Dr J #10 - Reflecting back on my MSL transition and my past career as a researcher

When “from SCIENCE to PHARMA” asked me if I’d write a piece on how my first 2 years as MSL have been, I immediately thought about what a life-changing decision it has been to transition from Academia to Pharma as an MSL. And how much more rewarding and fulfilling the MSL role is than I’d imagined it to be.

Not one grain in my body would want to reverse that transition, ever. Moreover, I couldn’t have made that transfer the way I did, without FTSP’s excellent support.

Still, you might be sitting on the other side of this screen, and wonder.

“Nice for you man, but should I? Is it worth it? What’s it like anyways?”

The fact that you’re reading this story, and landed on the FSTP site to begin with, means you are at least curious how a transition into pharma might be. If you were like me, you would be truly unhappy with the way your academic career is returning your investments and want something else. But you’re not entirely sure what and are afraid you’ll never find a job that still involves that sweet science.

I wasn’t doing badly in Academia, had high-impact publications, all-in-all managed to accumulate >500.000 EUR in personal research funds, and had a small team of PhD students and a technician.

A former academia-colleague I let-in to my ‘dirty little secret of pharma job transition’ simply replied “Are you insane??” and after an awkward silence went on to continue

“with all you accomplished, you’re bound to become a professor one day”. And that was exactly the culprit: ‘bound to become‘. Already made out – just keep it going man!

And weren’t we all? With me countless other promising department members were bound to head in ‘that direction’, and we all knew how often a position opened up. It surely meant I had to relocate again, and I was already living outside my home country for >7 years, maybe bring (part of) my lab along, uproot those people too for my personal goals, ask my wife to change jobs again for the move, at least pull in another 500.000 EUR to truly convince that other faculty I was being serious about the job, and yes indeed, publish another few high-impact papers otherwise I’d surely perish. I was working nights, weekends, holidays. Even though I really loved and lived science, I was drifting away from it and had already entered a whirlpool of politics, internal department competition, pressure and enduring uncertainty about money and contracts.

Then, looking in on myself, I decided it was simply enough. I didn’t want it no longer, I was simply up for a new challenge. A new set of rules, new excitement, a new game. That journey is published on FSTP’s pages as well (“DrJ” entries) – so I won’t bother you here.

When I started my MSL job I somehow had the feeling it was my first real job. A weird feeling – maybe it had to do with the fact that for the first time in my life I had dealt with truly job opportunities, recruiters, multiple job interviews, true interview preparations, salary negotiations (really, truly, yes, yes you can negotiate on that), benefits & perks, and an actual job offer + company contract.

When I entered the building on my first day I felt proud, like I finally started to work on ‘me’. Sounds weird maybe, but in Academia I felt I had just flowed from one position into the logical next, on my way to..?

The first thing that amazed me was the coherence in the company. The fact that teams and people truly worked toward a shared goal (and enjoyed it too). The second thing was the fact that science was everywhere. Not only the clinical trials, their data and rationale, but the basic science was permeating the atmosphere, teams and workplace. The science behind the pipeline, R&D and of established treatments. Of course, the involvement in the science differs between departments, like Commercial branches will have less to do with it than Medical Affairs.

What a lucky place I found myself in! Not only was I able to work on cancer treatments for patients in need, something I aimed to develop at the lab bench for the last 15+ years, but I could go out there and meet the actual oncologists and clinical researchers and discuss the actual science behind it, to the benefit of direct patient care.

And in doing so I was bringing the appreciation and use of modern cancer therapy forward. Finally!

It takes at least 2 years to fully own the MSL role, and the first 6 months is a true rollercoaster. A nice one though. You’ll want to save the pictures. But now after 2 years, I have a feeling I’m owning it. KOLs contact me with their questions. Occasionally this even involves direct treatment questions about patients in the waiting room as we speak on the phone. Also, my company has allowed me to unfold personal projects, like one for illiterate patients in an aim to augment their access and understanding of modern cancer therapies and trials.

Then, the business world itself is very different from Academia. Suddenly you discuss your own goals and objectives with your manager, your preferred career path. And if you achieve your goals, you get rewarded for it! If you do something extra for a colleague or a team, in our company, you can get a small bonus for that too (isn’t that glorious, getting rewarded for your actual efforts?). And you get a credit card for work expenses, a car, great hotels, dinners if you work late, and most of all – a salary that is worthy of your hard work.

After 2 years as an MSL, I can only say this has been an excellent journey for me. I have found myself in a job I truly like, could stay in for a decade, still, work the science, and when I get home in the evening feel like I have truly done something that matters. Also, the MSL role, at least in my workplace, is an ever-evolving one; I get more and more involved with internal stakeholders like Market Access, Regulatory, Sales and Marketing. Initiate my own projects, which help achieve company goals but also satisfy personal creativity needs.

This makes the job diverse and very rewarding, no day is the same.

When I started, the thing I was somewhat uncertain about was the travel. It is an integral part of the job, and for me it turned out to be a very nice part of the job. The travel to a hospital, meeting or conference, gives a true sense of freedom, independence, and being trusted you are doing a good job. Being outside, in another city, meeting people, it is truly dynamic and something I now greatly value as part of the job. It also means that there is a certain flexibility to your own time management, which is an important positive side to the position.

All in all, I can only wholeheartedly recommend you to be confident and take that leap! Let FSTP support you to maximize your chances. You will not regret it, and in 2-3 years you’ll be amazed at what you’ll see looking back on it all.

Are you ready to jump ship?

If you like reading Dr J’s blog and want to come as prepared as he did for YOUR OWN MSL job interviews, then join the most comprehensive global Board-Certified MSL training platform today. Just go to the Board-Certified MSL training page and use the following coupon to get a 10% discount:


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