We asked healthcare leaders for their best career advice -- and what they shared applies beyond their industry

More than 15.4 million people work in healthcare, an industry that’s been growing rapidly.

From doctors to researchers in labs to sales force teams at pharmaceutical companies, healthcare covers a whole variety of careers. So, while at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference in June, Business Insider asked more than 20 healthcare executives for the best advice they’d give people who are interested in a career in healthcare. And a lot of what we heard can be applied to virtually any kind of career.

Here’s what they told us.

Get a mentor

“Everybody needs a mentor,” Genomic Health chief medical officer Dr. Phil Febbo told Business Insider. Febbo spent most of his career as a professor where he had the opportunity to mentor students. The reason? A mentor will help you stay focused. “As a mentor you’re just the ‘no’ guy. You fend off all the others that want to send them off in directions,” Febbo said. That way, you can stay focused on what truly interests you without getting sidetracked.

Publish your work

Finishing tasks is key, especially in healthcare. “Be dedicated to a project, complete it and publish it,” Dr. Edward Kim of the Levine Cancer Institute at Carolinas HealthCare said. “Too many people try to work on things because they think it’s better, it’s not.” By finishing a project, you have something to show for it. “You have to be able to write and publish. That is your only currency.”

Follow your passion

This was by far the most popular advice to give, which is no surprise since cancer treatment is an area that’s full of mission-driven people. “It’s a great place to make a difference. You can make a difference in patient care, and you can do it on a scale,” Bill Hinshaw, general manager of US Oncology at Novartis said. “What I would advise is to study it, understand, and realise it’s a great ride if you get on board.”

The pharmaceutical industry, in particular is dynamic industry to get involved with. It doesn’t always have the best reputation, but it’s an area that takes a lot of effort and, well, passion.

“What we do is important. No one can do it alone, we have to do it as a team,” Robert LaCaze, head of oncology at Bayer said.

“I find it to be remarkable to be working in an industry where every stakeholder is genuinely interested in improving lives of patients,” Dave Fredrickson, vice president of specialty care at AstraZeneca said.

And beyond that, it’s important to be an expert in whatever area you fall in love with. Steve Ubl, the president of pharmaceutical trade organisation PhRMA pointed to the best advice he got, which was to “Dive into the substance.” If something gets you excited, know it better than anyone.

Don’t plan out your career

In health care in particular, there are a number of routes you can take: working as a physician, working in a lab, working at a corporation; the career path possibilities are endless. “I think you have to be open to opportunities. Be able to take risks, and seize the opportunity and don’t have a preconceived notion of where you’re going,” Cancer Research Institute CEO Jill O’Donnell Tormey said.

And this fits into the passion element as well. “Be completely open to what comes your way, and allow yourself to go in the direction of both your heart and passion,” Dr. Tadd Lazarus, chief medical officer at Qiagen said. He said that’s what happened to him, when he started out working at an AIDS center, then went on to work in diagnostics that could bring technology and insights to people dealing with disease around the world. “It continues to fuel me with passion.”

T-cells immune system cancer immunotherapy

University of Pennsylvania via Microbe World / Flickr
In this 2011 image, tiny beads (yellow) are used to force T-cells to divide before they are given to leukemia patients.

Go into immunotherapy

It’s been an exciting time in the field of cancer treatment, particularly in a newer form of treatment called immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. “Go into immuno-oncology,” Dr. Howard Kaufman, the chief surgical officer at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey said as his career advice.

“There has been a literal explosion, avalanche, tsunami, waterfall of new knowledge that has come to us,” Ron Squarer, CEO of Array Biopharma said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of innovation coming up, so it’s a great time to enter the field.”

Be flexible

In drug development, very few drugs turn into a blockbuster drug that cures millions of people. So being flexible is key.”You don’t always leave work feeling that sense of reward,” Dr. Craig Tendler, vice president of late-stage development and global medical affairs at Janssen said. “Most of the time you feel frustrated, but when it really hits big, it makes up for all those frustrating things that don’t work out.”

And that flexibility goes for science overall. “What I’d encourage everyone: don’t have an invented narrative in your head, but actually let the narrative follow the science,” Dr. Roy Baynes, senior vice president of clinical development at Merck said. “When you try to squeeze the narrative, you oftentimes come up with the wrong approach.”

Set high standards

This advice might be a little hard for optimists, but setting standards might keep you on track. “Don’t just try to look for a silver lining,” Dr. Derek Raghavan, president of Levine Cancer Institute, said. “Don’t be a glass is half full person; actually look at what is in the glass and figure out if it’s worth having.”

Never stop learning

When working in a job, it’s easy to become the best at just one thing, but it’s important to keep learning and switching it up. That’s especially true in pharmaceuticals, where physicians often go on to take leadership roles in major companies. “You need to learn about one thing, then go to something else, and they’re often quite different,” Dr. Stephen Eck, head of medical oncology at Astellas, said.

Jonathan Zalevsky, vice president of biology & preclinical development at Nektar, said that he’s taken steps back in his career that ultimately put him ahead in the end because he didn’t stop learning. “You meet some people, they reach a certain point in their career and they just stop learning,” he said. “But the moment that you say that to yourself, you’ve probably regressed, you haven’t stopped you probably dropped.”

‘Characterise your favourite day’

Dr. Rachel Humphrey, chief medical officer of CytomX, gave her advice in the form of an exercise. Picture your perfect day. It could be a weekend day where you’re home reading, or a day teaching others, or just spending time with family. What are your values that put you in a place where you’re doing what you love,” she said. “If what you’re doing does not put you in your favourite day, go find it and don’t be afraid.”

And that favourite day might change over the years, so it’s important to keep re-evaluating.

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