An interview with Martijn Bijker, founder of from Science to Pharma
Hi Martijn, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with me today and share your long-term industry experience with our readers who want to transition from academia and pursue science-related careers in pharma.
You were a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) for multiple top pharma companies and top brands for many years before starting from Science to Pharma (FSTP). I was hoping we could talk about your MSL path and the career path first, then talk a bit about FSTP, if that’s okay with you. Would you like to start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Of course. I’m originally from The Netherlands, where I received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the VU University, Amsterdam. Following that, I pursued a master’s in Biochemistry, where I was exposed to immunology, which I really loved. So, along with biochemistry, I studied immunology and immuno-oncology; the latter became my passion since my early twenties and remains till today, almost 20 years later. Eventually, I graduated with three majors – biochemistry, immunology, and immuno-oncology.
Before I graduated, I did a research internship at the La Jolla institute for Allergy and Immunology in San Diego. This internship combined my dream of living in the US together with increasing my chances of being accepted into a prestigious PhD program in The Netherlands. After my PhD at the Leiden University Medical Centre working on cancer vaccines, I continued my dream of working overseas again for my postdoctoral research and decided on Sydney, Australia. After 3.5 years working as a postdoc, I moved into my first MSL job at Abbott in gastroenterology.
How and when did you become interested becoming in an MSL?
I didn’t enjoy my postdoctoral research and I had some work-style differences with my professor. It was a challenging time and mentally it wasn’t healthy. My wife said, “Maybe you should find another job”. So, I was looking for alternative options, and that is when my wife emailed me this advertisement for an MSL position. I looked at the expertise and skills required, and the job description sounded great – talking science, discussing the latest medical research with physicians, presenting at scientific conferences. All things I enjoyed as a researcher but were overshadowed by bench work.
During a mentoring day, our trainer told us “to have a really good plan B, so that you can go full-throttle with plan A and reap the benefits from it. If it fails, you have a great back-up plan.” Staying in academic science was my plan A and going into pharmaceutical industry as an MSL was my plan B. However, my plan B quickly became my new plan A and I headed for the exit. I researched the MSL role as much as I could, talked to people who were in the field, and several months later I got an interview, then the second-round interview, and then I was offered my first MSL job at Abbott Australia!
When your wife told you about the MSL role, was that the first time you heard about this career?
Yes, that was the first time. I had never heard of it before. Most researchers have no idea what you can do outside academia. But then I started researching. This was in 2011 and there weren’t any resources on the MSL role other than a few online threads and blogs. So, I reached out to people who were working as MSLs and ended up talking to an alumni (Elenor) from our institute who had moved into the MSL role. She explained the role to me in detail and put me in touch with a recruiter. Since I had done a lot of research on the MSL role before contacting him, he said, “you sound quite prepared and I think I should be able to find you an opportunity.” I continued to read books about pharma, learned about (FDA) regulatory approvals, prepared my answers to interview questions, researched the drug and the company just to make sure I came prepared to my interview. The hard work paid off. I had two interviews at Abbott before they offered me the job.
I think doing your homework about the job is an aspect that a lot of people tend to overlook. I remember seeing resumes from people applying for industry jobs that read just like an academic CV.
You’re spot on, this is a common problem. Many applicants’ CVs look like they are applying to their current or future academic job (i.e. postdoc). They have to forget about their current job and match all their skillset from the past with the new job requirements. To do so effectively, it is important to fully understand the MSL job, and many aspiring MSLs struggle with this. Having seen resumes of hundreds of aspiring MSLs, I can say that many do not fully comprehend the MSL role and job requirements. Most of them write about their academic achievements, laboratory skills (e.g. Western blots, PCR), and fellowships instead of highlighting skills needed in the MSL role. As a result, their CV is often instantly rejected as it doesn’t show that you fully understand the MSL role.
Most people going onto MSL jobs in the US (95%) have a ‘terminal D’-degree (PhD, MD, or PharmD – majority are PhDs). This percentage is lower in other countries and can be as low as 40%. A thorough understanding of clinical research is a minimum requirement for the MSL role. However, employers also like to see that you: are a good communicator in one-on-one meetings and presentations; can work in a team and reach common goals; work professionally with external stakeholders and are able to organize events (e.g. conferences, symposia). And you have to come with examples, don’t just list 10 skills you have. It is a new way of writing your CV, very different than from academia where your papers, grants and fellowships speak for themselves.
Do you have any specific suggestions to aspiring MSLs for improving their CV?
Many applicants don’t know how to market themselves in their CV or in real-life; I used to make this mistake too, providing details of academic research I have done with no context about how it is relevant to my potential employers – “these are my papers/research grants, and I worked with Prof. X (and you should know that he’s a big name in the field…)”. I thought that people could simply see that I have done great work and was qualified. In (pharma) industry, you have to show what you have achieved (they may not necessarily care if you have worked with a Nobel laureate. So, I had to think about how I marketed/portrayed myself in the CV. As my friend Clive Simon told me, “If you don’t sell yourself in 15 seconds in your CV, then you’re out”. Reading a CV is a lot like how you read a paper: You look at the title, scan the abstract, and if it’s interesting, you read the paper. It’s similar for your CV – so have elements that capture the reader’s attention quickly. Make sure you have a short-and-sweet executive summary (8-10 concise bullet points) that compels the reader to look at the rest of your CV.
A lot of people say in their CV – “my responsibilities in the job were…” – the problem with this line is that I don’t know what you have actually achieved. So, I tell them to include and quantify their achievements while carrying out their responsibilities. For instance, state something like, “Guided X number of people to achieve Y project goals”. Maybe you have collaborated with an international research group – showcase that with some tangible result – a paper, a research grant, or something along those lines. When you show your result-orientated outcome, it tells the recruiter/hiring manager that you were successful in carrying out your responsibilities. For a lot of applicants, that quantifiable aspect is missing in their CV. Also, a lot of researchers work on their own and don’t do much outside of research. Other service or voluntary activities like being on committees, charity work, and organizing conferences demonstrate valuable additional skills such as strong communication and organization skills needed to break into an MSL role.
Hiring managers often ask behavioral questions in job interviews because they want to see how you behave in a group/team and how do you deal with conflicts. Not so much about how many papers you have, but more about how you have achieved things and how you responded to challenges. So, while it’s tempting to put all your papers in the front page to show the potential employer your research expertise, don’t do that. Instead, shortlist/pick a few papers that are your highlights and put them in the back of your CV.
Did your academic training help you prepare for this role? As scientists, we learn several lab-specific skills (experimental techniques, grant/manuscript writing, giving research-in-progress presentations). The pharma industry seems to not always focus on these lab-specific skills (like how good your pipetting is), but whether you have transferable skills like team management, strategic thinking, and the ability to communicate effectively. Could you tell us how academic training prepared you with these skills and how you highlighted them when you were applying?
Many young academic researchers discount their knowledge or expertise because they compare themselves to senior postdocs or professors who have tens of years of experience in that field – you are never going to beat that. But in the pharmaceutical industry, if you come with a PhD and 2-4 years of research experience on a project, you know a lot more about that disease area than many of your colleagues in the company and you can call yourself an expert in that area.
I talked to an aspiring neuroscience MSL recently who said, “Not sure if my application will be competitive as I’m not an expert in neuroscience.” So, I asked her, “You have worked in neuroscience though, haven’t you?” She said “yes, about 2 years on a specific project.” I told her that she should emphasize that she is an expert in that area and not doubt herself.
Did your PhD give you a unique perspective/advantages in being a MSL? Were there any drawbacks in going from academic research as opposed to say, an MD or PharmD? Also, how steep was the learning curve while transitioning from academia?
I went into an autoimmune disease field – Crohn’s disease –immunology. So, I’d strongly recommend moving into the area that you have expertise in. It makes your transition easier. You still have to get used to all the clinical and medical disease focus, rather than pure basic research. In academia, you just walk up and talk to someone, but in my new job, you scheduled appointments and sent calendar invites as people are busy and have meetings – that was new to me. So were the numerous SOPs, compliance learnings, inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry. It’s mind-boggling how much internal procedures you have to learn. Also, your focus is different, it is all clinically and patient focused, that was all new to me. Only thing I could hold on to, was my basic immunology training. To understand the clinical aspect is challenging if you don’t have that background. Aspiring MSLs often forget the fact you’re not employed to discuss (academic) science, no, rather you talk about medical and clinical science related to patient outcome/safety/management etc. Since effective communication is such a huge part of the job, it is important to understand that clinical translation aspect. While you may have presented research at scientific conferences or meetings, talking to doctors in a one-on-one meeting requires a different approach and skillset.
I understand that the MSL is the go-to person or the expert for both your colleagues and external contacts like physician experts/KOLs – when it comes to the company’s drug/product. So, what exactly does the day-to-day work of an MSL entail? What does the average work-week look like (if there’s such a thing)? Were you satisfied with the work hours? Was there enough work-life balance?
An MSL is kind of a Scientific-Medical Relationship Manager – you manage the relationships with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) – the clinical experts in that disease field. But you also work closely with the internal stakeholders (sales, marketing, regulatory, health economic). Often MSLs work on pipeline molecules that are still undergoing clinical trials and are not yet on the market. You need to understand the (future) treatment algorithm, and where your drug would fit in. The idea is to talk to physicians, share your data, and gather input from them on how your drug would fit in the future treatment algorithm for that disease and if there are any challenges that need to be overcome to make your drug launch a success (i.e. the need of a diagnostic test). Once the drug is on the market, the MSL job changes and is more focused on providing medical education, supporting extension of indications (using the drug for new diseases), (health economical) data generation in Investigator Initiated Studies (IIS), organizing symposia etc.
Day-to-day, or week-to-week may vary, and it also depends on the location of the MSL. As you can see, an MSL has manifold duties – you travel often and discuss with physicians about products in prelaunch or launch phase, how best to manage side-effects, discussing the latest clinical conference data and to gain insights in the management of patient that would help the positioning of your drug. Prelaunch or launch (side effects, etc.) Sometimes, you may partner with clinical research colleagues from your company and give presentations about clinical data to a larger group of clinicians at a hospital. These are just a few things you can do as an MSL.
Overall, I’d say the responsibilities vary based on the kind of drug, the therapeutic area and where in the product life cycle the drug is in (pipeline, peri-launch, on the market). A very versatile job, I would say.
What was the most rewarding and most challenging part about being an MSL for you?
For me it was at times challenging to juggle a lot of balls as part of the MSL job. In my MSL job at Amgen, I covered the whole country for 4 drugs of which 2 were pipeline drugs both in clinical trials for several disease indications. There was a lot of work to do. You have to be good in project management. And at times it can be challenging to see doctors, especially when you are starting as the doctors don’t know you yet. Because it is a complex and demanding role, the pay is really good (US$130,000-US$1400,000 base salary) plus many extras.
I liked the flexibility and autonomy that came with the job. Since I planned my day, I decided on when I was going to meet with a physician or KOL. As an MSL, you’re in charge of your own work– it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it well. You have a lot of freedom (kind of like a researcher), but also, it could be difficult for some as you may not be working in an office setting or see your work colleagues, especially if you are working away from the head office.
High level scientific discussions with world-renowned experts in the field was an extremely positive aspect of the job for me. The intellectual stimulation as well as the ability to share the latest clinical development with top clinicians was quite rewarding. I think it’s as close as you can get to have a direct impact on patient outcomes without being a medical professional.
What are the career advancement opportunities for MSLs?
As an MSL, you can pursue opportunities in either medical affairs or commercial/marketing side of things. In medical affairs, you can progress through different levels of being an MSL – MSL, senior MSL, executive MSL, and MSL Manager (or in-field medical director). If you’re in the company head office, there are more strategic opportunities – you can move up to become a medical advisor, associate medical director, medical director (allthough for the latter you may require a medical degree in certain companies).
You can also go to the commercial/marketing side and work in brand teams to strategize about prelaunch and post launch marketing of a drug and differentiate your drug from the competitors. These roles are office-based and require you to be close to the head office.
What made you start FSTP? Could you talk about how FSTP or similar resources help young researchers get into the MSL arena? Are there organizations/societies that serve a similar purpose (like AMWA for medical writers)?
That’s the main reason I started FSTP training platform.
After I became an MSL, lot of people asked me – “you didn’t have experience, so how did you get into an MSL role?” My answer to that is I was very well prepared and knew the MSL role and what was expected of an MSL quite well. I started coaching and training people for the same transition. Then I was out for 7 weeks after a back surgery and thought of the lack of resources available in the field and considered building an MSL training platform. And that’s what I did. Initially, I did one-on-one training in person, then expanded to training groups of people. Then people from the US, Europe, and Canada wanted to be trained, so I started webinars and eventually made everything online. We have currently trained people from more than 110 different countries in the world.
Currently there are not a lot of resources for aspiring MSLs other than “from SCIENCE to PHARMA”.
t’s quite rewarding to see the impact of the program. People who had been getting no responses to their 50+ applications for months sometimes hear back from recruiters overnight after we help them tailor their CV to make it look like an MSL CV. Furthermore, we help them prepare for their several interview rounds, provide them with resources like examples of clinical paper presentations they have to give for the last interview round.
FSTP also recently started the first MSL YouTube Channel where we answer the most commonly asked questions, common mistakes, discuss interesting medical affairs topics, and developments in the pharmaceutical industry.
You said FSTP is a fully online platform. Are there any unique challenges in managing such a platform?
Creating appropriate and relevant content and integrating it into the platform is a vital aspect of what we do, so content development and the technical integration can be challenging. We are constantly updating and tweaking the website, working closely with a tech team. There’s always new things to do/add, but the beauty of an online platform is that once it’s there, it’s there. Webinars, videos, presentations – it’s all there for you to access at your leisure from any location as long as you have an internet connection.
Since we train people in several countries, we need to be constantly be aware of different time zones, so that’s a challenging aspect, especially when it comes to personalized coaching. Constantly looking at time differences.
Pro tip: Timeanddate.com is a good resource to schedule meetings while considering differences in time zones.
What advice do you have for other grad students or postdocs who want to be MSL? What can young researchers do to get into this career path?
Researchers should learn to tailor/modify their CV to highlight relevant skills, but they should also be open to learning new skills. MSL role focuses on patients more than mice or a rare pathway or protein-protein interactions. It’s not just about “talking science to other scientists”, but more of you talking about medical science to physicians and the key focus is how these conversations can equip them to help their patients better.
Come prepared. Know your stuff inside out. Talk to people who have done the MSL job to get a better idea of what it entails. Again, come prepared!
What do you think is the most important piece of advice you could offer PhDs (graduate students, postdocs, etc.) who are trying to find a career path and are not sure whether they want to stay in academia/are looking to transition outside the lab (not just MSL)?
Tailor your CV for the job you’re applying (it’s really important!). CV should look like you understand the job. Do things outside pure bench research. Take online courses, do freelancing, volunteer work, serve in committees. Networking is important. Set goals. Get out of your comfort zone. Network outside your university, go to business meetings. When you go to a meeting, set a goal to talk to 5-10 people you don’t know. Bring business cards (if you don’t have one, make some). I know it all sounds scary, but the more you do it, the more you’ll be at ease. In general, as long as you do your research and come with good questions, people are happy to help and talk to you.
Would you like to share some of your favorite pastimes with our readers? What’s your favorite book/ music/ movie?
Book: Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (trilogy). Movie: Memento. Food: Patisserie. Music: Salsa, it really gets you moving to the beat!
Any parting thoughts?
Preparation! Preparation! Preparation is key!
Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights, Martijn!
If you enjoyed reading the interview, feel free to like, share, or leave a comment below!
Hi there! I’m Aaram, the founder of Sciencera. I grew up in beautiful city of Thiruvananthapuram in the Southern part of India, famous for its pristine beaches. Now, I am a scientific writer based in Indianapolis. When I am not busy procrastinating on my writing, poring through research articles, or coming up with grand ideas to save the planet, I love playing soccer and chess. I read a bit and write sporadically when caffeinated to the right amount. I am passionate about scientific research, writing, and outreach activities.