A life science recruiter’s advice for aspiring Medical Science Liaisons
The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role is a highly attractive, widely sought job, particularly by PharmDs, MDs and PhDs looking to break out of the confines of clinical, retail, or academic work.
While it boasts attractive pay, growth opportunities, and meaningful work, the MSL role is also highly competitive and can be challenging for candidates to break into, especially without industry experience.
Standing out as a candidate when you’re trying to land your first MSL position takes stellar social and communication skills, proactive networking, and tenacity.
Luckily, helping life science professionals find their right spot is what we do at Mix Talent. We’ve had the privilege of working with several successful MSLs (at all experience levels) and great hiring teams, and we’ve learned a thing or two about what companies are looking for and how to stand out.
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How Do I Become an MSL?
Start by doing a deep dive on the MSL role, but don’t just learn the basics – research Medical Affairs, the evolution of drug development and the MSL role over the last few decades, and future perspectives.
Learn about the new and ongoing challenges in the industry and potential downsides to the job. Follow industry news, company mergers and acquisitions, and definitely do your homework on companies you interview with.
Learn as much as humanly possible so you can have meaningful dialogue with industry professionals, ask great questions, and demonstrate your interest in becoming an MSL.
If you’re early in your education process, here are a few resources you may find helpful:
- Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA): offers some free educational resources including an MSL career primer guide, as well as various certification programs for purchase.
- Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS): a global medical affairs organization that offers networking, mentorship, and learning opportunities, along with some educational materials, including: Roles, Skills & Career Opportunities In Medical Affairs: A Primer for Medical Affairs Job-Seekers and Early-Career Professionals.
- MSL Consultant: Free newsletter, blog, and podcast for aspiring and existing MSLs along with additional resources, training, and guides for purchase.
- The Medical Science Liaison Society (MSLS): some free resources for MSLs (and aspiring), along with membership & networking opportunities (They also provide training and certification programs for purchase, but it requires an investment).
Communication is a critical skill for an MSL. Whether it’s giving formal presentations, meeting with KOLs (virtually or in person), networking at conferences, or simply emailing, you should strengthen your ability to be engaging, listen well, and communicate effectively to any audience in any context.
In fact, most MSL interview processes require candidates to give a 15-20 min presentation on a disease state or therapeutic of their choice – or on a topic the hiring team chooses – so be prepared!
If you don’t know where to start, you can take a public speaking course, join a group like Toastmasters, or get a career coach to help you hone your communication skills.
Practice improving your conversational skills with mentors, colleagues, friends, and family. Start anywhere and grow – identify your strengths and weaknesses, record and review yourself, ask for feedback, implement new skills, and practice, practice, PRACTICE.
Distinguish yourself by demonstrating excellent communication skills – both presenting and conversating, virtually and in-person – because you will absolutely be evaluated on how engaging and effective you are at communicating, content aside.
Connect with mentors and contacts you know currently working in pharma to help you learn about the industry. Reach out to current (or previous) MSLs, especially those who have a similar background to yours, and ask how they landed their first job. Start conversations, build relationships, and ask for advice. Network with recruiters, Field Directors, and other Medical Affairs professionals. Don’t be afraid to connect with those in higher leadership positions as well if you can think of a clever way to start the conversation.
Just remember 3 key principles: 1) look for common points of interest, 2) add value before asking for favors, and 3) be curious. These guiding principles are beneficial in any relationship, but even more important when trying to establish a new connection. Don’t expect everyone to respond or have the bandwidth to connect – take it in stride, handle rejection gracefully, and express gratitude.
Make it easy for someone to respond to your message and share helpful tips by asking more focused questions. Be curious, be creative, be you.
Putting effort into building your network is a win-win-win. It not only shows your interest in becoming an MSL, but you can also learn from others’ experience AND practice essential MSL skills. Demonstrating your ability to network and build relationships from scratch is immensely beneficial for an aspiring MSL and can help open doors.
You must be prepared to answer the question “Why do you want to be an MSL?” Be able to concisely and genuinely answer this, because the inability to do so can be a significant hang-up in an otherwise smooth interview.
Do you have a personal connection to why you want to be an MSL, or why you want to work for a certain company or in a specific therapeutic area? The MSL role may be focused on science, but a compelling personal story goes a long way to making connections.
Make it easy for the interviewer to get to know you. The energy you bring as a candidate and the ease with which you connect with the team make it easier for a company to take a chance on someone without prior MSL experience.
Be ready to handle rejection like a seasoned veteran. It could take you a couple months to get your first Yes, or it could take over a year. Celebrate every time you make it further in the interview process than before – count that as a win, because it means you are becoming a more competitive candidate and are closer to your goal than before. It also provides a learning opportunity.
Always ask for feedback. Sometimes it will be generic, but other times you will gain valuable insight. Ask the recruiter you worked with, and if you interviewed, reach out to the hiring manager. Ask what you can work on to improve your candidacy in the future.
As an aspiring MSL, you have no “track record of success” for hiring managers to lean on and probably don’t have an existing network of KOLs in a particular therapeutic space. So, demonstrating these intangible qualities of a great MSL can significantly improve your chances of getting the job.
No matter what, don’t get discouraged and don’t take it personally. Instead, stay pleasantly persistent and persevere.
Mix Talent Can Help
Mix Talent’s recruiters have expertise that span the life science industry. We’re committed to advocating for aspiring industry professionals who are seeking their first position or a new role. Life science professionals seeking a new career path in the industry can contact Mix Talent anytime, and we’ll help connect you with an opportunity that’s right for you.