Ricky Tsang, Study Director at MedPharm, Surrey, UK
Ricky did is PhD at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Biology at the University of Manchester. He specialised in cell adhesion and migration research using advanced fluorescence microscopy and imaging techniques. After his PhD Ricky decided to leave academia but still had a passion for science and wanted to develop his commercial experience so he moved to the pharmaceutical industry and became a Study Director at MedPharm in Surrey. “I had many reasons for pursuing a career in industry but one of my main reasons was that the career path in academia did not appeal to me. Academic research at the forefront of science is critical for future development of therapeutics and public healthcare and there is a considerable amount of knowledge and skill that can be gained from academia, however I did not feel that the role of a postdoc or principal investigator was suitable for me.”
MedPharm is a contract research organisation that specialises in formulation development and testing of topical and transdermal products. Ricky started there with a lab-based role before he progressed to study director who has the legal responsibility for the scientific conduct of a study and is a highly varied project management-style role involving study design and reporting, administrative responsibilities such as resourcing and regulatory compliance. “Becoming a Study Director at MedPharm was a significant shift in career from academia. I had to engage with and develop my transferable skills in a very short space of time. In addition, I had to quickly adapt to a fast-paced environment with multiple deadlines and ‘moving targets’, not to mention taking on the huge responsibility of managing R&D projects that had the potential to be used in pre-clinical and Phase I clinical studies.” Ricky describes to me how you can only achieve this kind of work with a controlled and efficient team environment, where all departments work together to deliver results and reports in a timely manner for the benefit of the client. “Needless to say this was a daunting and challenging role but all in all an extremely rewarding one because in the back of your mind you know that what you have developed one day might have the potential to be used in clinics around the world.” This teamwork is a marked difference from what Ricky experienced in academia. “There is very much an individualistic mentality (in my limited experience) where postdocs and PhD students work in their own little bubble, rarely conversing about their projects to others who understand, and known to keep methods and results close to their chests until publication. I should stress that this is the minority – many do share their knowledge and collaborate where required. In the end they think this is all worth it to have their name associated in the list of authors on a ground-breaking discovery.” Ricky reckons that this level of competition within the research community can drive people to do better, faster and be more efficient but he dislikes this underhandedness. “I guess we just have to be aware of it and know that this is not how everyone works.”
Having experienced both academia and industry Ricky observed that “academics are churning out high impact research with their expansive knowledge and expertise while industry have the finance and processes to commercialise these discoveries for use in the wider world”. He is now looking to move on in his career to support the relationship between academia and industry because he believes that this is a critical challenge for the scientific community.
What advice does he have for someone with a PhD applying for such a role? “I have come to rely heavily on my transferable skills such as time management, organisation, analytical and communication skills that you inevitably develop over the course of your PhD. Take notice of your transferable skills and your personal development as early as possible and build on it – take every opportunity to challenge yourself with multiple tasks and engage your time management and organisational skills, critically evaluate every data set that you obtain and discuss your hypothesis, results, conclusions and follow-up experiments with your peers and finally take the initiative to display your work by applying to present your findings at conferences/seminars and draft abstracts/manuscripts for your peers to read prior to submission to journals (or even your thesis). These actions will all help to develop and hone those transferable skills while giving you plenty of examples when asked about them in interviews.”
Having a PhD seems to be an essential requirement for becoming a study director in the pharmaceutical industry. Like many other in the post-PhD series, Ricky advises that before you start a PhD to make sure you have a genuine interest in the research area as you’ll be spending 3-4 years of your life submerged in your own academic bubble and that you focus on developing your transferable skills during this time. “Check out the lab, the people and the supervisor in person, and speak to people outside of and around the prospective lab to get an idea of how you will be spending the next 3-4 years. If you have a specific job/industry/field in mind following your Ph.D., try to direct your postgraduate degree along that path where you gain all the necessary skills and knowledge to achieve that role. Although initially your work is likely to be dictated by your supervisor, you may still have the opportunity to guide your research to learn different techniques and gain additional experience (following discussions with your supervisor first obviously).”
This post is part of a mini series on post-PhD careers.