Learning Paths Podcast
Mark Silcock grew up dreaming of becoming a pharmacist, and he did – but since then, his career has taken turns that he couldn’t have anticipated when he first set out. In this episode of Learning Paths, he talks about his approach to making big decisions and taking calculated risks – even if that means moving halfway around the world.
Ben Rubenstein: Well, thanks so much for joining me here today Mark. To start, maybe we could talk a little bit about what you’re doing currently, and then we can get into the path that brought you to this point.
Mark Silcock: So Ben, currently I’m leading a team called Phusion Health. So Phusion Health is an agency, a Sydney-based agency in Australia, and Phusion Health provides services to the pharmaceutical industry in Australia. And the services that we provide are really quite bespoke in the sense that we work with clients really large and small and across multiple therapeutic areas, and what we do to support them is ultimately in a kind of pre-commercialization space. So traditionally when their new drug comes to market, we will support and help them to get early access to their medicine to patients across Australia. So that might look like, for example, a compassionate supply, where the drug companies themselves actually provide free stock to patients, or it might be that we perhaps charge the patients a percentage of the cost or in some cases it might be the full cost as well. We also offer services such as patient support programs, where we have a team of in-house pharmacists that actually interact with doctors and patients to basically ultimately support them on their journey through their life cycle, if you like, of them taking that particular product for their disease state.
So we’re quite a bespoke service provider, as I say. We’ve been in the business for about eight years. I’ve been leading the team for the last probably three or four years, and in that time we’ve seen a really organic but really steady growth in terms of the number of clients that we have and also the number of therapeutic areas that we work across. To give you a kind of a sense of the therapeutic areas that we work in, we work in places, therapeutic areas like oncology, neuroscience, cardiovascular dermatology. We do probably most of our work, if I’m honest, probably in the oncology space. And I think in a way that perhaps to listeners will kind of join the dots in their mind in terms of how you and I have come to have this conversation, I think for me, part of the work that I do in oncology, when I was kind of doing a bit of a self review, I suppose, last year, I kind of realized that one of the kind of knowledge gaps, if you like, in terms of my own knowledge, was around advanced therapies in cancer.
I think that ultimately that led me to just kind of doing some research and some work around, okay, if that is a knowledge space for myself, and if also simultaneously that’s a really big part of the future of the industry, both in Australia, but also globally, I thought really, actually really significantly I need to kind of plug that knowledge gap for myself. And so it kind of led me on this quest, if you like, to identify a course or some form of education that would help me to kind of just start that journey, that personal journey in terms of upskilling myself in the space of advanced cancer therapies and, to cut a very long story short, it ultimately led me to you and it ultimately led me to the Harvard Medical School as well. So I then enrolled for HMX immuno-oncology, conducted the course over several months, and was really, really impressed, I have to say, with the course and the platform itself and the way the course was constructed, and ultimately what I learned as a learner, a person trying to learn as much as I could from the course as it was provided.
So I think that was such a great opportunity for me. I think that when I look back on it, it was such a positive experience. And one has to just, in terms of framing it, one has to remember that I actually conducted and did the course during COVID and I suppose probably during the worst phase of COVID, if you like. So although Australia, in terms of, you know, global statistics, we’ve done pretty well in terms of COVID outcomes for our population, there were still certain parts of the year where we were restricted in terms of what we could do and you know, how much we could be going out and socializing. So I think I personally used that time really proactively to just look at opportunities for self-development and kind of filling that time. And ultimately that led me to conduct the HMX course.
Ben: So does that fit with your general approach to your career in terms of, you’re looking for opportunities to kind of learn new things, take on new challenges? Is that something you’ve always sort of had an eye out for about, you know, what’s coming next?
Mark Silcock: Ben, it’s a really interesting question, and the reason I say that is that I think as I was kind of thinking in preparation for the session that I’m having with you now, I think two things came clearly to mind. Number one, which kind of takes me back to my – at the very beginning of my career, by trade, by history, I’m actually a pharmacist. So way back when, when I left secondary school, I actually went to pharmacy school and became a pharmacist over in the UK, over in Glasgow, in Scotland. And I think, and I was a registered pharmacist by age 21 and worked extensively across the UK. And one of the things that is ingrained into you as a pharmacist and ultimately is an ethical and regulatory requirement of practice and licensing, is that you have to evidence continuing education as part of your profession.
So I think for me from a very early age in my career, it’s been ultimately just, it’s part of my DNA. It’s really ingrained into me in terms of that being a requirement, just in terms of keeping my license to practice. That’s both true, not only across the world, but specifically where I’ve practiced over the years, which is obviously in the UK and then subsequently in Australia. So I think that that, as I say, is just part of my brainset. It’s just part of the way I think. So I’m always thinking throughout the year, actually, what can I do in terms of learning and development that is not only good for me, but also fulfills the requirement around evidencing my continuing professional development? So I actually have an active CPD portfolio that is actually linked to me being a pharmacist, if you like. So, and part of that is ultimately just to make sure I have an active learning plan. So thinking about actually, what do I need to do in terms of learning gaps in terms of my knowledge and preparation for the future, but actually what educational elements, whether it be workshops, seminars, training, conferences, whatever it might be, once I’ve identified those learning opportunities, actually, what am I actively going to do to plug them? So I think in essence that’s answer one.
I think then looking at answer two, I think me by nature, my personality very much lends itself to the fact that I just love education. I think from a very early age, the importance of education was very much instilled into me by my parents and my family. I think it’s something that I’ve really held tightly and taken on my journey through life. I think that I just love to learn new things. I love to expose myself to things that perhaps I might not know about or something that just is going to really challenge me both intellectually and perhaps even morally or philosophically.
So I think for me just thinking about, what do I not know? You know, what opportunities there are for me to grow in my own life. And I think, again, when I was thinking about this session with you Ben, I thought two things – number one, in terms of ongoing, personal learning and development, there’s kind of two pathways in my mind. One pathway or the first pathway, if you like, is ultimately a pathway that’s linked to your active career. So it’s linked to the work that you do, the industry that you work in. So for me, it’s obviously thinking about, I work in pharmaceuticals. So, you know, making sure that what I do around learning and development fits into that. I think the second pathway, though, is perhaps more of a personal pathway. I think that actually what it looks like is actually how do you continue to learn and develop in terms of your personal life and in terms of things that actually personally interest you?
So my friends and my family and my colleagues know that I love the arts and I love culture and I love theatre. So I, to give you an example, the Folger Shakespeare library, which you’re very familiar with, I’m sure, the Folger Shakespeare library have an amazing series of podcasts. So I think in my personal life, I can have, as one example – I listened to the Shakespeare podcasts and then may go on to then read about Italian Renaissance art, for example. So I think it’s just kind of delineating those two pathways, you know, pathway one that started around learning and development linked to your career and ultimately your profession, if you like, but then that kind of second pathway around a personal interest and development as well.
Ben: And clearly, the fact that you took this online learning opportunity through HMX, it’s evidence of – and I guess the podcasts you might use for learning as well – kind of show that things have sort of gotten a little bit easier in that respect too, there’s a lot more opportunities out there to take advantage of if you’re of that mindset.
Mark Silcock: Exactly. Absolutely. And look, I think it’s really interesting because when I look back to pharmacy school back in Scotland – which was, by the way, an amazing experience, it’s probably amongst the happiest years of my life and one of the great pharmacy schools within Europe. I think, though, that when I look back to the time, and it was very much of the time, that we were forced – well, I use the word ‘force’ – we were, you know, we had no other option other than to attend physical lectures. So we had to physically, en masse, go to the lecture theatre and there might’ve been, you know, 120, 130 students in that theatre in very multiple, you know, senses of wellness – some were not well, perhaps because they’d been out the night before and others were perhaps not well, because they’d overextended at the gym, whatever.
So there was basically just lots of people in that theatre. I think the reason that I give that context is that when I look kind of forward 20 years, I think the way that the opportunities to interact with learning have completely changed. And I think, ultimately quite rightly, I think that we, as the consumers of educational services, demanded that, and I think it was very much the right thing. I think, of course, COVID of course facilitated that as well. I think there was then just this real boom around people looking for online learning solutions. I think that when students or prospective students look for opportunities around learning, whether it be online learning or in-person learning, I think it’s just a real, something that I really actively encourage students to do is to really actively do some research. I say that because I think that what we need to do is we need to remember that it’s actually a really big investment in both time and very often money as well.
So I think anybody that’s seriously considering learning of any type needs to really focus on doing some research and basically making sure that the course that they conduct is the right fit for them. I think one of the things that I also think about is just making sure that actually they’re really clear around what they want to achieve. So what is the outcome they actually want it to deliver? I think from the many people that I’ve interacted with over the years, I think that not everybody kind of has that really clear kind of starting place. I think that if there’s one piece of advice I would give to prospective students is just to actually really just take some time, do some thinking, do some research, what is it you want to achieve? What is the outcome that you want it to deliver for you and actually to what level can you, in terms of investment of time and money, where are you at with that as well?
Interestingly, just to, without plugging anybody at the medical school, I will say that actually really interestingly again, just in terms of timing, it was really interesting because as I was thinking about this time with you Ben – just by pure coincidence, professor Michael Parker from the medical school wrote some really interesting articles on LinkedIn actually. So I think anybody that’s looking for any form of insight or advice or guidance around how to identify what is the right online learning solution for them should definitely check out professor Michael Parker on LinkedIn.
Ben: Yes, thank you for bringing that up, we’ll definitely link that article in the show notes. And one of the things mentioned in that article actually is around the importance of real-world examples in learning, and I remember from our previous conversation that you found some particular value in the clinical examples that we include in the HMX courses, maybe in part because you felt a little bit disconnected from clinical practice now that you’re in more of a managerial role, if you will, after starting out as a pharmacist. So I wonder how that transition kind of came about and what challenges you faced when moving from a more clinical role to one more on the managerial side.
Mark Silcock: It just takes, it just took some time, ultimately. I think it was more about my personal readiness, ultimately, in terms of that career transition. So I’d really happily, ever since being a child, I remember, from the age of 10 years old, I just knew that I wanted to be a pharmacist when I was growing up. One of my friend’s father happened to be a pharmacist and we from time to time would go by the pharmacy, and I was just completely fascinated as a young child around these medicines that were on the shelves in the pharmacy and the dispensary and how conceptually, as a 10 year old, you know, the pharmacist would give the patient some tablets or some capsules or some medicine, and then somehow the patient would become well.
I think as a really young child who was just completely fascinated by that conceptually, and I think ultimately that was one of the many things that drove me to then from a very early age, just really defined what I was going to be doing in terms of my future career. Then ultimately that led me through a science pathway at school, and then ultimately onto pharmacy school specifically.
Then to your point around, how did that kind of evolve? I think I knew that what I wanted to do was I did want to work in practice as a pharmacist, which I did for many years in the UK. I then went on to work for a company called Tesco. Tesco, as some of your listeners may be aware, is a really large supermarket within the UK and Europe as well. At the time that I was working for Tesco, we had a very relatively small pharmacy offering in terms of the number of pharmacies within supermarkets within the UK. I was part of a team at the head office. So at a very young age, I kind of migrated from a practicing pharmacist role into their head office down in London. And we together as a team kind of built the portfolio of pharmacies within Tesco supermarkets in the UK. Now this is going back many decades obviously, but I think that was a really great learning opportunity for me because I was able to see, at a really young age, what opportunities there were for me, especially using pharmacy and being a pharmacist. That’s my starting point. I think ultimately it was really interesting because when I was in my twenties, I could see a really, really clearly defined pathway in terms of my career at Tesco. So Tesco was a great employer with amazing opportunities for people who really wanted to demonstrate their will and capability, and I was very much on that pathway.
However, at the same time I had, I visited Australia for a couple of holidays and I was kind of at this point in my life where I kind of had to make ultimately a bit of a decision, I think, and that decision was, you know, do I stay on this really focused career path with Tesco as my UK employer and kind of, the opportunity was as high as the sky, I could have made a career and ultimately defined and crafted that however I wanted it to be. Or do I follow my dream and move to Australia and move to the other side of the world and live on the beach and interact with Australians and set up a life for me and just have amazing friends and opportunities within Australia?
So I think having come to Australia several times on holiday, I just, it was really quite deep within me that I just realized that I had to just follow my dream, my aspiration. I think that, it was something that I had a real calling for. So ultimately I decided at that time to leave a really successful career in the UK and I relocated what is now 15 years ago to Australia. And since I have done that, I’ve never looked back in terms of my career and my opportunities. So I think when I look back at that time, I think it’s been amazing. I’ve learned so much, I’ve developed so much.
I think more specifically to your question around how’s that evolved in terms of the work that I do now, so what I did was when I relocated to Australia, I had to practice in terms of my immigration status. I had to practice for a period of time as a pharmacist within Australia. And then I went on to set up a single-man consulting business, so I just supported pharmacists and pharmacy owners within Australia to basically develop their businesses. I think having come from a very corporate pharmacy business within the UK, where we had processes and protocols, and we had strategies and insights around how to operate a pharmacy to ultimate perfection. And really, I think having those insights and knowledge, this knowledge base to be able to actually take that to the business owners of Australia was something that I was really able to do. And then I went to work for my current employer. I went to just do some consulting work for them for about four weeks, and that was eight years ago. So I’m still with my current employer.
Interestingly though, before I came to work, Ben, for my current employer, after I’d done a period of time working in Australia, interestingly, I had this kind of calling, I think. I just don’t know how better I can describe it for you, but I had this kind of intuitive sense that I just needed to check and, how I describe it is I just needed to check that my brain was working. I think that like anybody in life, if we have the same career, we have the same job where day after day, week after week and month after month, we’re perhaps doing the same thing. I think all of us to one extent or another, just kind of get to a point where you just want to check that, actually, our brain does still work. I think for me, 10 years ago, so kind of 10 years after being a pharmacist and 10 years ago from today, I kind of just had that real moment. And then at that time I decided, you know what, I really just need to just make sure my brain’s working.
So at that point, I actually did what we discussed earlier on, around that research. I actually conducted some research around, okay, what do I want to do? Where do I see my future career? What opportunities are there, really focusing on my kind of starting point, which was obviously, I’m a pharmacist, I’ve got a pharmacy degree, and kind of just trying to rationalize and work out actually, what kind of goes with that? I kind of kept coming back to this concept of marketing and I thought, you know what, pharmacy and marketing degree, this is a kind of really nice mixture, I kept thinking to myself. And so having done lots of research, as we talked about earlier, research around time and money and investment, I decided at that point that actually having spent, by that time, probably about maybe eight years in Australia, I think, I decided actually that I would go and conduct a master’s course in marketing. So master’s in marketing. And I decided, interestingly, to actually relocate back to Scotland for that year. So of course there were many options, and actually I decided that actually what I would do, what the right thing for me to do at the time was actually to relocate from Australia where I was living a really happy and fulfilled life, back to the UK.
A couple of reasons for that. Ultimately I think number one, the cost, the physical cost of secondary education in the UK is perhaps slightly more affordable than it might be in Australia. It was at the time. I think the other reason, the driving motivation was, again, it just really gave me the opportunity to spend that time with my family as well. So I migrated, if you like, back to Scotland for the year, conducted the master’s course in marketing, spent time with my family. And then what was always the plan was to always return back to Australia. So I then returned back to Melbourne in Australia and I started to work for my current company for, I came on board for four weeks and then eight years later, I’m still here. Obviously during that eight years, I’ve had a variety of different roles and obviously culminating in the role that I currently lead, which is leading a team of professionals delivering these services for pharma companies across Australia.
Ben: So I hope that you hadn’t, you know, thrown out all your umbrellas and raincoats and everything on that return back to the UK after living on the beach for a while. But no, that’s great. And I like the kind of mix in approaches that you have of both, you know, following your dreams and being impractical in some ways, right? But also being very deliberate about how you’re taking those steps. I think that’s really important.
Mark Silcock: Yeah, absolutely. And look, I think that the other thing that I, again, just, if there was one piece of advice that I would give to listeners and I give myself this advice very often, is the way I’ve kind of lived my life and made my, what I describe as big decisions, if you like, is the way that I can do it, is that I think about things, I kind of contemplate them, and this can be a process that might go on for many months. And I can just think about, you know, what is it that I want to do? What is it I want to achieve? You know, what are the implications of that? What does it mean for myself, my family, what does it look like? And then I’ll generally kind of keep those to myself for a relatively long period of time.
And then what I actually start to do is I start to kind of drip-feed discussions with my closest friends and perhaps sometimes my family as well, just to kind of almost do a bit of a sanity check so that when I tell my friends, ‘well, you know, I’m thinking about this,’ for example, then depending on the reaction that I get from them, it can very much be, ‘Oh yeah, okay, Mark, you’re pretty much on the right path.’ Or, ‘actually, the idea of you giving up everything and going to do a PhD on Renaissance art in Milan or in Florence is quite ridiculous.’ So it’s actually just nice to be able to kind of sense-check them. I think what I find is the more I talk about something, what it ultimately means is there’s, it actually is closer and closer and closer to becoming a reality. So I think that’s really interesting as well.
So I suppose if I’m going to fulfill that kind of philosophy, what I should really do, I should say to you now and here, Ben, is that actually my educational journey has not finished. And I think that what I think for myself as I look to the future, I think a couple of things. I think that ultimately my career pathway that I’ve been thinking about over a couple of decades, I think for me, the next move is the one thing that I’ve got to kind of tick off my box – tick off my list I should say – is to actually move into work within a pharmaceutical company. So I think for me, that will be my next logical move. And interestingly, my current employers are really supportive of that. They absolutely, they are aligned with that vision for me in terms of my future career. So I think that that makes perfect sense in terms of career.
Interestingly, in terms of education, which I suppose is the whole essence of this discussion, I think that for me, I think I’ve always been really interested in, is law and justice. I think that for me, I really, I think for probably the last decade, if I’m honest, I’ve been thinking about medical law and ethics. I think for me, I think what I want to do is, I’m so true to being a pharmacist. I love medicine. I love how medicine has evolved over the evolution of mankind and specifically in recent years. And, you know, obviously earlier we talked about immuno-oncology as well, and I’m just, even following the advances in immuno-oncology just in recent years has been really fascinating to watch.
So I just think I’m really interested in medical law and ethics. And I think the reason for that is that I’m really interested in these really deep, philosophical and ethical questions around, you know, whether it be beginning of life or end of life or, you know, medicines – or even in the case of COVID, you know, it’s really applicable to the current context in which we live live in these current times – is looking at actually, how do you make those really tough medical decisions around, you know, which patient might get the medicine or the ventilator or how do you treat these patients in order of medical needs or priorities. So I think that’s something that’s been on my mind for a long period of time. So I think if you’re asking me what might I look at in the future in terms of future education? I think that, watch out, the medical law and ethics schools of the world, I might be coming to knock on your door.
Ben: Well, and now that you’ve said it, it’s on tape. It’s being disseminated, and we’ll put it out in the world.
Mark Silcock: Exactly, I’ve gotta fulfill it. I’ve put it out there.
Ben: You’ll hear about it from the comments, you know, there will be feedback and we hold people to what they say here. Well, you know, I think all of this insight and advice that you provided is really applicable to such a variety of careers. You know, you have a unique path as you’ve kind of gone through here, but a lot of the tips that you’ve given and just the thoughtfulness around the decisions that you’ve made, I think anyone can take that to heart and, and apply it to their own path. So really appreciate you taking the time to do that.
Mark Silcock: Absolutely. And look, what I would say to the listeners is that whilst they cannot see me, Ben and I were having a little bit of a laugh earlier, a bit of a smile before we started recording the session. I’m actually in a podcast studio over in Sydney, and I’m actually wearing a Harvard Medical School t-shirt. But interestingly, I think that if I was to wear a different t-shirt, the t-shirt would be perhaps listed with three different words, and that might be discipline, routine, and schedule. And the reason I choose those three words is that I think that ultimately those three words have kind of kept me on track over the last kind of year or two in terms of, you know, balancing life and work and commitments living over in Sydney, in Australia. You know, I am easily distracted by blue skies and sunshine and on the opportunity to go and swim in the ocean. So I think kind of just remembering those three words in terms of discipline, routine, and schedule for any prospective student who will be conducting, whether it be online learning through HMX or any other learning that they might undertake. I think those are really the three central factors that any prospective student should always remember.
Ben: Well, I couldn’t say it better myself, so I think we’ll leave it there. Thank you so much, Mark.
Mark Silcock: Thanks, Ben.