When I accepted my first MSL role, I was overjoyed, and I had no idea how absolutely amazing yet completely frustrating my first year would be. There were moments of success (like passing certification) and feeling like an integral part of my team. And then there were times when I felt clueless; so clueless that I felt that I did not even know what questions to ask to try to begin to understand what I should or could be doing. At those moments, the sage advice from Samuel Dyer would echo in my ears that it takes the first year to become functional and understand the role and that during the second year, there will be an “A-ha” moment and you begin to find ways to contribute in major ways. It is the best advice that I received as an aspiring MSL. This advice guided me as I navigated the opportunities and challenges in my first year as an MSL. As my first work anniversary approached, I realized that I was beginning to see the MSL role with much more clarity and having the much wanted “A-ha” moment. Along with that advice, I share some of the invaluable lessons I have learned.
On the practical side, live by the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. These words have proven so very true as impromptu meetings occurred and then there was the unpredicted snowstorm that left me trapped in Chicago for two additional days with just an overnight bag. Through these experiences, I have learned to always have a jacket on hand and to never forget to squeeze in some comfy clothing for when a trip is unexpectedly extended. On the topic of shoes, function before fashion is completely acceptable as are comfy shoes for long days at conferences or walking large academic campuses. Also, I learned that questions are so very crucial for survival and success, and there really is no such thing as a stupid question. Questions are key to navigating the role of the MSL, the cities and clinics I visited, as well as understanding my physicians. And the simplest practicality of all is just to remember to breathe and smile. It is amazing how these two simple things will help make the toughest situations easier.
On the professional side, the three P’s guided my activities during my first year and continue to do so now: Patience, Planning, and Prioritization. Patience is key to being a successful MSL and establishing long-lasting relationships. Relationship building is a marathon and not a sprint. It is important to determine each step in the path to developing MSL skills and KOL relationships. Planning is the key to success from relationship building to career growth to contributing to the team. To bring value, actions and meetings need to be thought out with an objective to be executed. The final P is Prioritization. A vast number of opportunities will present themselves and will appear to be great learning experiences. However, not all learning experiences are equally relevant when striving to achieve personal/team goals. Being selective in where and how to spend time is essential and easier to identify with careful planning and will help maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Networking was key to my success in attaining my MSL role and networking has continued to be an essential part of my day-to-day activities. However, I was not always as diligent in maintaining and enhancing my network as I should have been. I quickly learned that having contacts outside of my organization was just as important as having contacts within the organization. It is a great feeling to be able to connect and gain insights and guidance to steer me in the right direction regardless of the situation. I learned there is great value to having mentors of differing backgrounds and experience. I have been fortunate that I have a great mentor within my organization, but I also have mentors outside of my organization who were able to provide impartial views and speak from the perspective of what was the best decision for me and not be conflicted with also balancing what is best for the organization.
The hardest lesson for me to learn (and I am still learning it) is maintaining balance. As an MSL, there are so many opportunities to learn, to grow, to have an impact. It is so very easy for focus to shift more to work and less to balance. I found it hard to say no and I was constantly rearranging my schedule to accommodate the opportunities. I was sacrificing precious time with family and friends. For me balancing work and life is essential. I am a much better person and MSL when I keep a balance. The coronavirus pandemic has allowed me the opportunity to gain perspective and set guardrails to help maintain a healthier work-life balance now and once life returns to some semblance of normal.
The final two lessons that influenced me during the first part of my MSL career are acceptance and trust. I had to learn that despite my best planning and collaborating that not everything would always go as planned. It is life and there are no guarantees. I needed to accept it, learn from it, and move forward. And since things do not always go as planned, I learned to trust my decision to become an MSL and trust my company when asked to pivot in situations that I did not understand and seemed counterintuitive. Being able to adapt and respond to evolving situations calmly and positively is based on trust.
I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as my MSL career continues. In writing this article, I hope that aspiring and new MSLs can have fewer bumps in their journeys as MSLs.
Angela Valadez, PharmD, MBA,
Angela Valadez joined Alimera Sciences in May 2019 as the Medical Science Liaison for the Central States Region. Angela has a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Kansas and a Master of Business Administration from Baker University. With a passion for using evidence-based medicine to guide treatment decisions, Angela has worked with physicians throughout her pharmaceutical career to manage patient care and impact health outcomes. She was named an MSL Rookie of the Year Finalist in 2020.