Pharma MBA Commercial Roles

This week, a reader had requested information on MBA roles in a pharma company. I thought it may be a good idea to write a blog post on this while the MBA summer internship is still fresh in my mind. I won't mention any companies in particular, and will keep this information as general as possible.

This post will only focus on the commercial function as that is the only area where I have first-hand experience. While I put down pharma in the post title, it also applies to medical device companies for the most part. Alright, let's get started.

Pharma MBA functions overview

Positions in pharma are like those of any other corporate MBA positions, which include finance, operations, marketing and strategy. For finance and marketing, there are often leadership development programs (LDPs) that MBAs get recruited into full time. The majority of these leadership development programs are rotation based, lasting 2-4 years with 3-4 rotations in various business units. The entry level title for MBAs in pharma is typically product manager or associate product manager.

If you want to work full time in a pharma company after the MBA, the best way is to go through the summer internship route. This is because of the following 3 reasons:

1) Many companies hire exclusively from their MBA internship pool for their leadership development programs. While you don't need to recruit for a leadership development program, the extra resources and exposure to senior leadership in LDPs are ideal for future career growth.

2) The MBA internship allows you to build relationships incredibly quickly. MBA interns are expected to network extensively within the company during the summer, and can have anywhere between 40-60 one-on-one meetings with leaders in the company. This exposure is valuable when future opportunities open up. It's hard to build such a network if you only started full time without the internship.

3) The MBA internship is like an extended interview, and allows you to learn more about your fit with the company. After 10-12 weeks, you should know if the company's culture matches your own values and if you'll be able to build a successful career there.

Pharma MBA commercial functions

As I mentioned already, commercial generally means marketing in pharma. The organizational structure is built around individual products or disease areas. For example, companies are usually organized around business units for oncology, virology, cardiovascular, respiratory, neuroscience, etc.

As an intern or entry level full time hire, you'll be responsible for a project within one of the business units listed above. The functional exposure you have in marketing will depend on the life cycle of the product, which are as follows:

Product in clinical development

If the product is still in clinical trials, you'll likely work on building the marketing strategy in certain markets in the world. You'll do a lot of competitive analysis, dig into the clinical data to understand your value proposition, and develop an overall commercial strategy for the company moving forward.

Launch product

If the product is in launch mode, you'll get a lot of experience working on launch-related components, such as building marketing materials, sales training, market research, contracting with vendors, etc. These opportunities are less abundant, as pharma companies typically don't launch many products per year.

Launch preparation can last years and the type of work you do will depend on how close you are to launch. Also, often mature brands will launch in a new indication, and the experience with that product will mirror that of a launch product.

Mature product

The role of an MBA hire is to help identify barriers to increased market share and help optimize marketing and sales strategies and tactics. These products have already been on the market and need to win against the competition. Most MBA internship projects will be in this category just based on the low number of approvals and the 10 years or so of patent life left on approved products.

End of life-cycle product

These products are losing patent protection and are going to face generic competition soon. There are strategies that pharma companies need to deploy at this stage as these products were likely big cash cows for the company.

How to get a position in pharma marketing

The commercial function in pharma is the most unique. While finance and operations are important, they are less product-specific. If the life-saving quality of pharma products is what drives your passion for the industry, and you want to be in the driver's seat to produce business outcomes, then a commercial role is probably right for you. You'll get to understand the value proposition of life-saving products and how to navigate a complex regulatory and market environment.

To get hired in an MBA commercial role, you need to demonstrate you already have functional exposure to marketing and are committed to the transition. This doesn't mean you need experience in the health care industry. In fact, I'm a strong proponent of recruiting folks outside of health care as pharma companies need to adapt to the shifting emphasis on the consumer.

But you do need to demonstrate that you know what marketing is and why you want to go into marketing. Thankfully, in the first year of your MBA program there are many ways to get this functional exposure. You need to provide evidence through prior experience on the job, MBA club roles in marketing, coursework, etc.

You also need to convince recruiters that you are a team player and can work well in a matrix environment - meaning you can influence people without having authority over them. Pharma marketers need to get alignment from a ton of stakeholders in the company. Communication and leadership skills rise to the top in the list of important attributes for the MBA hire.

Pharma marketing career progression

Marketing positions are considered leadership roles in pharma companies. It is also the essential function if you want to move up into more advanced commercial leadership roles, such as brand lead, business unit head or the general manager of a country.

It's usually nice to get some field experience, and that's why many leadership development programs will have a sales rotation. In order to move up, you'll also need experience working with all the customers in health care, including payers, providers, and patients.

I have no data to back this up, but my gut says that pharma marketing positions are where most MBA interns and graduates go if they decided to focus exclusively on health care.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Great post indeed and very useful for those interested in pharma. It would be great if you could also share hwat a typical day looks like (or looked like) during your intership, if possible.

    Thanks a lot and keep sharing!


    1. Hi Hugo, thanks for posting your comment here. Here's a typical day:


      Weekly touchpoint meeting with matrix team members
      One-on-one with manager, present supporting info to get a key decision made
      Send some emails answering questions to vendors and other matrix team members


      Lunch and learn with senior leadership to learn about career development


      Lead conference call with vendor to provide feedback on design piece
      One-on-one with a senior leader to discuss career paths
      Make a slide or two for the final project presentation
      Send some more emails to vendors and other matrix team members


      Have dinner with some MBA interns from UNC

      Feel free to ask any additional questions here!

  2. Hi Steve,

    This post pretty much serves like a guide for career changers looking to transition into commercial roles in pharma. Thanks for another awesome post. Did you happen to come across any MBAs working as tech scouts in the pharma? These folks, like yourself, would have a strong domain knowledge and also a good idea about the strategy of company's pipeline. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks.

    1. Hi Sathya, I actually didn't know the term "tech scouts" so I looked on Wikipedia. It looks like a synonym would be folks who work in business development. There are MBA graduates who get immediately hired into BD within pharma and in other industries. The positions are definitely less abundant than say marketing, operations or finance, but they do exist.

      In some companies, these positions are titled pipeline or portfolio management. In my experience, there are more internship opportunities during the MBA than there are full time after the MBA.

  3. Hi Steve,

    As always, the post is really interesting to read on. This is exactly the information I was looking for (An insider view on how people get to work on different domains within the industry).
    I would like to know more about the consulting roles MBAs play with respect to Healthcare/Pharmaceutical Consulting. I see Mckinsey, BCG, Bain & Company etc on Duke’s employment stats and I was wondering whether anybody with a major in HSM would get into these companies in specific? If yes, can please take the pain to explain what kind of roles & responsibilities they take on?
    Same goes for some of the biggest Private Equity & Investment Banks as well. Do they hire an MBA with HSM major specifically targeted towards their Pharmaceutical/Healthcare sector practice in general?
    I would really appreciate your take on the above.


    1. Hi Sid, thanks for your comment. While I didn't recruit for health care consulting I do know that most firms recruit for generalist positions, meaning they first train you on business fundamentals and then let you specialize after a few years. However, firms such as PwC and ZS I believe do offer health care specific roles. You'll want to confirm this with someone else as well.

      With regards to PE/IB, I'm less certain. I would definitely reach out to current/previous folks within these firms.

  4. Dear Steven,

    That is a very useful article and thank you very much for sharing it. I almost finish my MBA and I am still in doubt if it is a right decision to move from marketing in banking industry (which i have 5 year experience) to marketing in pharmaceutical after graduation. In your opinion, is it worthwhile to do so?

    With best regards,

    1. Hi Soma,

      Congrats on completing your MBA studies soon. Based on the fact that you have 5 years of marketing experience in banking, it can be beneficial to your career development as you have experience to rely on in that industry. You'll likely be promoted faster and can take on more roles to round out your leadership experiences.

      On the other hand, marketing in pharma is also a lot of fun. It ultimately depends on where your passions lie. Some people like pharma because of the product and the impact it has on patients and it can be fulfilling. However, you'll also have to learn a completely new industry and understand the intricacies of marketing in this space. It's highly regulated (like in banking) but it's a whole different beast.

      With that being said, doing the MBA is a great way to transition into something new. It's much easier to do that when you graduate than compared to a few years later after the MBA because of the recruiting opportunities available to students and recent graduates.

      I'd recommend doing some informational interviews with folks doing marketing in pharma and reflect on your future career ambitions. Both are great choices, but it depends on whether your love for pharma is sufficient to negate the career progression advantage you'd have in banking.

  5. Superb post. Really well thought out. I wanted to know if you ever got an opportunity to recruit EMBAs with pharmaceutical domain background especially in finance, marketing operations and strategy

    Although all these streams have a strong impact which stream is likely the leader meaning if a person is in mkt and other in operations , will an operation personnel have a better chance to progress in general management at top or mkt??

    Thanks for your post again

    Best Rachit Jain

    1. The one consistent theme of people who progress in general management is probably leadership and success in managing big teams of people. The exact function is less of a factor, but exposure to more processes is a plus. There is anecdotal evidence of success from just about every function.

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