The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the world and caused uncertainty in our day-to-day lives. During these challenging times, a few themes emerged: layoffs, furloughs, delays, and even pauses in Medical Science Liaison (MSL) hiring. Sometimes the decision to leave the comfort of your current coveted company may be due to career or financial advancement, or to pursue a therapeutic area that you are most passionate about. Despite these obstacles, two experienced and ambitious MSLs discuss how they successfully transitioned to different jobs to pursue their passion. These women first met each other at the 6th Annual MSL Society Meeting in Las Vegas, NV in 2018. Both are dedicated women in biotech advancing patient care in oncology through therapies and unique approaches to innovation to improve treatments. They are enthusiastic about the opportunity to share their unique perspective on their daily role, responsibilities, and challenges as MSLs. Read about the women’s journey as they share their experiences of job hunting, the application process, and “virtual” interviews during the “new normal.”
- How would you describe the job market for MSL positions during this time?
Maria: The job market for MSL positions during the pandemic is very dynamic, volatile, and in constant flux. It causes a lot of uncertainties due to a lack of job security with furloughs, layoffs, and hiring freezes that are heightened especially during this time.
Takara: I was actually very surprised that lots of companies were still constantly posting openings for MSL positions. In fact, I had an influx of recruiters reaching out to me with various opportunities.
- What were some of the challenges that you experienced when applying for a new job during the pandemic?
Maria: Examples – Initially, I had 12 good leads from top Pharma companies, which eventually came to a halt as a result of the companies’ hiring freeze. I had to quickly adapt to new norms and be patient but adopt a new style of interviewing, like virtual interviewing. Learning smart ways to connect with people online through social media and video calls was critical. I practiced how to deliver impactful Powerpoint presentations virtually, which I never did before, while still impressing my audience. Technology issues, such as poor internet connection and the inability to upload my presentation properly, were unavoidable. Remaining calm when faced with such problems and conducting myself professionally while presenting seamlessly were very important lessons.
Takara: Due to COVID-19, video conferencing and the adjustment of interviewing virtually for 4-8hrs instead of going in-house at the company’s home office. The interview was sometimes broken up over several days and there were lots of bandwidth issues on both ends so sometimes the camera had to be shut off in exchange for successful audio. This added another layer of difficulty of having a personal touch that is otherwise easily achieved in-person.
- What were some of the resources that you used to land your new position?
Maria: Some resources that I used were mentors and internal referrals from my network, such as the MSL Society. Recruiters, MSL colleagues, and friends were very supportive when I let them know I was job hunting. I also utilized social media platforms such as Linkedin and job search engines like Glassdoor.
Takara: I heavily utilized my mentors, recruiters, LinkedIn, Pay Scale, Glass Door, and my Medical Science Liaison Society network.
- How did you decide whether to apply to pharma, medical devices or biotech MSL roles?
Maria: I applied to all kinds of industry companies so as not to limit my job search. I wanted to work for a Biotech company in Oncology focusing on cancer prevention and screening products because it aligned with my clinical and cancer research background.
Takara: Some companies are a hybrid of either of the three. I have had the opportunity to work for both pharma as well as for a biotech company. There are definitely some similarities, slight differences and pros, and cons to all three. I have interviewed for all three before and would have worked at either as long as there was a personalized/precision medicine component. That was important because I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach to patient care.
- What were key decision factors in selecting the best fit company to work for?
Maria: Location was by far the most important factor in my decision followed by the therapeutic area. Ultimately, I decided on a position in my home state because of the pandemic. I prefer working in a territory that includes where I live so I do not have to travel far or relocate. Deciding on the best fit for me also means being passionate about the Oncology therapeutic area and product pipeline, being inclusive in a positive working environment with healthy company culture and being a part of an amazing team with kind people who are led by a phenomenal manager.
Takara: Life is short. I want to enjoy getting out of bed every day to a career that I love. I want to work for an innovative company that is passionate like myself about saving and improving the lives of sick people. Therefore, the key decision factors for me were: 1) the company culture and collaborative team atmosphere 2) the management style of my future manager, 3) an exciting therapeutic area that challenged me and aligned with personalized oncologic treatment.
- What do you feel was the hardest part of the interview process?
Maria: The hardest part of the process was interviewing for a therapeutic area I was not passionate about or presenting on a product that was not exciting to me. I always listen to my gut feelings when researching the company, learning the products, and meeting its people. Whenever my gut tells me something does not feel right, I trust it. Virtual interviewing also posed challenges because it was my first time at this, so I had to practice for hours and hours talking to a tiny camera on my computer screen to finally feel comfortable during an interview.
Takara: As I mentioned earlier, the 4-8 hour “new normal virtual interview process.” However, I think navigating your way through salary negotiations always seems to be the most awkward and daunting. Finally, having several offers from multiple phenomenal companies is an awesome achievement. However, it can also be extremely stressful in both selecting the “best fit of your best offers” and then gracefully declining the others.
- What are some tips or advice on career progression or transition in this field?
Maria: The number one tip or advice I have on MSL career progression or transition in this field is to build a solid network in the industry. As updating your CV is very important because it gets your foot in the door, remember that it is your network that will open that door for you. Proper preparation is key even before landing interviews. Being adequately prepared by practicing multiple times for virtual interviews and Powerpoint presentations is critical. Knowing your worth and doing your research on salary compensation, especially salary negotiations, is very important. Practice aloud what you want to say and how you want to say it. Finally, be patient and stay positive. I cannot stress this enough. In order to transform obstacles into opportunities, you must stay the course and never give up! Remember, never forget those who helped you throughout your MSL career, and do pay it forward, always.
Takara: You have to seize opportunities, charter your own path, and be your own boss in driving your career. Identifying a mentor(s) will be a key driving factor to your success. Know that you are never too far along in your career to seek mentorship. Did I mention, NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK! Equally important, it’s great to have a 5-10 year plan, but you should always be thinking about where you want to see yourself in the next 2-3 years. Small steady steps geared to first laying a strong foundation through the use of a realistic personal development plan, is a must! Identify the gaps in skills needed to get you where you want to go, and ascertain ways to develop those skill sets. Once that is in place it is much easier to work your way up the career ladder. Honestly, only you can decide on what is truly important to you in a career. Lots of people don’t know the answer, so don’t beat yourself up if you also don’t know! However, it’s never a better time to start proactively seeking those answers. Therefore, I challenge you to ask yourself these following questions, and I recommend that you start a pros and cons list for each: Are you happy getting out of bed every day in your current role? If not, what would make you satisfied? Do you enjoy your current therapeutic area? Do you want to continue as an MSL, or do you want to move into a management role? Do you want to stay in the field or relocate and work in the home office? Is the job title important to you? How important is financial compensation to you, and do you know your worth? How important is moving up the career ladder for you? Do you know what that path entails? Is vertical or lateral promotion important? What is your 2-3 year plan?
Dr. Maria Abunto
Dr. Maria Abunto was born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. She received her MD from the University of the East and her MPH from the University of Pittsburgh. Her vast experience spans from being a Medical Director, an Epidemiologist conducting colorectal cancer research at the National Institutes of Health, and an MSL at a large medical device company focusing on stroke care. Currently, she is an MSL for a biotech company that tests to detect cancer early and transforms personalized treatment options for patients by providing smart answers at every step of the cancer journey.
Dr. Abunto holds leadership positions as a committee leader for Women’s Rights with the American Public Health Association, a health mentor for the American Heart Association, and a peer mentor for the University of Pittsburgh Alumni Association. Maria enjoys giving back to her community as an MSL career coach with the Physicians Helping Physicians organization and is an active member of the MSL Society where she has been nominated for the “MSL Rookie of the Year” Award this year.
Dr. Takara A. Scott was born and raised in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands. She graduated with a doctoral (PhD) degree in Biomedical Sciences from Morehouse School of Medicine and is a published author and experienced senior medical science liaison with combined 10+ years clinical and scientific expertise in oncology, urology, cardiovascular diseases, microbiome, genomics, and gastroenterology. For the past 4+ years, Dr. Scott in her capacity as MSL/Senior MSL served at a genomic uro-oncology biotechnology company and a pharmaceutical company, where she perfected the skills to quickly absorb, interpret, and relay essential information to key opinion leaders and a variety of audiences in the form of actionable items
Currently, she works as a Senior MSL at a personalized medicine oncology biotechnology company fulfilling her personal mission of saving lives by revolutionizing cancer care on a broad spectrum of cancer patients. Takara strongly believes in making a mark in people’s lives by paying it forward and helping others climb the ladder to success. Therefore, she serves as a mentor to many aspiring and current MSLs. She is an active member of the MSL Society and was selected as a top finalist for the distinguished National 2019 MSL-of-the-Year award. In her spare time, Takara enjoys Zumba, interior decorating, and learning about various cultures through her international travels.