Mena Boules MD shares the story of his path in pharmaceutical leadership and provides insights and advice to physicians who are considering pursuing work in the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Mena Boules is an Executive Medical Director of Gastroenterology, US Medical Affairs at a large pharmaceutical company. Dr. Boules describes his experience and steps through medicine and pharmaceutical business.
From a young age, Dr. Boules knew that he wanted to be a physician. He felt that this would be a way for him to impact people’s lives in a positive way, and that working as a physician would fulfill a higher purpose in life. After growing up in Seattle, he decided to apply to medical school in Egypt, which is where his parents had immigrated from before he was born. The application process was especially challenging, requiring SAT subject tests, a heavy load of science courses during high school, and some prerequisite courses at a local community college.
Going to medical school at age 17 in Egypt was a big adjustment. Born and raised in the US, he didn’t have a strong familiarity of Egyptian culture, and his ability to communicate in Arabic was minimal. After finishing the six-year MD program, he then had to face another hurdle of applying to US residency as a foreign medical graduate. He started his journey back to his home in the US by studying for United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1. In the meantime, he married a medical school classmate who he had met while living in Egypt, and they both had to take the tests to qualify for residency in the US. Dr. Boules explains that studying for USMLE was challenging because of the need to pivot his mindset from medical school exams which were in the form of short answer and essay. So, he had to reconfigure his study process to prepare for multiple-choice exams.
Upon moving back to the US, he knew obtaining clinical training would be challenging and was determined to work hard to differentiate himself. His wife applied and matched in internal medicine residency, and he explored several opportunities and landed in a research position as a research fellow at Cleveland Clinics Main Campus Digestive Disease Institute while studying for USMLE Step 2. He explains that even as a medical school graduate, it was very difficult to find paid research positions, and he had to do research as a volunteer while studying and applying for residency. After approximately 15 months, his research mentor was able to obtain funding for his research position.
During this process, he also paid for shadowing opportunities. He explains that he was working hard and feeling that he wasn’t making progress. Another factor that made the situation even more difficult is that he really wanted to become a surgeon, and surgery residencies are particularly difficult for foreign medical graduates to match in. He felt that others were moving forward in their careers and in their lives, while he was in the cycle of study, research, study for more exams and hoping to land a training spot when the time arose.
After years of shadowing, Dr. Boules finally matched in a general surgery residency program at The Cleveland Clinic and was enthusiastic about getting started. Throughout his journey he realized he wanted to take some of his clinical knowledge, research experience, and make a broader impact. During residency, he was introduced to opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry, which he attributes to networking. However, Dr. Boules explains that he didn’t walk in easily. He had to apply widely for many jobs in the pharmaceutical field before finding an entry-level position as a medical science liaison (MSL).
Dr. Boules says that working as an MSL is a good entry point to get a perspective and understand the how to implement medical strategy in a field-based position while maintaining the integrity of scientific exchange. It was also an eye-opening experience of how a doctor, or any healthcare professional, may fit into the pharmaceutical world. He was very eager to learn and particularly interested in the strategy side of the pharmaceutical business. Only three months into his job as an MSL, a senior medical director role became vacant, and Dr. Boules was asked to fill-in as an interim medical director, which was a quick fast forward on his career path. He says that he worked hard in the job he was hired for, while also filling in the interim role. Within a year and tremendous support from his boss and his peers, he was officially named medical director. While working in that position, he was approached by a recruiter for another position, and currently is working as an Executive Medical Director in a different company. Dr. Boules confidently feels that he is in the right position and is excited about his future, and experiences. He’s very enthusiastic about learning and providing value where he works, ultimately recognizing this value is transferable to make an impact on patient lives.
Dr. Boules answered several questions for doctors who are thinking of moving into a non-clinical field in medicine.
Do you think it is important for a physician to finish residency before moving to the pharmaceutical industry?
It can be helpful. There are many different roles for physicians in pharmaceutical companies, such as roles in medical affairs, research and development, safety, and health economics. There will always be a benefit to completing a residency and practicing, but it is not necessary. It’s important to realize that the experience you gain in any job gives you skills that are transferable.
Do you think it is important for physicians to apply for courses in business or research methodology to become more qualified to work in the pharmaceutical industry?
Courses may be helpful and potentially can expand your network to find opportunities. These courses may add to your knowledge and skill set. It’s not uncommon for many who apply for pharmaceutical positions to receive a standard rejection response which is often attributed to a lack of pharmaceutical experience, creating a catch-22—so courses or research can be a way to gain that experience.
What advice do you have for doctors who are interested in non clinical work?
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