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PhDs breaking into the role of an MSL: overcoming the lack of experience. María Jesús Ortiz Ruíz

mjMaría Jesús Ortiz Ruíz

Máster MSL


The role of the Medical Science Liaison is one of the top 10 alternative career opportunities for PhDs within the pharmaceutical industry, but most MSL job adverts require some level of prior MSL experience. So, how can a PhD ever be considered for one of these highly competitive positions?

 It’s all about experience – theoretically

 Although the lack of experience could be an obstacle, there are few things you could try to increase the chances of landing an interview. Martijn Bijker, founder of the online MSL training company from SCIENCE to PHARMA, admitted “A well understanding of the role is essential, but this normally comes with experience”. Therefore, getting what he calls “theoretical experience” could close the gap. Let’s find out how!

According to him, having a revised resume that highlights your strengths, transferable capabilities and therapeutic area of expertise as it relates to the MSL role, should indeed help you to a successful job search. “Essential for your CV? follow the STAR system (Situation - Task - Activity – Result) as this methodology will follow you throughout your evaluation in pharma”, saidGunther Boysen, PhD, MSL at Astellas Pharma Ltd.

Moreover, Loredana Pellegrino, PhD, MSL at Norgine, added “Talking to MSLs from different companies is critical to get a clear understanding of the MSL role”. As stated by her, “Academics are good interpreting scientific papers but not clinical papers, so you need to get training on that. Also understanding compliance, being non-promotional, showing you know the boundaries, those are good signs you can send to your interviewer”.

Networking is key

But what else could you try to highlight your profile? In Gunther Boysen’s opinion, the key for his success was building his connections, “Without connections it would have been very hard to get an invitation. Also choosing your battles. Don’t apply for everything but rather for a position where you can combine your curiosity and expertise”.

Certainly, networking through social media is a fantastic way to build up your professional contacts and essential to growing your network.Miriam Zimmermann, PhD, MSL at The Janssen pharmaceutical, emphasized how LinkedIn helped her to land her first interview through a referral from an internal contact from this company. “Nowadays, companies rely a lot on people with certain soft skills. If someone has already successfully made it to a company and they fit in, it is more likely that their friends are similar in their behaviours and would therefore also fit in” she said.

Broaden your horizon

Additionally, broaden your industry and medical research knowledge can be very advantageous when just having a basic research background, as well as working hard on your interpersonal and presentation skills, strategic vision, emotional inteligence and critical evaluation of clinical papers.  Websites like the ”Medical Science Liaison Society” or the online “From Science to Pharma MSL training” provide numerous resources to aspiring MSLs. Moreover, there are emerging country-specific MSL master degrees like the one offered by Talento Farmaceutico in Spain.

A hiring manager’s opinion

For Juan Alvarez MD PhD, Medical Director at Pfizer, it is clear. “A PhD tenure should be an advantage in order to work in a medical department or in the Pharmaceutical Industry in general”, he said. According to his opinion, experience on reading, understanding, and summarizing scientific articles as well as presenting data and defending a thesis, are important capabilities needed in the medical departments. In addition, the experimental work in biosciences and the acquired knowledge could help to understand the mode of action of some drugs. He highlighted “a PhD is always very positive and add an excellent value to the CV”.

In summary, a PhD degree can be very favorable to break into the role of an MSL but keys to success will be indeed networking and aligning your transferable skills with this special career choice. And if you are still not convinced, have a look at Dr. Samuel Dyer’s book How to Break into Your First MSL Role, where you will find useful information and extra tips to break into this exciting career.