From SCIENCE to PHARMA, led by Dr. Martijn Bijker (MB) and his team of Medical Science Liaison (MSL) and Medical Affairs experts is an online training platform for PhD’s and postdocs interested in becoming an MSL. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Bijker to learn more about the MSL role and how to make such a career transition. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed chatting with him about his life and career.
RR : What is your research background?
MB: I completed my Bachelor’s in Chemistry from the VU University, Amsterdam where I gained a deeper interest in DNA and molecular biology. This was followed by a Master’s degree from the same University majoring in biochemistry/molecular biology and I added two extra majors, one in immunology and one in immuno-oncology. The Master’s program gave me the opportunity to fulfill one of my long-term dreams – to carry out research in the United States. I had a nine months research internship in San Diego at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LIAI). This internship set the direction for my PhD and my long-term interest in T-cells and immuno-oncology. I started my PhD at the Leiden University in 2003 and focused on immuno-oncology and cancer vaccines, two hot topics at the time.
RR: Did you then decide to do a Postdoc?
MB: Yes, it was an obvious choice since I loved (and still love) science and discussing science. I went to do my postdoc in Sydney, Australia; however, I slowly realized that I enjoyed planning and designing experiments more than executing them. I liked predicting the data and making graphs that showed my scientific predictions (my PhD mentor always teased me by asking “Are these real experiments or just your hypothetical thinking?”). Although I was in the midst of a postdoc, I was ignoring my inner voice telling me that I had reached my limit of bench-work.
RR: What led to the career change?
MB: Eventually, I reached my tipping point. When I started my postdoc in Australia, I realized the project I had embarked on seemed far less promising than it was in the beginning. Also, my supervisor and I did not work well together. But I loved science and I thought academia was the only possibility to do science. I felt stuck and had to find a way out, as this was a very depressing time and environment for me. It took me 3 years (and a lot of complaining) to plan my exit strategy.
RR: Why did you choose to become an MSL?
MB: Actually, my wife gave me an MSL job advertisement and said “maybe this is something for you in 1-2 years time”. The job description was very appealing to me -discussing science (with the top scientific and clinical leaders in the field). Then, on a postdoc mentoring day at our institute, our presenter gave us a very wise life lesson. He said: “You should have a really good plan B, because then you can take all the risk with your plan A and reach great heights and have no fear of failing, as you have a really good plan B to fall back on.” On that day, I set my plan A to stay in academia, and my plan B was to become an MSL. However, 2-3 weeks later, I switched my plan B to be the plan A and went ahead with full steam to become an MSL. Exactly 12 months on the day my wife had sent me the MSL job advertisement, I started my first MSL job at Abbott (6 years ago).
RR: What does the MSL job typically entail?
MB: As the name indicates, you are liaising with the top clinicians in your specific disease area and discussing medical and scientific topics. You are seen as the (internal) expert on anything related to your (and your competitors’) drug, the mode of action, the disease, the clinical trials, the side effects of your drugs, patient management etc.
The MSL role has two major focuses: pipeline and inline drugs. Pipeline drugs are drugs that are still in clinical development, and clinical trials are in progress. Inline drugs have been approved by the regulators to be used in humans for only that specific disease indication. They are sold by the pharmaceutical company and prescribed by the doctors.
While a sales representative tries to change the prescribing behavior of a doctor, the job of an MSL is to better understand the current and future treatment algorithm in your disease area and how your (pipeline) drug best fits in it. In the pipeline phase, you need to understand how doctors will position your drug in the future treatment algorithm. You must understand their rationale for making your drug their first, second or third choice, or for prescribing it to either all patients or only a subgroup of patients with the disease. The MSL must also educate the medical doctors and nurses of certain side effects that inhibit the uptake of the drug and how they can be mitigated. Another aspect of your work involves knowing whether your drug requires any specific diagnostic test before it can be prescribed and if so, how can you expedite the process between diagnosis and drug prescription. In the pipeline phase, you explore all these aspects and share your key clinical insights with the internal colleagues at the company to create a successful plan to launch this drug most efficiently and safely to the doctors and the patients.
When the drug is already on the market (inline), your role is to continue to understand where your drug fits in the current treatment algorithm in light of the current and upcoming clinical data from the competitors. As an MSL you might also support the sales team (i.e. with training) and be involved in medical education for doctors.
Overall, as an MSL you are seen as the drug and clinical disease expert and the first point of contact for your internal colleagues and the external clinical experts. In short, it is a very stimulating environment.
RR: What does the career trajectory look like once you start working as an MSL for a company?
MB: After working as an MSL, one can become a senior MSL and perhaps even an MSL manager. To move up the ladder you often have to live in the vicinity of the local head-office. If you don’t, the MSL can be a cul-de-sac position, or more positively put, it is a career for life.
However, if you live close to or can move to the head-office, one can move up the ladder within Medical Affairs and could become a medical manager/medical advisor/(associate) medical director within the Medical Affairs department. In these roles, you will be mostly working within the office with your internal colleagues to develop strategy for the product using the in-field insights obtained by the MSL.
You can also switch to other departments such as commercial/marketing/market access and pricing. It is definitely very flexible and you can move around relatively easily between companies and/or departments.
RR: What were some of the challenges that you faced in your journey to become an MSL?
MB: The biggest challenge, at that time for me, was to find information on the internet about what an MSL is and what they do on a daily basis. The next challenge was, how to become an MSL without having any MSL experience. After figuring these things out, another big challenge was the MSL interview. The interview for an MSL role is not like the 45 minutes postdoctoral interview with your professor and colleagues in an informal setting. You need to do some serious homework for an MSL interview and it will take you days to prepare for it. Having experienced the lack of online information and the urgent need for it by PhDs/postdocs to support their transition into the MSL role, I started my online MSL training company – from SCIENCE to PHARMA – about 3 years ago.
RR: What were your biggest challenges on the job as an MSL?
MB: While on the job, I quickly realized the pharma world was a lot different than academia, and a lot better in my experience. The top things I had to get used to were:
- You can’t just walk into someones’ office to discuss something; you book a meeting in their calendar
- You work a lot more in cross-functional settings and not so much on your own, and have to therefore keep more people informed along the process
- Your focus changes from scientific journals to medical journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, to just name one. And your discussion partners are not your lab mates, but clinicians and clinical professors – a different kettle of fish
- People openly appreciate what you do; that was new and quite a positive experience for me
- And of course, the dress code. You can no longer come in your shorts, t-shirt or jeans to work. You are dressed up more formally, like in a typical corporate setting, especially when you go to see the clinicians
People talk about “going to the dark side” when someone moves to the pharmaceutical industry. I will tell you that it is a very bright side, with many kind and very smart people who have (far less hidden agendas and) one common goal in mind – to improve patients’ lives.
RR: What are the key points a postdoc/graduate student should be aware of while planning a transition into MSL?
MB: The big catch-22 is how to apply for this job if you don’t know what it entails. In my experience, candidates fail to tailor their CV for the MSL role because they do not fully comprehend the MSL job. Their CV therefore just looks like they are applying for a postdoc/scientist position and thus they keep getting rejected. Some tips for you CV and your interview:
- You are an expert after finishing your PhD, so call yourself an expert in that (disease) area on your CV.
- There is no need to indicate your lab work and lab techniques (western blotting, PCR, flow cytometry) as you will never use these techniques in your MSL life ever again. You must instead focus on diseases, patients and your clinical network.
- Know exactly what an MSL is and does on a day-to-day basis. This will enable you to prepare a more robust CV with a higher likelihood of making it to the interviews. The market is tougher now with far more applicants. Hence you need a CV that shows tremendous potential, and of course, you need to be well prepared at the interview. For this, you can take advantage of our online MSL training platform – from SCIENCE to PHARMA, webinars, podcasts, handbooks on MSL jobs, and talking to other MSL’s.
- This brings me to the next important thing PhDs struggle with. If you have undergone training, taken a course, or you have gained considerable experience in something, you can mention it on your CV. You don’t always need a certificate, diploma or degree to highlight your skills!
- Finally, be ready to answer the following three basic questions: What do you know about the MSL role? Why do you want to become an MSL? Why would you be a good MSL? If you can’t answer these, you are not yet ready to apply for jobs, or to talk to a recruiter about an MSL position. Rather, talk to me first.
RR: What do you think is the role of a good mentor/coach in professional growth and career transitions?
MB: First of all, I believe a good mentor will challenge your thinking and you should be open to it and not feel offended. Secondly, I believe having a mentor who is currently outside academia will benefit you in changing your status quo thinking. Thirdly, the mentor (and yourself) should focus on your skills, strengths and the things you love doing and building/finding a job around that, rather than the other way around.
My wife, who was working in the pharma industry made me question my belief that I could talk and discuss science for a living only by staying in academia. In hindsight, I was only pipetting for a living. As an MSL, on the other hand, I read, talk, discuss and present more science than I ever did in academia.
About Dr. Martijn Bijker :
Dr Martijn Bijker, PhD MSc is the founder of “from SCIENCE to PHARMA” – the only global fully online Medical Science Liaison (MSL) training platform; helping Bachelors, Masters, PhDs, MDs, and PharmDs to maximize their chances of becoming an MSL. www.fromSCIENCEtoPHARMA.com
About the author :
Radhika Raheja completed her PhD from Cornell University and is currently a Postdoctoral fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Her research interests have centered around oncology and neuroimmunology. Among other things, she is striving to effectively communicate scientific discoveries to the community. You can contact her on LinkedIn or Twitter (@radsr11).
Arunima Singh obtained her PhD in Computational chemistry from the University of Georgia, USA, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. She enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering a new cuisine. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.