According to the 2022 MSL Salary and Compensation Survey with 2,099 respondents globally, 77% and 69% of current MSLs in the U.S. and globally, respectively, hold a doctorate degree. In fact, many companies now require a terminal doctorate degree in MSL job descriptions. Even after gaining their terminal degree, aspiring MSLs find it difficult to compete against experienced MSLs when trying to land their first position. The odds are not in their favor: for every 10 positions, only 1 or 2 opportunities even consider an aspiring MSL. However, we show here that recent graduates of Doctor of Philosophy (PhDs) programs have three key skill sets that make them prime candidates for MSL roles: scientific acumen, scientific communication, and relationship building. These skills combined with the flexibility, independence, and fast learning capacity of PhDs make these aspiring MSLs more than qualified for breaking into their first MSL role.
As we move toward precision medicine, the ever-evolving roles of MSLs are becoming increasingly more specialized. Mechanisms of actions and therapeutic and diagnostic categories are becoming more complex. Nuanced understanding of disease states and clinical presentations is extremely important. To this end, it is in the best interest of companies to consider aspiring MSLs with PhD training. PhDs spend years reading primary literature and synthesizing vast amounts of new and highly technical information in their research. Doctoral training provides PhDs with critical thinking skills as they learn to identify logical gaps in a study design, results, or conclusions.
Perhaps the single most useful skill gained by the end of a PhD program is the ability to stay fluid. By the nature of their research, PhDs must stay current with the latest scientific knowledge and update their understanding with new information. Keyword-based notification tools like PubMed and Google Scholar alerts to aid in this effort. In the MSL role, deep subject matter knowledge allows freshly minted PhDs to educate key opinion leaders (KOLs) with distilled information in an unbiased manner. Scientific acumen combined with flexibility and independence gives PhDs a unique advantage in their MSL career because their teams can delegate and manage resources effectively through specialization and autonomy.
Emphasis on Communicating Science
It is necessary for MSLs to be strong communicators of science. PhD students undergo extensive training in communicating their research to their academic community, clinical settings, and the broader public. This training primes them for a job as an MSL after obtaining their terminal degree. PhDs must develop and deliver slide presentations under high-pressure situations like qualifying exams and thesis defenses as well as under lower-pressure situations like local journal clubs. These presentations are usually given to multiple Principal Investigators (PIs) or KOLs, as well as other trained scientists. PhDs also give presentations at international conferences with audiences upwards of 3000 attendees within their scientific field. They will likely be presenting at multiple conferences a year, especially in the more advanced years of the program. Beyond communicating to the broader scientific community, PhDs participate in outreach programs where they demonstrate and explain simple experiments to all levels of grade-school students.
In addition to developing oral communication skills, training in scientific writing is also emphasized in PhD programs. PhDs in many programs write their own grant proposals to receive independent funding from private foundations or government agencies such as the National Institute of Health. These funding sources are highly competitive making it necessary for PhDs to effectively communicate their proposed research strategy, rationale, and broader impacts. Because of this, many institutions now have courses for successful grant proposals. Additionally, the work of a PhD culminates in a peer-reviewed publication, which may be required for graduation. This extensive training in verbal and written scientific communication prepares PhDs superbly for a job as an MSL straight out of graduate school.
PhD candidates build relationships with KOLs from the start of their graduate program and maintain these relationships throughout their training. At the beginning of a PhD, students must contact prospective PIs to determine whether a lab and mentor are a suitable fit for their research interests and graduate training. In addition, students must seek out committee members akin to an advisory board for scientific expertise relevant to their research and for additional mentorship.
Beyond the laboratory, PhDs interact with large and diverse scientific communities and often work closely with the medical community. With access to an expansive network of KOLs in both primary research and clinical care, PhDs are experienced relationship builders in the healthcare industry. Furthermore, university departments and graduate programs host seminars with external speakers for additional scientific dialogue and networking opportunities. At these events, many PhDs serve as liaisons responsible for inviting an external speaker, arranging an on-campus or virtual visit, and facilitating live discussions with the audience. Relationship-building skills developed early on in graduate training serve PhDs well at scientific conferences where they connect with other thought leaders and potential collaborators. In addition to KOL engagement and scientific dialogue, PhDs excel at gathering insights that they can implement in their own research. PhD-trained MSLs find their years of practice initiating contacts, gathering insights, and informing internal stakeholders extremely valuable to their teams.
Aspiring MSL PhDs learn quickly and are adaptable to changing responsibilities and environments, which makes investments in MSL training worthwhile. Recent PhD graduates bring valuable skills, necessary experience, and strong determination making them well-prepared to break into their first MSL role.
Nuri Jeong, PhD Candidate
Nuri Jeong is a 6th-year Neuroscience PhD candidate in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory University and Georgia Tech. Nuri stuides how we learn and remember new important information. Nuri hopes one day her work translates to finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. As an aspiring MSL, Nuri plans to pursue opportunities in the therapeutic areas of Neurology and Psychiatry.
Olivia Mistretta, PhD Candidate
Olivia Mistretta is a 3rd-year Neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University. Olivia studies spinal circuitry and the role spinal interneurons play in coordinated motor output. Olivia is an aspiring MSL and plans to pursue opportunities in the therapeutic area of Neurology, with a specific interest in movement disorders.
Rachel Bear, PhD Candidate
Rachel Bear is a 4th-year Neuroscience PhD candidate in the Department of Human Genetics at Emory University. Rachel studies the basic science behind how different cells function during brain development. She hopes her research can contribute to a better understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders to ultimately improve treatment. Rachel is actively engaged in pursuing an MSL career in the therapeutic area of Neurology.