By Zachary Fritz
As a career that has been described as the “industry equivalent of a tenure track faculty member”, it is no wonder that the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is one of the most desirable positions in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries. Consequently, this career may be one of the most difficult to land as a recently matriculated graduate student. At the virtual iJobs Medical Science Liaison Career Panel on April 23rd, this was highlighted by the fact that none of the four panelists speaking at the event had gone directly into an MSL career after completing their PhDs. Instead, Drs. Nancy Vranich, Brian Kramer, Jennifer Campbell, and Natty Chalermpalanupap were able to secure MSL roles by networking from their previous positions within the pharmaceutical, medical communications, medical education, and regulatory affairs fields.
Many of these fields are somewhat adjacent to an MSL career and can help provide important industry experience to make one an attractive candidate for this position; for example, medical communications writers often create the materials (slide decks, pamphlets/brochures) that MSLs use, and may even work with MSLs when making these documents. Previous experience in a pharmaceutical or medical device company (such as an industrial post-doc), while helpful for internal networking, is not strictly necessary either. Working in fields that regularly interact with pharmaceutical and medical device companies, like consulting and medical communications, afford one plenty of opportunities for networking and establishing critical contacts at these companies.
That is not to say that it is impossible for a recent PhD graduate to ascend directly into an MSL role, or that there is nothing students can do while still in school to prepare for this career path. Dr. Chalermpalanupap noted that some companies (including her own, Allergan) sometimes have associate MSL positions available, providing a much more direct entry point into this career. The panelists emphasized that having experience in and understanding of the drug development pipeline and clinical trials is an invaluable asset for potential MSLs, so attending relevant iJobs events (like this one!), medical school Grand Rounds and other seminars, as well as joining student organizations focused on clinical aspects can give you a leg up. Conferences, especially those focused on a particular disease or field of medicine (oncology, cardiology, etc.), provide fertile grounds for networking; MSLs themselves often attend such conferences to keep abreast of the latest developments in their field. Several of the panelists also mentioned listening to MSL-specific podcasts like Tom Caravela’s MSL Talk to learn more about the job. The Medical Science Liaison Society’s (MSLS) website provides a wealth of free resources, including a document of MSL guidelines, webinar recordings, and a career center page with job listings and resume review services.
So, what should you expect if you land an interview for an MSL position? Since a key aspect of an MSL’s duties is distilling and explaining complex biomedical science into an easily presentable format, a common interview task is to read a research article or clinical trial summary and prepare a brief presentation on it. Other important qualities to emphasize in your interview include:
- Flexibility and adaptability: The panelists mentioned that it is common for an MSL to work in a field different from the one they did their PhD research in. Being able to plunge into a new discipline and pick up its key literature, lingo, and issues is critical.
- A friendly and engaged personality: A large bulk of an MSL’s responsibilities centers on speaking with physicians, clinicians, and other healthcare personnel, aka “key opinion leaders”. As such, an aspiring MSL should present a sociable demeanor and should seem passionate about their job. As Dr. Kramer noted, the prospect of “getting paid to talk science” should excite you!
- Initiative and organization: While MSLs often have certain goals, or “metrics”, they should achieve each month, the job often requires a large degree of self-planning. Dr. Chalermpalanupap noted that “being a self-starter” is highly important, though thankfully many PhD students have plenty of experience in outlining their goals, planning experiments, and time management.
A career as an MSL represents a unique position as an intermediary between pharmaceutical/medical device companies and the people that will actually use their innovations to improve and save patients’ lives. Whether you plan to pursue an MSL career directly out of graduate school or first gain industry experience and connections in another position, keep in mind the aforementioned tips and you should ace your interview!
This article was edited by Helena Mello