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Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?

Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?

Megan Malugani / Monster Contributing Writer

Salespeople’s roles in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical-device industries are closely related, but there are some key differences in what each of the three types of sales jobs entails, as well as in the skills and personalities necessary to succeed.

From differing levels of technical know-how to varying degrees of on-the-job autonomy, here’s what to keep in mind before targeting one of the areas as a prospective salesperson.

Breaking into the Field

Although it is tough to get a sales job in any of the three areas, the pharmaceutical industry is typically a little easier to penetrate than biotech or medical devices, says Kerrie Espuga, who worked in pharmaceutical sales for 13 years before becoming managing director of New York City corporate training firm Corporate Trendsetters in 2008. That’s because the pharmaceutical industry is bigger and generally employs more salespeople. Another reason is that the level of technological and scientific savvy required to be a top-notch salesperson is generally lowest for pharma, a little higher for biotech (which requires a thorough understanding of research using genetic engineering technology) and extremely high for medical devices.

“When I was a sales manager conducting interviews for a pharmaceutical company, a candidate could have sold copiers for two years” and could get the sales job if he had an excellent track record, Espuga says. Not so with biotech. “Sometimes biotech mandates some kind of medical background or previous experience selling within the healthcare industry,” she says. That’s because “biotech is a little more scientific, a little more technical,” she notes.

Selling medical devices is even more complex than selling pharma or biotech products, according to Gil Carrara, MD, a partner in the biotechnology and healthcare practice at Battalia Winston Amrop, an executive search firm in New York City. “Many times a device person will go right into the OR and work with the surgeons,” Carrara says. They conduct simulations related to using the product, for example. “You have to understand everything about the product,” he says. “That’s why [medical-device salespeople] are usually PhDs or engineers.”

Interestingly, sometimes employers recruiting medical-device sales reps reject people with pharma experience, because selling medical devices requires a much more direct approach than the more marketing-oriented approach pharma reps typically use, Espuga notes.

Choosing a Corporate Culture

The corporate cultures of pharmaceutical and biotech companies also differ. With a long history, the pharmaceutical industry is large and well-established. Biotech is a newer industry, poised for growth.

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