The Ins and Outs of Life Science Consulting, Explained by Experts
Life sciences consultants often are drawn to this industry because of the profound effect their work can have on people’s lives.
However, as this is true of many different specialties, those who are interested in becoming a life science consultant need to know exactly what to expect before breaking into this field.
The Ins and Outs of Life Science Consulting
A key differentiator of life science consulting is the opportunity to work across the broad spectrum of companies and specialties within an organization to help address challenges holistically. Successful consultants typically blend scientific and business intelligence and specialize in very specific areas.
The pace of innovation is unrelenting, and to succeed, a life science consultant must understand those changes, their drivers and what’s likely to come next.
“As a consultant, you’re able to look across multiple pieces of the life science universe, whereas [biopharmaceutical companies] have a very singular lens focused, basically, on their product,” Aaron Davis, senior managing director at Syneos Health consulting group, told BioSpace.
That said, individual consultants often specialize in specific areas, such as reimbursement, regulation or communications. Some go into narrower niches, such as developing market access strategies for oncology therapeutics. Nonetheless, they still need to be aware of the bigger picture, to better bring value to all the stakeholders.
Consulting companies also may specialize. For example, Kimberly Ha, founder and CEO of KKH Advisors, focuses on strategic communications consulting. “We advise companies on how to communicate effectively, to make sure messages are aligned with their business strategy and specific goals. I work directly with the CEOs, C-suite and sometimes the board, often about how to help launch a company out of stealth mode, increasing media visibility to help raise financing and attract partners and talent.”
Life sciences consulting isn’t right for everyone. “It takes a certain type of personality,” Ha said. “You have to be interested in problem-solving. I can guarantee that not one day goes by when I don’t get a text or email asking me to solve a problem or answer questions about a specific situation.
“You also have to really like this industry,” she added. “It’s hyper-focused and specific, so you have to laser-focused on just this one thing.” That’s perhaps the biggest difference between consulting in life sciences and other industries. Generalist consultants lack the industry-specific knowledge necessary to be exceptional. Acquiring it requires reading the breaking science as well as the industry news, understanding the trends and knowing what’s happening in the market. Otherwise, you can’t be effective.
“It’s not a field in which you can jump out and do something [in another industry] for a few years and then jump back in because the landscape can change in 12 months.”
Davis emphasized the unmet need in data analysis.
“We are awash in healthcare data,” Davis said. “Our ability to see what is happening in the healthcare system has improved significantly in the past 10 to 15 years, but our ability to make it actionable to drive drug development remains a huge (opportunity).”
“We work across multiple areas and you have to use a lot of different parts of your brain every day…analytical and creative. It stretches you.”
Clients and Workload
Consulting is not for the faint of heart, Davis and Ha both said.
The hours ebb and flow a bit, but both begin their days early. Working into the evening isn’t unheard of, particularly when clients are in a broad geographical area or when working on clients’ business crises. Vaneet Sethi, principal with ZS, a global consultancy, said working 45 to 55 hours per week is normal.
“What seems slightly more unique to the life sciences industry is that there may be more peaks and valleys than in other industries,” Sethi continued.
“For example, Q4 – October to mid-December – seems to be intense.” During this time, any money remaining in the budget may be spent creating “nice-to-have” projects. “On the flip side, the last two weeks of the year are very slow, as most of the companies are shut down. Similarly, summer hours – having Friday off every other week [at the client’s location] – seems more common in life sciences than in other industries.”
Large consulting firms like Syneos typically expect their consultants to work with multiple clients simultaneously. For Davis, the norm is to work on three to four engagements at a given time, either with one client or multiple. In addition to direct client work, Davis, as a senior consultant, also is engaged in the business development, thought leadership and outreach components of the business.
“As a consultant,” Ha said, “you’re privy to your clients’ confidential information. You are, essentially, embedded within the company.”
Maintaining work/life balance is one of the challenges consultants face in the life sciences.
“It’s really easy to not have a ‘stop’ mode,” Ha admitted. “There’s a never-ending quantity of ideas you can pitch…so you have to set some personal guardrails for yourself.” Clients generally honor that, unless a crisis arises.
Davis, who is based on the West Coast, said he typically starts work at 7:00 a.m. for European calls, followed by East Coast client meetings, before pivoting to internal project work and outreach. His workday usually ends around 6:00 p.m.
Traveling is also rebounding after the pandemic. “It’s a very important part of the consulting lifestyle. Interacting with people is important,” Davis stressed. “People buy our services through trust and respect, and that is born through relationships and working with people directly, spending time with them.”
For those launching life science consultancies, Ha [who also mentors some new entrepreneurs] advised care when selecting clients. “Work with companies that align with your own mission and vision. To me, right now, that’s the most important thing, because I can’t do my job effectively if I fundamentally don’t believe in the company’s mission.”
Skills and Qualifications Needed
The academic qualifications necessary to succeed as a consultant vary by industry niche. A Ph.D. often isn’t needed, although an MBA or PharmD is beneficial. Davis, who holds an MBA, said, “The hands-down best consultants I’ve ever worked with are usually those who have a blend of scientific and business acumen.”
Experience and industry knowledge are important, too. Ha holds a BA in psychology but, before founding KKH Advisors five years ago, she was a senior director at FTI Consulting’s life sciences and healthcare capital markets group, where she focused on strategic communications.
Before that, she was an investigative reporter for the Financial Times in Hong Kong, prior to relocating to New York to launch business intelligence products focused on the pharmaceutical industry.
Clearly, a background in science and math or other quantitative disciplines is helpful, but, Sethi said, “I have seen plenty of consultants with other majors being highly successful in the life sciences.”
He said the most important trait is to be intensely data-driven, even more so than in other industries, because of the scientific rigor required for drugs to be approved. “There also is a higher bar from a legal and ethical perspective on what data can be marketed and what you can and cannot compare, so there is an extra amount of diligence needed int this industry.”
Salaries of life sciences consultants vary by specialty. Salary.com reports the average pharmaceutical consultant salary at $70,310 in the US, with a range between $46,329 and $78,663, but this reflects compensation at small and large organizations throughout the nation.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an annual mean wage of $91,200 for all management scientific and technical consultant services and, for biologists, an annual mean wage of $98,260. Bonuses may increase the base pay significantly.
A search of individual companies, however, reveals much higher salaries. At FTI, for example, the average consultant compensation is $102,826 (range: $83,000 to $128,000), and senior consultants average $128,689 (range: $105,000 to $159,000). At Syneos Health, the average annual consultant salary is $113,377 (range: $90,000 to $144,000), of which nearly $20,000 is in the form of a bonus.