BSc alumnus Eugene Pretorius is in a sought-after position at an international biopharmaceutical services company whose services include performing clinical trials for various pharmaceutical and medical device companies.
He has recently completed his training and is now a certified clinical research associate (CRA) at Quintiles, a Fortune 500 company with over 36 000 employees in more than 100 countries.
Although he dreamed of becoming a doctor, he started his successful career by obtaining a BSc degree instead: "I want to advise students not to start a BSc degree without a definite career plan. Do your research about career options and look at the jobs available in that field of study".
He agreed to answer a few questions about his studies and subsequent career path.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a small town in the Eastern Cape – Middelburg. We were about 200 learners from Grade 8 to 12 in the school.
Why did you decide to study BSc at Stellenbosch University?
My grandfather and uncles all went to Stellenbosch – so it was always a dream to follow in their footsteps. As I excelled academically and was good at numbers, I initially wanted to study chemical engineering or actuarial science.
In 2007 however, my mother suddenly became ill and passed away. I made a promise that I will spend the rest of my life saving lives. Because of this promise I dropped computer studies and switched to biology in matric.
I applied for medicine everywhere, but without a Grade 11 biology mark, I couldn't get in. Finally I decided to study BSc, determined to work hard and then get in after my first year. I was so focussed on medicine that a second career option never existed. Although I worked hard and applied every year, the reality was that I never got into medicine – the most disappointing time in my life.
After my second year, I qualified to take Anatomy as major for BSc Human Life Sciences.
After graduating from SU, I did my BMedSc Honors in Clinical Anatomy and Cell Morphology at the University of the Free State. It was closer to home and more affordable. That was followed by a MMedSc in Anatomy.
Soon after starting my master's, the reality of limited funding and study debt hit me. I got an internship with Quintiles in the data management department whilst lecturing to first-year students on a part-time basis and doing my master's, working 16 to 20 hours a day.
How did you land up at your current employer?
While working as an intern in the data management department, I applied for a CRA trainee job as part of the company's global development programme.
I completed my training and am now an independent and certified Clinical Research Associate. The next step will be to gain enough experience so that I can become a senior CRA and then I want to go into clinical project management.
What is a typical working day like for you?
Let's say a new chemotherapy for lung cancer needs to be tested, I will work with oncologists all over South Africa. I make sure the sites recruit subjects (usually patients) to participate in the study and then I "audit" (monitor) the doctor and the subjects on the trial to ensure all is done with subject safety first and according to good clinical practice.
I also travel a lot. I have just returned from London regarding a new paediatric gastroenteritis study. I work 40 - 50 hours per week and earn a competitive salary.
What advice would you like to give to students about study and career options?
I have made the decision not to let the fact that I did not get into medicine affect me for the rest of my life. We all have regrets and reminisce about how different things could have been – but then you get up and do what you have to do.
Today I am part of a very big machine that ensures new drugs get approved to save someone's life or at the very least increase their quality of life.
Maybe if my mother didn't pass away I would not be where I am now.
I want to advise students not to start a BSc-degree without a definite career plan. Do your research about career options and look at the jobs available in that field of study.
It is an easy trap to fall into: 'I did not get into medicine so I will study BSc and then try again'. Life doesn't work that way. Have a second, a third and even a fourth alternative for when things don't go as planned.
Your plans for the future?
I recently got engaged so for now its wedding bells ringing! Next will be an MBA. I want to end up on the business side of this industry, making decisions.
How did you manage to pay off your study loans?
I am still paying back and will be for the next four years! But if I had not taken out a loan, in fact more than one, I would never have been able to study in the first place and the career I have now would never have been an option.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Prof. Faadiel Essop, then head of the Department of Physiological Sciences at SU. I will never forget sitting in his office, desperate about my future. He inspired me to finish my degree, to work hard for what I want and to never back down after disappointments. To this day he remains a reference on my CV.
If you need more information about a career as clinical research associate, visit http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3275991/