Is pharma missing a trick by sidestepping academics for medical and scientific liaison (MSL) roles?

A successful MSL applicant must have a relevant and in-depth knowledge base. Clinicians and pharmacists are often employed in the MSL role, bringing with them valuable skills and experience. But while applicants from an academic medical background are similarly well placed to fulfil these requirements, they currently face a major, and often insurmountable, barrier when it comes to recruitment for an MSL position – a lack of experience in the pharma industry. This barrier is set by pharma companies and enforced by recruiters. Often academics, despite having extensive experience and knowledge, will find their CV does not get past a recruiter’s tick list.

Despite having had a wealth of experience in healthcare, a lack of industry experience proved to be a significant barrier to Melissa Baxter’s quest to become an MSL. Here she tells her story, and outlines the need to change pharma’s mindset.

“I have a strong academic background. In addition to a PhD I have completed two research projects in stem cell biology before being employed as a lecturer in a Medical School. I lectured in biochemistry, human development and molecular and cell biology. I also completed the Standard Descriptor 1 towards a PGCert in Higher Education.

“I chose to apply for MSL positions because academia is a tough place to work, and I wanted to have a more direct positive impact on improving patient care. I must have applied for 30 MSL positions through around 15 recruiters over six months. I had no response from most, and those that did told me they would not forward my CV to the pharma company as I had no experience as an MSL or in the industry. I know a number of academics that have similarly struggled or are struggling to get an MSL position. It is frustrating and demoralising to be told you do not have the appropriate experience when you know you have the capacity to excel in the role. However, after six months I finally had my first interview for an MSL position at Tillotts Pharma UK, and happily was offered the job.

“I have now worked for three years in the role and have found the position extremely fulfilling and rewarding. The transition from academia into industry was not a challenge. Since starting I have been promoted to Senior Medical Education Manager and was awarded Tillotts’ Outstanding Contribution Award in December 2019. I am responsible for managing our successful IBD nurse education programme LOGIC. I also developed and delivered an internal training course for the launch of a new product.

“When presenting to customers, my in-depth medical knowledge and teaching experience enables the correct, accurate and effective communication of medical science. This means I am able not just to present scripted slide decks, but to answer questions accurately and thoroughly. Also, knowing that I have relevant academic experience leaves a positive impression on customers. It instils confidence in them that I have the knowledge and experience to answer and address questions accurately and appropriately without a promotional agenda.

“I hope that my account helps in some way to shift the mindset the pharma industry seems stuck in. Why is previous experience in industry more often than not the most important prerequisite? Academia is a highly competitive, hard place to work.  Academics are knowledgeable, experienced and adaptable. They have spent their lifetime learning, learning new ways of working, learning and adopting new guidelines, adapting rapidly to new situations and to new roles. Academics might not have experience in the industry but the lack of sales experience in light of the non-promotional requisite of the MSL role should be considered an advantage. I believe employing academics into a Medical department would only complement and strengthen an existing team.”