Written By Meryam Al-waadh

Career Day has come and gone. The largest event that LSCDS hosts, organizes, and runs showcased a variety of interesting and exciting career pathways outside of academia. With esteemed professionals in fields ranging from medical communications to consulting, to business development, students were left with a good sampling of advice, networks and future career pathways. As a member of the Special Initiatives team, a branch of LSCDS that set up and successfully ran the first Mentorship Program cycle, I was interested in speaking to one of the Career Day panelists who has graciously signed up as a future mentor for our upcoming cycle. Dr. Feroz Sarkari is currently an Associate Manager, Patient Access for Corporate Affairs at Eli Lilly Canada. He is one of our own, a PhD graduate from the Department of Molecular Genetics, and has also obtained an MBA from Western’s Ivey Business School with a specialization in Healthcare Management. In this interview we look at the importance of mentorship, tips and advice for graduate students hoping to enter the work force, and job hunting struggles.

Thank you for conducting this interview with us at Career Day. We greatly appreciate it. To start off, could you please describe to the readership what the role of an Associate Manager, Patient Access is?

My role is to ensure that patients who need a medicine developed by Eli Lilly and Company have access to it. To accomplish this, we demonstrate both the clinical rationale as well as the economic value for reimbursing a medicine to private payers and public payers. I also work cross-functionally with the marketing  and medical affairs teams and contribute to overall  brand strategy. By working together we ensure that the value proposition is consistent across the different functional units.

What are you currently working on and what are the related tasks/duties?

As with many projects, we have specific milestones to accomplish regularly. I am primarily involved with coming up with a plan that ensures that patients who need access to a particular medicine, do have access to it, and there are specific milestones in this plan that need to be accomplished before and after product approval.  Developing this plan involves gathering relevant insights, working with both quantitative and qualitative data, getting input from internal and external stakeholders and getting alignment from key decision makers.  So this entails a lot of analytical work as well as communication.

Your major or field of study was a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto. How were you able to translate that academic experience into your current role?

I first ensured that my research experience was complemented with other experiences outside of the lab, so that I could draw from experiences in settings that would be more relatable than a basic research lab to potential employers.  To translate my academic research experience to my current and previous roles, I made sure I talked about it in a language that resonated with my audience.  In a thesis-based work, one manages a project, works with deadlines, often works in teams, often negotiates, deals with conflict, analyzes data and tells a story  behind that data (the so what). These are competencies which are relevant to any workplace, and I made sure I highlighted these competencies.

You also completed an MBA from Western University. When is the right time to get an MBA and how much does it add to an applicant’s CV?

Great question and this one comes up a lot. I typically say that if someone is telling you that you don’t need an MBA, don’t listen to them. Likewise, if someone is telling you to do an MBA, again don’t listen to them. It is you who needs to decide whether the MBA will add any value to your career story or not – no one else can do that for you.  Most often, the best use of an MBA is when you use it to pivot your career after you’ve achieved some experience. An MBA is not a magic bullet and doesn’t automatically land you a job. It has to be part of a career narrative that you will share with potential employers.  So I would suggest graduates explore all the potential options before deciding on an MBA, get some experiences if you are able to, speak to MBA graduates to see how their career pathways were shaped. It can be a huge financial and time commitment, with some opportunity costs, so one needs to not take the decision lightly. However, if planned for carefully, it can be a huge plus for your career.

Mentorship

I know you have registered as a mentor for our upcoming Mentorship cycle this coming September. What are your thoughts on the importance of mentorship for grad students?

Mentorship can be an important aspect of career development. Students in research-based programs only have academic mentors (in the form of their supervisors and other faculty).  However, there should also be an outlet or a channel for those who want to explore possibilities outside of academia and we need universities and graduate departments to take note of this and to further continue the work. Mentorship can help with that need.  I am quite pleased to see progress in this direction with the institutions I have been involved with.

What are your recommendations when designing a mentorship program? What should be taken into consideration?

I think it’s important that the students walk away with something tangible.  They should be able to come away with a better sense of how to best position oneself as a professional, how to expand one’s network, how to practice interviews, etc. Mentors should be a sounding board for the student’s ideas, as well as a resource. From the mentors’ perspective, it’s important to feel that their time is respected and their input valued.

The Job Search

I think that what concerns a lot of recent graduates and soon-to-be graduates is the job hunt and the process of actually getting the job. I’ve found that both interviewing for a potential job and networking are both difficult tasks to accomplish well with regards to the job hunt. To start, what are some tips you would advise grad students when going in for the interview?

A lot of preparation before the interview is needed. What I usually do is create a chart of my experiences and the skills and competencies I have demonstrated or acquired during those experiences.  This chart then forms the basis of my responses when an interviewee asks “tell me about a time when you did such and such…” Knowing this information beforehand, having a clear idea of what my competencies and skills are and how I am going to back them up with examples, is very helpful in my interview preparation.

And networking?

I think like many people, networking doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me; it was especially tough earlier in my career. I found that large networking events were a little difficult to navigate, but again the biggest tool here is preparation. Find out who will be attending and plan out with whom you would like to connect at the event. Set achievable and realistic goals when you are just starting out. For example, instead of expecting that you’ll hand out 10 business cards, start with an aim to make one or two meaningful connections and agreeing to connect later on, perhaps via LinkedIn.  Bring a friend and practice little things such as how you can introduce a friend to someone you have been speaking with, and use that introduction as a smooth and graceful exit from a conversation.  Setting these small but assured steps will make the experience a lot easier and less intimidating.  Building on small successes will also help with confidence.

Where did you struggle the most in your job hunt and what was difficult for you?

When one is starting out, the job hunt is a grind – there’s no easy way of putting it. Again, organization and preparation helps.  When I was conducting my job hunt, I set a strict schedule where I had designated time for job hunting, setting goals, preparing for informational interviews, and just getting organized. It is stressful and it can eat away at you, unfortunately, so it’s important to not do away with your ‘normal life’; continue to eat well and be socially and physically active.  It is also important to keep building momentum and reminding yourself of all the improvements and accomplishments you’ve made along the way. So maybe you didn’t get the call back from a recruiter, but you made a new LinkedIn connection, or you set up an informational interview, or you spoke to your contact at the networking session. These steps help you build momentum and provide opportunities for other doors to open.  Patience, momentum, and strategic thinking are needed during the job search.

Some Final Thoughts

If you could give grad students or soon-to-be graduates three pieces of actionable advice that they should follow up with, what would they be?

One, get in front of as many people as possible (i.e. network). Two, when possible, get yourself out of the lab and add another dimension to your professional profile by getting non-research experiences to complement your research work. And three, as I mentioned previously, be organized, be prepared, be polished, be courteous and you’ll do just fine.