So it’s come down to this. After being donated a sword by a mysterious old man living in a cave, you managed to fight off clouds of irritating bats, solved the boomerang puzzle, and spent your jewel collection on a much-needed shield, only for a giant weasel to block the only exit out of this miserable dungeon. If only I could button-mash my way through this last obstacle, I’d be strolling through the castle gates on my way to a happy reunion with the sovereign of this nifty little kingdom. Wait, what? Let’s take a step back…
So you’ve decided to become a Medical Science Liaison. You signed up for membership with the MSL Society, completed the live 3-day course on Presentation and Communication Skills, and attended the Annual Conference in Las Vegas. You splurged on a nice suit from Ralph Lauren, updated your CV, and have been watching Indeed.com like a hawk, applying for every new posting within minutes after going live. You may have even gotten a few callbacks. And yet, try as you might, you just can’t seem to get past these initial stages and talk to the person who really matters- the hiring manager. Does this sound eerily familiar?
The point of all this is, of course, how do you break into the industry as an Aspiring MSL. Surely there’s a “secret sauce” (I’ll buy the blue ring please), a “third door” (ooh, hidden stairwell under a rock), or an “inside connection” (sure, I’ll chat with the friendly bulldogs) that’s the (magical) key to success. All you have to do is pry (loot) this knowledge out of a current MSL (stone knight) or hiring manager (dragon) and you can skip straight to the happy ending. And just like a certain classic RPG, the real answer lies in a lot of lost hours, searching, and perseverance. The good news is your quest has something in common with that of our plucky tunic-clad hero: it’s actually very formulaic.
Let’s look at some of the questions you’re going to be asked during your initial phone screen with HR. Why do you want to become an MSL? What do you know about our company’s portfolio? What are your three greatest strengths? Just as you wouldn’t enter a pitch-black dungeon without a source of light, you shouldn’t enter this conversation without having practiced succinct answers to these guaranteed questions. As Samuel likes to say, “talk for 90 seconds and then shut up”. These questions will quickly weed out unprepared candidates, just as the unlit dungeon will weed out underequipped spelunkers. Have your answers ready; bring a candle!
Next, consider your CV. It’s tempting to use bold colors, fancy graphics, and a witty font to grab the recruiter’s attention. After all, who wouldn’t be impressed with your prowess with Microsoft Word? For starters, biopharmaceutical companies. You’re applying within an overwhelmingly conservative industry, and that means they like to have information presented in a certain way. The MSL Society has a template that I strongly recommend you follow, even if it seems sterile and boring. Remember, every merchant will try to sell you shiny arrows, but arrows don’t reveal secret entrances. Use the template; buy cherry bombs!
Lastly, you may have heard the adage: “the job goes to the candidate who wants it the most,” but it should really be “the candidate who proves it the most”. If you’re offered an interview next Friday, you had better move heaven and earth to make yourself available on Friday. Would you prefer if they gave the spot to someone else? Do you want to come off as uninterested (or worse, ungrateful) by trying to negotiate an alternative date, just to accommodate game night? It’s not unlike the old woman in a cave who won’t even talk to you unless you deliver a letter from an old man in a different cave, just so you can have the privilege of buying magic potions from the old woman. Yes, it can be inconvenient. And yes, you need magic potions to survive. Rearrange your schedule; finish that side quest!
The biopharmaceutical industry is only growing, and with it, Medical Affairs. Companies and hiring managers are going to be increasingly willing to take chances on aspiring MSLs to fill these critical positions and so there will never be a better time to get your foot in the door. I hope you’ll take this analogy to heart as you formulate your game plan. That reminds me; what happened to the giant weasel? He’s hungry and wants food (“bait”). So feed the troll, rescue the princess, and live happily ever after. Now put down that controller and start applying!
Nabhan Islam, MD
Nabhan Islam received his BMSc in Microbiology & Immunology from Western University in 2002 and his MD from St. George’s University in 2007. Following graduation, Nabhan worked as a medical instructor and CME provider in the Greater Toronto Area. In 2019 he was hired by GSK Canada as an MSL in Respiratory Medicine, covering British Columbia. In 2021 Nabhan joined Syneos Health on behalf of VBI Vaccines as an MSL in Vaccines & Infectious Disease for Western Canada. His current portfolio includes a newly approved hepatitis B vaccine and several prophylactic/therapeutic vaccine candidates against SARS-CoV-2, chronic hepatitis B, and glioblastoma. Nabhan has also previously served as a medic with the Canadian Army Reserve and is an accomplished world traveler.