The changing landscape of pharma: a new route for PhDs?
The pharmaceutical industry is changing – challenging for some, but an open road to opportunity for others. And the latest opportunity in the world of pharma comes from a rapidly growing demand for Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs), says the founder of "from SCIENCE to PHARMA".
As more drugs come to market and pharma’s business model shifts from selling drugs directly to fostering earlier engagement, companies are looking for highly skilled scientifically- and clinically-trained candidates. Could this be an outlet for the overflowing pool of PhD (and MD) graduates produced every year?
So what is a MSL?
An MSL is the scientific and clinical disease expert within a pharmaceutical or biotech company. They’re the go-to person for any complex questions about a specific drug. That could include questions about the science behind the drug, the mode of action, the competitors’ drugs, side effects, clinical trials, research opportunities, and disease-related questions.
MSLs work at the interface between internal stakeholders in the company and external stakeholders in the field – called Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). MSLs help to bring innovative new drugs to the market and provide education about the proper use of drugs that are already on the market. KOLs – broadly defined as leaders in their field – can be heads of departments at teaching hospitals, heads of pharmacies, professors of medicine, the CEO of a patient organisation, physicians involved in pharmaceutical clinical trials and sometimes clinical scientists themselves. In short, MSLs work with the most influential stakeholders in a therapeutic area.
Increasing demand for MSLs
So why is there this sudden demand? I believe there are two main reasons for the increase.
First, many pharmaceutical companies are moving away from the old model of sales reps convincing a doctor to prescribe their company’s drug. Rather, pharma is moving towards earlier scientific engagement by developing peer-to-peer relationships between you – the MSL – and influential doctors – KOLs. With this earlier engagement a company is better able to guide the clinical development of a drug, as they get earlier insights from doctors working in the field via MSLs. At an early stage, it’s much easier and cheaper to adjust or to pivot a clinical program. Taking this early engagement approach will increase the chance and speed of a successful drug launch that will ultimately benefit millions of patients.
Secondly, the focus of pharmaceutical companies has shifted from a one-size-fits-all drug to a more personalized medical approach for specific subsets of patients. This has resulted in more complex clinical trials that rely on genetic and molecular testing for patient selection. This personalised approach has in turn resulted in even more drugs coming to the market catering for smaller subsets of patients. As a consequence, pharma needs more MSLs because there are so many new drugs coming through the pipeline to the market. And pharma needs more staff to support these increasingly complex drug development programs.
So why and how did I became a MSL?
Like many of the Naturejobs readership, I’ve spent many years in academic research. Many were good (PhD), and others not so good (postdoc). So I decided to do something else.
Like many of you, I’d never heard of the MSL role before, but it sounded interesting and I was deep into the postdoc blues. I didn’t have any industry experience, which was disappointing, as this is what all the job ads were asking for. I couldn’t find any good information about the job, but I found as much as I could and just prepared, prepared and prepared even more.
Being able to showcase a thorough understanding of the MSL role in the interview helped him to land his first MSL job. Now he’s spent years in multiple roles at several companies, supervised a team of MSLs, and has personally coached many many more MSLs. In his view, the bar for MSLs is continuing to rise. Fortunately, though, there’s also more information out there for you to prepare with.
So how can you prepare to break into an MSL job without industry experience?
With the higher demand comes a higher supply. More PhD graduates are aware of career paths outside academia, and they no longer feel that they’re failing when they leave. Grant money is drying up, work-life balance is not always ideal, and the prospect of higher wages as an MSL might attract a few more people to consider this job. Salaries vary from country to country but often hit well over $100K a year (in the US: $150,000+).
Now, I’m not surprised to see 50+ candidates apply for a single MSL position. And as with any role, the more you prepare, the better your chances. So what can you do?
First of all, it’s important to understand that – for practically any job outside academia – you need to have more than just your scientific skills. Having a PhD is sometimes the minimum requirement. As the MSL role is a very clinically focused job you need to understand the pharmaceutical industry and the medical world in order to be successful as a MSL candidate, and many underestimate this.
Second, you need to understand what you’ll be doing – how you’ll have to interact with various internal- and external stakeholders and how your activities will change depending on where a drug is in its product life cycle.
Third, you have to prepare for a grilling in your interviews. Yes, plural – there will be more than one interview round. Many companies have up to 3 or 4 rounds, including clinical paper presentations with only 24 hours to prepare, talking to senior management and even doing competency tests. Finally, you’ll be bombarded with interview questions and behavioral questions that you have never been exposed to in your previous (academic) interviews – if you had any serious interviews in academia at all.
As I’ve learnt from my own experience, it can be tough. Each company, each job and each round requires hours and hours of prepping, just to make sure you have covered all the bases. And the questions you couldn’t answer last time will be on your “precious” interview questions list ready to be asked again in the next round. What it comes down to, like any other interview, is lots and lots of preparation and practise.
But if you make it through, you’ll finally be able to get a permanent position, unlike the short term contracts you’re used to in academia. You’ll be finally remunerated according to your qualifications and your years of training. And there are also very rewarding extras, such as end of year bonus, your pension, healthcare all of this in a highly evolving cutting-edge and scientifically stimulating industry career.
So, make sure you do your homework even before talking to a recruiter. Know the job and the pharma industry inside out. And if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I’d love to talk to a fellow scientist thinking of making the same leap I made five years ago. This was by far the best decision I made in my professional career.
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