6 Nonclinical Careers for Physicians Looking to Switch

Sylvie Stacy, MD, MPH


August 05, 2020

Many physicians have had enough of being burned out, dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, and getting bogged down with too much paperwork — and, as a result, have started to consider a nonclinical career. Other physicians enjoy practicing clinically, but are interested in a change or want to use their skills to help people on a larger scale. Yet, physicians are often unaware of the variety of options available.

Years ago, I began helping physicians and other medical professionals find fulfillment in their careers. I've seen many physicians pursue a variety of nonclinical roles, including teaching, writing, administration, and more. The overwhelming majority of these doctors are happy they've made the change.

Some physicians who begin looking into their options for a nonclinical career immediately consider the pharmaceutical field, owing to its close relationship with the practice of medicine. Others, however, are skeptical about working in this industry, which seems to stem from a lack of awareness about the role of doctors in pharma or misconceptions about the field.

The pharmaceutical industry is not only a logical option for physicians interested in taking their career beyond the bedside, it is also an option with a very broad range of potential positions and career paths for doctors.

Of nearly 950,000 physicians in the US workforce, probably only a few thousand currently work in the pharmaceutical and medical products field as their primary role. Some of these doctors were in a medical practice before making the switch; others took a job in industry right after medical school or residency. Despite the small number, the type of work they're doing is wide-ranging and the paths taken to get there are diverse.

Physicians fit in anywhere from early-stage research to postmarketing surveillance, taking on both broad roles encompassing multiple disease states or lines of business and specialized positions within a single therapeutic area.

This article covers six types of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry that may be a good fit for physicians. I'll also point out what you may like or dislike about each job, and provide a general salary range. Some positions require a medical degree, whereas others may also accept medical and healthcare professionals with other backgrounds, such as physician assistants, nurses, pharmacists, and PhDs.

1. Drug Research and Development

Drug research and development involves laboratory research in early phases and conducting and managing clinical trials in later phases. An investigational drug needs to undergo rigorous testing to demonstrate its safety and efficacy before it will be approved for use in humans outside of trials. The research and development process includes discovery research, preclinical studies, and three phases of clinical studies that get progressively larger and more complex with each phase.

The main reason for the extensive time and resources dedicated to research and development is the US Food and Drug Administration's stringent standards for medications. Pharmaceutical companies try to avoid facing nonapproval by dedicating a great deal of resources to clinical development. Medical and scientific experts are essential to this process and its success.

Medical professionals provide a "clinical voice" in the drug development process to secure regulatory approvals and confirm that new medications are both safe and effective.

A physician working as a clinical research and development medical director interacts with internal teams, external experts and investigators, and regulatory bodies. Any decisions that have significant clinical components or implications involve the medical director.

Physicians in research and development are reviewing study protocols for suitability and feasibility. Directors improve a trial's chance of success by ensuring that the latest scientific information is implemented into clinical development plans and that participants in a clinical trial receive the most appropriate treatment.

Where to find these jobs: Jobs for physicians in drug research and development can be found with both pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs). Physicians who are on the fence about transitioning to a nonclinical career might be interested in participating in drug research and development from within a clinical setting. Being an investigator for a clinical trial provides useful exposure to the clinical research process and provides relevant experience for positions at pharma companies.

General expected pay range: $130,000-$250,000 per year

What some physicians like about these jobs: Many doctors have participated in some type of research by the time they complete their training. Those who enjoy it may find they also enjoy the challenge of drug research and development. Physicians in this line of work often appreciate the opportunity to work in multidisciplinary teams and play an active role in bringing new treatments to patients.

What some physicians dislike: Drug development is a highly regulated field. The red tape and bureaucracy may be frustrating for some doctors. Preclinical and clinical trials that don't meet expected outcomes can mean a sudden, jarring end to all ongoing efforts to bring an investigational agent to market. It's important to keep in mind that such decisions aren't a reflection of the quality of the physician's work, but are simply business decisions.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.