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Is the Medical Science Liaison Role a Good Fit for You?

by Anthony Berger, PhD | January 31, 2019

I love talking about science.

I independently taught undergraduate courses throughout my graduate program. Making basic science relevant to treating disease and improving lives was an exciting challenge. In fact, teaching frequently vied with my research as being the most exciting part of my day.

In lab, I was loath to spend hours sitting alone and completing experiments. Instead, I made a habit of having my research assistants shadow me. Sometimes with the sole purpose of talking about the nuts and bolts of the current project, how this project would fit into the big picture, and everything in between.

BCBA presented an exciting opportunity to continue these discussions of cutting edge science, but to also move towards using science to more directly impact the lives of patients. At this point for me, science communication spanned the spectrum of basic science to the realities of clinical research and making treatments available outside of the lab.

Ultimately, this led me to pursue my current role as a Medical Science Liaison, where I communicate basic and clinical science as well as have conversations about how treatments are impacting the quality of life of patients.

What is a Medical Science Liaison and what do they do?

The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) acts as the scientific link between healthcare companies and healthcare providers (HCPs) who work in a specific therapeutic area. The companies can be pharmaceutical, biotechnology, or medical device companies. The MSLs for any of these companies meet with any physician who works in the therapeutic area that the company is focused on, such as oncology, neuroscience, dermatology, and more. Generally, these conversations have two goals:

  1. The MSL presents information on a disease state such as the mechanisms underlying the pathology and the epidemiology of a disease, and the outcomes for those with that disease.
  2. The MSL collects information to inform further research in that therapeutic area or specific treatment. This could include things like whether there are certain patients who don’t respond to current treatments or who relapse after a course of treatment ends.

Perhaps befitting a job meant for people with terminal degrees, the MSL role can differ quite a lot between companies and is constantly changing with new information and goals.

Will my bench skills help me become an MSL?

The hard skills that helped me move into each of my academic positions are now collecting cobwebs. Sure, it helps that I can explain the finer details of PCR and I can walk someone through how serum protein concentrations were established. But I will never need to pipette another sample, and I can safely forget how to set up an electrophysiology rig.

However, the soft skills that I have picked up over the course of my academic journey are quite valuable. All of those long nights perfecting presentations, my understanding of experimental design, and my comfort around statistics have allowed me to ease into this role in industry.

The skills that helped me get my PhD- being able to quickly take in new information and being able to think on my feet- are core requirements for the job.

What does it take to become an MSL?

Step one to be considered for this job is to have a terminal degree: a PhD, PharmD, MD, or OD. Ironically, this is considered a basic prerequisite to even be considered for the role.

Once that box is checked, figure out which of your skills fit with the role. Figure out ways to highlight any communication skills, networking skills, and relevant scientific knowledge.

My teaching background helped me out a lot. I could demonstrate that I had experience preparing and delivering presentations. Like teaching, this role is focused on presenting data and concepts so that others can apply the information to the real world. Also, my experience interacting with HCPs in an academic setting served as evidence that I could communicate with HCPs at a high level.

Additionally, learning about the role was incredibly important. There are many resources in the internet and people who are willing to give advice on making a career transition. Like any new topic, I had to google a ton of acronyms when I was first reading over job applications.

The strategies that worked for me

The biggest piece of information that I learned from this process is that everyone’s path is different. Some people jumped straight from graduate school into this role, others completed postdocs, and a few were tenured research professors before becoming MSLs. What is important were the skills that people knew and the network that they had built.

My strategy was to talk to as many people as possible. This allowed me to develop relationships in the field, learn the terminology, and perfect my elevator pitch so I could succinctly explain why I would make an excellent MSL.

Taking the leap

Being an MSL is a great fit for my skills: communicating science and being able to rapidly synthesize information. And I enjoy talking about science, networking, and adapting to the constant flux of new information and goals. This role encompasses what excites me the most about science: constantly learning, collaborating with other people, and making a difference in patients’ lives.

Anthony Berger, PhD is a Medical Science Liaison and was previously the VP of Marketing and Communication for Biotech Connection Bay Area