Career profile: Simon Schultze, Medical Director, GSK Austria – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

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Career profile: Simon Schultze, Medical Director, GSK Austria

Medical affairs is a function within the pharmaceutical industry, which aims to allow interactions between pharma and physicians. This career area can provide PhD-holders with strong communication or process management skills a rewarding career at the interface of clinical science and medicine.

In this blog post Simon Schultze, Medical Director at GSK Austria shares how he made the transition from a PhD and postdoc in the life sciences to a career in medical affairs.

After completing a PhD and postdoc, you’ve established a career in medical affairs. Could you first tell us a little about your transition from academia to medical affairs?

After doing my PhD in Basel, I was married with two kids and my priority was to find a good place for my family. We decided to go back to Austria and I said that, if I can make it as a scientist in Austria, great; if not, I will do something different. I secured a fellowship to start my postdoc at the Medical University of Vienna. It was a project I set up and was interested to work on, and I found the lab where I could work on this and got the funding. I was motivated and had a lot of ideas – then I realized that the funding landscape in Austria was different to Switzerland (where I did my PhD) and the future perspectives weren’t that great. One option was to do another postdoc, but for me personally, it was not that motivating anymore. I’d done a lot and seen a lot in the lab, but my curiosity for science was satisfied. I was open to new challenges and to learn something new.

When my fellowship was coming to an end that was the push and motivation to look for something different. Several of my PhD colleagues went into pharma, and I started to look for jobs in this sector too: I applied for regulatory, manufacturing-related as well as medical science liaison and medical advisor positions. For the MSL position, it was field-based and I was not sure whether this is something I can do and would be happy with, as being in the field would be completely different to what I was doing in the lab. But I said – yes – I’m open to that and I want to work in pharma. I applied at GSK, was selected and was really happy as an MSL.

What kinds of tasks were you doing in your first MSL role?

The focus for this role varies by company. The role has developed since I’ve been at GSK, and the number of positions has increased.

As a medical science liaison (MSL), you are field-based and are tasked with having the interaction with the physicians. You talk with them about the newest clinical data and what it means for the company (where do we see the right use for our medicine), and what does that mean for the physicians. Each country has different healthcare systems, and it’s important for a pharma company to know how patients will get access to our transformative medicines and vaccines in Austria, and adapt our strategy accordingly. You discuss the clinical science and you translate that into who is the right patient and what is the time to get the treatment. It’s a bit of a service we give to the physicians that we update them on the new clinical science and new clinical studies.  

When you are in the field you are quite independent, so you have your aims set, what you should achieve, and you need to plan yourself how to get there. You make your appointments yourself and four out of five days you are in the field, meeting physicians. The difference to sales is that you have a much lower frequency of appointments, because you need and have more time for preparations. You need to be expert in the science and clinical studies and have a discussion with the experts at eye level. That’s an important part of the position, and what I really loved about it: after six months, I could discuss at eye level with the experts in the field. I am the data expert and the physicians are the medical experts, and then there’s a great discussion.

So that’s the basics of the position, but then there are other interesting activities that come on top, like going to different national and international congresses, meeting customers there, and doing educational events at a smaller scale. As an MSL you also begin to organize some regional educational events. It’s a bit of a hybrid position, it’s mostly external facing but there are some additional internal activities. For example, it’s important to also have a close interaction with the sales colleagues to ensure we’re aligned and have the same aim and work together on that. And then also going into education internally for colleagues.

So when you are communicating the clinical science, do you have contact with the people who are organizing the clinical trials, or do you take the written results?

There’s a lot of internal education on that – it comes from the global and regional team, and then you have internal education: you know what data will come in when – then when it comes in there is a clear strategy on how that’s communicated and what the aim of the communication is. We always communicate in an evidence-based way: there was never any point at GSK where I felt this is not the right way or it was not backed up with the data we have: we communicate and discuss the evidence we have. Of course, in the end, the aim is that the product is used, but this is achieved by our sales colleagues.

Maybe one additional question related to your first role – during your PhD and postdoc your research was related to liver diseases and metabolism – was that also reflected in the therapy area you were working in as an MSL?

No. I think when you transition from academia to pharma, you should be open to the therapy area. What you learn in academia are the skills, which we can go into later, but it’s not the therapy area directly. As it’s clinical science, you don’t have so many insights from a basic science postdoc in that area. When I applied for the position, it was for asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – and I was not really sure if this was an interesting area with lots of deep science behind it, but I was open to it and I was really surprised how interesting the topic was. When I first thought about asthma, I thought it’s an inhaler and that’s it: but it’s more. As an example, when I joined GSK in the asthma therapy field, we had just launched a new antibody, a biologic. This was for severe eosinophilic asthma, at the time there was no sufficient treatment option, and patients were really suffering. Patients were not able to work and in the most severe cases not even leave the house. They were taking large doses of steroids with massive adverse events. The biological treatment allowed most patients to get back to normal life. This was really great to hear the feedback from the physicians and patients about how the medicine is able to change their life, which is really motivating.

I really enjoyed the MSL role. It was a really very diverse working environment. Every day is a new day, and with the physicians externally, you meet a lot of people, and you have a lot of activities on top.

MSL is just one role within medical affairs, could you tell us a little more about this the broader area?

There are a few different areas within medical affairs that you can work in – though it depends a little bit on the company which functions are included. For me at GSK, there are three areas:

  1. Therapy areas, where you have medical science liaisons as well as medical advisors and medical leads for different therapy areas
  2. Pharmacovigilance (PV)
  3. Medical governance

For pharmacovigilance the main task is to maintain patient safety and make sure that all adverse event reports are being captured. They also make sure that when we have any activities in a non-promotional setting for disease awareness – especially on social media – that these are registered and that if there are any adverse events popping up that these are monitored and reported as well. In addition, when regulatory updates come on our products / medicines, there might be the request to have a risk management programme (RMP). If there are any specific adverse event where it is critical that all the information gets to the right people, the RMP might include that specific information be sent to physicians, and some information goes to patients. If there are updates on products and information that needs to go to the physician directly (the ‘dear healthcare provider’ letter) then this is also between PV and regulatory to align with authorities locally on how we are going send out this letter. Finally, PV  is also the function that needs to align with the authorities during any audits and provide the documentation. There is a lot of process management in this position – there are many parts of PV that are outsourced and centralized and taken at the regional level, so this is really to manage these processes and ensure we have a good PV framework. There are people who love to work at the desk and handle processes – that’s their strength and motivation  – all functions need someone doing that with passion.

Shortly on medical governance: the pharma industry is quite regulated as there is a high risk. So, it is important that we are compliant with both the local regulations, and our own standards (our code of conduct). For this we have compliance and medical governance. The medical governance checks that all the external communications are in line with our scientific values, with the science, and meets the local regulation and our code of conduct (SOPs) from the medical perspective. They also monitor: for example, by checking different activities that happened on a 6-month or quarterly basis, just to confirm if the processes are kept, that it is all is done in the right way and we have the documentation.

For me personally, the therapy areas are the interesting part of medical affairs. In addition to the MSL role that I described earlier, there are also medical advisor roles: this is a bit more internal project management with educational activities internally for the sales people and externally for physicians to review the newest changes and new data in educational events. Insight seeking is also important – for example, if we have new data, we might ask physicians what that data means for them, and what it means for Austria and the patients in Austria. The commercial team is doing the promotion, and it’s a task for medical to ensure that all the material meets local requirements and reflects the science, so that the claims in the promotional setting are based on the evidence we have and are correct.

Would you then say that the aim of all these different roles is to make sure that the clinical science and medical systems can communicate with each other?

The MSL (medical science liaison) in particular is the link between the clinical evidence, the physician and the company.

And then PV is the process side, bringing back the adverse events to the company?

Yes exactly – I think that’s quite a detailed view already. Medical affairs is quite diverse, with lots of different things you can do. I think this is part of the interesting thing about being in medical affairs in pharma. Every day is different, and lots of new things happen, new data comes in and you are close to the clinical science.

Since the MSL role you’ve developed your career further. Can share some insights on how the role has evolved as you have gained seniority?

After just over one and a half years as an MSL, I transitioned into an office-based position as a medical manager. That was quite a shock to me to move from the field to an office-based role. In the field, you have your aims and you are connected with your team and exchange with them, but you work quite independently. When you move into the office it is more demand-driven. The commercial colleagues are dependent on you for approval of content and you need to give a lot of strategic input. It’s a change from sitting alone in the car to being in an office surrounded by people, and all of them are asking you questions. That was something I had to get used to. In the field, you have aims and KPIs for the month, and can see that you’ve been successful. In the office, the projects take longer, and the successes and motivating parts are more blurred and take longer to get to. That was a big change, but it was also a great position – I was responsible as medical manager for two biological treatments, one in asthma and one for lupus, a rare disease. In this position you have the strategic planning, you support commercial in their planning, but also the medical plan of what activities you want to have. You have a brand plan over a year and then you need to adapt it – and then organize activities, support commercial with their educational and promotional activities and you have our own medical activities to manage, you have the education of the internal teams. The office-based roles medical advisor and medical leads also still have some interaction with customers, so that they are not fully disconnected from the external input. But the contact is less than a MSL and focussed more on the top experts and key opinion leaders, also to work on the activities with them, and implement projects.

What kinds of skills do you need for these types of role?

As I said, it’s not really about the therapy area. Of course, if you have worked in immunology and you go into an immunology field, you have some knowledge already but you need to be fully open to learn new things. Just having a PhD and a great publication doesn’t make you a great employee in pharma, you need to be open to learn and know what you need to deliver in pharma as it’s very different to science.

The skills we learn in science are to work independently, be solutions-orientated and focused, and have analytical thinking. If you discuss a problem, to see okay there is also an opportunity, what can we do to overcome that. Or see in a discussion that there is a group of people who don’t know the newest data, I see there’s an opportunity to have an educational event, for example.  I think resilience and knowing how to deal with stress is also something you learn. Not everything always works out perfectly, you will have some things that don’t work as you planned with the outcome you expected to get. That’s always what scientists experience in the lab – experiments don’t work, and we need to think what do we need to do better, and not get demotivated by these failures but be resilient and look in the future how we do better.

Most important, if you start as an MSL in the field but also as a medical advisor where you need to train your colleagues, is communication. I always look at this in the interview. Can you explain complex topics in easily understandable way tailored to the audience? And this is not just presenting with slides in a talk, but also in peer-to-peer interpersonal discussion. This is a quite important one.

What do you enjoy most about working in medical affairs?

It’s pretty close to science – certainly clinical science and medicines. I think on the one-side you are very close to the clinical science, to the data, to the science; and you can talk about the science without having all the bad experience from the lab. The lab work is done by someone else and you talk about the successes, you read the papers you make a presentation out of it, you train other people on the science. This is what I really enjoyed as a scientist, and there is a lot of that also in medical affairs.

In the end, with all the innovation and innovative products, it really has an impact on patients, and that is part of the motivation. In GSK we have quite innovative portfolio, and recently quite a few new launches in areas where there are still high unmet medical needs. We also have quite a strong vaccines portfolio and this is about prevention of deadly disease.

What do you see the main challenges as?

What I certainly learned, is that you are in quite a diverse setting working with people with different educational backgrounds – and they have different ways of thinking and problem solving. You need to be open to different thoughts and be open to discussion when you discuss with someone with a different background e.g. economics. There’s also a lot you can learn from different perspectives.

Also, the pharma industry is profit-driven, this you need to be aware of and contribute to. Medical affairs changed a lot from being a bit of a support function to really being the driving feed to support commercial and that we achieve aims with our activities that are – while our motivation is to do good for the patient, there’s a saying ‘good for the patient, good for the business’ and at the end of the day it’s the business that is paying our salaries. But nevertheless, what I love is that we are working on an evidence-based area, and whatever I say externally I also fully stand behind that and never have any feeling that it would be wrong. It’s important to do the right thing, and we are doing that as a company as well.

It’s a highly regulated area, so there is a lot of administration and paperwork behind it. We need to have good documentation, for everything we do. This is not for everyone easy but it’s really key to be compliant with the processes we have. We have more process and streamlined working than in the lab – but this is something you need to work with and there is good rationale behind it. 

If someone reading this would like to move into medical affairs after their PhD or postdoc, what tips do you have for them?

My advice would be to be open and flexible. Be open to things you have not done before, like being an MSL working in the field. It depends on each person, so speak to other people – do you prefer to sit at a desk and manage a process, then certainly the field-based positions might not be the right thing for you. But if you are happy and open to communicating with others, then be open for that. I was really positively surprised by how much fun and rewarding this position is. Same with the therapy area: be open. Everyone wants to be in oncology but there are so many other interesting fields where things are happening. If you have the possibility, go to an area where you have innovation. If you have established products that are very long on the market, there may be new data and new indications coming and more understanding – but areas with innovation I think that’s where you have most fun working in the therapy area.

Getting prepared for the interview is the most important part. Know the position you are applying for – talk to your colleagues who went into the pharma industry, get their experience – look at career blogs, watch interviews and videos. The key is preparation – what is the position about, what is my motivation to apply for this position, what are my skills and the value I bring to the position. You should also prepare for the very standard interview questions of ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses?’. There is a lot of information you can find online on how an interview goes – train with friends: doing mock interviews, where they ask you a few questions, can really help.

No matter what, your application and your CV should be high quality. You should have a motivational letter that is written in a concise way. It should be ‘I’m applying for this position – these are my three strengths – this is why I want to work in this role – and I would be happy to discuss more details’. It should be two-thirds of a page, super concise, not a three-page letter of your life: no one has time to read three pages.

You can also go to job congresses and conventions and meet people there. Get your LinkedIn profile ready, maybe connect with people already. I get sometimes requests, and try to share my advice. This can help as people know you already, and you can create your network.

One thing we haven’t talked about is language skills. This is a regional role, what level of German skills would for example be needed to join an Austrian team?

Medical affairs positions can be very different across Europe and globally across Asia, and US, but at GSK Austria with the size of the team and focus we have, fluent German is required. Our experts and customers prefer to discuss in German, and the emails going to a customer should be in German and not have any major mistakes. Finally, when you review commercial materials in German, you might have three claims in one sentence, and that’s quite difficult also for native speakers to understand. But that depends on the position and size of the company. If you are in regulatory, in an international setting, everything is in English.

Do you think there is anything we did not talk about that is important?

We have several examples where we had two strong candidates and could only select one, but then when a new opportunity came up, we could call these candidates, and invite them to re-interview. If you just start trying and just send in a low-quality application this can leave a bad impression. But if you apply with a good application and don’t get selected, or you are interviewed and are not the top candidate, don’t get demotivated: just reapply.   

Simon can be found on LinkedIn here.

This interview reflects the personal view of Simon Schultze and does not reflect the opinion of his employer.

Additional resources

Our career area information article ‘medical affairs’, which is focussed on the MSL role, includes further links and resources to learn more about this career area.

To learn more about Simon’s role, you can find another interview with Simon in German from the University of Vienna’s Career Service.

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The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.