Dr. Feroz Sarkari, Associate Manager, Patient Access (Corporate Affairs) at Eli Lilly and Company, shares his unique journey starting as a graduate student in Lori Frappier’s lab, to completing his MBA at Ivey Business School, to working as a consultant at Sixsense Strategy Group Inc. and finally, to his current corporate position at a pharmaceutical company. Feroz reflects on his experience as a graduate student in Molecular Genetics and the important impact it had on his career trajectory. Feroz also shares some valuable advice on how to obtain positions in business/consulting, and emphasizes the importance of always challenging yourself and developing many skill sets. Click here to read more.
1. Can you describe your current position as Associate Manager, Patient Access - Corporate Affairs at Lilly Canada?
My main job is to ensure that patients have access to the medicines developed by Lilly. To accomplish this, one of things I have to do is work with payers, which includes private insurance companies as well as government payers, to seek reimbursement for medicines developed by Lilly so patients who need these medicines can have access to them. That often means presenting a business case to the private and public payers and demonstrating to them both the clinical rationale and the economic value for reimbursing a medicine. That is the main aspect of my work. Internally, I also contribute to brand-specific business strategies and tactics. Another thing we also do is provide local insight into global decision making on whether or not a particular product should be taken to market; essentially helping the global organization with commercialization decisions.
2. Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?
Towards the end of my undergraduate, I knew that I wanted to do a PhD and I wanted to do it in life sciences. I was looking at a couple of programs, but I learned that Molecular Genetics was, and I believe continues to be, one of the premier programs in life sciences research in Canada. Therefore Molecular Genetics was my first choice and I'm grateful I was accepted.
3. Can you share some of your favourite memories from graduate school?
It is certainly hard to pick one particular memory. There are quite a few for me and many are related to the friendships I formed while I was in the Department. Of course, one's first publication is always a memorable event as well.
But if you were to twist my arm, I would say the single most favourite memory would be when you’re thinking about your project, you formulate a question, then you design an elegant experiment to address that question, you run that experiment and when you finally have the result to show that your experiment worked. That particular moment, regardless how minute of a question you are addressing, when you have that result, the feeling is unlike anything else in the world. You have thought about something in nature and you got it right, but also, no matter how small a result that is, you are the first person in the world who actually knows that little bit of reality in nature. So that’s a truly empowering feeling that continues to stay with me. Those moments are few and far between in research, but I clearly recall going into the dark room and developing an autoradiograph and walking out with a result.
4. Can you describe your career path from Molecular Genetics to your current position?
Towards the end of my career as a grad student in Molecular Genetics, I still wanted to stay in academia and I was considering a post-doc and I was eventually going to look for a faculty position and be a researcher. But I started having second thoughts on what the market was going to look like for academics in the future. While I was searching for positions as a post-doc, I also looked into other options. I didn’t really commit to an alternative career after Molecular Genetics. I did some post-doctoral work at York University, but not with the intention of following up with a faculty position, rather something to keep me busy while I prepared to go to business school. While I was at York University, in addition to doing research I also volunteered for the commercialization and tech transfer office. This gave me an experience, which I could use in my business school interviews as well as with potential employers after business school.
After about a year and a half at York University, I started my MBA at the Ivey business school at Western. The reason why I chose Ivey was because of its case-based learning method and for its impeccable alumni network. Ivey also offered a specialization in healthcare and that appealed to me. I graduated in 2013 and shortly after, I got a job as a consultant for a strategy consulting firm in Toronto. I primarily did consulting work for biotech and pharmaceutical clients, so there was a natural “fit” with the consulting firm because of my combined background in business and life sciences. I worked there for exactly a year, and after that I moved on to Lilly.
Why did you decide to pursue an MBA after your graduate studies and post-doc?
Most research programs do an exemplary job in creating good scientists, researchers, critical thinkers and life-long self-learners. What I found as a gap were the opportunities for career development in anything outside of academia where my transferrable skills could be used. That is not the fault of the research institution as it is not their responsibility to train business professionals such as consultants. They are focused on producing good research and scientists. But I wanted to develop myself in other ways and I thought a formal business education would help add another dimension to my professional profile in addition to my science background, and position me well for non-academic careers.
Additionally, in business school, one doesn't only learn business but also learns to become a polished professional. Good business schools spend time on you to develop you like a product. If you think of business school as a business, the students are their products and employers are the customers. They want to ensure that you leave as polished professionals.
And lastly, another reason why I decided to pursue an MBA was that I saw it as a personal challenge.
Did having a PhD help you later in your career?
Absolutely! I am so glad I did my PhD, just like I am glad I did my MBA. The first job I got outside of school as a consultant, the PhD had an important impact. The consulting firm that I was interviewing with needed someone with a science background in addition to familiarity with business, so having a PhD helped me differentiate myself. Because this work had an analytical and technical component to it, the PhD added a lot of credibility to my profile, which, in turn, the organization could leverage with its clients as well.
In my current role, everyone working in my team has an advanced degree, which is essentially a requirement. Additionally, since the relationship between effort and reward in my current job somewhat parallels that relationship in graduate research, I was able to highlight this parallel to demonstrate my fit for this role. So in both of my jobs, at the consulting firm and at Lilly, having a PhD was crucial.
What was the most important thing that you learned in graduate school?
In one word, I would have so say: perseverance. I recently went back to my old lab and I saw all of my old lab books. A lot of work goes into one's thesis, but not everything one does gets published. There are a lot of failures in between successes, and at every failure one must learn and move on and try again. The lesson in perseverance and disciplined effort in the face of failures was the most important one. A close second was learning the art of analyzing information and then constructing and telling a story with that information.
What was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from doing bench work to your current job?
When you are working as a researcher, you are mostly working independently on your project. Sometimes, you might have to consult with your supervisor or collaborators, but by and large, you are in control of your project.
What can be challenging in business is that you are always dependent on other people. There is always another layer of complexity with interconnected relationships. For example, there may be a project I want to run and it may be within my budget, but I might have difficulties getting buy-ins from other colleagues even though it is fully within my means to start this project. You have to bring other people along and learn to work as a team.
How would you describe the current job market in management consulting for those with graduate degrees?
Management consulting comes in many forms. There are different tiers of consulting companies, so it depends. By and large, consulting is extremely competitive. With that said, I think there is much more openness towards non-MBA recruits in certain companies, so it’s now marginally better for candidates with non-MBA advanced degrees. For some companies, people with higher degrees can be considered equal to MBAs, but the market remains highly competitive. Nevertheless, graduate students can capitalize on this openness by networking actively (but professionally) to get an interview. That's the biggest hump, as once you can surmount that, there are numerous resources available to actually prepare for consulting interviews. The advent of volunteer consulting organizations should also help graduate students raise their profile in this competitive market. There might also be a better fit for graduate students with companies whose area matches your specialization, such as consulting companies who work with life sciences organizations.
What was the best career advice you received when you were preparing to graduate?
If I had stayed in academia, I got advice that was very important: pursue topics that interest you, not topics that are the “flavor of the week”. Go after a biological (research) question that really inspires your curiosity. I thought that was fantastic advice.
Unfortunately, there was very little advice on careers outside of academia. I did not know what questions to ask or whom to ask. That was one of the reasons why I pursued my MBA. To be fair to research programs, it is not their job to train business professionals such as consultants. As a premier research institution, the focus should be training scientist and ensuring that the quality of the research is not sacrificed. That said, I believe much progress has been made since I graduated. I was recently invited as an alumnus to the first Molecular Genetics Career Development Symposium. I thought that event was great and workshops like those are really valuable resources for seeking out career advice outside of academia. This suggests that a good balance is being achieved now.
What advice would you give to students who are looking for career options outside of academia/in the business sector?
I cannot stress this enough: graduate students have to do something outside of the lab. I was not the best at networking in graduate school, and the MBA thankfully corrected that. But what I'm glad I did during graduate school and post-doc was that I took on initiatives outside the lab that added credentials to my CV. For example, I worked as a volunteer health educator at a clinic and volunteered as an Academic-Industry Liaison for the tech-transfer office at a university. Any opportunity that I could take to add to my CV, I did. Though I had no private sector experience before my MBA, those extra things I did outside of the lab provided me with experiences I could highlight with potential employers and these were experiences that would resonate with them.
There are a lot of opportunities now to develop that profile outside of the lab. There are a lot of volunteer consulting groups. There are organizations like Mitacs, Entrepreneurship 101 from MaRS Innovation, and a lot of start-ups that need resources and creative individuals. Finally, another important aspect is to try to develop your 'narrative' in a language that resonates with others outside of academia. In other words, don't hide behind technical language; rather, bring your transferrable and relatable skills to the forefront.