Sales Rep asking if Masters Degree helps

“I am currently a pharmaceutical sales rep with a reputable company. I want to advance my career as an MSL in the diabetes field. I am a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) and have more than 10 years of clinical experience. I’m looking for a Masters program that fits into my work schedule and family (2 children).”
– Note: question has been edited for clarity and to preserve anonymity.

Jane’s Answer:

You may be aware that most MSL positions require doctorate level education. If you are looking to advance your career by means of acquiring more education, it may be more strategic to consider a doctorate level degree instead of a masters level degree.

I know this is not what you wanted to hear. It does takes much more time and resources, but if you are going to invest in schooling, going after a masters degree may not help you very much in the long term plan as a MSL.

That said, I am concerned about the feasibility of the whole situation. Embarking on any education is a big deal – it takes a tremendous amount of resources (time, energy) – not just an issue of tuition and finances. Depending on the age of your children, getting into any degree program where you would need to either attend classes or fulfill coursework requirements in addition the research needed to posit a thesis / dissertation – it is no small feat.

I am obviously going to project my own experiences here, but when I was working on my dissertation (once I finished all my PhD experiments) – that felt like a full time job. Back then, I was working as a sales rep, during my pre-MSL days. It was tough to juggle – and I had NO kids at the time.

Now, I’m in the process of writing a book that is the length of a dissertation and I approached it somewhat like a PhD research topic using qualitative research methods. This time, I have 1 kid and a business, which runs like a full time job. And it feels like an even tougher juggle.

What I’m concerned about is the total sacrifice and risk that you must make to get to “goal”. Maybe it warrants looking at a different path to goal, if indeed your ultimate goal is to transition from sales to medical affairs.

I asked 2 of my medical affairs colleagues who currently work in the diabetes field. Here is what each said:

Senior MSL’s Response:

I agree with your assessment – don’t waste time on a master’s when most (if not all) companies are looking for a “terminal” degree as a minimum entry requirement – exceptions are becoming harder to come by. She would still hit the “non-doctorate” ceiling. The diabetes field is not much different from other disease states – same or similar companies (and their directors and vp’s) operate there.

Online programs are becoming more accepted, so a possibility that may accommodate her family time would be a PhD (or EdD or Sc.D) in a physical or psycho-social discipline (from conversations with executives, the degree is the first thing; if you can justify why you chose the particular area of study, then that’s okay too).

Without knowing more of the specifics, it sounds that she has experience with a branded company; coupling that with her RD/CDE background is probably the next issue. A training program like yours would help in that regard. In addition, she should start building/enhancing her resume/linkedin account with letters of recommendation and appropriate projects/extra assignments.

MSL Director’s Response:

I think your advice is sound in that an advanced degree (Ph.D.) is going to be required by most or all companies at some point. That’s a shame because some of the best MSLs I’ve ever had were BSN, RNs. An RD, CDE does not seem to hold much cachet with KOLs but is acceptable for some roles with companies that have a diabetes focus. If she wants to go after another degree to better position herself as an MSL candidate, a Ph.D. would be best.

There is one caveat I’d offer. She may want to talk with the Director over the MSL program for her company and fine out what would be required for her to be a candidate for an MSL role. Get it in writing. That way, she can focus on meeting that goal. Once she has MSL experience, the degree becomes less important.