By Juliana Corrêa-Velloso
Among the career paths for STEM PhDs, Life Science Consulting is an attractive possibility for many students and postdocs. However, even amongst the most enthusiasts about this career, the question “what exactly does a consultant do?” can be challenging to answer. On July 7th, iJOBS hosted a workshop led by Sidnee Pinho, Chief Operation Officer of Clearview. Attendees learned about the core skills of a consultant and were guided through a case study. If you are interested in knowing more about this career path, the good news is that as PhD students and postdocs we already have most of the skills needed for Life Science Consulting.
Currently, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a consultant is a person who facilitates change and provides subject matter expertise; who offers advice, an expert1. In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields, consultants are hired to provide companies with a recommendation about business decisions and market landscape analysis. To get to the solution, consultants usually work in a team, in which they coordinate the strategy, the approach and the communication with the client. This versatility of tasks assignments is one of the main peculiarities of professionals in consulting. Indeed, as Sidnee Pinho explained, in either big management consulting firms or small boutique companies, consultants wear many heats over the life of a project.
As a project leader or a collaborator in a team, some key responsibilities will always be present throughout a career in consulting. Sidnee Pinho explained how each one of the following duties is important in the daily routine of a consultant:
- Problem definer: What is the question the client needs answered? What is the scope of the analysis? At the beginning of the process, it is crucial to understand the client’s needs and define the approach for the solution.
- Project manager: Once the project scope is defined, the next step is to develop a work plan. Establishing deadlines, assigning tasks and keeping track of the progress is the backbone of the project.
- Data searcher: PhDs are well familiar with the importance of good quality data for a project. Learning how to search for respectable scientific literature and interpret results from the bench is one of the many lessons of a PhD. Similarly, consultants need to collect all the information relevant to the project on which they are assigned. However, rather than a deep and specific analysis typical in academia, the industry requires a different approach. Instead, by doing quick strategic research, consultants become experts in several fields (financial, clinical, basic science, market) necessary to finish the project.
- Thought process organizer: Well-designed frameworks are essential to guide the team towards the answer. By being in line with the client’s needs, a good framework helps define the metrics and criteria used in the analysis.
- Quality controller: When working with data, accuracy is critical for credibility. All research should rely on reputable sources and be in a time frame relevant to the project. As expected, validating the results is necessary before taking the next step on the project.
- Storyteller: Knowing how to convey a message is a gold-standard skill for any communicator. Depending on the audience, two strategies can be used. Business educated audience with limited time availability requires a “Top-Down” method. A straightforward presentation focused on the conclusion will deliver the expected message. On the other hand, an audience naïve to the subject or with controversial opinions will benefit from a “Bottom-Up” method. By focusing on the key underlying assumption that drove the conclusion, consultants increase their chance of communicating their message.
- Relationship manager: As in any commercial arrangement, client satisfaction requires close attention. Learning how to manage the client is key to most careers in industry.
As a PhD student or postdoc, it is impossible to read all these assignments and not feel that this description is similar to our daily life in the laboratory. Defining a question, establishing a methodology, planning your project, collecting and communicating your results to different audiences (lab meetings presentations, scientific meeting talks, writing papers) and most importantly, managing the relationship with the client, or in this case, colleagues, collaborators and the PI. Through years of gathered experience, STEM PhDs already have most of the transferable skills necessary to pursue a consulting career. Understanding the varied roles required to succeed in this field, STEM PhDs can plan the transition by improving their technical abilities and soft interpersonal skills. With more than 25 years of experience in the Life Sciences industry, Sidnee Pinho shared some advice for future consultants that will help not only in the project execution but also in ensuring that the client expectations are exceeded:
- To get to the root cause of issues, constantly question everything with the simple question, “But why?”. Be comfortable in asking and answering this question.
- Ultimately, clients will rely on the consultant for the expert opinion. To feel comfortable in this position, you need to understand the project’s specificities, such as the scientific background, market analysis, competition, business models, financial valuation, etc. In other words, be the “expert.”
- Do not be afraid of failure. Every experience is a learning opportunity.
After this helpful and informative overview, attendees were invited to work in teams on a project simulation. The project assignment was as follows:
“Company X has the opportunity to pursue a long-acting version of prednisone, which is a steroid used to treat morning stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Company X has absolutely no experience in the RA market and has no assets in rheumatology generally”.
One complication framed the situation:
“The company has many potential development opportunities and is not sure if they should pursue this long-acting steroid or something else. They will only pursue this opportunity if they believe they can make $200 million in topline US peak year revenue“.
Groups should provide a recommendation to the following questions:
“Should company X pursue this development opportunity of a long-acting steroid? Calculate the $ opportunity and summarize why or why not in 3 bullet points.”
Attendees were divided into three groups and had one hour to work on the case. The first challenge was to select the necessary information from the extensive supporting material. Groups had access to the RA clinical background, RA prevalence in the US from the past ten years, RA clinical diagnoses criteria, pharmacological alternatives and criteria for steroids treatment, opinions from experts in the field and past and future projections of the RA market. As a PhD, it is difficult to “ignore” data. We tend to look at every piece of information before moving forward on the process. Keeping in mind the advice provided by Sidnee Pinho, the group quickly learned how to select only the relevant information to the case and started debating the possible recommendation.
Surprisingly, after one hour of debating, each group came up with a different revenue number and opposite opinions about the drug launching. Sidnee Pinho explained that rather than the “correct solution,” the structure of the process was more important than the outcome. How did the groups interpret the data? What was the rationale behind the approach? For example, the information about treatment duration and drug dosage per day was missing in the supporting material. Depending on how the groups filled this gap, the outcome was different. As we learned, instead of rushing to get to an answer, it is important to ask critical questions and provide structured and strengthened solutions. In fact, in real life, consultants constantly need to make decisions with limited data and time. In these cases, aiming to understand the problem and getting to the root of it by asking “But why?” helps to provide a structured solution to the client.
This workshop was an excellent opportunity to learn how to tackle a case in Consulting and learn valuable advice from an experienced consultant. As we can see, the parallel between Life Sciences Consulting and a STEM PhD is clear. Students and postdocs will find several opportunities to sharpen their transferable skills during the academic journey and shorten the gap between industry and academia. I invite you to look at your PhD from a new perspective and answer the question: how many of these hats are you wearing already?
- “consultant.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com (18 May 2021).
This article was edited by Senior Editor Brianna Alexander.