The Bridge Between Pharma and the Clinic: A Career Interview with a Director of Medical Science Liaisons

By Stephanie Baringer

Chris McNabb

           As scientists, we have a duty to use science to improve the lives of patients. But even if we have the next cure for cancer, how do we get clinicians to listen? Scientists and clinicians often speak very different languages, and it can be difficult to convey ideas back and forth. Enter a medical science liaison (MSL). MSLs are employed by pharmaceutical companies as an expert source of information about all aspects of a drug and are utilized to communicate information to and from clinicians. They are considered the unbiased bridge between pharma and the clinic. The MSL role is field-based and works on building relationships with clinicians to allow for the best collaboration, and thus the best patient outcomes, possible.

           Below is my interview with Chris McNabb, a former MSL in oncology, now a Regional Director of Bayer’s Oncology Targeted Medicine MSL team. If you are interested in learning more about his career path, you can reach him via LinkedIn.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions presented are his own and do not reflect those of his current or past employers.

Can you please tell me about your career path?

            I completed my Master’s and PhD in Experimental Psychology – Neuroscience from the University of Texas at Arlington studying neural pain processing. After graduating, I took a postdoc at the NIH in a new lab that just so happened to be looking for someone with my exact skill set, and I spent my time looking at the role of the amygdala in pain processing. However, after about 8 months, I realized this wasn’t what I wanted long term. I volunteered to help coordinate the NIH Career Symposium, an event that showcases a variety of careers to trainees, and I started to aggressively seek out career paths that spoke to me. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn’t at the bench. I soon found Medical Affairs; this is the area of pharma that helps facilitate the flow of information between companies and clinics. With a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, I obtained a contract position through The Medical Affairs Company at Bayer’s Neurology division. With more hard work, I became a full-time Bayer employee and later transitioned to the Oncology division. More recently, I accepted the position of Eastern US Regional Director of Oncology Targeted Medicine MSLs.

What made you leave academia? Did you always know that wasn’t the right path for you?

            I actually didn’t always know. I will admit I always considered the possibility of leaving academia, often on lunch breaks outside of the lab. The reality is there are not enough jobs in academia for the number of PhDs awarded each year. The MSL role was especially appealing because it allowed me more direct access to the clinical space than my work in the lab. Medical Affairs often requires much closer collaboration with doctors who are on the cutting edge of clinical practice and improving patients’ lives. I really enjoy being a part of that.

What are your main responsibilities?

            MSL’s perform three primary functions: maintaining peer level relationships with leading clinicians (often times called key opinion leaders or KOLs), assisting with the management of certain clinical trials, and serving as scientific content expert inside and outside of the company. This means if a health care provider or someone within the company has a technical question about your drug or the science behind it, the MSL is their go-to resource. These questions can range from preclinical pharmacokinetics to the current treatment landscape. This is why the MSL is often referred to as the scientific face of the company. The Director’s role, in short, is to staff the team, ensure that the team’s mission is fulfilled, and provide ample career development opportunities for each team member’s unique aspirations.

What does a typical week look like?

            In a typical week, an MSL will lead multiple KOL interactions requiring overnight travel, manage certain projects like planning for an upcoming congress, participate or lead scientific trainings, and contribute to a variety of company meetings. Excellent time management is crucial in order to balance all of the responsibilities. Also, it is important to know that this job does not have a standard daily routine. Every day is different; some days you are at home working, and other days you travel through multiple states. The most successful MSLs will thrive on this variety. Typically, the bigger a company is, the smaller the territory, resulting in less of a travel area. This can be a major factor influencing day-to-day activities.

What kind of salary can one in this position expect?

            The salary of an MSL varies dramatically based on experience, company size, and other factors. The average salary in the US is about $170,000, but bear in mind that this figure includes many highly experienced MSLs. For those starting out, salary may be between $110,000 and $130,000 a year. Most MSLs report they get paid time off, paid mobile service, and paid internet. Many companies will also provide a car and sometimes will even cover the cost of TSA pre-check, which has saved me hours of time over the years. I am fortunate and grateful that Bayer provides most of the major ancillary perks.

What do you like most/least about your job?

            I love that I still learn something every single day. I get to stay on top of the science in a vast clinical space, and again, I love that my current job affords me greater exposure to that clinical space than I would have seen in the lab. Pharma also forces you to see the bigger picture, much more so than a lab environment. In the clinic, and in business, there are a lot more considerations than if that p-value is significant or not. I also love that I get to talk to smart people all day long. My coworkers, my team members, and the KOLs we interact with are all accomplished professionals with a wealth of knowledge. It is invigorating and inspiring to work with them.

            Truthfully, I like all aspects of my job, so it’s hard for me to pick things I like least.  Instead, I’ll provide your readers with two of the more common complaints about the MSL role that they should definitely be aware of before applying. The first is travel; there is a lot of it. While it depends on the size of your territory, the average MSL spends multiple days per week away from home. I personally love this aspect of the job, but for others it can be challenging to balance with other priorities. The second is that, as an MSL, you work for a business, which can be a jarring transition from academia. Businesses have very specific goals, so if your favorite scientific project doesn’t align with those goals, it will not be pursued. Notably though, business goals are not solely about money; they can aim to expand patient access to therapies, extend or improve the lives of patients, develop novel therapies, etc.

What traits or skills do you think are most beneficial for this career?

            Number one is absolutely presentation skills. You have to be able to deliver complex scientific information in a manner that is easily comprehensible to your audience. Related to that, you have to learn new concepts and topics very quickly. Next, I would say emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt your approach to a healthcare provider based on the socioemotional cues they are giving you. And third, it’s essential to collaborate effectively within a team. To highlight these skills on a resume, I’d recommend listing any and all public speaking events (even journal clubs!), teaching experience, project leadership, mentorship, and collaboration on diverse teams.  These are the things I’m most excited to see on resumes.

What kind of advancement opportunities does your position have?

            Companies are becoming more aware of MSLs’ desire for advancement and are starting to offer more tiers within the role of MSL. These roles come with increased responsibilities and leadership. As of today, Bayer has three levels of MSL, with the third level considered a Senior MSL. Beyond that, MSLs can move into a leadership or management role like I did. If an MSL wanted to move outside of Medical Affairs, they could consider strategy-focused positions, health economics research, scientific communication, and clinical research management. It may also be possible in some circumstances to move to the commercial side of the company into a marketing or sales role, but that is uncommon. Rest assured that transitioning to industry will open many doors you never knew existed.

How do most people get into this field? What are common entry-level jobs?

            One of the best ways to supersede the experience paradox, that is to get a position that usually requires experience when you have none, is to seek a contract MSL position. The Medical Affairs Company that I mentioned previously is one such organization that hires many contract MSLs. The reason this is advantageous is that contract positions are sometimes more open to considering applicants with little or no experience. I’d recommend being flexible and casting a wide net when you are looking for your first position. Of course, apply to positions that align with your research background, even if they claim they require X number of years of experience, but don’t be afraid to explore positions outside your therapeutic area.

Do you think a post doc is required or beneficial? Why or why not? 

            A post-doc is definitely not required, but I do think it can be beneficial. My postdoc training allowed me to gain more experience that I was able to use on my resume and interviews. It was especially beneficial to get a highly reputable institution, like the NIH, on my resume. The more you can beef up your resume, the better. That being said, there are other ways to gain experience that may be even more appropriate for a future career in Medical Affairs. Any clinical or industry experience would be excellent, and two specific options that come to mind are Medical Writing and Clinical Trial Coordination.

What current issues and trends in the field should those considering this position know about/be aware of?

            The pandemic has forever changed how field-based teams operate. A much greater percentage of interactions with healthcare providers will occur virtually. Travel will remain a significant aspect of the job, but we will probably travel less than we used to. I firmly believe that it is possible to develop valuable professional relationships even in a virtual setting. In fact, I have found that virtual meetings often require a more specific agenda and reason to meet, which can make them more purposeful and productive. Going forward, I think every company will be rethinking their field medical force in terms of how it utilizes virtual meeting technology.

Any last bit of advice for people considering this position?

            Don’t sell yourself short; the skills you gain in your doctoral program are transferable! Many aspiring MSLs seem to be preoccupied with questions like, “Am I really good enough or smart enough? Do I have the right credentials or experience?” I’d recommend that every aspiring MSL put those questions aside and just go for it. To break into your first role, gain experience doing what MSLs do, demonstrate proficiency in your interview, then tell your interviewers you’d like to continue doing the exact same things, but with a new title as an MSL. That is how you get a recruiter or hiring manager to take a chance on you. Best of luck!

For additional resources about the MSL career, I highly recommend the MSL Society and the MSL Talk podcast.

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