New medical science liaisons (MSLs) and MSL managers face a variety of challenges in their new roles and may benefit from seeking advice and insights from their more experienced counterparts. To help facilitate this, the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Society offers an MSL Mentor Program for new MSLs or MSL managers. Their mentor/ mentee program assembles new and experienced MSLs or MSL managers into groups of two mentors and four to six mentees with an aim to provide guidance, support, professional development, and share knowledge. Unlike a one-on-one mentor-mentee model, the group mentorship model allows mentees to learn from their mentors as well as fellow mentees. This program is available to all professional-level MSL Society members and is part of the MSL Society’s ongoing quest to advance the MSL profession and to help MSLs and MSL managers cultivate their careers.
I am and have been for several years, a volunteer mentor to life/health science graduate students at the University of Toronto, Canada, helping students identify and prepare for a post-graduation career path in medical affairs and/or medical communications. It is rewarding to see students progress on their own paths and achieve their goals. In turn, my mentees help me become a better coach and leader and they always teach me something new and unexpected. Given that my experience is my own, I wanted to find out what members of the MSL Society’s Mentor Program thought about their experience in the program. To find out, I spoke with two mentors – Amy Patel and Christine Norman – and mentee Brandon Bosque.
For Mr. Bosque, becoming an MSL was a second career after having trained and worked as a podiatrist. He was completely unfamiliar with the role beyond what his employer outlined for him. The mentorship program was precisely what he needed to learn what it means to be an MSL and what skills to develop to become successful. It was an opportunity to learn from the experience of seasoned MSLs mentors and to gain insights into other new MSLs. He credits the program for helping him build a solid understanding of what the MSL role encompasses. He leveraged this knowledge in his new role.
Ms. Patel and Ms. Norman were driven to mentorship by a desire to give new MSLs the guidance and support that was lacking when they started their careers. Although their individual experiences differed – Ms. Norman had the fortune to receive training in the therapeutic area for which she was responsible while Ms. Patel was given free rein to get herself up to speed – neither was provided with information on how to navigate the complexities of the MSL role. No one taught them about the day-to-day work of “MSLing,” such as strategies for connecting with thought leaders / key opinion leaders (TLs/KOLs). They learned “on the job” and, while successful in their careers, both admit that their learning curve was steeper, whereas the mentees’ training was expedited as a result of participation in the program. The mentorship program creates a safe and trusting space in which mentees ask questions without fear of being judged by colleagues, managers, or company leadership. One topic that the MSL mentees struggled with, Ms. Patel told me, was the scope of their work. It was reassuring for them to understand that sometimes it is normal to wear multiple “hats,”, especially during the unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. The mentors emphasized that every challenge can be an opportunity to shine. At the same time, continued Ms. Patel, the conversations helped empower the mentees to communicate with their managers to ask for help when it was needed. Ms. Norman said she shared with her mentees’ practical strategies for approaching TLs/KOLs, especially during the pandemic when the face-to-face connection was sometimes not possible. There is no doubt that the mentees in this program walk away with enhanced knowledge and strategies to flourish in their new roles.
Getting back to the earlier question of value for the mentors, Ms. Norman explained that the relationships she has developed by volunteering in the program have been long-lasting. She is still in touch with one of the mentees from her very first mentor role. Her professional network has increased, and she was able to learn what it is like to work in other companies. And having mentees from different therapeutic areas was an opportunity to discover things she would otherwise not have known, for instance, differences between deliverables for MSLs in the medical devices space versus pharmaceuticals. For Ms. Norman, mentoring was a rewarding and beneficial experience. In addition to supporting her MSL mentees, the experience afforded her an opportunity to broaden her current MSL role. Leveraging the knowledge she gained as a mentor, she was nominated to become Takeda’s lead trainer in a pilot one-on-one mentorship program and lead disease state trainer for new hires in her neuroscience team; moreover, she was also entrusted with the design of both programs.
The MSL Society supports its mentors by sharing a monthly list of suggested discussion topics. When asked what makes a good mentor, Ms. Norman and Ms. Patel both emphasized the importance of listening and empathy. They added that mentors should strive to discover their mentees’ objectives and desired achievements, accept their questions with respect and understanding, and adjust their pace based on their mentees’ needs. Storytelling and anecdotes from real-life examples are effective coaching tools as these help mentees relate to and learn from their mentors. On the mentee side, Mr. Bosque stated that a mentee should be coachable, open to new information, and willing to learn and soak up new information. If those conditions are in place, there is a high likelihood that the mentor-mentee team will benefit from their time together.
Currently, the MSL Society’s Mentor Program runs virtually. In future sessions, Mr. Bosque would love to see an in-person component to enhance the existing program, adding that it is easier to let one’s guard down when meeting new people in person compared to the defenses and walls one erects in a virtual setting. As for what’s next for this particular mentor-mentee group, a face-to-face reunion would be welcomed by everyone. Ms. Patel suggested that an annual reunion would be a great way to catch up and to also gain feedback for future mentorship sessions.
Evidently, this program is highly valued by both mentors and mentees and both Ms. Norman and Ms. Patel stated they would not hesitate to participate as mentors again. Mentors and mentees gained much from their participation in the MSL Society’s program. So, if you’re a senior MSL/MSL manager thinking about amplifying the feedforward loop (i.e., paying it forward), this is a great opportunity to coach a new MSL. Whether mentorship has been on your horizon for some time or is just now coming into focus, consider the group model that the MSL Society’s Mentor Program offers as a great way to get started, give back to others, enhance your own career, and discover the additional benefits it might offer.
- Brandon Bosque, Christine Norman, and Amy Patel for their interview time and contributions
- Karolína Šandalová at the MSL Society for the opportunity and for connecting me with BB, CN, and AP
- David Collins for his reviews, edits, and encouragement
Darina Frieder, PhD BSc
Darina Frieder is an experienced Medical Affairs professional and is currently a Medical Science Liaison at UCB Pharma. She also runs her own medical writing business, Science Nerd for Hire. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband, 2 kids, and 1 temperamental cat. She is passionate about many things, a few of which are gardening, creating delicious meals for family and friends, and reading as many books as she can.