Interview with Cali Howitt, Medical Director at BGB Group
Cali Howitt received her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the Weill Graduate School at Cornell University in 2009. Shortly after, she joined Medicus International, a medical communications agency that focuses primarily on pharmaceutical publications. She is now a medical director at BGB Group, a promotional medical education agency in Soho. I recently spoke with Dr Howitt about what qualities she thinks are helpful for someone transitioning from the lab into medical communications.
How would you describe promotional medical education?
I answer this different every time somebody asks me. Our role is to facilitate the conversation between the pharmaceutical company and the target audience, which is usually doctors. We help them translate their data into all sorts of different deliverables that help them communicate about their drug. You can think of us as an advertising agency, but we focus on science.
What do you do as a medical director?
My day to day varies. Sometimes it’s more content; sometimes it’s more organizational, managerial. From a project basis, we do a lot of content preparation that involves referencing slide decks, creating slide content for live meetings or that can be used by sales reps or MSLs (medical science liaisons). I also do a lot of resourcing as far as determining the work capacity for people on my team, keeping track of what people are working on, keeping track of schedules, making sure we have enough resources.
What about this career path appealed to you?
I was looking at consulting coming out of grad school, and I did a bunch of summer programs with big consulting firms. I graduated in early 2009; the economy plummeted in 2008. I’m not saying that’s the only reason the consulting thing didn’t work out, but consulting companies right around that period did completely stop the interview process.
I would never be comfortable graduating without having a job set up. I had friends that were working in the industry and they really enjoyed their jobs. They said they loved working with pharmaceuticals, they really liked their day to day, their work/life balance was good, and they enjoyed the people that they worked with. So, I put out a couple of resumes at some different medical communications companies and got hired right away at one – and honestly that was it.
Since then, what do I like about it, which I think is probably a little bit more pertinent since I didn’t know that much going in – I like that everyday is fairly different; you do get into ruts where you’ll do the same thing for two months straight, but you know that eventually you’ll be working on something completely different. I do really like the travel. I’m more driven by relationships, so I like being able to develop relationships with clients and have [them] be happy with the work that you’ve done, but it’s all still based in science.
What qualities do you think make a successful medical writer?
Of course you have to have the writing skills – more people don’t have them than you think. The ability to write clearly and concisely is not something that everybody [has]. Then, you have to be extremely detail oriented, but still able to see the big picture. I think that that’s also a little bit difficult to find. People that come out of PhDs are often too detail oriented, and they morph into being able to see the big picture. You can usually tell who those people are going to be – they aren’t so in the weeds when you’re interviewing them.
Were there certain skills that you needed in the lab, or in science, that you think translate well to this career?
Particularly for people with PhDs, but it also applies to MDs and some other higher science degrees, the way you’re taught to think applies to this industry. You can look at very dense scientific material and draw out the most important aspects fairly quickly.
Are there any skills or capabilities that you felt you were lacking when you first started as a medical writer?
There’s a lot of business savvy that you really don’t have coming out of grad school, the MBA-type knowledge that you might have if you’re coming out of a business degree. It takes a little while for us to learn and pick up, but you can learn it if you pay attention and work with your account guys closely.
When you are interviewing someone who’s fresh out of the lab or currently in the lab and is telling you that they want to transition into a medical communications career, what do you look for to see whether they might be a good fit?
I tend to think about what I would want from a team member. A lot of that is personal fit. Can I imagine this person being in front of a client? Do I think this person is going to get too bogged down in the details? Do I think that they are able to see the business aspects – is that going to frustrate them or are they going to enjoy that? Does it seem like this person is, I don’t want to say a true scientist cause it makes it sound like that’s not what we are, but there’s a whole other aspect to the job that I think people don’t realize. It’s not just writing and digesting science.
Do you look at extra-curricular activities, ie, activities outside of the lab?
I generally don’t. Some people have done a little bit of grant writing, or they’ve gone through their tech transfer office, that sort of extracurricular activity I do look at because those folks who’ve done freelance writing or consulting on the side often have a better idea what they’re in for.
Do you look at any of the more traditional markers of success in science, like publications, attending conferences, or the type of research that they’ve done?
Attending conferences is nice, particularly if it’s not just a basic science conference, if it’s one where there’s a pharmaceutical presence because they’re going to have a better idea of the industry that they’ll be joining. And also experience presenting and talking to people. I don’t look at papers because, having been in there myself, you can have the best research and never get it published.
Anything that I feel can translate to communication, translating science, or knowledge of the industry – those are the sorts of things I look at.
Do you have some general questions that you tend to ask people?
I only usually ask a few questions. I always do the basic ‘tell me about yourself’ cause I want to hear their elevator speech. Always have your elevator speech ready.
I always ask them if they’ve worked in groups, how they feel about working for pharmaceuticals, how they would do in a client-facing situation. How do you feel about being in more of a corporate hierarchy where you really have a boss, and once you move up you’ll have somebody that reports into you? That’s a really big change when you’re coming out of the lab. I try to get a feel for if they’ve thought about it. Nobody really knows how they’re going to react to any of the sorts of things that you’re given in your first job. I don’t expect anyone to really know that, but I would hope that people who are interviewing have at least thought about it.
Those are the basic ones and then, the obvious one is ‘why are you moving over from science?’ I’m just always very curious about the answer. It [gives] me insight into who the person is, but I don't really judge them on the answer.
At that point, I always ask them to ask me questions. That’s a big one – have your questions ready. And if I’m the fourth person interviewing you, ask me those questions anyways. That’s probably where I get most of my information is based on the questions that they ask me, not necessarily the questions I ask them. If it’s all ‘what are the hours, how is the travel, what is the pay?’ that’s very different from people who ask ‘what is the day-to-day work like, how do you get along with your teammates, how do you work with the account side, do you interact with the clients?’
Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to learn more about the industry?
I would network. I am willing to talk to almost anybody if they really have some connection – they went to my school or they know somebody who went to my school or they’ve talked to somebody who’s talked to me. There’s a huge community of people particularly from the PhD programs in the New York area, and once you meet one or two of us, you’re in and you can get as much information as you need. We were all in the position when we were trying to find jobs and start new careers and we didn’t know what was going on or what we were doing. Almost all of us are willing to take a few minutes and talk to somebody about it.