of what the framework is of a pharmaceutical company, it’s not just to make money. It is a business but it’s not just about making money. As you can see from the landscape, many of the treatments that we have available for all kinds of disorders and diseases got their birth in a lab somewhere, an academic lab or pharmaceutical lab. But the machinery and overall structure of how you get a drug approved requires a lot of different functions. And I think within the pharmaceutical industry, I don’t think many graduate students know that you have education, you have training, marketing, business, depending on the type of research, you may have a significant interest in cognition. Things like that that would help the company position itself for success for a given program.
TURNER: There’s a lot of arms to get into.
SILVA: There’s a lot of arms to get into, yeah exactly. And there are a lot of areas that you would never think of. And as I say to many graduate students just as a vignette, the day that I defended my dissertation, I did not know that the job that I currently have or jobs like it for that matter, existed. So that goes to show you how far behind I personally was. And again it just went back to this thing of just expecting that things would fall into place.
TURNER: So getting to talk to people, even if they’re not in the job you want, if they’re in that structure they can let you know there’s a position like this. I know somebody that does this at my company.
SILVA: Absolutely. Yep. And it offers you the facility on which to base a discussion with a hiring manager. If you don’t know the lingo, you don’t understand clinical trials, you don’t understand that they’re regulated by health authorities. Of course you’re not going to know that unless you’ve been doing it. But if you know the overall structure of the industry it goes a long way. And I think the other thing that I think is important, albeit maybe a little bit strange to suggest is that, I learned a lot from applying to jobs and talking to recruiters and getting feedback from recruiters on my specific experience and how it matches up with positions that are open. So I know it sounds kind of like “you want me to talk to recruiters to get experience” but what I’m saying is, talking to recruiters really gives you a sense of what they are looking for. What are the goals of the hiring manager in terms of hiring this person with the expertise that they need?
Because it’s a catch-22 that we’re in, in terms of pharmaceutical business and in terms of other business in that you need experience to get into the business but you can’t get experience unless you’re in the business. So this is a real significant challenge and I know from personal experience and from people that I’ve spoken to that there are times when people don’t recognize that. And people don’t understand that that’s a barrier, a barrier that you need to overcome and no one’s going to give it to you. And you can’t bank your future career on someone reading the tea leaves of your dissertation and your experience, and in their mind adapt how you would be in that role. The mindset in industry is that you’re being hired to do a job. Not that you’re on an assembly line but your expertise has to be adaptable to what it is they’re doing.
TURNER: Right. So thinking about the kinds of skills that you’re using know, is there anything you would have changed during your graduate experience to better prepare you?
SILVA: Yeah I think I would change a little bit. I think that my research topics both in graduate school and postdoc were really great. I thought they were, at the time, poignant and even poignant today with the opioid crisis. But what I would have done differently is, I would have made an attempt to get direct clinical experience ideally in a lab or in a research organization that was conducting clinical trials. I think if you want to do clinical trials and you want to do clinical pharmaceutical-based medicine, you really have to have some type of experience with clinical trials.
TURNER: That sticks out to hiring managers.
SILVA: That sticks out tremendously to hiring managers. I mean any type of clinical experience or clinical trial experience would put you ahead of the game from someone who doesn’t have it. And that’s because I think in the pharmaceutical business, like I said, and in any business, they are hiring you for a job. And they’re used to seeing people with experience. They’re not used to seeing people that refer to their experience as their dissertation. So that’s another barrier you need to overcome.
TURNER: Translate that for them.
SILVA: Right, you need to translate that for them and be able to adapt your skills and adapt what you’ve experienced to the job. That’s why I started off by saying that it’s important to know what the job is and what you want to do. I don’t think in my opinion, you can just have a general plan. And I don’t mean to scare anyone, but it has to be part of your strategy. Just like you are planning the studies for your dissertation and planning whose going to be on your dissertation committee, you should already be looking at the potential job opportunity and what you need to do to get there. And a lot of people don’t think that. A lot of people think, “I’m open, I have a lot of different skills, I can do almost anything and I have a PhD so hire me.” Not exactly how it works.
TURNER: So maybe you can now give us some information and some like inside information on the pharmaceutical industry. Because if you are going to go into private sector work, since the pharmaceutical industry is huge. So you can expand on that and also tell us about other kinds of PhD’s that you work with that are outside of maybe biochem and neuropsych?
SILVA: Yep, good point. So your point about the pharmaceutical industry…of course I have a lot of experience in it but the reason I think it’s a good, fertile area for people to consider is that not everybody at the pharmaceutical company has a PhD or MD or PharmD. I don’t want to call it rarefied air, but typically speaking people with more advanced degrees are earmarked for more advancement, positions of more responsibility. And so that makes it tailor-made for someone like I was and you are. To be able to look into that industry and understand that there are many different areas. Here’s one example. I know for a fact that people in industrial and organizational psych target HR departments and HR type of organizations. Pharmaceutical business is a huge HR infrastructure. But that’s not to say that that experience can’t be adaptable to something like a marketing job. You know you have to be interested in pharmaceutical business and you may not know this but your experiences and your education may actually make you a perfect fit for a pharmaceutical company that has an interest in building their HR or marketing or any one of a number of different cross-functional groups within pharmaceutical business.
So as far as inside knowledge, I would say when you think of a clinical psychology PhD, anybody that has any type of relationship to the scientific aspect of things. I think the name of the game there is to understand where in the pharmaceutical company you would want to go. So just within that small slice of medicine for example, you’ve got people doing chemistry research, doing chemistry on the molecule or entity we’re studying. You’ve got folks doing in-vitro research, which is you know using petri dishes, etc. In-vivo research…people doing what’s called pre-clinical animal work. Evaluating the pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics of a given drug in animal species. And then you have the clinical domain or translational medicine, which is where you do studies that are trying to translate, if you will, the findings of earlier studies into models that mimic the human model. And then you’ve got pure clinical, which is pure clinical trial work. So even within that little microcosm of clinical science if you will or medicine, you have four or five different established, well-defined groups that are all working on the same kind of thing but from different aspects. And I think that within pharmaceutical business in particular you find that a lot. So within all these groups, there are specialty groups.
And this is something that is totally unknown and in my personal experience, of course it was quite a while ago…2002… I didn’t know. No one ever told me that clinical trials have all these people working on them, talented scientists or doctors. No one told me, I didn’t know. I always felt since I left and I’ve been engaged with The Graduate Center and Queens College specifically over the years. And I think it’s important that students hear from people in the industry just because it gives them a sense of “this is what I could do.” A lot of people have bias based on what other people in their labs do, what other people in their group do, what other people at their graduate school do. And they just think “yeah, I’m just going to finish my PhD, get a postdoc and get an academic job somewhere.” Because I thought that’s what the track was and that’s what’s going to happen. Had I known sooner, I would have done a few things a little differently.
TURNER: Do you have any advice for current, at the end of the dissertation [students who] are looking for job possibilities? Where would you start where would you recommend looking?
SILVA: I would first figure out where you think you want to go. And it’s hard to know if you don’t know the job exists for example. So I think the first step would be to start looking at job descriptions like I said before and start trying to make contacts. Last time I was here at The Graduate Center as part of a discussion with graduate students, I found that in talking to them about their prospective roles and what they were going to do… I thought that they weren’t exposed to what the potential options would be. And so I think for those folks who don’t have their window for getting a job before they graduate. I think they should be more practical and actually start looking and applying for jobs.
TURNER: Right, never too soon to even be looking at them.
SILVA: Never to soon, absolutely. I mean I can’t tell you how many times I applied for a job and just a short story… again with this bias, I thought that when I finished my postdoc that it would be very easy and straightforward for a pharmaceutical company to just hire me because here I am, newly minted PhD with some few years of postdoctoral experience. I thought I had all the requisite skills, I thought I could easily adapt to whatever program they were going to do. But I started applying for jobs and finding out that one of the critical features was they wanted someone with experience in a pharmaceutical lab and so that was one of the things. And then I started drilling down to why? Are they looking for experience in a certain technique? Like electron microscopy you know. So these types of like granular evaluations of what the job is even if you don’t know what the job is even if you don’t know what that specific job is. That is important.
Number two is do not panic when you see a job description and certainly do not raise your nose at certain jobs because you don’t think they fit into your idealized version of what you think your job should be. So to give you an example, a few years ago I was approached by a former graduate student that asked me if I could talk to someone at my company. They wanted a job in clinical. And so even within clinical, again another sub field is clinical operations. So those folks are responsible for executing the plan if you will, recruiting the patients, identifying the research centers that are going to do it, etc. Of course as you can understand we’re a business so we have to contract with these people. So part of the job, part of any job in pharmaceutical business as you rise through the ranks is budgets. So budgets and fiscal information, it’s part of your life. So I think this is an interesting vignette because I got this person an interview, I spoke to the hiring manager and told him just what I told you today-this person is definitely qualified, they don’t have the experience, etc. Person went in, had an interview. I spoke to the person afterwards and said, “How did the interview go?” The person told me, “Yeah I’m really not that interested in a job.” And I said “Why? I thought it would be perfect for you. You want to get into clinical, this is a good opportunity to get in operations and then you can be part of the strategic kind of thing.” They said “no, they were talking to me about budgets and stuff like that.”
TURNER: *laughs* That’s going to be included in any position.
SILVA: Yeah! I was like “and…” And they were like “Yeah that’s not what I want to do, I don’t want to do budgets.” I’m like “you turned down an opportunity because you saw something in there that made you think you were going to be an accountant?” That’s my point. So that sort of naivety can hurt you and can hurt you bad because you know…
TURNER: You’re bringing it up now so that’s good to know! Not something I would consider but makes a lot of sense.
SILVA: Yeah, you start to see those descriptions and you’re like “budgets? Electronic data capture?”
TURNER: So just expect those kinds of things to be in there.
SILVA: Absolutely. And you have to have a can-do attitude. And you have to say “I want to be in this business. This may not be the perfect fit for me or what I think is the perfect fit.” But more often than not that opens up a world of opportunity for you.
TURNER: Right so I was about to ask, what’s the movement like once you’re in the industry? Then you probably have a lot more freedom.
SILVA: Yeah, once you’re in industry you run the risk, like anything else, of being sort of pigeon-holed. Especially when you think about the differences between a pharmaceutical industry or an industry in general and what you do in graduate school, in your postdoc. Once you start that job, the flip side of things is if you stay in one specific job too long, you build experience in that area. So I also tell a lot of graduate students, once you land in the pharmaceutical industry, you should try to see where you can expand and what experiences you can gain, projects you can get on, to try to make your way to the job that you truly want. But at the very least you’re getting experience so even if it doesn’t work out and you don’t like the job, you’re already at least 100% more likely to get another job over someone without that experience. So I can’t underscore enough the need to demonstrate experience and expertise that is relevant to what they want. Because after all, that’s what we’re in this for right. We want to have rewarding work, we want to get paid for it, and we want to have an opportunity to build a career and grow. And the pharmaceutical industry is very fertile ground for that in my opinion.
TURNER: Great, ok. Well those are some really good explanations. So would there be anything else you’d want to add? Something people should be doing in graduate school that you’d say, you know, get on this? A lot of our previous interviewees have mentioned like coding languages if you’re going into data science. Do you have something to offer with that?
SILVA: Well it goes back to what we said initially. And I’m happy to hear that there’s some sort of cohesion to what people are saying, advice-wise. I just think that you need to know the end. You need to know what’s at the finish line in order to get there otherwise you’ll never get there, you’ll just never get there. I want folks to understand that there’s an inertia that people go through where they don’t exactly know what they’re going to do. And I’ve seen over and over and over, what ends up happening is that people end up in these sort of academic-type of environments. Which ultimately aren’t rewarding for them, for some of them of course, and then it’s too late. People that are in an academic position for ten years after they get out of their PhD. Their transition to the pharmaceutical industry or industry in general will be more difficult, it’s just a fact. You guys, graduate students in general, are in this like critical period where you don’t have experience yet and you have to get it, but you don’t have too much experience where it’s going to lock you out of certain fields. So you really have the whole world open to you, especially if this message actually penetrates early enough that you can manipulate what you’re doing, tailor it to what you want to do. And without understanding that variable, there’s no way for you to figure it out. So the only other parting advice I would say is that, you know, it’s important to establish these contacts and it’s important to sort of pound the pavement with opportunities.
TURNER: Start becoming aware of what’s available.
SILVA: Absolutely and I’m happy to help folks that have an interest in the pharmaceutical industry or business in general. And help sort of give them a reality check of what it is they could be doing to maximize the chances that they’re going to get the job that they want.
TURNER: Great. And of course our office is always here too and our events.
SILVA: Of course.
TURNER: Ok so if that’s everything then we’ll wrap up. I want to thank you for coming into our office today.
SILVA: My pleasure.
TURNER: Super helpful and we’ll talk soon.
SILVA: Sounds good.
TURNER, VOICE-OVER: Thanks again to Rob for coming and talking about his fulfilling career in the pharmaceutical industry. If you want to learn more about the types of opportunities that Rob described, you should check out our calendar of events. You can also sign up for our career advising or writing service appointments on our website at cuny.is/careerplan. And for the most up-to-date announcements, follow us on Twitter @CareerPlanGC. Thanks for listening!
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