By Sally Burn, PhD
I recently had the pleasure of talking to Alexandria Wise, PhD about her job as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL). It should be noted that she deserves special recognition for being so understanding in the face of an epic technological mess-up on my end. But then this personable nature is one of the traits, along with excellent communication skills, that make her a successful MSL. If you too are as good with people as you are with proteins, a career as an MSL could be the post-PhD path for you. Here’s the lowdown on this exciting career:
Hi Alexandria, so what does a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) do?
At its core, an MSL provides medical data to Health Care Professionals (HCPs) about a specific pharmaceutical drug product. An MSL is basically a library of knowledge for all groups who might be interested in a specific disease state or drug. I work for Sanofi-Genzyme in their Multiple Sclerosis (MS) division. My job is to know everything about our MS drugs, from clinical data to disease state information. When you’re in grad school you have four years to learn everything; here it’s much more intense, you have six months for training before you are put into the field. Following your training, you basically give what equates to a defense on the product. At this presentation, you are questioned by upper management to see how well you do under pressure and, more importantly, how well you know your stuff. We’ve got two MS drugs at the moment, and both are just amazing. Patients on our products are able to have a better overall quality of life, their MS is controlled and they can do things they couldn’t before. That’s a wonderful feeling.
In grad school you can work on a protein for four years, finally find out it tethers to the membrane… and then everyone outside your niche is like: so what? What you just described is a very different level of outcome.
Absolutely! I mean I used to work on ubiquitination and I thought everyone should be interested in it, but I talk to MDs and they’ve never heard of it. You spend so much time on a problem but then is anyone going to read your paper? Maybe some people but unless you are doing translational research then it’s probably only people in your very specific field of research. This is a problematic outcome of scientific research. I talk to doctors, nurses, physician assistants and answer their questions. And I love the variety because everyone’s perspective on the field of MS is different.
Can you tell us about three things you’re currently working on?
Right now I’m driving to have a quick discussion with an MD on some research that was carried out in like the late ‘90s, early 2000s that’s still relevant today. One thing about being an MSL is that we are on the road often or spend many hours traveling and you can’t always pick up a journal article to read. So, with the support of Sanofi-Genzyme, I’ve produced a podcast for MSLs, so we can learn about cutting edge research while we are traveling and reading isn’t convenient. I also work with doctors who carry out scientific research. Right now I’m working with one MD who’s working on functional MRI and neuronal metabolism in patients who are on one of our drugs.
You mentioned the amount of travel, so leading on from that, what are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?
Understatement of the year, there is a lot of traveling! I cover New York and Long Island and I drive a lot. But also there are a lot of meetings that take place internally and externally (i.e. annual conferences) so I fly a lot too. My least favorite thing would be the scheduling and how it gets disrupted easily. I may be in Albany in the morning and then have to drive at a moment’s notice to Long Island. But often it’s because a HCP needs the information to give the best possible care to their patient and that’s fine, that’s what I’m here for, and I’m willing to drop everything to address that. My favorite – I’m very independent and so being an MSL works great with that. I talk to my boss, maybe once a week and I see him even less, maybe every quarter. Other than that I make my own schedule and decide what I do. And I know I’ll get it done. Some people aren’t suited to that – they need hand-holding for each step, and that doesn’t work out so well. But of course being a PhD you’re already suited to this because you know how to work alone, decide what needs doing, and manage your time.
Other than the needs to be independent, willing to travel, and outgoing – are there any other key skills required for this job?
A lot of the soft skills you’ll already have from your PhD. You are constantly working with people you’ve never met before but your goal is to develop a relationship with these HCPs. Being able to read body cues or other non-verbal cues are highly necessary for this job. It may not sound like a huge deal but when you are in a business meeting, being able to recognize and adjust your message, so that the audience receives your message better is the difference between being asked back for another meeting or never seeing that person again.
How did you get to where you are now? What is your educational and science background?
For my undergraduate I double majored in neuroscience and psychology. I did my undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan University; it’s a small liberal arts college. Then for grad school I went to Northwestern but transferred to City University in New York to complete my PhD in neuroscience. I then did my postdoc at Columbia, working in the pathology department on the ubiquitination pathway in neurons. I also represented postdocs on a Columbia committee and helped set up a New York wide postdoc society. But you know what it’s like, it’s expensive being a postdoc in New York and so I started exploring jobs outside of academia. All I kept hearing was “consulting, consulting” so I thought I’d give that a try. It took nine months from starting to look for a job to leaving the lab. I started working as a consultant for a small company and… yeah, I wasn’t that happy. Some projects were great, like this one diabetes project where we took one aspect of the drug – that it stayed in the system longer than competitors’ – and spun it to be the positive selling point. So if you forget to take it one day, it’s not the end of the world, your blood sugar isn’t going to plummet. That was how we sold it. A lot of it is about branding. But then there were other projects which had nothing to do with science and it just wasn’t for me.
I started reaching out to friends to see if anyone knew of any jobs going. I will say right now – LinkedIn is your friend! It is so useful, I cannot emphasize that enough. I messaged one of my friends on LinkedIn to ask if he knew of any jobs at Sannofi-Genzyme, where he worked. He was like “this is amazing, yes, we have two positions we’re looking to fill right now”. So I did an over-the-phone interview with my now boss, then a month later I was in Boston for an interview with the whole team from the Northeast, and a month after that I learned I got the job.
I was going to ask what your advice would be to a PhD wanting to become an MSL, but it sounds like the advice is LinkedIn!
Yes, absolutely, LinkedIn and networking! What I did was to email people at companies I was interested in. There’s the route of submitting your resume via an online application but honestly if you want someone to notice you, email the person who’ll be your co-worker or an HR person personally. Also, you have all these connections currently at grad school but they’re going to move on and make new connections and then you will have a whole new set of people you can reach out to. It’s such a useful resource. Even now I still get maybe three or four messages every week asking if I want to go transfer to their company. It’s crazy. But I’m happy where I am right now.
That brings me to the next question: what kind of positions do MSLs move on to?
There are various levels you can move up through. My friend who I messaged about the job initially, he is now medical director. Another option is moving into medical communications. They prepare scientific data for presentation on posters or in brochures for a pharmaceutical company about the products. And some people move across to consulting. There are lots of options and, like I said, I get offers every day to move companies. It’s a big field right now and the number of MSLs in the US is increasing.
So is the field expanding? What major changes do you see happening to the MSL field in the next ten years?
It’s going to continue to expand, very much so. At Sannofi-Genzyme the US territory used to be just carved up into four large areas, having one MSL for each region but now we have grown to 38 MSLs for the US. I cover New York and Long Island, and there’s another MSL just for Manhattan and Brooklyn. The job opportunities are only increasing. And I think now PhDs are beginning to become aware of it as a career. Previously it was just PharmDs who knew what an MSL was.
So I think as a whole the field is growing. But you should be aware of the lifecycle of the product you’re dealing with because if you work on a drug that’s been out for a while, soon it’ll be off patent and then go generic. In the US, most drugs go off patent in 10-15 years. At that point your company may downsize because other companies are also making your drug and data on the drug is more readily available. But there will be other MSL jobs you can fill elsewhere. And it’s a great job, the benefits are excellent. I don’t mind saying my salary, I earn around $130k and a brand new car but that’s not including the other benefits like an annual bonus. All my travel is covered, I have an Amex. At the consulting job, I started at $70k but that was at a small firm.
Is there anything you miss about academia?
Mmmm… yeah. I miss going to an interesting talk and having conversations about research. If I talk about ubiquitination to one of my MDs, they’re not going to know what it is, whereas I think everyone should be working on it – it’s the trash can of the cell! And I miss seeing cool stuff down the microscope. I used to work on neurons, so that was cool. But other than that… no, I’m good with where I am now!
OK, the final, most important question: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would an MSL bring to the table?
There are definitely two types of zombies: fast-moving ones from 28 Days Later or the slower mob-like ones from Walking Dead. If you’re talking about full-on 28 Days Later type zombie apocalypse, MSLs would be useful as we know all about density, of where people are located because of all the travel we do. So we would know where it’s safer to be (i.e. less dense areas of people). And we know where all the remote clinics are, hidden away in woods. If these were like Walking Dead type slow zombies… I mean, come on, you can walk faster than them! Just walk fast! But I guess in that situation where you have a group of survivors coming together, MSLs would be really good at working with all different types of people and managing the balance/harmony within a group of survivors to build something constructive (i.e. a wall). I still can’t believe no one ever met a construction worker as a survivor on one of these shows! I live in NYC, there are millions of them!