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The Potential Path from Ph.D. to Medical Science Liaison

Are you as good with people as you are with a pipette? Can you cut down on scientific jargon to effectively communicate science with anyone? What about your leadership and critical-thinking skills? If you envisage a career outside of academia and these qualities seem to describe you, consider transitioning into a role as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL).

MSLs are not pharmaceutical sales reps, but are scientific experts who are increasingly essential resources to colleagues within their own company and to physicians at academic medical institutions and clinics. In short, MSLs seek to connect health-care companies (such as pharmaceutical companies, biotech firms, and medical-device businesses) with health-care professionals who treat disease.

For current trainees, now may be a good time to get into the field. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Medical Science Liaison Society, 68% of MSL managers plan to expand their MSL teams. But how can trainees break into the field without experience?

“When I decided I wanted to pursue the MSL career pathway, the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) was an invaluable asset,” said Chris McNabb, a former postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “I recommend all aspiring MSLs look into the resources they offer.” McNabb, who is now a Senior MSL in oncology at Bayer Pharmaceuticals, found that the NIH Career Symposium and one-on-one meetings with career counselors were particularly valuable. Counselors can help with everything from writing your resumé to negotiating an offer.

For those doing clinical research, the transition to an MSL role may be smoother than for bench scientists who lack clinical experience. But with sufficient preparation and understanding of MSL roles and responsibilities, opportunities will open up for bench scientists and clinicians alike. “First, convert your CV [into] a resumé,” McNabb suggested. “This will be necessary for a transition to industry. Summarize your qualifications by listing your experience presenting, teaching, mentoring, and working on teams. These are the most important skills for MSLs, and they’re exactly what hiring managers want to hear.”

You will also need to be thoroughly prepared for interviews. It’s key to prepare carefully for behavioral interviews (which are based on discovering how the interviewee acted in specific job-related situations). OITE can help you prepare by providing opportunities for mock interviews and offering training on how to use the STAR interview format (situation, task, actions, and results) to effectively answer the inevitable behavioral interview questions.

Aspiring MSLs should also be aware of several other key resources. First, fellows should use LinkedIn. The networking platform is of much greater importance for MSLs than for those in research—both for finding jobs and for fostering and maintaining professional relationships. The MSL Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the MSL profession, can also be a valuable resource. It offers a host of tools for those interested in an MSL career including regular webcasts for skill development and annual salary surveys that are useful when negotiating job offers. Lastly, become familiar with recruiting firms and their talent-acquisition specialists, and connect with them on LinkedIn. “They are incentivized to place people just like you in the positions you’re looking for,” said McNabb. “They know the latest job postings, and they will serve as your advocate in discussions with the hiring company.”

Not sure if you have what it takes to be an MSL? Here is some insight from McNabb’s five years of MSL experience: “People with advanced degrees are often conditioned to engage in chronic self-doubt, and I regularly find in my discussions with postdocs that self-doubt is a significant mental hurdle that needs to be overcome before the job search even begins. So let me assure you that you do have skills that are valuable outside of academic laboratory research. Your skills are transferable to a different career pathway. And if you assess your experience honestly and match it with a fitting career path, you will find a position that fulfills you. In other words, keep your head up, stay confident, and don’t count yourself out.”

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