Skip to main content

Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?

Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?

Pharma, Biotech and Medical-Device Sales Careers

Salespeople's roles in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical-device industries are closely related, but there are some key differences in what each of the three types of sales jobs entails, as well as in the skills and personalities necessary to succeed.

From differing levels of technical know-how to varying degrees of on-the-job autonomy, here's what to keep in mind before targeting one of the areas as a prospective salesperson.

Breaking into the Field

Although it is tough to get a sales job in any of the three areas, it's a little easier to break into the pharmaceutical industry than it is to break into biotech or medical devices, says Kerrie Espuga, who worked in pharmaceutical sales for 13 years before becoming managing director of New York City corporate training firm Corporate Trendsetters in 2008. That's because the pharmaceutical industry is bigger and generally employs more salespeople. Another reason is that the level of technological and scientific savvy required to be a top-notch salesperson is generally lowest for pharma, a little higher for biotech (which requires a thorough understanding of research using genetic engineering technology) and extremely high for medical devices.

"When I was a sales manager conducting interviews for a pharmaceutical company, a candidate could have sold copiers for two years" and could get the sales job if he had an excellent track record, Espuga says. Not so with biotech sales. "Sometimes biotech mandates some kind of medical background or previous experience selling within the healthcare industry," she says. That's because "biotech is a little more scientific, a little more technical," she notes.

Selling medical devices is even more complex than selling pharma or biotech products, according to Gil Carrara, MD, a partner in the biotechnology and healthcare practice at Battalia Winston Amrop, an executive search firm in New York City. "Many times a device person will go right into the OR and work with the surgeons," Carrara says. They conduct simulations related to using the product, for example. "You have to understand everything about the product," he says. "That's why [medical-device sales reps] are usually PhDs or engineers."

Interestingly, sometimes employers recruiting medical-device sales reps reject people with pharma experience, because selling medical devices requires a much more direct approach than the more marketing-oriented approach pharma reps typically use, Espuga notes.

Choosing a Corporate Culture

The corporate cultures of pharmaceutical and biotech companies also differ. With a long history, the pharmaceutical industry is large and well-established. Biotech is a newer industry, poised for growth.

"Since Big Pharma has been around for so long and is so established, they've been successful in growing and growing and growing," Espuga explains. This means that several salespeople representing the same product often call on the same doctor, she says. However, biotech is more specialized and has fewer reps. "It's not as saturated, so biotech reps have a little easier access to doctors because they're not [selling] 'me-too' drugs," she says.

In recent years, jobs in the biotech industry may have been considered riskier and less stable than jobs in large pharmaceutical companies, but that perception has changed now that some of the biggest pharma firms have implemented layoffs. "I think in this day and age, risk can be found anywhere," says Kelly Hammons, a product manager for pharma company US WorldMeds, who has worked in both pharmaceutical and medical-device sales. When considering a job selling a new product in biotech, Hammons says you should ask, "Is the biotech a startup? Does the company have other stable drugs that will keep it afloat? Where is its funding coming from?"

On the other hand, Espuga notes, a small biotech startup could perform so well that it gets acquired by one of the pharma or medical-device giants.

Team Player or More Autonomy?

Effective teamwork is important for pharmaceutical reps, Hammons says, while team building is often less emphasized for biotech and medical-device salespeople. "Big Pharma needs to be consistent with its messaging, so if nine reps are running around with the same product, everyone needs to be on the same page," Espuga says. "There is a lot of team building and camaraderie, because the goal is to form a synergistic team that trusts each other and does really well." Biotech and medical-device sales, on the other hand, are more entrepreneurial and more autonomous, she says. "It's more like you're running your own little business."

The potential for six-figure sales salaries is one reason motivated and tenacious individuals pursue sales jobs in any of the three areas -- pharma, biotech and medical devices. The potential for a salesperson to earn a blockbuster bonus is best in medical-device sales, followed by biotech and then pharmaceutical sales, Espuga says. "It's a decision about what kind of culture you want. Do you want a team environment with a lot of support and camaraderie, or do you want autonomy and the possibility of making more dollars?"

Learn more about biotechnology careers.

Learn more about sales careers.

Education programs to fit your profession