A Day in the Life of an Industry Oncologist

Excerpt from Achieving Career Success in Oncology: A Practical Guide, Chapter 2, by Jennifer J. Griggs, MD, MPH, Gregory A. Curt, MD, Kathleen A. Cooney, MD, and Douglas W. Blayney, MD

There are really two industry universes one can consider: large pharmaceutical companies or small biotech firms. The worlds are quite different and there is actually considerable intra-company variation within each sector.

Recently, The Scientist reviewed what they considered the top 30 pharmaceutical and biotech companies.¹ The total number of employees varied from fewer than 100 to more than 20,000. There is considerable variability between companies regarding factors such as management, the research environment, remuneration and benefits, policies and practices, communication, job satisfaction, and integrity. Each company's "culture" will shape the environment in which you will work.

The size of the company will also dictate the role of the oncologist on the team. In smaller companies, the oncologist may have additional responsibilities in study conduct, regulatory, commercial or other areas of decision-making. While this may allow the chance to assume more of a managerial role than in a large pharmaceutical company, one needs to counterbalance this with the fact that, by and large, a small company with one or two products in development faces more uncertainties and restrictions in research budget than a large company.

A large company with several cancer agents at different stages in development may offer an opportunity to learn about different agents at different stages of their life cycle. Also, in a large company, your focus may change quickly depending on business needs. In a small company, your experience will depend on where a smaller number of agents stand in development. Individual entrepreneurism and risk tolerance are especially valued in these smaller companies. It is also obvious that the medical skill set, clinical trial design and study endpoints, and development strategies are quite different for targeted therapy using small compounds versus biological agents or tumor vaccines.

Collaboration with Government and other Agencies

Industry oncologists commonly deal with regulatory colleagues in the United States (the FDA), the European Union (the European Medicines Agency), and in countries around the world, to discuss new drug approval strategies and new indications for approved drugs. Equally important, in the future, industry oncologists will likely work increasingly closely with their counterparts in both the government (e.g., the NCI) and academic sectors. The underlying dynamics predict such collaboration. Industry will likely discover interesting new agents for patients with cancer than it has independent resources for optimal development. The NCI and academic centers have impressive platforms for phase I-II drug development (the NCI Investigational Drug Branch), translational research (the NCI SPORE Program), and phase III trials (the Cooperative Groups). It is fair to say that many of the interesting novel agents will come from the private sector for the simple reason that academic tenure does not accrue from lead optimization and formulation chemistry-the "heavy lifting" of drug development. The logical conclusion is that the public, private, and academic sectors can do more working together than they could ever accomplish in isolation.

Interdepartmental Collaboration

A fundamentally broad fact of life for an oncologist in industry is the ability to meet the business needs of the company, and a fundamental skill in executing this is adaptability. If your interest is cancer drug development it will be important to learn how the process is handled within the company. Does the same team oversee an agent as it goes from phase I to development for launch (more likely in a small biotech company) or do teams transition at key milestones in development (more likely in a large global company)? If teams transition, is it possible for an individual to transition with an agent for continuity and personal training and development?

All of this requires working in a team with a wide variety of staff, including translational scientists, chemists, statisticians, regulatory experts, and marketing experts. The opinion of the oncologist on the team is obviously important, but the development plan will be influenced as well by commercial priorities and the competitive environment.

As a member of the team, your role is to make sure the team gets the medical and scientific aspects of development right, within the context of the commercial and clinical priorities. For this reason, it is also important to learn how key decisions within the company are actually made. How much autonomy do teams have? How is central oversight exercised? Is the oversight light, or heavy-handed? The location of decision makers can have a significant impact on your life in terms of the need for domestic or international travel.


1. Zielinska, E: Best Places to Work: 2007 Industry. The Scientist, May:57-63, 2007.