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Working at Melhor Consulting

Dr Joe de Sousa discusses his work as Senior Leader, Non-Executive Director and Consultant at Melhor Consulting.

  • Name: Joe de Sousa
  • Current position: Senior Leader, Non-Executive Director and Consultant
  • Organisation: Melhor Consulting
  • Date of interview: March 2021
Headshot of Joe de Sousa.

What are the opportunities and roles within the pharmaceutical sector?

Almost every aspect of what the pharmaceutical industry is trying to achieve requires highly talented scientists and engineers. 

If we start with the understanding a disease: we need all sorts of technical skills, with the focus initially being in the biological sciences, and in gaining an understanding of physiological mechanisms and biochemical pathways. 

After that the next question is how to engage with the disease and what the novel entity is that will affect the disease pathway and benefit the patient. The novel entity may be a small molecule or a more complex active agent. So, we have understanding the disease and how to treat the disease, but what many people don’t understand is that that’s not the end of the scientific challenges. 

If you want to turn that molecule into a medicine then you have to prove that it is safe, that it is effective and that you can synthesise it, formulate it and manufacture it to the highest quality. For this you need a wide range of technical specialists spanning across the biological, the medical, the pharmaceutical and the physical scientists and wells as mathematicians and engineers. 

The manufacturing process for the medicine must also be invented and then developed and must be: 

  • affordable to the payer – be that the patient, a government or an insurance company 
  • scalable – with the potential to create millions or potentially billions of doses very quickly (Covid-19 is a great example of this) 
  • reliable – such that the quality is right every time, for every patient, in every place at the point of use 

One discipline that is occasionally overlooked in all of this but has a unique place as it impinges on absolutely every aspect of pharmaceutical R&D from start to finish is analytical science – for example in order to support the characterisation of biological systems, chemical entities, the formulated medicine, impurities, how the medicine may degrade and therefore how it needs to be packaged and stored. 

Analytical science can include physical techniques such as mass spectrometry, x-ray crystallography as well as more data-focussed areas. Pharmaceutical R&D creates huge datasets and so – there are an increasing number of opportunities for data scientists and statisticians. 

The new possibilities of modelling and simulation (increased computer processing power means you can now model systems down to the molecular level) mean we can do many experiments in silico rather than in the lab. 

Being able to perform experiments in silico saves huge amounts of time, the amount of material needed and the size of the laboratories you need: this should bring benefit to all: more affordable medicines to more patients faster.

Is there a place for you in the pharmaceutical sector if you do not have a scientific background?

Yes, you do not have to have a scientific background to be successful in pharma. Beyond STEM, there are lots of opportunities within other departments such as HR, comms and marketing, as well as learning and development. 

There are many people with non-scientific backgrounds particularly on the commercial side or in HR, finance or other central functions such as legal, IP or Corporate Affairs. There is also a significant commercial side to the business.

Could you say a little about the culture in the pharma sector? 

People working in pharma do so in order to do good and you can very much see this in the workplace culture and the language that we use. We talk all the time for example about patients, patient impact, new medicines, beating cancer, giving people their lives back. 

This appeals to the humanity in all of us and this is what motivates us and drives us to do a good job. Of course, many of us will have friends and family members who have suffered from the diseases we are fighting and this makes the work very meaningful. 

Fundamentally the pharmaceutical industry is a business competing with other business. It has to be successful as a business in order to fund the research, which in turn drives better medicines. So the commercial imperative is there too which of course does not exist to the same extent in academia. 

What kind of transferable skills are important within the sector?

No medicine is created by one individual – it’s a massive collaborative effort within disciplines and across disciplines so the ability to collaborate and share work with others is vital. 

You need to be able to communicate your work in a way that makes it accessible to other disciplines so that they can understand and help you solve any challenges you have. 

You need to be able to see the bigger picture, appreciate someone else’s point of view and communicate in a way that is as simple and accessible as possible, while retaining the pertinent information. 

For example, consider how a company communicates at the patient-focussed stage. When we talk about a new medicine we’re not going to talk about its biological mode of action but rather what that means for the patients. 

One way of looking at this is you need to be able to extract the relevant information and relay it in a way that is meaningful for your audience. 

Another really important thing for those who are interested in pharma is having a commitment to lifelong learning. I am very fond of the phrase “education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”. You know stuff. But there is a lot more to learn within your own field, and there is even more to learn from another field. We need people who are seeking additional learning and enrichment We need learners rather than knowers.

Is team working important in a pharmaceutical company?

A team is a group of people who have a shared goal. A goal that if the team succeeds everyone succeeds, if the team doesn’t succeed then nobody has succeeded. An important part of that is agreeing on what the shared goal is. It is not always obvious or clear what a good outcome would look like. 

The team needs to agree what the goal is, what are we going to be happy with and how does everybody contribute to that? A team is about everybody wanting everybody else to do the best they possibly can. 

There is some contradiction in all of this at times because every individual will have their own set of goals (agreed with their line manager) and will be monitored, assessed and rewarded against those goals. There is a bit of a contradiction in having a team goal but having rewards on an individual basis. However, this can be used in a positive way, as part of an individual’s goals should be to be a productive and constructive member of a team. It’s about succeeding together.

What skills and/or experience can postdocs bring to the sector?

Rarely would we stipulate a postdoc specifically as a requirement for a role. However, having done a postdoc in addition to a PhD, a candidate is more likely to have worked in a number of research teams and gained a broader view of how research is done, how teams are organised and so on. 

With a postdoc you might expect some specific additional technical skills too, but the main advantage lies in the greater breadth of experience.

What type of job roles/titles would be appropriate at postdoc level in a pharma company?

The typical role titles for someone in R&D at postdoc level when they join would be Senior Scientist in a particular specialism. This is a pretty standard job title across the industry. The next level up from that would be Associate Principal Scientist.

Could you describe the recruitment process in the pharmaceutical industry?

Applications typically are via a CV and covering letter. Both documents need to be tailored to the specific job you’ve applied for, not just a generic CV, you’re just not giving yourself the best chance if you do that. 

The CV needs to be revised towards the things that organisation is looking for. Think about how you ensure that whoever is reviewing your CV can see how you meet the criteria that will have been shared in the advert. If you can show that, you’ve got the best chance of progressing on to the next stage. 

For the covering letter, think of the information in the advert and clearly set out: ‘here’s the evidence you need to decide to bring me in to interview’, and spell it out as much as possible, for example ‘you said you wanted someone who’s worked in teams, here’s an example in my covering letter of where I’ve made a contribution to a team’. 

The covering letter should respond as clearly as possible to the advert. 

Can you describe the the interview process?

Recruiting a scientist is probably very similar across all large pharma companies. Typically, there will be a technical interview with experts and a values/competencies interview conducted by a couple of line managers. For a specialist role, they are looking for the technical expertise and specific knowledge that the scientific training should bring. 

The technical interview process will involve experts in the field asking probing questions to look for the in-depth knowledge the candidate is required to have. They want to see the foundations that a successful career can be built on. 

They will also look at the applicant in terms of their broader skills. They will be looking for competencies and values. They are looking for people with people skills, people that can communicate, share their ideas with other people in a clear and compelling way, and seek to engage with other people in a constructive and positive way, to build on ideas and shape understanding rather than to dictate and tell. 

In pharmaceutical R&D it is not about being the ‘knower’, the person with all the answers, it’s about being someone who wants to contribute to the combined learning of the team. They will be looking for those subtle, difficult to measure ‘softer skills’ that enable people to build constructive working relationships. They will look for the whole range of soft skills; different types of thinking – strategic thinking, analytical thinking, conceptual thinking, people who can use logic to understand and build ideas. 

Most large, knowledge-based companies will have a set of core values, usually prominently displayed on their website. In a values interview there will be questions asked that look to give the applicant an opportunity to demonstrate from examples in their past where they’ve shown that value, shown that that is a behaviour that they can display, with some evidence to support their statement. For example, ‘Yes, I am entrepreneurial, and here is an example of a situation where I’ve demonstrated that…’. 

The company values will typically be used when recruiting any role across the whole organisation, globally, regardless of whether the role is in sales, HR or finance etc. The examples an applicant gives of where they’ve demonstrated these values in their past will obviously differ depending on the role they are applying for. 

Companies regularly update and refresh their values, so when doing your homework make sure you know the current values of the organisation you are applying for. 

In addition to the technical and values interviews there may be a requirement to give a presentation, but this varies across departments even within the same company. The presentation could be about something very technical or it could be very broad. 

Applicants aren’t expected to spend six weeks doing a literature review; they are expected to come forward with a recognition that ‘this broad-thing’ is complex with many drivers and interviewers want candidates to highlight some of the main factors they think are important going forward. 

The recruitment process could also include less formal settings for interaction, for example, going for lunch and having a tour of the facilities. This will include the opportunity to talk to other members of staff at different levels within the organisation and ask them questions. 

It’s good for applicants to talk to people who’ve recently joined the department and work in a similar role to the one they’ve applied for to get their perspective. It’s really important for the applicants to be able to talk to people who may become their future peers, who’ll they be working alongside and will be coaching them and mentoring them and making sure they have a good induction at the company if they get offered the job. 

During the interview process the applicants will also be introduced to the business. This will typically include what the business is about, some of the headline messages (interviewees should have done some homework on this, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise), the broader aspects of the business, corporate social responsibility, and ambitions to be more inclusive touching on all aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion. 

If you are offered the job you will undergo security screening (this is standard practice for most jobs in any organisation) and typically this will include your online activities. 

Could you give us some examples of questions you expect applicants to ask at interview?

Applicants should ask probing questions at interview, not from a negative point of view, but from a seeking to understand point of view. I have a policy – be curious first, critical later. 

Questions about how the industry works, things like what makes a successful pharmaceutical company? Questions like how the ethical aspects around a pharmaceutical company are balanced? How are decisions made around which diseases to treat? These are the type of probing questions applicants could use to demonstrate that eagerness to better their own understanding. 

Other questions commonly asked are around opportunities to progress. Things like ‘tell me about the career structure’, ‘tell me about how my career might develop?’ ‘How can I broaden the knowledge I already have, that I’ll bring to the company?’ ‘What key areas would I get experience in?’. These questions around progression do need to be carefully phrased, as there is a risk the applicant could come across as somewhat presumptuous, asking about progression before even being offered the job. 

However, it is good to indicate some ambition and interest in the organisation for the longer term. Typically, in a large company when recruiting a postdoc, the interviewers would have in their minds the thought ‘can this person progress in our organisation?’. Thus, it is important for an applicant to show that they are ambitious, not necessarily in terms of promotion and progression but in terms of enrichment and learning and making a bigger contribution. 

Any final tip for postdocs? 

Do some homework and read about the background of the company, the company values and what is happening in the company. For example: Are they about to launch a new medicine? Have they just recruited a new CEO or Head of R&D? 

Have some thoughts about questions you would like to ask during the interview. These shouldn’t all be yes/no questions, use open ended questions to seek deeper understanding. 

On the negative side, a trait which sometimes a red flag is being overly competitive at the cost of others. Demonstrating the ability to work in a team is essential.

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