Breaking Into the Medical Science Liaison Profession: Catch-22

Note: I wrote this primarily for a PhD audience, back in 2002, and therefore made references to the lab lifestyle, such as cooking ramen noodles in beakers (which of course none of us still do, right?)!

You are familiar with the scenario, because it is the same for anyone trying to break into a new career path. Your application is not delectable unless you had experience in the industry – which you can’t get unless you break in. Before you bash your head into the nearest wall, or worse, cook your last pack of ramen noodles in the reagent beaker to eat away your woes, take heart: these considerations will help initiate yourself into the new reality show: the Pharmaceutical Industry.

Preliminary Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Can I handle change in my life and an unfamiliar world?
  • Can I face personal rejection (I know we’ve all been rejected or challenged as graduate students, but new faces of rejection takes some steel and preparation.)
  • Can I and do I like working with people? By this, I mean, even when you feel like crap.
  • Can I give up some (or all) eccentricities that may endear me to the research community but may alarm other professionals?
  • Can I keep up with paperwork and administrative tasks, like booking appointments, writing monthly reports, writing a business plan? If I don’t know how, can I learn?
  • Can I accept the fact that not all people will give me respect and immediately recognize me as a knowledgeable “doctor” unless I do groundwork and prove my worth?
  • Can I accept the fact that I will adhere to a set of rules, regulations, compliance guidelines, and many unwritten-yet-critical games of a business?
  • Can I accept the fact that I will be measured by numbers and quotas and many sets of qualitative and quantitative variables that may determine how I feel about myself?
  • Am I mature enough to know how I should feel about myself in spite of bales of reports and statistics on my performance? (This includes not getting too down on yourself or getting too big a head.)

Skills Transfer – Less Complicated than Your Western (or favorite directional) Blot
Your resume takes a lot of “preparation work on the preparation.” This is not unlike making a dating video or an audition tape for “Survivor.” This is your first chance to make the right impression, and may be your only chance. Take your current resume (“Curriculum vitae” or C.V. should be turned into resume format – please see related links on how to do this) and pretend that your research career has just been acquired by a company. Strip each section of your resume to the bone and see what the skill really is.

If your resume reads like a classical research CV, and has sections like “Research projects”, “Publications”, and “Talks”, you need to write a little story surrounding significant items. Let me use an example of a project that I have absolutely no clue of, to show how easy this exercise is:

“Resolution of neutron powder diffractometers.”

A possible story may be: To get this project done, I had collaborated with person X and Y so I could get parts of the main job done. I also had to get an undergrad student to prep the equipment, make test solutions, and get coffee.

When stripped to the core, the bare skills involved include:

* Project planning.
* Identification of resources and needs.
* Development of key collaborators.
* Coordination of admin./interns.

The more complex and involved your project is, the more skills you can identify. Did you implement, manage (supervise), present (verbalize), interpret, synthesize, integrate? Even something as simple as: “Monthly seminar presentations to faculty members and students” can be transferred to Presentation Skills, through which you present clinical and scientific data to clients.

An approach you can use is to look at the skills required of a position, and look at your resume for examples of demonstrating this skill that can be transferable. Here are some skills from a typical medical science liaison position:

1. Excellent interpersonal and communication skills

2. Learn and comprehend copious scientific content

3. Focus on the customer

4. Ability to work with often demanding or difficult clients

5. Excellent self-management skills

6. Strong teamwork/Interpersonal skills

7. Innovation and creativity

If you’re a PhD, number 2 and 5 are given (if you’re in your 15th year of graduate work, then you need to work on #5 or get a new project.) Number 7 may be a creative way you had approached a research problem, to demonstrate that you can be “innovative and creative.”

Visit the Medical Science Liaison Job page ( Find the job description for the position you want, and look for transferable skills. If you don’t have enough of the skills, now is the time to cultivate them. Ask to coordinate or supervise certain lab projects or activities. Consider posting your resume online, in search databases or on your web site. Now, more than ever, recruiters are looking online to find suitable candidates.

Weighing Options
Now that you’re comfortable with your industry-friendly resume. You may even be pleased to have so many core skills that you were previously oblivious to. Now comes an interesting task: who may give you a chance and what are your options?

What Companies Hire New PhDs?
Most MSL positions are filled by PharmDs (doctor of pharmacy), although over the past few years, more PhDs are populating this field. Some small- to mid-sized companies will hire fresh PhDs, depending on the therapeutic area. I have also known of PhDs with very little industry experience become a medical liaison in larger companies. If you had post-doc experience, your application carries more weight. If you have clinical research experience (not the same as taking a clinical research certification course) in the therapeutic area you’re interviewing for, you will increase your chances of being considered. You may want to look at companies with a good percentage of PhDs as medical science liaisons.

If you find that a field-based medical program has a high percentage of RNs (likely for oncology programs), these types of MSL programs will emphasize patient care and clinical research experience rather than doctorate-level training and are extremely difficult to break into if you are a basic scientist AND you have no prior industry experience.

If you find that a field-based medical program insists on hiring only MDs in all senior level positions, the company probably has its parent headquarter somewhere in Europe and led by someone who believes that only MDs are most qualified to interact with other MDs (not completely tongue-in-cheek here). Unless you have an MD-PhD, you will have little chance of advancing to the next level in this type of organization.

What About Recruiters?
You may want to submit your resume with a cover letter to recruiters who specialize in filling medical science liaison positions. I recommend getting reputable recruiters’ names through referral sources – through other industry professionals or directly through medical liaisons. You can also conduct Internet searches on MSL recruiters and find out how long they have been recruiting MSLs and what their track record/experience has been. Recruiters are generally more responsive to candidates with prior MSL and industry experience.

What About Contract Companies?
Sometimes pharmaceutical or biotech companies prefer to outsource medical liaisons rather than establish a medical affairs department. You can get started at a contract organization to break into the MSL career. However, the same rules apply for contract agencies – you need to demonstrate strong personal skills and management capacity.

If you are thinking of a contract position, please consider the following:

* Do you want to go into a contract situation?
* Differences in health and 401k benefits.
* Difference in bonus structure.
* You may get a car allowance and not a company car.
* You do not report directly to the company manager.
* You are not employed by the company, but by the contract organization.
* The contract is often for one-year and must be renewed.
* There may be trust issues with company (because you are a contractor.)
* You play two levels of politics (contracting organization and company.)

Working as a contract liaison affords you the benefit of switching to a different therapeutic field if you want breadth of experience. However, you don’t want to dilute your expertise especially given the intensity of scientific development.

More Thoughts for Food
This may all be overwhelming, but is no more difficult than when you first learned how to pour a gel or swab a petri dish.

Unfortunately, at this time, there is no formal “training course” that is recognized by hiring managers everywhere as “the definitive proof that this candidate will have the right skills set.” If you have read this entire article, you can take realistic steps to enhance your chances to being considered. There are many interview tips out there, so I won’t bother to write another set of tips for interviewing.

Be familiar with the pros and cons of industry (read some articles in this web site to get the good, bad, ugly.) This web site offers articles that can offer some snapshots of the rewards and pitfalls of industry careers. If you want structured mentoring that covers eight key aspects when applying for a medical liaison position, I began offering a program called “Becoming a Medical Science Liaison” in 2004.

Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars training new hires, and don’t want to invest in a potential quitter. This explains the stringency of screening processes and why this industry is difficult to break in. Companies understand that not everyone can endure the brunt of the job, regardless of how stellar they may be in their previous professions. Read trade magazines for the field you’re entering in.

For pharmaceutical representatives, you can read Pharmaceutical Representative Magazine ( I created the Medical Science Liaison Quarterly ( specifically for MSL professionals. Pharmaceutical Executive ( magazine is helpful to understand issues from an industry point of view. Visit web sites on these specialties. Learn industry trends. Read industry articles. Speak jargon. Snack on healthier foods.

Copyright by Jane Chin, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.