For two weeks each month, Aretha Thurman trains 12-20 new sales and sales support hires for Medtronic, a medical technology company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She makes sure the students—a mix of nurses, physical therapists, and others—can operate the company’s chronic pain management devices.

By training’s end, her new colleagues are ready for hands-on work with a field instructor, a mentor who will help them develop their customer, presentation, and troubleshooting skills. It’s a multifaceted training, and Thurman needs the new hires to understand how their relationships with both physicians and patients are about to change. Instead of taking orders from a doctor or caring for a patient, they will be consulting customers.

“It’s not so much that you’re not a patient advocate, but your focus is more on the company,” Thurman says. “You can’t lose sight of the business side, since every interaction can have a positive or negative affect that can mean your job.”

Challenge seekers looking for a change of pace should consider a career in the pharmaceutical or medical device industries. They are radically different from the patient-centered work you’re accustomed to, but if you’re looking for a career change, these fields are ripe with benefits. The perks of increased salary with access to commissions, discounted stock options, and generous 401K plans are, of course, met with a few challenges. People who succeed in for-profit’s fast-paced, bottom-line environment not only routinely work long hours, but they’re also willing to step out of their comfort zone to prove their worth.

Although product demand is expected to remain strong during the next decade, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an employment increase of 6% through 2018, slightly lower than all manufacturing combined. Several factors—including an emphasis on cost-effectiveness and the expiration of many brand-name drug patents—may limit employment opportunities, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector.

Yet, as a minority nurse, you may have a decided edge on the competition; companies are always looking to diversify with quality people who understand the human body and can relate to a community. Opportunities exist in sales, research, and other technical jobs—as a nurse, you’re well suited for any of them.

“Nurses are perfectly prepared for corporate America,” says Beverly Malone, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., Chief Operating Officer of the National League for Nursing in New York. “They’re the rare professionals who can walk into a stranger’s room and within several minutes start doing or talking about something very personal. In terms of their flexibility, creativity, and ability to work with people, they’re incredibly well prepared for these kinds of roles.”

The following is a glimpse at six unique job opportunities in pharmaceutical and medical device industries, from the experience necessary to the perks to the potential pitfalls.

Clinical research associate

If you’re an analytical thinker who’s always eager to check out the latest and greatest in medical advancement, becoming a clinical research associate (CRA) may just satisfy your inquisitive nature. Because CRAs monitor patient data and testing results for clinical trials, they perform important functions in the research and market launch of new therapies. CRAs track statistics about study participants that they likely will never meet but whose data are key to FDA approval. Besides being sticklers for documentation, they must also be comfortable interacting with health professionals who carry out those studies.

“It’s very helpful to have someone who understands the inner workings of a hospital, is able to network with medical staff, and can discuss research findings with physicians,” says Ed Campanaro, M.S.H.S., B.S.N., Vice President of Clinical Operations and Data Management for Cubist Pharmaceuticals in Lexington, Massachusetts. “Nurses are very well prepared to review the complex clinical data generated by study participants and, in many cases, discuss those findings before reporting the results. It’s certainly value-added when you have someone in these positions who is medically trained.”

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CRAs often work for contract research organizations (CROs), independent firms that supervise trials for sponsoring corporations. Many recruiters suggest a CRO as the perfect stepping-stone from clinical nursing into research, especially if you’re a new B.S.N. graduate. It allows you to hone your study monitoring skills and product line knowledge.

When Norma Rodgers, B.S.N., R.N., A.C.R.P., joined Research Pharmaceutical Services, a CRO in Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, as a senior clinical research associate in 2007, she brought other CRO monitoring and oncology nursing experience. Both helped prepare her for tracking phase one and two trials for several oncology and anti-infection drugs.

Her work involves both learning protocol and certifying that doctors and staff are qualified to conduct the study at hand, trained in the ins and outs of the processes. After patients are recruited, she tracks participant progress while ensuring that investigators are executing the procedures appropriately. “If doctors and staff aren’t doing the study correctly, then you have issues,” Rogers says. “You don’t know if the drug is actually working or you’re getting results that you’re either not looking for, or shouldn’t be.”

When Rodgers joined her first CRO, she negotiated a lateral financial move that allowed her to earn the same money she made at the bedside but without shift, weekend, and overtime differentials or extra pay as a charge nurse. She also earned several bonuses. Experts say CRAs with two to five years of experience can earn between $60,000–$70,000.

In the meantime, Rodgers travels three to four days a week from her Plainfield, New Jersey, home base, covering medical centers in three northeast states. Besides dealing with the paperwork of a highly regulated field, the biggest challenges involve keeping many personalities in the loop and responding quickly. “Things don’t always go the way you want them to go,” she says. “Fortunately, as nurses, we’re flexible.”

Safety monitor

If you’re interested in ensuring patients a safe experience during a clinical trial, you can find ample opportunities in both the medical device and pharmaceutical worlds. Both use nurses to monitor any untoward events that might be linked to products being marketed or clinically tested. They’re responsible for tracking and referring all reports to the FDA and other regulatory agencies.

 As part of Eli Lilly’s Global Patient Safety division, associate consultant/case manager Dorothy Jackson, B.S.N., monitors safety issues for 18 cardiovascular and endocrine clinical trials. From the company’s Indianapolis headquarters, she triages daily reports from physician-investigators, making sure they’re entered into Lilly’s safety system for proper disposition. She also reviews site protocols after incident reports are filed to guarantee everything is in order. In addition to all that, she’s the back-up to another team leader who oversees all trial safety aspects, from launch to completion.

Jackson routinely relies on the critical-thinking skills she learned in nursing school and honed as a surgical nurse. Before coming to Lilly as a contractor in 2006 and employee in 2007, she served as a clinical research coordinator, managing company-sponsored cardiovascular and diabetes studies for a cardiology group.

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Because of her experience, she can offer a quick assessment when an investigator reports that a patient on a Lilly drug experienced a side effect. What might have caused it? Was it expected? And what did the doctor do in response?

In terms of other prerequisites for the job, Jackson cites solid clinical experience, as drug development requires grounding in the disease process. Also, with patient safety at the forefront, there’s little margin for error, so tight organizational and management skills are imperative. You also have to view patients from a different perspective.

“When you work in a physician’s office, your focus is on the individual,” Jackson says. “But in the corporate world, there are thousands of patients. You’re focused on a whole population of people. You want to know, ‘How is this outcome going to affect them?’”

Certified diabetes educator

Minority nurses who’ve paired their B.S.N.s with diabetes specialty training can not only enhance their careers via various corporate roles, but can also help their communities. By representing manufacturers dedicated to cutting-edge therapies, certified diabetes educators (CDEs) raise awareness and even prompt others to be proactive about their health.

 “If minorities are overrepresented in certain chronic diseases, such as diabetes, companies limit their market opportunities if they don’t pull in minority nurses to help educate the community about a product.” says Yvonne Wesley, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., Director of the New Leadership Institute for Black Nurses at the NYU College of Nursing.

As a regional clinical specialist for Roche Diabetes Care, Beverly Hawkins, M.S.N., R.N., trains physicians and diabetes educators on the company’s insulin pump, the ACCU-CHEK® Spirit. When Hawkins joined Roche in 2006, she brought both years of experience as a nurse educator and her American Association of Diabetes Educators certification to the company.

Working out of St. Louis, Missouri, Hawkins travels to hospitals and private practices throughout several Great Lakes states, where she not only makes presentations to health professionals but also teaches consumers how to use the product. Hawkins credits her years as a medical-surgical and charge nurse for exposing her to different patients and helping her juggle many tasks.

Also, the beauty of traveling for her job is that she sees how different people address this disease. Although diabetes manifests itself in a fundamentally similar way in everyone, educators have unique styles of presenting material, while patients take in the information in their own way. She’s constantly adjusting her delivery.

“You have to be innovative sometimes,” Hawkins says. “You may go into an office ready to train 10 people and only one shows up. Or you may be prepared for one and 10 show up. With this job, you have to be able to make adjustments.”

Medical information specialist

If you’d like to empower people by dispensing clinical knowledge over the telephone, you may find your niche in a company call center. Many manufacturers staff telephone banks so health providers and consumers can get quick answers and immediate help.

 “Our goal is to deliver the right medications to the right patients at the right time,” says Kathleen Bos, M.D., Vice President of U.S. Medical Affairs for the biopharma corporation UCB in Brussels, Belgium. “That takes understanding both medicine and how to care for a patient’s needs. Nurses have the necessary skill set, so hiring them in these roles is very complimentary.”

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As a UCB medical information associate, Debra Curry, B.S.N., is often the first contact health professionals and consumers have with her company. She fields communication in UCB’s Atlanta, Georgia, call center. On any given day, her conversations may pivot from specific drug inquiries to information on research trials. She’s also charged with handing off any adverse effects about a product to UCB’s pharmacovigilence (PV), or drug safety, department, which has an additional call center to further investigate complaints.

What does she rely on from her nursing background? Curry uses her knowledge about physiology and pharmacology, as well as the therapeutic information she’s gleaned over many years as both a hospital and ambulatory clinic triage nurse. Those experiences have helped her not only assimilate and understand UCB product information but also describe clinical trials concerning them.

Besides sharpening her oral presentation skills and broadening her computer capabilities, the biggest challenge for Curry was in her approach to patients. As a clinical nurse, she was accustomed to finding and fixing people’s medical complaints. But now she empowers them with information so they can partner with other caregivers. “I was used to giving patients what they needed immediately. So I had to switch hats.”

Besides working an enviable (at least from a nurse’s perspective!) 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. day, Curry points to a compensation package that topped her former clinic salary, plus corporate perks such as tuition reimbursement exceeding $5,000 a year. After finishing her M.S.N. in 2011, she intends to pursue a Ph.D., possibly in pharmacology. Her goal is to become a medical science liaison, a field-based professional who discusses data on UCB products with the medical community.

“When you educate, your impact goes beyond just that one-to-one experience of patient care,” says Bos. “You have the plus of knowing that what you do really can have a ripple effect on a much broader audience.”

Sales representative

Ready to close the deal? As a salesperson, you’d be persuading physicians and decision makers to buy your company’s product, while boosting your personal earnings beyond an annual salary. Sales reps earn bonuses or commissions that can increase their earning power into six figures.

Pharmaceutical sales reps “detail” drugs, meaning they’re trying to influence physicians to write more prescriptions for their company’s products. Medical device sales reps work aggressively for an equipment purchase order. Although autonomy is a feature of both jobs, there are downsides. You may be working well into the evening, especially if you’re demonstrating a device in surgery. Salespeople might also become disenchanted with the travel and routine.

“If you come to a pharmaceutical sales job with expectations of using your clinical nursing skills to enhance it, but then discover that what’s really required is detailing products or entertaining staff, you may feel very unchallenged,” says Manny Barrientos, head of the Jacksonville, Florida, recruiting firm, The Wolfgang Group.

But if it seems like a fit, you may find sales both lucrative and fulfilling. When Chip Mitros, B.S.N., joined Medtronic in 2005, he believed becoming a neuromodulation associate sales representative would move his career in directions he couldn’t achieve at a level-two trauma center. Two promotions later, Mitros heads a five-member sales and support team in South Bend, Indiana, whose products include two implantable pain relief systems. An essential aspect of his job is knowing each system well enough to troubleshoot any problem for the neurosurgeon implanting it. “We’re more than just delivery people. We have to know these systems like the backs of our hands to get the result we’re after.”

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Although Mitros’ calling card is his clinical knowledge, nurses need assets other than a kindred spirit to succeed in sales. Top performers not only relate to others but have the desire to win. “To be successful,” says Bo Burch, Chief Principal of the Wilmington, North Carolina, recruiting firm, Human Capital Solutions, Inc., “you have to have the passions and personality of a hunter. You need to be highly driven.”

If that sounds familiar, you can count your rewards in bonuses and/or commissions. A base salary for new pharmaceutical reps tends to be lower than clinical pay ($50,000–$60,000), but annual bonuses ($15,000–$20,000, for starters) sweeten the package, which typically increase over time.

Although beginning salaries for medical device reps are even lower at $35,000–$50,000, the commissions generally make up for the difference. Based on a percentage of an equipment or device sale, they can range from $30,000–$70,000 during the first year. Once you’re at the top of your game, the numbers increase significantly.

Beyond the pay, however, there’s just the satisfaction of being an integral player in a dynamic venture. “I don’t feel like I’m just one of the numbers. I’m more of an individual,” says Mitros. “I have my own name. I’m not just the ‘night nurse.’”

Clinical sales specialist

Becoming a clinical sales specialist (CSS) may be the perfect career match for nurses who want to be part of a medical device or drug sales team but aren’t ready or eager to sell products. They support salespeople by demonstrating and/or troubleshooting products, from injectable drugs to implantable cardiac devices.

 Sometimes they work in tandem with sales representatives, both assisting doctors with surgical, catheterization, or other procedures using their product. Other times they’re on their own, running in-service training or follow-up clinics. In either case, they play a crucial role in making sure doctors, nurses, and even patients are well versed with their devices or drugs. To cement the relationships, companies usually gravitate to nurses already working in the specialty related to their product line.

“Their insights are focused on a product in a way that brings a whole new perspective to what it’s really all about—how it’s utilized and how it’s best marketed and sold,” says Cindy Stokvis, Senior Talent Acquisitions Specialist for Boston Scientific’s cardiology, rhythm, and vascular field sales organization. “They add a dimension otherwise missing in someone without the same background.”

When Nikki Cracknell, R.N., M.S., joined Boston Scientific’s cardiology, rhythm, and vascular division as a clinical education service specialist in 2009, she brought the perfect career mix to the job: a newly minted nursing degree along with a master’s in exercise physiology, plus previous experience in cardiac rehabilitation and exercise stress testing.

From her Charlotte, North Carolina, home, Cracknell travels throughout North and South Carolina, working with cardiologists and electrophysiologists as they implant the company’s pacemakers, internal cardiac defibrillators, and other cardiac rhythm or heart failure devices. Like her customers, she may have to get to the hospital on a moment’s notice. What’s more, she could be helping implant a device in one place and get called to another emergency room or inpatient check. “Everything is open to change, and change happens quickly,” she says. “You may be getting ready to do one thing and all of a sudden you’re doing something else.”

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For nurses who don’t mind the personal intrusion, the rewards can be lucrative, with base salaries ranging from $65,000–$90,000 and annual bonuses of $10,000–$20,000, depending on the company, product line, and team performance. But there is a tradeoff. “The job really never ends. There’s not a start or end time.”

Yet it’s one of the best entries into a corporation and it also offers the best of two worlds. Cracknell says she can be supportive without having the stresses or responsibilities of direct patient care. Instead, she’s focused on assisting them and their physicians with her product consultation.

“For those who do it, there’s nothing more rewarding than representing truly lifesaving, innovative technology,” says Stokvis. “You’re contributing to something bigger than just a single practice or patient group. You’re giving many people exciting new ways to live life and be hopeful about their future.”

Getting started

Whatever path you pursue, there are general points to keep in mind. Most companies invest significantly in recruiting and training new hires. In terms of nurses, candidates usually have to have a B.S.N. degree. Sometimes an R.N. will get you in the door if it’s paired with a bachelor’s in another field. Like experience, the right degrees bolster your credibility.

 Most pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers have rigorous training programs, with written assignments, tests, and even role-playing. You may not need an advanced degree, but your company will likely have a substantial tuition reimbursement program to encourage you to go further. In fact, the draw for most nurses who make the transition into corporate life is the many opportunities to climb the ladder or move laterally into jobs in marketing, product development, or project management. The first job is just a jumping-off point.

Since joining Medtronic in 1999 after years of intensive care nursing, Thurman transitioned from clinical specialist to her current role. Now she’s poised for her next step: a doctorate in nursing practice. She hopes to use it as a way to adapt her training methods to the changing business needs of a global company as well as her teaching career after corporate retirement. Her focus will be on the emerging field of informatics, the application of technology to medical information management.

In the meantime, Thurman offers this advice: “You have to assess whether or not it’s going to be a good fit. Business can be very lucrative, but it’s not a feel-good, hand-holding situation. It just depends on what suits you at this point in your career.”

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