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Changing Lanes

By Alvin Quah, Medical Communications and Patient Relations Manager at AbbVie

If necessity is the mother of invention, then reinvention is the mother of success. It is not intrinsic of organisations to encourage people who want to do something tangentially different. And let’s not forget, changing careers is a huge psychological and financial gamble.

I started out in academia, my PhD was in diabetic retinopathy and my postdoctoral research was in proteomics of motor neuron disease. Those who know me now cannot picture me in a white coat by a lab bench running a PCR machine.  But back then I could probably recite every ingredient to every laboratory solution. I even published a paper on how to isolate motor neurons from newborn mouse spinal cord. And then, like many before me, I ran out of funding for my research. This forced me to do some career reflection and after researching my options, I made my first change. That’s when I moved to the pharmaceutical industry and started as a GP representative. Most of my friends (and my parents) questioned my decision. I remember a group of my GP customers trying to convince me to leave the industry and study medicine. But I was determined to prove them wrong. And that I did. I have been in the industry for 15 years, 10 of which was spent in medical.

In my time at AbbVie, I was given many creative projects outside the realm of medical affairs, which I enjoyed thoroughly. My manager at the time mentioned on numerous occasions that we needed to build on my natural flair for presentations and communications. So, I made a plan. And after two years as medical manager at AbbVie, here I am again, presented with another opportunity to change direction in my career, in the corporate communications team. I have always been interested in communications. At school I was the president of the debating club and started up the school’s astrology newsletter (yes, it had a cheesy name like the “star-gazer”). Following my short stint on MasterChef, I had several cooking segments on television, hosted my own cooking show and had a regular column at the Sensis website CitySearch called Alvin Bites (not to be confused with, and quite a different tone to the current Alvin’s Bites).

Pivoting in your career requires aspiration, self-awareness, curiosity, vulnerability and a lot of hard work. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. People will often see you in your new role and think “wow”, but no one will ever know how hard you have worked to get there. The skills you learn along the way are priceless. And the beauty of skills you acquire is that they are transferable. My time spent as a scientist allowed me to converse in technical detail to my doctors in my years as a pharmaceutical representative. The myriad of soft skills I learnt as a representative put me in good stead as a medical science liaison. You get the picture.

One more thing - they say you need to develop an unwavering self-belief. You’re going to nail it - and you should say that to yourself every day. Admittedly, I am still working on the whole “self-belief’ part. I never imagine that I can just stroll into my new role. And the truth is, there is still a lot to learn. But I am committed. I recently enrolled in a graduate diploma of communications. At the time of enrolment, I thought I was absurd for taking on a new course AND a new role but with all the rules around social distancing of late, enrolling in a course, doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I see it as occupational therapy.

For those of you who have changed career lanes, I salute you. For those who are considering a change, take a deep breath, work on your development, continue to learn, talk to the right people about your passion then leap forward bravely.