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How To Know If A Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Job Is Right For You

Written by Yuri Klyachkin, Ph.D

Two Women in front of computer. How to know if a Medical Science Liaison (mSL) job is right for you. CheekyScientist.com

I don’t have a story about an academic advisor who mistreated me.

I don’t have a story about being overwhelmed with academic stress either.

But sometimes I wish I did.

Maybe that way, I would have transitioned out of academia sooner.

The truth is, I had a pretty cushy academic experience. 

My PhD advisor was a young assistant professor who was passionate about research.

We published numerous manuscripts and presented at countless regional and international conferences together.

Things went by fast.

In fact, I completed my PhD in a little over 4 years.

Then I started my postdoc, which was altogether a good experience.

So I stayed. And stayed. And stayed.

I ended up doing a postdoc for 7 years.

7 years!

This is why I sometimes wish my immediate academic environment was more broken—so I would have realized it was time to leave sooner.

Instead, it took me a long time to realize that the overall system of academia was broken.

But I have to admit, there were hints along the way…

After completing my first postdoc, I was unemployed for over 6 months.

So I settled for another postdoc.

Then, I had trouble getting any external funding.

I went for small project grants.

I went for postdoc fellowships.

But I failed every time.

Next, my lab’s funding started running out, and with it went the fun of doing research.

It is impossible to operate in such scarcity. 

There were constant talks of my position being in jeopardy.

No one could work in such a negative environment.

The writing was on the wall, and something had to be done.

It was finally time to leave academia.

That’s when I began looking into alternative careers for PhD science graduates and realized that a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) position was right for me.

How To Know If A Medical Science Liaison Position Is Right For You

how to become medical science liaison | Cheeky Scientist | what is a medical science liaisonMSL roles are growing fast.

As such, these roles are one of the top 10 alternative career for PhDs.

Jet-setting across the country in your tailored suit, discussing science with high-level thought leaders, while earning a great salary is a nice change from working in a lab for peanuts.

But a MSL position is not right for everyone. 

There has to be a strong match between your personality and values, and the culture and values of the company you’re looking to work for.

This means you need to understand yourself and what you want.

You also need to understand how other people see you.

Everyone, from my colleagues to my superiors, told me that I was personable, outgoing, a natural communicator, and excellent teacher.

At the same time, I hated doing work by myself.

On the days that I had to do confocal microscopy, alone in a dark room, for 8 hours, I was beside myself with boredom.

Sitting quietly for hours at a time was at complete odds with my personality.

Yet, I kept trying to fit myself into a box.

I kept trying to be someone I was not.

On the other hand, I did enjoy presenting my research in front of others, mingling at conferences, and discussing science to anyone willing to listen.

I was gregarious to say the least.

Over time, I realized that working at the bench wasn’t a good fit for me.

While many other PhDs might excel in a Research Scientist position in industry, I definitely would not.

So, I started looking for other types of positions—positions that would fit my strengths.

Peter F. Drucker, the famous business psychologist and author once said, “Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves—their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.”

But how do you discover what your strengths are?

There is really only one way—through feedback. 

What are the professional strengths you turn to during stressful events?

What professional strengths are you rewarded for time and time again in your career?

If you’re unsure, ask your friends, family, colleagues, and superiors.

Trust me, feedback is your friend.

Get as much information about your strengths as you can because these strengths are the transferable skills you can leverage to get into an MSL position.

Top 5 Tips For Transitioning Into A Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Role

MSL positions are increasingly popular among PhDs for a reason.

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical professions such as MSL roles are among the fastest growing industries between 2012 and 2022.

These roles are also expected to pay very well.

Payscale estimates that MSLs will continue to earn a median salary of over $100,000 USD a year.

Here’s the best news for you…

In Dr. Samuel Dyer’s book How to Break into Your First MSL Role, the companies hiring new MSLs slightly favor hiring PhDs over PharmDs (30.9% and 30.1%, respectively).

The keys to transitioning into your first MSL role will be networking and aligning your transferable skills with this special career choice.

The following are 5 other things you must do to transition into a medical liaison job in industry…

1. Take advantage of scientific conferences in graduate school.

By choice or by necessity, you will be attending conferences while in graduate school.
While most students will spend their time hitting up the free food, you can make lasting connections that will lead you to your first job outside of academia.

Regardless of the delegation, the conferences you attend will likely be within the disease state most relevant to your thesis work.

The key to accessing MSLs at conferences will be networking at the vendor show.

While at the vendor show, make every effort you can to strike up conversations with sales representatives working behind the booths.

The key is to be genuinely interested in the representatives’ products.

Then, when the timing is right ask, “I have an off-label question and was wondering if you have a medical colleague present who could answer it?”

In most cases, the sales representative will then point you to an MSL or at least give you the MSL’s contact information.

2. Set up informational interviews with MSLs that have a background similar to yours.

Once you have an MSL’s contact information, it’s time to set up an informational interview.

If you still don’t have access to an MSL at this point, seek one out on LinkedIn.

To facilitate conversation, look out for employees with a similar background to yours. 

Specifically, look for MSLs who also have a PhD, are in their first industry role after academia, or are in a similar therapeutic area as your field of study.

To increase the chances of hearing a response to your LinkedIn messages, be sure your profile is up-to-date and tailored specifically for the MSL role you want.

Once you’re in touch with an MSL, offer to take them out for a coffee or a meal to learn more about what they do and what their career path was.

If they are uneasy or unwilling to meet you in person at first, offer to have a conversation on the phone or on Skype instead.

Either way, be respectful of their time by keeping the meetings brief and keeping your tone conversational, not formal.

By showing that you have an approachable and amicable personality, you’re already proving that you have the transferable skills needed for an MSL role.

Finally, make sure you always pay for the meal (ALWAYS) and always allow the MSL to talk about themselves.

This means you must have a few good questions lined up beforehand.

Use informational interviews to not only build connections, but to learn which company is the right fit for you.

3. Find MSLs within your geographical vicinity and within your therapeutic area.

If you find yourself struggling to create meaningful connections with MSLs on LinkedIn, don’t stress.

Instead, start reaching out to employees who work within your geographical vicinity. Start networking at your University and at the teaching hospital next to you.

Tap into the graduate schools alumni network, the hospital’s directory, and the network of private medical practices in your city.

The key is to focus on finding people who work in your therapeutic area, as in those who are currently employed in positions relevant to the field you’re currently studying.

For example, if you have a background in immunology, seek out physicians who prescribe similar biologic medicines, such as rheumatologists, oncologists, and gastroenterologists. 

Ask the physician’s office manager or a nurse working in the physician’s practice who their MSL or sales rep is for a particular drug (a drug related to your field of study).

4. Strengthen relationships by following up and tightening the networking loop.

Connecting with MSLs and professionals in relevant therapeutic areas is not enough.

If you want to secure a position, you must follow up with these connections over and over again.

Specifically, you’ll want to follow up with your connections once or twice a month.

You can do this by sending them interesting journal articles, tidbits from the Internet pertaining to their career, or questions that would get them to share their expertise.

This is called tightening your networking loop.

The key is to constantly add value without expecting anything in return—this is what networking is all about.

During your informational meetings, phone screens, and ultimately in-person interviews, you must have excitement for the MSL position you want, the science behind the position, and the overall company.

You must also be able to answer hard-hitting questions about the position. For example…

“Why do you want to be an MSL?” 

You MUST know the answer to this question. You must also answer it confidently and without hesitation.

Everyone will have a different answer, but the smartest responses will focus on the fact that you want to make an immediate, positive impact on patients’ lives by leveraging your unique scientific and personal skill set.

Also, make sure you highlight how your values are aligned with the company's values.

If your values do not align with those of the company, avoid that company.

No matter how terrible things are or were in your academic lab, show your excitement when talking about your past scientific projects too.

Be able to explain these projects in 3-5 minutes at both a third grade-level and at a very high MSL doctorate-level.

Most importantly, connect to the person you’re talking to on a personal level.

Remember, the MSL role is all about building relationships, listening, and addressing client inquiries.

5. Approach every interaction and obstacle as an opportunity to learn and move forward.

If you want to transition into an MSL career, you need to align your research with the career.

This includes being an expert in a given company’s therapeutic area.

For example, you should intimately know the current treatment options as well as latest research in your therapeutic area of interest.

You should also know if your current research is linked to human health as a whole.

As academic PhDs, we tend to look at our research with a very narrow focus—specific biochemical pathways, model organisms, cell lines, and so on. 

If you want to become an MSL, you have to learn to think and speak more broadly about the implications of your work.

You must start learning about current clinical trials. You must also be knowledgeable about how these trials are designed and implemented.

5 Transferable Skills PhDs Need To Transition Into A Medical Science Liaison Position

Now that you know which steps to follow in order to transition into an MSL role, you need to know which transferable skills to develop.

The good news is that if you have a PhD, you’ve already the developed many of the transferable skills you need in order to get into an MSL role.

All that you have to do now is to lean into and leverage these skills.

Here are 5 transferable skills you must have to successfully transition into a medical science liaison role…

1. An outgoing and optimistic personality.

When you’re in the field as an MSL, you’ll have many high-level scientific discussions with physicians at both academic institutions and clinics on behalf of your company.

These physicians are often referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).

You’ll also interact extensively with sales representatives within your company, as well as office managers, nurses, physicians’ assistants, and numerous other internal colleagues.

Having an outgoing and optimistic personality is crucial to maintaining these extensive communication networks.

Think of positivity as a kind of lubricant for these networks.

By focusing on solutions and finding more and more ways to add value for others, you’ll keep these networks open and flowing smoothly.

2. The ability to convey scientific information briefly, clearly, and precisely.

Sometimes you only have 3-5 minutes to deliver critical data to clients at all levels of an organization.

This means you don’t have the luxury of going off on tangents when you talk.

Instead, you must know the science intimately and only deliver the critical points.

Showing that you can deliver information intelligibly and without jargon will gain you tremendous respect with your clients.

Effective and timely communication is also key to maintaining positive relationships.

No matter which MSL role you transition into, your clients will have demanding jobs and it will be your job to keep them informed and supported without interrupting their work. 

The only way to do this in the medical field is to communicate with your clients consistently and precisely.

3. High levels of emotional intelligence, or EQ.

The ability to assess the moods of your client is instrumental to your success as an MSL.

If a KOL looks bored, is constantly checking out the clock, or keeps looking at their phone, it’s time to wrap up your talk.

You must respect your clients’ time while being very flexible with your time.

If you’re unsure about the situation, just ask.

Is this a good time? How are we doing on time? 

The ability to adapt your schedule to fit the needs of your clients is essential to maintaining good working relationships.

There will be many high-pressure situations where you’ll want to push the client to take action but this is always a mistake.

Instead, you must remain calm and strategically plan your next move.

4. High levels of internal motivation.

Not every physician will be happy to see you.

Not every office assistant will stay on the phone with you when you cold call them.

While MSLs are NOT sales representatives, they are proactive educators.

This means as an MSL you will consistently be reaching out to people to educate them on your company and your company’s products.

To be successful at this, you must maintain diplomacy, self-discipline and integrity at all times.

Walking into a doctor’s office for the first time, introducing yourself, and getting turned away is not uncommon.

How do you stay motivated after a door gets shut in your face?

First, believe in the company you represent and in the company’s products.

Second, remember that most people will NOT understand the value you can offer them right away. So, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Be patient with people and your patience will pay off.

This is something your PhD has prepared you for extensively —patiently and consistently trying again and again after a seemingly endless string of failures.

The good news is, it only takes one “yes” to be successful as an MSL.

A physician or physician’s office may say “no” many times before saying “yes".

But once they say “yes,” the rest doesn’t matter.

5. Patience and the ability to listen very carefully to others.

Your responsibility as an MSL is not to bombard physicians with data, but to tailor information to appeal to their needs.

But how do you know what these physicians want? 

You ask questions, let them talk, and LISTEN.

What are your clinical interests?

What do you think about this data?

What has your experience been with this drug?

Asking questions like these will make your job easier and less stressful.

Never pre-assess a situation and assume you know what the needs of the client are.

Instead, ask. Use your scientific skills to dig in and develop questions that physicians will want to respond to.

The most successful MSLs are not those who talk the most, but those who ask the best questions.

PhDs can align their strengths to successfully obtain a medical science liaison position.

MSL roles allow you to engage in scientific and cutting-edge discussions on drug therapy and disease states with leading healthcare providers in both academic and community-based settings. Transitioning into an MSL position requires strategic thinking and the ability to ensure individual needs are met while staying aligned with the overall objectives of the company.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Yuri Klyachkin Ph.D.

Yuri Klyachkin Ph.D.

Yuri is currently a Clinical Education Liaison and Medical Science Liaison at Bristol-Myers Squibb. His previous work includes 7 publications out of the University of Kentucky where he worked as a Senior Investigator in the fields of cardiology, oncology, stem cell biology, and lipid biochemistry. Yuri secured an NIH T32 fellowship in Clinical Scholars in Cardiovascular Science before transitioning into his Medical Science Liaison role in industry.
Yuri Klyachkin Ph.D.
  • Kathy Azalea

    What a relief!! The thought of doing more bench work after getting my PhD literally makes me sick. I’m much more interested in getting out there and interacting, gathering data when needed for specific problems, and answering questions. That’s really more up my alley. But what I appreciate so much about this post is that it’s so practical. These are terrific tips and points of consideration. Thanks so much!

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Thank you for your kind words, Kathy, glad it is helpful!

      • Adam Katz

        Fantastic!

        i am interested to learn what position you might recommend that a bachelor of science aspire choose in an effort to gain exposure to MSL-type work, or to gain the sort of experience needed before getting hired as a post doc long-term? does one simply go to school? I am shopping for internships, and I have a great selection of positions within the industry to choose from (thankfully). Where would you start if you were building an MSL resume from the ground up through work experience?

        BTW, Thank you! fantastic article,

        Adam

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    My gosh, I can totally relate to the mind-numbing realization that post-doc isn’t getting you anywhere. This is an awesome article, very complete and helpful.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Yep! Except when my first post-doc didn’t get me anywhere, I did another post-doc 🙂 You are waay waay ahead than where I was, my friend!

  • Sonja Luther

    I can totally identify with this article. You’ve absolutely got to know what work you’re suited for. If you try to squash yourself into a role that doesn’t fit, you’ll suffer and the work will suffer too. I found a way to transition out of one field into another, and it was the best thing I ever did.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Exactly Sonja – being a round peg hammered into a square hole is not the best. Glad you transitioned!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    Absolutely. You’ve got to know yourself and what your strengths are. And, you’ve got to be willing to get out there and network. Those who just sit back and don’t try anything new will just have to reap the rewards of someone who doesn’t try very hard. Great article.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      You got it Marvin. Networking is absolutely key – and not just for your career, but for all other aspects of your life. Think of it as going out and making friends, like a 6 year old on a playground – then it does not sound as scary/sleezy 🙂

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I can see that communication is going to be a major factor in being able to succeed as an MSL. So a combination of really nailing the professional side AND the personality side is needed.

    This is a great post. Thanks so much!

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Absolutely. You are very welcome!

  • Winona Petit

    When I got my PhD, they didn’t have this kind of thing available. I’m glad to see that someone’s researching the job markets as they ebb, flow, and evolve. Good to know that there are some great non-academic jobs out there that draw on their strengths and pay well.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      The MSLs or medical affairs teams have been around since the late 1960s, but you are right, the jobs were not very well publicized and had ambiguous descriptions. Even now, some of the best MSL positions are not advertised, that is why networking would be your best tool to break in.

  • Harvey Delano

    Hey, this is a really great resource for those of us who aren’t too far from graduation and unsure what to do. I did think that a post-doc was the best option, but now I’m seeing that you can get a jump on the pay scale and start earning more right out of University.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      A post-doc in a field that translates well into an MSL position will only help – just don’t stay in it too long. However, some have been successful in acquiring MSL positions straight out of grad school – it is more rare but it does happen. The majority of MSL positions are in the following fields: cardiology, virology, immunoscience, neuroscience, oncology, respiratory. As you can probably infer, all these field deal with chronic diseases that will require and MSLs expertise for an extended period of time.

      • Harvey Delano

        Wow! Thank you for taking the time to answer personally. That is great information to have!

  • Bindiya Patel

    Great article, Yuri! My PhD experience also has not been miserable like many others who are adamant about leaving academia. I have realized, however, that bench research does not align with my personality. I enjoy engaging with people and committing to tasks that I know will have an immediate impact on others. Quick question—how big are the regions that MSL’s cover (i.e. city, state, tri-state area)? I’ve considered a career in this field, but wasn’t sure how big the travel requirements would be.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Hi Bindiya – excellent question. The territory depends entirely on the disease. The more rare the disease, the less expert thought leaders there are, the larger the territory, the more travel… and vice versa. So for example if you are an MSL for a company that has a drug that treats some form of rare lysosomal storage disease you will most likely be travelling nation-wide Monday-Friday. But if you are an MSL for a company that has a popular anti-coagulant that is frequently prescribed for heart disease you will be covering a state or two with very infrequent over-night trips. Hope that helps!

  • Julian Holst

    There’s a lot to think about when you’re getting ready to graduate. This is a great place to get current information. Thanks so much.

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I’ve been out of school for decades, and from time to time I think about doing work that is slightly less intensive in terms of interacting with very disturbed families. I like scanning this site because of all the various ideas. I really love the fact that the MSL field is in the process of opening up more. I’d really never heard of anything like this before. Thanks so much for bringing some light about these jobs. 🙂

  • Molly

    Thank you so much! It’s the most detailed article about MSL I have ever seen! I have been thinking about MSL recently, this article really give me a glimpse about it. I have some concerns about it, this question might sounds offending, if it does, sorry about that. As you mentioned you should have belief in your company and products, but in the market there are so many products and treatment available, what if there are better treatments offered by other companies, how could you make yourself believe the product your company offered is the best? The dilemma I discribed might be especially hard for medicines, as they are speical products and it matters people’s life. Is there any chance MSL can give physician’s feedback to pharmaceutical companies, and help the R&D to do further research. Another question is as a PhD student, is it necessary to think about what therapeutic area I want to work in the future? Thanks! 🙂

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Molly, those are great questions and not offensive at all. The good news is that if a pharmaceutical company is willing to invest millions of dollars into training and supporting an MSL team, the drug those MSLs will represent will have already had a big enough market share to support those costs. If the drug is doing THAT well, then it is a probably a good drug and there is high demand for it. Of course there are exceptions and outliers, but for the most part the drug will significantly improve patients’ lives which will make it easy to like. Also, like with anything in business, pharmaceutical companies very carefully pick and choose a disease niche, and they will not waste time and money to compete with something very successful and established backed by a decade of research. So the drug an MSL represents is probably one of the best drugs in a particular disease niche.

      Is there any chance MSL can give physician’s feedback to pharmaceutical companies, and help the R&D to do further research?
      – Absolutely – that is one of the main purposes of the MSL

      Another question is as a PhD student, is it necessary to think about what therapeutic area I want to work in the future?
      – It defnitely helps – because in order to break into your first MSL role the hiring managers will want your PhD or post-doc background matched with the therapeutic area that you will be interviewing for.

      Hope that helps!

  • Sumant Grover

    @yuri: That’s an amazing article. I want to stretch one of the Molly’s question: What are the chances of someone from PhD in molecular biology asking basic questions and not having a therapeutic field of study to sneak in as MSL. Are there any chances at all? Any recommendations on how one can make the profile more suitable for MSL with this background.

    Thanks a lot !!

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Hi Sumant – that is an excellent question. Honestly, chances are not that good since one of the key pre-requisites hiring managers look at is the disease state match with the MSL position. My suggestion would be to try to get onto some projects that are more translational. Molecular biology transcends many fields that would be applicable to an MSL position – find out which field peaks your interest the most and pursue it. Talk to your PI
      and see if there are any translational projects or collaborations you could get on. If your PI happens to be uncooperative – talk to other PIs in your department/university and see if you can lend a hand in their projects. Hope that helps!

      • Sumant Grover

        Yuri. Thanks a lot for your suggestions. I appreciate what you are doing!!

  • Preethi Vennam

    Excellent article Dr. Klyachkin,

    The opening statement of the article resembles exactly how I feel now. I had excellent adviser during my PhD. He was very kind to me and help me become a good scientist. I was able to get a job immediately after my PhD in a pre-clinical stage startup company developing target specific chemotherapeutic agents. Our company did not receive further funding and I lost my job. Now I think I should have planned for alternative career. Your article is very inspiring and made me realize that it it never too late to start.
    Even though, I have a bachelor degree in pharmacy and worked in oncology, but I had some doubts about considering MSL as alternative career. After reading your article, I am confident that MSL is best suitable to my personality.
    Thank you very much for sharing this article, you do make a difference and bring about positive attitude.

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Thank you for your kind words – I am glad I could help! Oncology, specifically immuno-oncology is one of the fastest growing therapeutic areas and there should be plenty of MSL opportunities for you.

  • Anthony

    Thank you Yuri for your insight. The article is very informative. I recently learned about the field from a friend who stumbled upon the position while he was job-hunting, He didn’t want the job, but said it was something I’d be perfect for. The research I am doing is in the fertility field, and I was wondering if you have heard of a need of MSLs in that field. Ideally, I would like to get a job right out of grad school. I am even willing to do internships in my final year of PhD (3rd year now). Is there anything I could do to set myself up to be in that position in addition to networking?

    • Yuri Klyachkin, PhD

      Thank you Anthony – glad you liked it! The fertility field is fairly broad – are you working with stem cells or are you in endocrinology? I remember a few months ago Sprout Pharmaceuticals (Valeant) was assembling an MSL team to support female ‘viagra’. So those opportunities are out there, but not as common.

      • Anthony

        Neither I work on male fertility and how centrioles are paternal inherited. Also have you ever heard of masters students getting positions like this?

  • Bee Kaye

    Fantastic article, thanks so much. I’m transferring my PhD from one school to University of Kentucky this fall. I am very interested in becoming an MSL, I know it probably won’t happen right after school but sometime down the road. What should I focus my study in, or what classes can I take to help me become more competitive hire. I’ve been told by literally everyone I know, that I’m a “social butterfly” or very easy to get along with. It’s my strongest character trait. Thanks again, this was legit.