Dr Norhasanah Mohammad is the Associate Medical Manager at MERCK where she is responsible for the portfolios of oncology and neurology in Malaysia. MERCK is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. In this Medical Affairs role, she manages the day-to-day matters involving both the internal and external stakeholders. “I still remember when I quit my House Officer training in January 2020. If you had told me then that I would one day be the Associate Medical Manager at MERCK, I wouldn’t have believed you!“ she said. But this resilient doctor did find a major role at a large pharmaceutical company!
Dr. Nor’s reasons for leaving clinical medicine were multifactorial which combined and snowballed overtime and became too much to handle. She was on her fourth Housemanship posting when she left the MOH! The thought of moving on to complete her MOship was simply unbearable to her. She didn’t want to become a malignant human being because of how she was being treated. She wanted a nurturing environment and work-life balance where she could progress and experience growth.
“If you had told me then that I would one day be the Associate Medical Manager at MERCK, I wouldn’t have believed you!”
Hitting the Lowest Point in Her Life
“I hit the lowest point when I quit housemanship. I started to lose friends, I didn’t have a job to support me, and I had bills to pay. To my colleagues, leaving my housemanship training so late in the posting was the wrong decision,” noted Dr. Nor. She was disappointed by their reaction. She expected the fraternity to understand what many young doctors are enduring within the hospital system. “Sad to say, we don’t have a supportive system in the fraternity” she said.
Fortunately for her, her mother gave her her blessings to leave clinical medicine. And that was all the approval and support that she had needed to leave clinical medicine and look for other ways to help patients.
As one who was trained in the system, all Dr. Nor knew was the structured MOH pathway for doctors. When she left clinical practice in January 2020, she did not have a well-structured plan. She left in a hurry in order to preserve her mental state and general well-being. But she also experienced a tremendous sense of relief that she could now follow her heart. This is, after all, her life! She took the time to explore alternative pathways and held different positions to find her niche.
In the period of 20 months before she landed her first break in the pharmaceutical industry, she was a research assistant, marketing coordinator, medical content writer and more. The MCO had just been declared in March 2020 and permanent jobs were in short supply. Back-to-back MCOs certainly did not help the situation. She contented herself with missing some meals and not paying her bills on time, but she never gave up on applying for jobs!
“I hit the lowest point when I quit housemanship. I started to lose friends, I didn’t have a job to support me, and I had bills to pay.”
A Door of Opportunity Opens
She had connected with some friends on LinkedIn and became very active on the platform. That’s when she found out that there are many doctors with amazing careers in the pharmaceutical industry. Some were Medical Scientific Liaisons and others were Medical Advisors. She had never known that this possibility existed and began to seriously consider a career in the field. She sent out almost 100 job applications to the industry. She received many rejections, but she wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.
Although rejection was painful, after a good cry, Dr. Nor continued to apply for jobs. Her resilience paid off in the end. “Don’t give up!” she says. “I only needed one person to believe in me. That happened to be the Country Director at Pfizer who gave me a six-month contract as a Medical Scientific Liaison. This is the breakthrough that doctors who haven’t completed their housemanship need,” she added.
“When you get the opportunity to enter the pharmaceutical world, whether it’s a door or a window that opens for you, whether the company is large or small, grab it! AS LONG AS YOU GET IN, THE ONLY WAY TO GO IS UP!” said Dr. Nor with great delight.
How Doctors Can Prepare for the Pharmaceutical Industry
According to Dr. Nor the outlook is very good for doctors entering the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors are advised to keep an open mind, take what is offered to them and get their foot in the door first and foremost. From there, other opportunities are certain to arise for them. “Most pharma companies are happy to have someone with a medical degree come aboard as their Medical Scientific Liaison,” she noted.
Strong communication and presentation skills are highly prized in the industry. Interpersonal communication, decision-making and conflict resolution skills are important. These skills are needed to work cross-functionally with other departments. Those with these skills will succeed in the industry.
“When you get the opportunity to enter the pharmaceutical world, whether it’s a door or a window that opens for you, whether the company is large or small, grab it! AS LONG AS YOU GET IN, THE ONLY WAY TO GO IS UP!”
Knowing statistics and how to read trials are crucial for a career in Medical Affairs especially for the therapeutic areas one oversees. This is where studying epidemiology in Medical School becomes relevant. Dr. Nor upskilled herself in these areas as well as in understanding research and research terms before joining the industry.
She also connected with those with a background in the pharmaceutical industry on LinkedIn to find how interviews were conducted and how she could perform well in them. Additionally, Dr. Nor connected with a former Houseman who was already in the industry who was helpful in getting her ready for her Pfizer interview.
There are many stages of interviews in the pharma industry for this is the way that they narrow down on their preferred candidate. “You feel like you’re in some sort of reality show. There are so many candidates, and the list has to be narrowed down,” said Dr. Nor.
The Associate Medical Manager Role
The basic requirement for the role of Associate Medical Manager is a medical degree. “Having a medical degree is extremely helpful for a pathway to the pharmaceutical industry compared to a degree in Pharmacy, Biomedical Sciences, or even a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences.” she said. She also noted that with a medical degree, doctors are able to rise to the position of Country Director or move to regional offices and take on important roles within the industry.
Dr. Nor found Medical Affairs to be a very interesting area. She emphatically states that Medical Affairs is the heart of a pharmaceutical company. This is not merely because of her heart for Medical Affairs but also because of the interconnectedness between Medical Affairs and the other departments and vice versa within the industry.
Although working cross-functionally is the norm in the pharmaceutical industry, Dr. Nor takes pride in her commitment and responsibility as a Medical Affairs member in supporting the internal and external stakeholders of her company. Medical Affairs personnel of a pharmaceutical company are the local representatives responsible for any queries related to the therapeutic areas they oversee. Dr. Nor understands the responsibility and the accountability that rests on her shoulders in her role as the Associate Medical Manager at MERCK. She reports to her Medical Manager who is based in Singapore.
The Reason for Her Resilience
According to Dr. Nor the main reason for her successful career move is her resilience. She never gave up despite the many challenges and rejections she endured. “If you give up on yourself, no one will care about you. At the end of the day, you only have yourself,” she noted pensively.
Dr. Nor’s motivation for not giving up on her career quest was her mother. Her mother had raised her single-handedly and she felt it was her duty to show her mother that she wasn’t a failure. This was to keep her mother from feeling like she had failed as a mother in raising her daughter.
Despite the days when she felt like a complete failure, when she couldn’t pay her bills or had to forego a meal or two because finances were in short supply, Dr. Nor never gave up. “The struggle can be really, really bad. It’s hard to get a job with limited clinical experience but, if you don’t give up, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel!” she said. This is her exhortation to young doctors to stay the course and soldier on despite the obstacles and challenges they face in their career quest.
Follow Your Heart
Apart from not giving up, Dr. Nor’s most important exhortation is for doctors to follow their hearts. While some people may think that following one’s heart is silly, Dr. Nor observes that, “Your desire is in your heart, not in your brain. As long as you can achieve what you desire, you will enjoy doing it for the rest of your life”. This is in line with the wise words of Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher and Politician. He once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
“It’s hard to get a job with limited clinical experience but, if you don’t give up, you will see the light at the end of the tunnel!”
MFM hopes that Dr. Nor’s inspiring story has encouraged doctors to continue to be resilient in your career quest in the face of challenges. Never give up, follow your heart and you will surely experience the light at the end of the tunnel!
Dr. Norhasanah will be our Diverse Careers for Doctors Webinar speaker in May 2022. Book your seats here!
Dr. Norhasanah Mohammad and others who have made successful career moves will be present at our Diverse Careers for Doctors Summit on August 20th, 2022. This is a great opportunity to network and to get the answers you’ve been looking for. Surround yourself with the positive influence you need for that career change!
To find out more about non-clinical jobs for doctors in Malaysia, check out our job vacancy and find inspiration from medical doctors who’ve made a career change in our case studies. Check out Medic Footprints Malaysia , and follow our MF Malaysia Instagram and Facebook pages to stay updated on our events, webinars, job vacancies and more.