How the outlook of the pharmaceutical industry is different from academia - an interview with Alex Murphy

Alex Murphy

Can you introduce yourself and your current position? How long have you been working there?

I am Alex Murphy, currently working in Roche Pharmaceuticals as a Lead Medical Director in Product Development Neuroscience. Our organization is split into franchises, which develop various molecules for a group of conditions. I am within the growing franchise of Neuromuscular. I started working for Roche 9 months ago.

Each company has their own role titles, and it can be hard to work out what each person does from the outside. My job as Medical Director is to work within the clinical science portion of the team who are trying to design and run clinical trials. What the role entails depends on where the molecule is in its development. In the early days there is a lot of clinical trial design, education of colleagues about the disease, and discussion with key opinion leaders. As the trials continue the Medical Director may act as the medical monitor of the study, manage day to day issues and liaise with investigators. Eventually, along with the rest of the team you develop briefing books, and a lot of work goes into writing various documents for filing.

The job is highly varied and does involve a lot of meetings, which isn’t for everyone. The nice thing is that you bring something different to the team. Most people in the teams are experts in their own function (statistics, safety, etc.) but do not necessarily know the disease or the practicalities of treatment/clinical trials.

Can you summarize your curriculum and career at the point of your transition?

I had worked as a pediatric trainee in Merseyside until ST4. I felt like I wanted to do something a bit different to the standard training, so although I had never been particularly keen on research, I applied for a PhD studentship in neuromuscular medicine in Newcastle (the center later became the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre). I spent 4 happy years there within the team working in the clinics, running the clinical trials, and working on my PhD. After this time, I had to go back to training, and I completed my ST5 year in six months and was accepted into the Neurology GRID program in Birmingham. While there I spent all my time in general pediatric neurology. I had no real neuromuscular exposure at that time. After 6 months I was accepted onto the NIHR Academic Clinical Fellows Program, where I worked part time trying to develop natural history style trials in the West Midlands. After a year of this I was approached by a recruitment consultant, who felt I would be suited for a job in Roche.

What was your major drive to do the transition?

Honestly, I had never considered working in the pharmaceutical industry. The job involved a major move to Basel in Switzerland. It took a lot of hand-wringing and discussions with my family (I have two girls in primary school). It was a big decision.

To my surprise my kids and partner were keen on the idea and wanted to have an adventure and learn a new language.

I think there were multiple factors which made me consider trying a job in pharma.

The main thing was happy memories of my job in the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre. I had found working on clinical trials there fascinating and highly rewarding. I had also looked at the design of the clinical trials, and often wondered who designs these and how I would change certain things. I suppose it is a good way to affect the largest number of patients possible.

There were other factors which lead me to consider such a monumental change. My academic post didn’t come with funding; hence a lot of my work time was absorbed by applying for grants. The neuromuscular research infrastructure also wasn’t necessarily fully in place locally as a fellow (rather than consultant/professor) I faced an uphill battle to get this set up. From a personal point of view, I was finding it difficult to keep doing large commutes to work (my morning commute was 1.5 – 2 hours).

Overall, I think that the memory of working happily in Newcastle in neuromuscular clinical trials was the biggest temptation, but I feel that the difficulties I was facing at work opened the door to hearing the recruitment consultant out.

What were the alternatives for you at the time you were thinking of the transition?

I was between 6 months and a year from finishing my specialist training and qualifying as a consultant. I had already been approached by two neuromuscular units about potentially joining them when I finished, or even transferring my training. There was talk of a consultant post with PAs in research.

In terms of my research, I had two grants I was in the process of applying for, which I had to cancel because I had accepted the job in pharma.

What influenced your decision the most? Was it a difficult decision? (Family, relocation, etc.)

As previously, I think it was a combination of my supportive family and happy times in the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research center that led me to hear the recruiter out. I think the thing that finally swayed me was my talk I had with my PhD supervisor (Volker). I asked him what he thought of the job and whether this was a good move for me. He said that sometimes in medical and academic circles, pharmaceutical companies can be seen as a negative thing, but actually he has worked with them for many years, and it is obviously important work. He also mentioned that this may be the best time to make this move, both personally (having young kids), and because I could bring a lot back from the pharma experience if I chose to come back.

What skills did you have to learn when transitioning to your new job? Did you take any courses before the transition at the time?

Well, there was a mountain of mandatory training and e-learning to do. Pretty much a whole month was taken up just doing this. One thing you notice is that there is a different outlook in pharma, slightly different to academia. Everyone works as a team in their own role and provides something different. The other side to this is that some things are harder to change, like the primary outcome measures or addition of things to a protocol; everything is carefully assessed and checked to make sure it provides benefit to the product. I didn’t take any courses to prepare.

Have you ever considered going back to your previous position in academia? What do you miss from your previous position?

I think it is fair to say that the thing I miss most is the interaction with patients and families that comes with a clinical/academic role.

What do you love the most in your current position/field?

The team working is great. I’ve been very lucky to have two bosses so far who have been really interested in my development. I work very closely with a senior clinical scientist too, who is both extremely competent and fun to work with.

There is a daily challenge in trying to interpret the science and bring it into some sort of form in a clinical trial. There are so many complicated aspects with many moving parts, so it is constantly challenging and interesting.

What is something unique that you have learned in your current position/field?

Seeing behind the scenes of the pharma world was interesting. How much conversation goes on to decide the tiniest thing. I have learnt a lot about the regulatory and filing aspects which I’ve never seen before, and this is not necessarily fascinating, but it is important. I still have a lot to learn here about what the different stakeholders want and how regulators work.

What do you think the role of networking is when switching from academia to industry?

My existing contacts have been very useful as we often ask for advice, particularly in the early days of protocol development. Due to Covid I haven’t been to any conferences since I started, but I do think this will be important over time.

Three pieces of advice for your younger self before doing the transition.

  1. Make sure you have completed all studies and projects before you move on to a new job, as you won’t have time later.
  2. Make sure you have a list of emails of people you want to stay in touch with because you lose your email account when you move on from a job.
  3. Enjoy the early days when you have very little to do except learn the job. Don’t feel guilty about taking it easy, as the work will soon mount up.

This article is presented by the

Education & Development Opportunities Committee.

Published on 18 August 2021.


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