Setting Your Course to a Successful MSL Career, by Keely Dahl

The intended audience for this article are professionals interested in learning more about or trying to become Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs). These are suggestions based on my singular experience and I hope the article’s content is taken in the spirit of friendly advice, nothing more or less. As with my last article, this too was written in the wee hours of the morning (time zone differences will do that to you) and hopping from one plane to the next – which to me is apropos for writing about what it is like being a field professional. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own anecdotes, for those willing to share. Thanks so much and enjoy!

What is it like being an MSL?

This is a really broad topic so there is a lot to explain. Every day truly is different but there are essential functions of the role that you will likely do most days of the week. When it comes to the principles that guide your work, these will be applicable every single day. I was taught the Five Success Principles for being an MSL while I was a Medical Affairs Intern and I hold them in high regard as I think through my own day-to-day strategy. The principles are: be an expert, be relevant, customize your engagements, maximize your network and create genuine relationships. As you read through the description of what MSLs do, you’ll notice that each activity supports at least one of the principles.

The core function of our job is in the title – Medical Science Liaison – my role is to take the science (the pre-clinical/clinical data primarily) and share it with the medical community. Often times people are confused about the difference between being an MSL and a Sales Executive or Sales Representative. I’ll share a few differences here, although there are certainly more. Because MSLs have a doctorate, we have a broader range of topics we can discuss than a Sales Executive, including data emerging from congresses, ongoing studies, research that has been published or abstracts presented, competitor products (big caveat there – what you can talk about is extremely limited), etc. I do not go into specific policy stipulations regarding proactively or reactively discussing various topics, but know this differs from company to company and there are fierce regulatory guidelines that dictate what can and cannot be discussed. Additionally, MSL success metrics are not based on number of prescriptions written. Learning about the prescribing habits of a provider would be inappropriate for an MSL’s role as a scientific communicator as well as against policy. 

A big part of my job is relationship building and maintenance. The first steps in building relationships can include identifying key people to speak to that had not been previously identified and vetting the people that your company has listed that you should be speaking to. This is an ongoing process but it is especially key to your success in the early stages of building your territory (territory referring to the cities and states you are responsible for building relationships within). Of note, the amount of time doing either differs based on if the role is new within the company or if you are taking over accounts from a previous employee. When planning to establish a relationship, effort is made to learn about them before reaching out. In other words, creating a warm conversation vs making a cold call. This can include using resources such as, academic websites, social media platforms, professional societies, etc. This is followed by finding their contact information and lastly making the connection and scheduling the meeting.

During the meeting itself, the purpose we serve is twofold: 1) be the voice of the company and 2) be the eyes and ears for the company. Let me elaborate. Voice. We represent the company, as do all employees, but we are the ones most often compared to our internal colleagues. For a pre-launch team that has no Sales Representatives, MSLs are potentially the only community-facing body out there on a regular basis. Our role is to share meaningful data with physicians so that they can make an informed decision for their patient population. 

Eyes and ears. We also have the opportunity to listen to how the data we share is received. We get to hear if people are enthusiastic about our product or have serious concerns. Additionally we get to learn about the gaps that physicians identify or perceive in our data sets. For example, perhaps a physician will suggest that we should do a study in “x” population or we should do a phase IV observational study in said patients that were excluded from the trial. Any information like this we can send back internally to help shape our medical strategy moving forward. Additionally, we can identify providers that have interest in research or becoming a future clinical trial site and share this with our Clinical Development team. Furthermore, major trends or insights gathered from the medical team can also impact commercial leadership decision-making as well. However, there are large firewalls between medical and commercial (the height of that firewall depends on what company you work for, but it always exists) and only certain ranks can share such insights to other high level leaders. I mention these examples to give you an idea of how your knowledge can have impact at various departmental levels.

Another way that we gain access is by attending conferences including local, regional, national and sometimes international events. Educational symposiums serve the dual purpose of keeping us abreast of the latest data, trends in care, opinions expressed by attendees as well as allowing us to meet physicians. These can be providers that are on your list but haven’t met yet, people that have been previously off your radar, or those that you know and thus, serve as an additional touch point. Another value we bring from conference attendance is sharing insights from sessions we attended with those that did not get the chance to attend and discuss the implications they have for our field and our company. Depending on company policy, you can also then share or discuss data learned at conferences with the healthcare providers you meet with, which both enhances the HCP’s knowledge as well as enhances your credibility and trustworthiness. 

Just as in the beginning of the relationship when the MSL researched the professional profile of the person they were meeting with, you continue to do this throughout your tenure for each of your KOLs, especially preceding a planned or anticipated meeting. This allows you to be both an expert of the literature and trends as well as well-informed on this person’s accomplishments. Relationships are usually maintained by sharing new data from the company. This is why MSLs must always be aware and educated on the data their own company is producing so that it can be appropriately socialized.

I want to mention some of the additional opportunities that you may have as an MSL that are not necessarily core to your job. These can include: ad boards, journal clubs, resource generation, cross-functional projects, patient advocacy events, medical information booths, on-boarding partner, publication planning, congress coordination, and more.

Of course, the way in which we do our job requires travel, especially if you cover multiple states. This will likely span traveling to your appointments, to the home office from time to time, and to attend conferences. Many people see this as a perk, others a nuisance. I personally enjoy both my time at my at-home office and time on the road, and I appreciate and look forward to the diversity of my work settings from day to day. Others, eh, not so much.


Can you tell me about your journey of becoming an MSL?

This feels like a bit of a self-indulgent answer, but I get this question most often so I certainly want to share. Before I go down memory lane, please recall that there are thousands of unique paths into your industry career, i.e. there is no one right answer. I am not suggesting this is the only way; far from it. Although you and I won’t have the same experiences, it may be valuable for you to notice some key themes or key types of activities. Things to listen out for as I’m sharing my experience are academic excellence, desire for leadership, community involvement, research experience, industry experience, and relationship building. These are some of the key themes that led to my success and can serve as a quasi-formula for others.

I graduated from the University of Florida College of Pharmacy in the top five percent of my class. While I was there I was the VP of the International Pharmacy Student Federation, where I was responsible for coordinating our ten Global Health Outreach Trips in association with the College of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing. I also was responsible for launching several new public health awareness efforts, including events, galas, educational symposiums, etc. With this organization, I went on several Global Health Outreach Trips myself and was responsible for fundraising efforts leading up to the trips. As a student, I partnered with two of my professors to publish a paper in the Journal of Pharmacotherapy and spent two summers working in a lab with a wonderful professor named Hartmut Derendorf for the purpose of expanding my research experience and capabilities. I attained two competitive block programs at the VA and at Shands UF Health, as well as a rotation at the FDA. I enjoyed that experience so much that I asked people at the FDA if I could come back for an internship and they said yes!

Now here is the story of how I learned about what an MSL is. It’s a long one but I will sum it up by saying I was a tutor and my trainee mentioned that he wanted to become and MSL. I’d never heard of that as a third year pharmacy student so I looked it up. A week later I attended some Oktoberfest festivities where I met some pharmacists who asked me what I wanted to do. On a whim, I mentioned that I was considering industry opportunities. They then recommended I meet the VP of Medical Affairs at Merck who is a UF Alumnus and who would be coming to a College of Pharmacy event a few weeks later. We then met, exchanged info, and then he became a mentor to me and then later, an advocate and a sponsor. Ken Massey, in fact created a Medical Affairs Internship based on my request for an industry opportunity as a student and his desire to create opportunities for aspiring students interested in industry. Another leader within the organization, Stephen Dodge, coordinated my internship and took extraordinary effort to make it a broad and meaningful experience across Med Affairs.

I then did my Medical Affairs Fellowship at Novo Nordisk where I reported to an outstanding manager, leader and soon to be friend, Laura Hamway. I remember sitting down across from her during my last interview and telling her very decisively that in this fellowship, in addition to my responsibilities within Medical Affairs, I would want experience in other functional areas as well. During my one year fellowship, she both allowed me to create those opportunities and created many of them for me by again, being an impactful advocate on my behalf. During my time with the company, I was able to do things such as create an ad board workshop with our Medical Directors, work with the Market Access team, collaborate with the HEOR team and present the data at AMCP and present our Med Affairs research project at the DIA conference. I also lead the Clinical Landscape project, which was a seven-month long project that involved input from 50 people across the company and that I presented widely to home and field departments. It ultimately shaped our Medical Affairs Strategy and supported strategic plans cross-functionally. Additionally, I got involved with the Millennials Employee Business Resource Group and created NOVO Talk. This program brought in thought leaders from across the US to do TED-like talks at Novo Nordisk, so that internal people could continue to be connected to the voices of those that influence our field. Lastly, I moved to DC to create the first dual fellowship between Government Affairs and Policy and Med Affairs before deciding to become an MSL with Merck.

My reasons for leaving Novo Nordisk, which had truly been an ideal experience, to go to Merck were:

 1) I wanted to work for the leadership team at Merck, the person who had introduced me to industry, and the person who would be my boss, Bill Hittel.

2) I wanted to move into a new therapeutic area that I believed would open additional opportunities to me in my career, especially in the immunology space. 

3) I am passionate about decreasing prices of medications via competition which is what biosimilars are intended to do. So the idea of launching one of the first biosimilars to hit the US market and be tasked to explain this new medical concept to rheumatologists and gastroenterologists was extremely alluring to me. Our biosimilar was approved one month after I joined Merck

One year into the role, the entire team was dissolved and our responsibilities were handed over to Managed Markets MSLs, which was an understandable decision. Some of us were rehired on various teams. I landed a spot on the Virology MSL team where I got to help launch an HIV medication about a month after joining (another fortuitous stroke of luck). One year later the company laid off a sizable quantity of MSLs based on a new criteria put in place for the new role that was being created in place of the MSL title. This criteria included having a combined eight years of research plus field experience and recall. That was only my third year out of school – so I was out.

Maybe in a follow up article, if people express interest, I can talk about getting laid off. I’ve been through it twice in two years so I pride myself as someone who knows how to handle it. The idea of being laid off carries shame with it. I have learned how to surpass that instinct, although it’s always challenging. From my last day at Merck to the day I received an offer from Aurinia was five days of unemployment. Trust me, you can make a layoff be the best thing that ever happened to you. It certainly has been for me in both situations. Now I’m with Aurinia Pharmaceuticals with the prospect of launching a product in 2021 and I’m extremely excited about what we have accomplished as a team in the seven months I’ve been with the company and the future moving forward. 


What do you think has been the most important part of your background in preparing you to be successful as an MSL?

For visual simplicity, I like to think of the essential differentiators in the form of boxes that you should consider being able to speak to when interviewing for a role or even trying to attain an interview. These can include:

  • Clinical excellence: this could be in the form of academic excellence if you are a new graduate, experience in that therapeutic area as a fellow, or clinical expertise in a given therapeutic area.
  • Research experience: this can come in the form of publications, abstracts, bench work, or clinical trial experience as a clinician or as an employee of a CRO, etc.
  • Community involvement: this can include involvement in specific relevant societies (whether they be medical affairs related or therapeutically aligned), leadership positions, or volunteer work related to the disease you care about (advocacy and foundations, for example). This can also refer to having relevant relationships within the community that will benefit you in the MSL role or your professional growth individually.
  • Industry experience: this is the most challenging hurdle for most. Most do not have industry experience and are eager for it. If you do not have any industry or industry-related experience, is there any way you can gain it before becoming an MSL or a full-time employee in industry? Could you do contracting work? Could you gain experience with a company that works to support pharmaceutical companies? Could you do an internship? Could you set up meetings (virtual or otherwise) with people that work in these industries that could later lead you to gaining one of these opportunities? Would you be willing to start in another pharmaceutical industry job that would serve as a stepping stone to becoming an MSL? I am not suggesting you absolutely need industry experience, but for many hiring managers, it will be a make or break differentiator.
  • Character: I love the book The Speed of TrustIt is something we read as a team at Merck and I got a lot out of the experience of both reading it and discussing the implications with my colleagues. Trust is built based on both your competence and your character. The four items described above are by and large focused on competence. Character is referring to not just what you do, but how you do it. It describes the basis of your personality, your work ethic, your ability to support and/or lead a team, and the way you show up in life. Character can and will be demonstrated with every interaction you have in pursuing your goal of becoming an MSL, and if you consistently demonstrate your strong character, you will begin to generate a reputation that enables others to feel confident in recommending you for opportunities.


How can I break into the MSL role?

Before answering this question, I would suggest you answer a couple questions you pose to yourself: Are you willing to move? What skills do you currently have that you need for the job you want? Are there ways that you can gain more experiences now to make yourself a more viable candidate in the future? Are you willing to take another non-MSL position within a pharmaceutical company or consulting company/vendor in order to eventually progress to the MSL role? There are certainly more questions to be asked, but this is may be a good start to be clear on what you are willing to do upfront.

How to break into the field differs quite significantly if you are a student vs. a full time employee, and what kind of FTE you are. There are two main routes of entry, but again, there are many more possibilities. The two main are first, being a clinical expert in a specialty (oncology, neuroscience, etc.) and moving from your practice as a clinician/researcher into pharma. Similarly, sometimes people start in managed care and then move into a Managed Markets MSL role, leveraging their experience from the managed care world. The second is going straight from school to a pharmaceutical industry fellowship. Gaining industry experience and departmental training allows you to demonstrate your capabilities to the future employer.

You can look on any LinkedIn posting for an MSL position and get an idea of the responsibilities and criteria required for the role, so I’m not going to belabor that information here. What I think is most important are the following. Know what the MSL role is inside and out. Even if you haven’t done the job before, have a level of understanding that parallels someone doing the job. This can be achieved through a combination of taking part in Med Affairs professional societies, discussions with MSLs, gaining additional work experience at a pharmaceutical company and shadowing MSLs, reading the job descriptions online, etc.. The last thing an employer wants to see in an interview is a lack of understanding of the position you are applying for. I would imagine your viability as a candidate would be lost at that point. If you have an understanding of how MSLs support the larger Med Affairs organization and the company as a whole, your credibility increases. Be crystal clear in explaining what experiences you have that fit the needs of the role and how your unique experiences will improve the strength of the group. If you are struggling to answer this question, you may need to consider gaining more experience before applying for this job. Do your research on the company and the product (current and pipeline) prior to reaching out to MSLs or Hiring Managers associated with the role you are looking to apply to. It demonstrates genuine interest, ability to quickly learn and communicate your knowledge to another person (aka your primary function as an MSL), and lastly will help you ask more specific questions that will help you decide if you are truly interested in this position. Furthermore, the most important answers you can give are the why behind everythingWhy you want to leave your current role, why you chose your prior employment settings, why now, why this company and why this position.

Relationship building is extremely challenging when you are starting at square one and I empathize with you. However, I do believe that if you have done the above, the times when you do reach out to an MSL or HM prior to submitting an application, will be more fruitful. Generic questions and generic introductions are, by nature, somewhat boring and forgettable. Someone that sends a LinkedIn message or email that succinctly states your intent, your applicable experience and why you are interested in this specific opportunity will be more memorable, more credible, and more likely to have a shot at a phone call.


What do you like about being an MSL?

A few aspects of the MSL position that just light me up include my sense of fulfillment, my impact and my autonomy. There is a very specific reason a company hires an MSL: to build relationships with the healthcare community so that providers can make informed decisions based on the data that you share with them. If you continue to think of this as the core of your purpose and form the basis of your activities around this personal mission statement, you will likely feel very fulfilled as you continue to succeed in taking actions that serve this purpose. I enjoy being on the cutting edge of science within my therapeutic area and speaking directly to some of the most influential thought leaders in the space. I enjoy knowing that the data that I share with a physician may ultimately impact my figurative neighbor (i.e. a patient in my community) and that the thoughts they share with me may ultimately impact the choices made by the company. This gives me a great sense of purpose and meaning as a professional.

I enjoy that when I wake up in the morning, I get to decide what I do that day and that every day is a little or a lot different than the previous. Of course, all my activities are based on the needs of the team and my responsibilities, but the way in which I do my work is primarily my decision. When I choose to email someone for a meeting, choose to read an article, choose to plan my conference schedule, etc., is in large part driven by me. This is why it is vitally important for an MSL to be self-driven. Granted, you have a manager to guide you, but by and large, the way that you use your time and talent is decided by you. I feel I have the opportunity to express my creativity through this role, which I might suggest is fairly unique and rare opportunity.


What is the most challenging aspect of being an MSL?

When you have done everything you can think of and still aren’t able to successfully meet with a key provider. For example, you finally find their email address and you get no response. You call the office and the office staff say they’ll call you back and never do. You see them at a conference and say hello and they say “Sure, email me, we can meet”, but then ultimately they never get back to you, and this carries on for months or years. That is extremely frustrating and can feel like rejection. Is this rejection? Yes. Is it a failure? No. A failure is not trying. In this scenario, you either a) look for alternative pathways (get others in your company involved, drop by the office without an appointment, ask other MSLs for help, etc.) or b) learn when to let it lie. Sometimes there is value in taking a pause. Wait some time to reach back out. There could be reasons not relating to you or your company that are leading this person to ignore you. Or, perhaps this person simply has no desire to have a relationship with an industry professional and in that case, we must have the grace to respect that decision.


Can you share some best practices in finding MSL opportunities?

I believe that even a small network can be extremely powerful if utilized appropriately. As you are searching for your next opportunity, tap on the shoulders of people you already know. For example, I have people reach out to me looking for various positions within the company I work for. If we have a relationship and they are an excellent candidate, I’d be their greatest advocate. For those that I know less well, I’d be happy to connect them to the appropriate people to further the conversation. However, if I don’t know someone hardly at all who is asking for a referral, I use my discretion in choosing to what extent I recommend them.

I believe that it is more meaningful to make relationships with people when you don’t need to (e.g. when you’re not asking for something). This applies nicely to recruiters too. Establishing relationships with recruiters before you need a job is preferable to waiting until you’re in full job search mode to start. I would highly suggest that you partner with several recruiters and also ask trusted friends and colleagues which recruiters they suggest, as it may be advantageous for you to work with more successful/recommended recruiters.

LinkedIn has been a phenomenal resource for me to find career opportunities. I strongly recommend that if you email or message someone about job opportunities at their company, you take a moment to look on LinkedIn to see if any are currently posted and if so, refer to that specific posting in your message. There are multiple Medical Affairs related societies that post MSL job opportunities to their websites. Do a little digging to find them and learn more about what these associations offer. 


Any advice for making the transition to an MSL role from a fellowship position?

As you may know, the number of fellowship opportunities has steadily grown in the last several years and some fellowships offer as many as forty slots. Obviously, not all of those fellows will be able to stay on with the company given that this supply will likely exceed demand of FTE positions. I think this is important for fellowship candidates to consider prior to selecting a fellowship. I was fortunate to have a fellowship class of seven total, which increased all of our chances of being brought on full time up substantially. I also believe that if you have interest in becoming an MSL right after fellowship, having an MSL/Med Affairs fellowship really does help (that may be a bit of a duh statement). However, I do applaud people who gain experience in another functional area and are able to gain Med Affairs experience during their fellowship and then can relate that experience to why they are applying for an MSL role. It is so crucial in those cases to be able to explain the why behind your decision.

It is true that companies are often more likely to hire someone if they have experience in the company’s specific therapeutic area(s), but of course that is not always the case. I transitioned from a diabetes-focused fellowship to a rheumatology/gastroenterology MSL position and then from that position to an HIV role. Point being: it can be done. Following your fellowship, if you chose to or are unable to continue on with your fellowship-hosting company, look for opportunities highly related to your therapeutic area of experience. If you are interested in transitioning out of your therapeutic area, then prove that you are able to quickly transition into this field by taking it upon yourself to learn about the drug, the company, the pipeline, the competitive landscape and the key players. If you demonstrate an admirable effort of being on your way to becoming an expert in this space, I think you improve your chances of being seriously considered. Again, this is something I would suggest doing prior to reaching out to influential hiring decision-makers. If you have decided psoriasis is your area of interest and you’d like a job in that space, start doing the work now.


How would someone transition from being an internal medical information specialist to a field MSL role?

For those without industry experience, pursuing a job in Med Info can be a great stepping stone. I don’t have personal experience in this but I have seen it done before. Having disease state expertise is highly valuable and is often one of the major criterion hiring managers are looking for from an MSL. What I might argue is that it may serve you best to try to get Med Info experience in the company that you want to be an MSL for, as they will have had several years to get to know you, your strengths, your capabilities, etc. before transitioning in the field. If not that company, then a company that specializes in the same disease state as yours would likely be easiest.


As a first-time MSL, should I try to start with a small or large company?

There are always exceptions to any rule, so I’m not suggesting there is only one choice. However, larger companies often have more resources to invest in training new MSLs. Conversely, a small company may not have such capabilities. A startup team may not have the capacity to provide in-depth disease state training or business-oriented job specifics. They may therefore be more likely to try to hire someone with job experience and/or disease state expertise. From what I’ve observed, it is just less likely for a new company to hire a person without MSL experience. However, that may not be the case if you are already considered a leader or expert in the disease state. I think you are more likely to win an exception in that case. An alternative option to both of these is seeking employment as a contract MSL. That could give you experience with either sized company which you could thereafter leverage for a full time opportunity.


Can you tell me about your internship experiences with Merck and the FDA? Were these useful in preparing you for an MSL career, and how did you go about securing the internship roles?

Any experience you can gain with an entity that either is or works closely with pharmaceutical companies can only benefit you in securing an industry profession. Although the way in which I secured an internship was fairly unique, it has some teachable tidbits that can be translated to any internship position. First, do your homework on opportunities. Use Google to its maximum capacity. Make an effort to find out through research and dialogue. Once you’ve gone through this information gathering phase, be able to answer similar questions to why you want to be an MSL (see previous paragraphs), but instead be able to answer why you want to be an intern, what capabilities you have that match this opportunity and why you want to specifically intern with this company. Once you’ve answered that for yourself, reach out on LinkedIn to people involved in pharmaceutical internship programs or perhaps even fellows or employees of the company who may know who is closely involved in the internship program.

Second, create opportunities for yourself. As I mentioned previously, there was no Merck Med Affairs Internship when I asked for an opportunity. I had never heard of anyone creating a one-month internship at the FDA following a rotation. Did that stop me? Absolutely not. Being an MSL involves a significant amount of ingenuity, creativity and self-starting. Why not create an opportunity for yourself that demonstrates those characteristics early on in your career? Tap on all doors, whether that involves expressing your interests to your peers, your professors, your social media community, or perhaps companies that work with pharmaceutical companies but are not themselves pharma companies (for example, companies that specialize in medical marketing, medical writing, consultants, managed markets, etc.). Recognize what your paradigm has been for finding opportunities, then smash that paradigm and make it bigger.

To answer the question about how these roles were attained: I literally and simply, asked. I expressed my interest, I expressed my long term intent, I demonstrated my capabilities and dedication to put in the work, and I was fortunately rewarded. Sometime things don’t work out, and it may have nothing to do with you and your talents. It does involve some level of skill and some level of luck. During my FDA internship/rotation, my intention was to get involved in meaningful work, gain as many experiences as I could during my time in DC, and have engaging conversations with FDA professionals. During my rotation with the Office of Medical Policy, I was able to work on the Guidance for Industry on the Instructions For Use portion of a pharmaceutical label. While I was with the Clinical Outcomes Assessment team for my internship, I was able to engage in NDA Regulatory Briefings, IND Reviews, PRO Consortium and Advisory Committee Meetings as well as support research of COA Instruments for Quality of Life Assessments in pediatric obesity. (FYI: I picked obesity because of my plans to go to Novo Nordisk, which specializes in the disease). I met with someone new usually once a day based on emails I sent requesting a lunch meeting or staying after a presentation to introduce myself to the speaker and talk. I also went to a number of meetings outside of my division to gain experiences, learn, and meet new people that I still keep in touch with to this day. This is a lot of detail, but this is all to say that during my experience at the FDA I tried to gain as much insight I could from either people or experiences to afford me further understanding for when I became an industry professional.

My three intentions for approaching my FDA experiences were the same as during my time at Merck. Making such strong relationships with other MSLs and Med Affairs professionals was a leading reason why I chose to come back as an MSL following my fellowship. Similarly to my FDA experience, I gained broad experience. All in all, as an intern you can have an impact through the projects you support, but the expectations on your productivity are fairly low. You are given the opportunity to learn, to demonstrate your work persona (e.g. do you create opportunities or do you wait for them to be given, etc.) and to gain insight into a number of different professions and professionals you would not have otherwise known. I was able to work with the field MSL team, field managed markets MSL team, learn about resource generation, work with patient advocacy, learn about investigator initiated trial processes, patient education, and the list goes on. This is all to say that having this broad experience helped me understand how the Field Med Affairs team played a role in supporting the larger Med Affairs function. Once you have an understanding of what value your organization creates for the rest of the company, you can speak to that more clearly in interviews as well as be more intentional with your actions. When you know why you are doing something, you are likely more likely to feel compelled to do it and do it well.

Thank you so much for reading this article. If you loved it, liked it, thought it was somewhere in between or down right disagree, I would highly value your feedback. I hope this can help aspiring MSLs get clarity on the job itself and empower you to be successful in your endeavors.


Transitioning to Industry

Hilary Mandler

Hilary Mandler

Medical Affairs Executive

Pharmacists that transition from academia to industry are often said to have moved to “the dark side,” insinuating that they have abandoned patient care or have become too “sales-y”.  Pharmacists in industry do play an important role and should not be perceived as someone who has “sold out” their career.  I recently transitioned from academia to industry and want to provide guidance to anyone considering this move. 

Despite spending my entire career in academia, I was very familiar with the different roles for pharmacists in industry. After careful consideration, I decided to pursue a field medical role as a medical science liaison (MSL) because the job appeared to match my skillset and clinical interests. In this role, I’d still be an educator focused on therapeutics and disease, but substituting KOLs in lieu of pharmacy students.    

Although I felt prepared for the challenge, I was very surprised at how difficult the transition was for me.  Learning the long list of industry acronyms, such as ‘SOP, ‘KOL and ‘SRD’ and new concepts such as ‘business acumen’ and ‘strategic plans’ was daunting. Who knew that healthcare compliance training would make feel so unprepared? 

I wish I had taken advantage of the many resources that help pharmacists’ transition to industry. Organizations such the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA) and Drug Information Association (DIA), provide valuable resources and on-demand training that provides foundational knowledge of the industry and the various roles for pharmacists. For example, the ACMA’s Medical Affairs Competency Certificate Program (MACC) is a medical affairs training program offered to students in pharmacy school that provides industry knowledge that can be leveraged into an industry position. For industry professionals, the Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist Program (BCMAS) is a comprehensive training program that is considered to be the standard in medical affairs.  In addition, seek guidance from industry pharmacists through LinkedIn, pharmacy school alumni, and work colleagues.  The better prepared you are, the easier the transition will be.  

A medical device professional discusses the value of BCMAS

Prem Sundivakkam, PhD., MBA., BCMAS

Prem Sundivakkam, PhD., MBA., BCMAS

Medical Affairs Manager

     Despite many promising breakthroughs in the health care sector, there remains a growing demand for the lifesaving therapeutics. I often ask myself, “Why does the industry appear to be so challenged? What are the setbacks in transforming the innovation to market? Is this an R&D productivity challenge, difficulty in understanding the market needs, overall risk-averse regulatory environment or the challenges in stakeholder management? It is clear that the ability to understand the market needs, to deliver the medical value across the product life cycle, and to best manage that myriad of strategic and transactional partners position scientific and medical experts to drive the organizations. However, many leaders in science are not ready to take this role. 

     Organizations need leaders with a profound understanding not only of science, but also to effectively communicate the complex and the highly valuable medical information with an increasing array of stakeholders. They need leaders who can play a far more crucial role in annulling the doubt amongst the customers on the industries’ ability to present unbiased medical information. 

     Organizations are constantly re-evaluating their training methods and strategies for the development in an employee’s skills and business growth. While the in-house trainings and practical experience cannot be substituted, they seldom provide the medical affairs’ organizations an opportunity to be taken out of the comfort zone to learn the art of engagement along with the functionalities of the various channels. 

     Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA) is the only internationally-recognized organization that had established the standard of excellence in medical affairs. The modules provided by ACMA and the BCMAS examination covers all the skills necessary to increase the understanding of the ecosystem a medical affairs’ professional will be exposed to in an organization. It also helps in determining the capabilities that exist to understand the patient experience, access and influence a broad array of external health care stakeholders, and act as a liaison between the external medical community and the internal research organization.

     Obtaining the certification had influenced my career by shifting the focus from thinking defensively about what medical affairs can’t do to acting proactively on the things that medical affairs can do. It also helps me partake in discussions with more confidence, capture and integrate strategic information across the array of both internal and external stakeholders, and certainly had improved the level of my engagement to identify extended opportunities. 

     Given the significant changes happening in the life science industries, this is an appropriate time to reassess and redefine the goals of medical affairs function. Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist (BCMAS) certification will certainly develop the skills needed to enable medical affairs’ professionals to meet the emerging demands and tackle them effectively. After all, the goal of balancing science and business is not to simply fit decisions into the larger picture, but to help paint that picture.

5 Common Mistakes Seasoned Medical Science Liaisons Make

Marianne Kenny, PharmD

Marianne Kenny, PharmD

Former VP Global Medical Communications Allergan

Think you’re too experienced for more training? Or say to yourself, “I’ve been an MSL for 10 years, what could I possibly learn?” If that’s you… keep reading. 

Studies in the MSL space have shown that within about 2 years, MSLs begin to intellectually ‘fatigue’ and typically plateau when it comes to their knowledge level of the disease state and functional areas. They start getting into certain habits that rendering them less effective because although industry market dynamics change, they don’t.

Here are 5 common mistakes, seasoned MSLs make:

1. Think they know it all

Ever meet that MSL that’s been in the industry for 10+ years and thinks they have it all figured out. You would think that they’re going to be the most effective, most engaged. Unfortunately, oftentimes they are just the opposite. It isn’t because they don’t have the chops for the role. It’s that they’ve either grown apathetic or simply grow content with their current knowledge levels.

If that’s you.. Think about ways to reinvent yourself and stay up to date and fresh with industry standards.

2. Stop Growing in their Profession

Have you been to a training session and the person next to you rolls their eyes as if to say, “what a waste of time.” Oftentimes, seasoned professionals have this idea that they won’t benefit from any additional training or professional development. One of the things the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs (ACMA) hears all the time from seasoned MSL pros is how much they found out they didn’t know when they become Board Certified in Medical Affairs (BCMAS).

3. Get Stuck in their Habits

We are all creatures of habit and get stuck in bad ruts. The key is to not make one big change at once but rather small changes. I’ve talked with some MSLs who tell me that they wait till the end of the week to report all of their KOL interactions because they just don’t’ have the time during the week. The problem with this approach is you end up relying on your memory and may forget important details and insights about the interaction that your company might want to know about.

4. Go back to the Same KOL/KTL ‘Well’

Once when I was heading up an MSL team, I did a little exercise to see who our MSLs were engaging and found something quite remarkable. Most of the lower performing MSLs were meeting with a small number of KOLs with a disproportionally higher frequency versus their counterparts who met with a broader pool of KOLs.  When I dug further, I discovered that the primary reasons for this was (1) comfortability with those particular KOLs and (2) access was easier. The result was that the company wasn’t effectively engaging the right people. With digital technology and innovation in medical affairs, new tools and analytics for KOL profiling make it easier to identify the right KOLs to engage. I personally like H1 Insights which I believe have the most reliable data with an easy to use interface.

5. Assume other People Grasp Your Previous Experience

You walk into a new role after you’ve been with your previous company for 10 years and they still treat you like a ‘newbie.’ It’s a common story we hear at the ACMA. Don’t assume anything. Unfortunately, when you start at a new company, you have to rebuild your reputation and those relationships. 

There are a few ways to overcome these common mistakes:

  1. Invest in Yourself 
  2. Prove Your Worth Early On
  3. Reinvent Yourself
  4. Keep an Open Mindset
  5. Look at Future Trends

If you’re a seasoned pharmaceutical, biotech, diagnostics, or devices MSL, enroll in the Board Certified Medical Affairs Specialist Program (BCMAS).  Reinvent Yourself.

The Future of Medical Affairs is Here. 

6 Must Have Qualities of a Strong Medical Director in Medical Affairs

William Soliman

William Soliman

President and CEO of Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs
Senior Level Life Sciences & Pharmaceutical Industry Expert

What Do You Look for in a Strong Medical Director in Medical Affairs?

Many have compared the medical director role in a pharma/biotech company to a maestro in an orchestra. The medical director is the center of the wheel in many cases guiding, directing and orchestrating several cross functional areas like clinical development, marketing, regulatory affairs and patient advocacy.

If you’ve worked with a strong medical director, there are some common characteristics they all have. We asked the experts and came up with 6 that all agreed were MUST HAVE QUALITIES:

1. Knows the Disease

Any medical director needs to not only be an expert in the product’s data but an expert on the disease state itself. This includes the pathophysiology, epidemiology, and the clinical data across several treatment options.

2. Strong Business Acumen

An exceptional medical director doesn’t forget that they work for a business and always keeps on eye on changing market dynamics, key thought leader (KTL/KOL) politics and anything else that can impact the business side of the science. 

3. Excellent Relationship Building Skills

A masterful medical director knows that he/she needs to build skills not only with KTLs/KOLs but with internal stakeholders as well. They need to gain their trust and confidence so that they see them as the company’s true subject matter expert. 

4. Broad Understanding of what Medical Affairs Does

A solid medical director understands all areas and functions within medical affairs. They get what MSLs do and can help ensure they are integrated into internal medical affairs activities where it makes sense. They appreciate drug safety, HEOR and med info and have the know how to jump in where needed. 

5. Exhibits Confidence with External Stakeholders

As the saying goes, “You only get 1 chance to make a first impression.” Good medical directors aren’t afraid of big name KOLs and they’r e willing to challenge them with confidence on the data or science. They do so with ease and confidence thus building a strong rapport and bringing long-term value. 

6. Superb Communicator

One of my favorite quotes on communication says, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” Many medical affairs/MSL professionals suffer from “data vomit.” Where they have a compelling sense to spew out data in an incoherent manner. But a fluid and sophisticated medical director can make their point by interweaving stories and adding color to the data so that it has clinical meaning and content. They know when enough is enough
Of course there are more than 6 qualities.
Can you think of some more? If so, share your thoughts with us!

Looking to strengthen your medical director chops? 
Become a true pro. Become Board Certified in Medical Affairs (BCMAS).
The #1 Board Certification in Medical Affairs in the world. 

Resume Writing and Editing Tips for Pharma Professionals

Tom Caravela

Tom Caravela

Expert Medical Affairs and MSL Recruiter

As a Professional Pharmaceutical Recruiter, I read and evaluate resumes (as well as CVs), every day. While I am not a professional resume writer, I have a very strong understanding of what a good resume or CV looks like and what should be included. More importantly, I keep track of what is most effective and elicits the best response from potential employers. I am happy to share some essential resume writing and editing tips that may be helpful to prepare for your next job search.

Brand Yourself

First, your resume should reflect your brand or specific focus. Be clear about your image and what you want to portray. Make sure that all of the information you include on your resume will work towards a unified and consistent image. Showcase your brand through clear and descriptive content and titles that justify your fit for the role or roles you seek.

Templates and Formatting

Style, formatting and appearance are key to the overall impression of your resume. Start by choosing a professional template that will work well for your background and industry. It is a good idea to ask a friend, colleague or coworker if they are willing to share their resume with you to review. Ultimately, make sure you are comfortable with the template you use to work from and be sure it offers the impression you want. Make sure that your fonts are big enough. Do not go smaller than an 11-point font, and opt for 12-point if possible. Times New Roman, Arial and Garamond are all good font choices. Do not overuse capital letters or underlines. Titles should be bolded, and there should be white space to show clarity, enhance the visual/aesthetic appeal and make content flow. 

Professional Summary

Include a “Professional Summary” at the top of your CV that tells the reader who you are and what you are looking to do. This is basically a more formal and professionally documented elevator pitch. Your professional summary will be the first impression for the reader, so make sure it is precisely written. 


A performance-driven Medical Affairs professional with over fifteen years of combined experience in healthcare, clinical research, and medical industry, developing in-depth and productive relationships with key professionals in academic, clinical, and payor organizations to optimize business opportunities. Acknowledged for strong presentation, communication, and organizational skills to successfully direct complex projects among many levels of internal and external customers in multiple therapeutic areas, including Cardiovascular, Metabolic and Nephrology. Currently seeking a field-based Medical Affairs role with a growing company.



Be sure that you write the summary in third person, and do not write in first person – it reads as less professional.

The Header and Contact Information

It is important to have your contact information displayed prominently. Use the header option and make your name bold with a larger font than the rest of the text. Add your credentials after your name so that they are highlighted prominently, such as Jane Doe, PharmD, BCMAS or John Doe, MD, PhD.  Make sure that your contact details are clearly listed. If you prefer not to list an address, leave it off. But you should at least list a base city so that potential employers know where you are commuting from. Or if you are field-based, such as a Medical Science Liaison, an employer will want to know what territory you are a potential fit for. 



Review job descriptions and similar job postings to see which common keywords are being used by prospective employers.

Use “Keywords”

As you edit your resume, think about which keywords a recruiter might use to find someone with your specific background. The digital age of recruiting is upon us, which means that all applicant tracking systems and recruitment websites have “search” functionality and even artificial intelligence capabilities. As a result, corporate recruiters will run search queries based on specific keywords. If your resume does not have the required keywords relating to the job you are applying for, your information might never be found. Keywords can be job titles and descriptive words that relate to your job function.

Resume Length

Many professional resume writers and career coaches will insist that your resume is no longer than 2 pages. In my opinion, years of experience will dictate the appropriate length of a resume. While the one- to two-page resume is most common for entry- to mid-level job seekers, the executive resume will warrant more pages (depending on job function). We recommend including publications, presentations, abstracts, journal articles, editorial tasks and reviews, awards, grant support, etc. All should be added at the end, letting the reader decide how much information needs to be reviewed. As a result, it is very important to make sure your first 2 to 3 pages capture the most relevant highlights of your career and experience.

Highlight Tenure

If you have worked a long time for the same company (8-10 years or more), highlight this tenure clearly to show how long you worked for that employer. It is smart to then list all the different positions and roles separately that you had during this time at that employer. This may result in having several sets of time frames listed for each title. But remember to first list the overall time frame which shows your total years at that company.

Avoid “I” and “Me”

Your resume should not contain the pronouns “I” or “Me.” That is part of our normal sentence structure, but since your resume is a document about your person, using the pronouns ‘I” and “Me” is redundant.

Do Not Include

Do NOT include irrelevant information such as political affiliation, religion, age, hobbies and sexual preference. It is not a good idea to include a color background, colorful fonts or sections, a photo, or special graphics, such as a large monogram, logo or initial. Additionally, it is not necessary to mention comments like “Available to Interview” or “Can Start Immediately.” Although it is very common, the statement “References Available Upon Request” can be left off as well. Employers will ask for references at the proper time regardless of whether they are offered via the resume.

Be Truthful

You should only document what you can genuinely support. Even the slightest information that cannot be supported could potentially ruin your chances for employment. It is acceptable to have several versions of your resume for different employers and/or roles, especially if you are looking for career transition. Just be sure you can support all the claims you make and resist the urge to stretch the truth, since you may be “fact-checked” in an interview setting.

Multiple Versions

It is a smart practice to customize your resume for each employer and/or role you are applying for. When actively applying, it can be a good idea to have multiple versions of your resume prepared so that you can highlight your background and skills for that specific role. However, it is not smart to tailor your resume to “be” someone else. Employers will pick up on what you can truly support and what you are fabricating. Just keep track of which version you use for which opportunity.

Spell Check and Proofread

Be sure your resume is completely free of all errors and typos. Using spell check tools and thoroughly proofreading your document is mandatory. It is a good idea to share your resume with at least 3 trusted colleagues or family members that can proofread on your behalf. This seems like a no-brainer and should go without saying; however, I am often surprised at how many spelling errors and typos we find.

LinkedIn Profile

Once your resume is complete and you are fully comfortable with the final version, be sure to update your LinkedIn Profile so that it is a mirror image of your resume. Keep in mind that most recruiters and employers will cross reference your LinkedIn Profile once they have possession of your resume, so it is critical that both are a match. Your LinkedIn Profile is your digital brand and career image, so it is very important that you are consistent and 100% comfortable with the final version. Take the time to add a professional and recent photo. A casual, recreational or outdated photo is never perceived well; a lack of picture is not appropriate either.  Lastly, consider adding your LinkedIn Profile link to the contact area of your resume.

E-Mail Cover

It is very likely that you will be emailing your resume to many companies or recruiters for consideration. Instead of having a cover letter as an attachment, consider incorporating a strong email intro to act as a brief cover letter and resume highlights. This will mean your e-mail will only have one attachment (your resume) which will ensure the reader will not have to open more than one document. To be safe, you can also include the full resume in the body of your email (under the intro) in case the attachment is blocked by a spam filter.

Bi-Annual Updates

It is a very good practice to revisit your resume and LinkedIn Profile every 6 months, or at least once per year, to make sure you are staying up to date. It becomes very challenging to make the proper and most relevant updates after many years. Revisions and updates should include new responsibilities, achievements, training, promotions, special projects or milestones, including publications, presentations, abstracts, journal articles, editorial tasks and reviews, awards, etc. 

About the Author:

Tom Caravela has 27 years of pharmaceutical industry experience and is the Founder and Managing Partner of The Carolan Group, LLC, based in Northern New Jersey. Founded in 2002, The Carolan Group is a leading pharmaceutical and biotech search firm specializing in Medical Affairs and Medical Science Liaison recruitment. Tom is responsible for leading a team of expert recruiters and account managers in client expansions for various levels of field-based and in house Medical Affairs professionals including Medical Science Liaisons, MSL Leaders, Managed Care/HEOR Liaisons, Medical Directors as well as various other medical and clinical affairs roles. With almost 3 decades of pharmaceutical industry experience, Tom is a frequent speaker and Medical Affairs Consultant for clients, advisory boards and industry meetings. His strategic interests focus on hiring, retention and career development for the field based MSL role.