What’s a Medical Science Liaison and how do I become one?
By Sophia Donaldson, on 12 November 2018
Dr Rachel Greig has a PhD in Immunology and is now a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at Incyte, a pharmaceutical company. We know a lot of you are interested in MSL roles, so we asked Rachel to tell us all about her job and how she got there.
What are you up to now?
I’m a Medical Science Liaison at Incyte, so I build and maintain relationships with key healthcare professionals in my therapy area, which is oncology.
Walk us through your journey from PhD to your current role.
At first I loved my PhD. But after 18 months, I became disillusioned with the fact that you can be plugging away at things for a really long time and they can still not work. I also saw colleagues who were really good scientists getting knocked back for grants, and that seemed an incredibly hard path to follow without much gain. So I started to think academia wasn’t for me, but I had no idea what else was out there. I finished my PhD without a plan, and it was 2008 so the recession had hit. I decided to just try to get any job in any office, but I couldn’t get anything because there were no jobs going. It was quite a weird time for me.
I ended up getting a job temping in an office for an organisation called the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), who regulates certain healthcare professionals such as paramedics and physiotherapists. I started off answering phones, but because I got on well with them and they could see that I was ready for more, I secured a higher level permanent role in the Education team. I was visiting universities that offered relevant healthcare courses and ensuring they were good enough to produce a professional in that field.
After a year I wanted a new challenge, so I took a job at the charity Breast Cancer Now. The job required a PhD, as I was evaluating science to help inform everything the charity said and did, including commenting to the media, giving health information to the public, or putting together political campaigns. It was very varied, I did a lot of work with the media, I met patients, and I went to events at the House of Commons for policy work. But after a few years there I wanted to try a new environment, and I focused on pharma. I’d been working alongside the pharmaceutical industry for a while, and I’d always been interested in drug access. Plus, to be frank, I was at a stage where I was interested in earning a higher salary than charities can pay, so that was factor.
I was drawn to MSL roles as they would use my PhD, are very science-focused, and need someone personable who likes being out and about talking to doctors. So I applied for lots of MSL roles within Contract Research Organisations and Pharmaceutical companies, but I kept getting turned down because I didn’t have experience as an MSL or within pharma. In the meantime I went to a meeting with the ABPI, the body that represents the UK pharma industry. There I met a woman who worked at Lilly who was running a corporate affairs project in the cancer team, which seemed like much the kind of work I had been involved with at the charity – working with different groups involved in cancer-related policy. She mentioned there would be roles coming up in her team soon and asked for my CV, and they took me on as an Oncology Public Affairs Manager. I loved that job, I worked with different charities and the ABPI, with NHS England and the Department of Health, trying to find sustainable ways to fund cancer services and medicines. I’m pretty political anyway, so I really enjoyed the role, however, policy work can be frustrating, as ultimately the government doesn’t have to listen to the campaigning of charities and companies, and can make decisions based on other political factors.
After three years I felt it was time to have a different kind of conversation, so when my Medical Director offered me the opportunity to move into the MSL role at Lilly, I took it. The MSL role is far more about scientific conversations; talking about the data behind drugs, the benefit drugs provide versus the risks; talking about research that’s needed and how doctors and researchers can help with that, and how you can offer your drugs to fund their research projects. I did that role for about a year, at which point some restructuring changes at Lilly prompted me to find a new opportunity, and led me to my current MSL role at Incyte.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
One of the good things about the MSL role is there is no normal day. Today I’m in the office organising an Investigator Meeting for a clinical study Incyte are sponsoring. We’re hoping to have 50 or 60 investigators there so together we can share and discuss data from our study so far. Yesterday I went to a one-day conference in central London about graft-versus-host disease. Last Wednesday I was visiting a hospital in Cardiff, talking to a team working on one of our clinical studies. Last Thursday I was at another study site in Cambridge. Next week I’m going to a large cancer conference in Munich, and in preparation I’m reaching out to investigators on our clinical studies to see if they’ll be there so we can catch up. Last week I organised for one of the doctors we work with to speak at a range of hospitals in Dublin, which benefits the hospitals to hear from an expert speaker, and benefits him and us in sourcing potential collaborators for his research. Tomorrow I have a meeting at another hospital to propose an add-on to a study an investigator is already doing. So there’s always different conversations you’re having. I also need to keep on top of the literature, and there is support for that internally.
What are the best bits?
For me it’s that I’m always on the go, often out and about chatting to people. And because Incyte is a small company I get lots of opportunities to travel, so I’m abroad at least once a month. That wouldn’t necessarily happen in a large company as they have more employees doing similar jobs. I’m also constantly learning, and I’m doing a job that helps cancer patients get access to medicines.
What are the downsides?
The amount of travel would put some people off, although I personally enjoy it. Another difficult aspect is doctors are very busy people, and sometimes we need data and updates but we can’t get in touch with them. It’s not nice to feel you’re bothering people who are doing such an important job, and sometimes no matter how much you chase you just can’t get what you need, and that’s tough. There is also a lot of compliance in pharmaceutical companies, as we’re a heavily regulated industry. That’s obviously for a good reason, but it can take a while to get used to, especially if someone comes in straight from academia.
Is a PhD Essential for your role?
It depends on the company, but you usually either need a PhD or to be a doctor or nurse, because you’re talking about science at a high level with key consultants, often leaders in their fields. In terms of skills, the PhD teaches you how to manage projects, understand data, and critique studies, which are all skills I use as an MSL.
What’s the progression like?
I’m not a very good person to ask, because I’ve never planned far ahead, but rather taken opportunities as they come! But in general, some people love the role of MSL and will stay with it. Or, depending on how the particular company is structured, someone could become a Senior Medical Science Liaison, and even a Medical Director. Or people might choose to move around. One of the good things about the pharmaceutical industry is once you’re in, they provide opportunities for trying different roles, and my movement from corporate affairs to the medical team is an example of that. For me, long-term I think I’d like to try something a little more strategic, something where I may be on the road a little less eventually.
What tips would you give to researchers who want to become MSLs?
If you’re sure an MSL role is for you, then probably relax out of that! The way I got into this, along with every other MSL I’ve met (bearing in mind they’re all in the oncology therapy area), is by transitioning from a different role within pharma. Most companies want to know their MSLs understand their company and the pharma industry. Now I’m an MSL with experience, I get emails about new MSL roles almost every day – so there are a lot out there, but you just need your break to get in. If you’re sure you’d like to be an MSL, obviously still try for the MSL role, but you might want to widen the net a bit too, and focus on getting into pharma first.
In terms of getting into pharma, I had a bit of luck, but I also put myself in positions where I could capitalise on that luck. For example, I went to a pharma networking event, and within my charity I was pushing for more pharma-related work. So I’d advise doing the same. There’s an MSL conference that a lot of aspiring MSLs attend, as getting to know current MSLs can be very helpful, so you might like to attend that. You should also recognise how important relationship-building qualities are to the role. If you can work in roles within academia, the NHS, or charities where you are building relationships with doctors, you can use that evidence to sell yourself for MSL roles.
Finally, if you’re a PhD or post-doc and you’re reading this because you’re considering MSL roles and your wider options, then rest assured you’re going to be ok! I left academia not knowing what I wanted to do, and without even knowing what an MSL was, so you’re doing the right things – well done!