art of Medical science Liaising
Original medical science liaison articles by Jane Chin Ph.D.
Thought Leader Development: No New Data
Effective MSLs Talk in Specifics
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
When you applied for the MSL job, the job description probably called for self-motivated professionals and the quality of a “self-starter”.
You’d probably not have applied if you didn’t believe that you’re self-motivated and a go-getter. The MSL job isn’t made for sloths, just the travel alone will have you playing perpetual catch-up in paperwork.
I’m not going to argue about the rare rogues who goes on the rooftop to catch a tan while pretending to be meeting KOLs, trust me, the manager knows only she’s figuring out a plan, but that’s a different article.
What many MSLs have found to be true of this job is the lack of mentoring and guidance. The way you learn on the job is like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool and then expected to learn how to swim. Some of you figure it out, some of you swallow a bellyfull of water (in the MSL world this may be embarrassing first meetings with KOLs or rocky experiences with the sales team).
Then you get the helpful MSL coaches and consultants who give you a lot of general advice that you can get everywhere else: “Pay attention to internal stakeholders. Make better use of your time by making appointments with more than 1 KOL in a geographical area. Don’t waste KOLs’ time. Be a scientific resource.”
No one is going to argue with these clichés: these are all true and generally useless once you’re out in the field on your own.
If you want to be successful, start by getting really specific about your skills as a MSL.
For example: "Capitalize and Build on Strength"
How many times have you heard this at motivational seminars or in leadership training? Enough to make you roll your eyes back and say “Duh.”
But do you actually know what your strengths are, beyond the obvious and the endless parade of proprietary assessments?
I’m not talking about vague statements like “I’m good at presenting data” or “I’m a driver, a dominant, a Garnet in the spectrum of the gem of personalities.” [Yes, there really is an assessment tool that assigns gem stones to people.]
I’m talking about specifics, like: “If I were in a room of 10 other MSLs who are equally good at presenting data, my KOL will remember me as the MSL who ___________________”.
Or, “I’m the type of person who will probably become a micromanager because I’m obsessive about control, which means I’d have a tough time with ____________ , ____________ , and ____________ .”
Get specific, and you’d be way ahead of your peers who are still thinking in general terms of their strengths and weaknesses.
Specificity is what is missing in a lot of “MSL advice”, and specificity is why new MSLs and veteran MSLs alike can benefit from ongoing mentoring and guidance from people who truly have insight not only about the MSL job, but the nuances when executing specific tasks in the MSL job.
There are senior MSLs who are truly good at what they do are masters of job insight as well as task masters. These are the ones you want to seek guidance and mentoring from. They can tell you where the landmines are even when you don’t know enough to ask about them.
Otherwise, you must be relentless in your self-assessment, and pay attention to how well you are able to do what you said you planned to do, and how you will continually improve the outcomes of your actions.
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
One of the most important role that MSLs perform for their companies is cultivation solid relationships with thought leaders or key opinion leaders (KOLs). Naturally, the MSL will spend tremendous effort and time to understand what is important to a given KOL, and where the MSL will bring value.
Decision makers who are at the KOL level often has a team or a staff, with highly influential members. Overlooking and especially mislabeling influencers can hinder your ability to develop a productive relationship over the long term, and be deadly to your success. Let me give you a personal example that got me thinking about the paying attention to influencers in when MSL’ing.
Recently I decided to work with a financial planner to create a wealth plan for our family. We have a little one (“should we start saving for his college now?”), we’d just paid off our mortgage, and we want expertise to guide us with wealth strategy. My husband admits he can be better educated about investment options, but has little time and even less interest. I’m the proactive, “let’s make this happen and we’ll find the time” type. I found a planner and set up an appointment.
The planner was nice and friendly. He ran through the basic “I want to learn more about you” questions, not unlike the kind of questions that a MSL meeting a KOL for the first time would ask. In this case, however, it was more like the MSL sitting down with the KOL and a study coordinator who had contacted the MSL for the meeting, based on the KOL’s need.
After the first 15 or 20 minutes, however, I observed that the planner seemed to focus primarily on my husband. The planner assumed that my husband was the key decision maker in financial matters. He interpreted my husband’s appearance of “hard to read” (ever meet a KOL who’s hard to read?) as “playing hard to get”. He peppered my husband with questions. After the first hour, I was close to kicking him out. Eventually he realized that I was the influencer who was also the key decision maker in what financial decisions get implemented in our family. We’ve met this person one more time and I’m ready to fired him. It didn’t matter that he was nice and friendly: he didn’t understand basic relationship dynamics and failed to provide the type of value we expected. He lost a good opportunity for a long-term business relationship because we’re relatively young.
MSLs who perform clinical research facilitation roles can relate. How many times have you met with a KOL and found that the KOL may have had a general desire to engage in clinical research collaboration with your company, but a staff member (maybe the study nurse or senior study coordinator) in the KOL’s team was the one who ultimately executed the decisions that affect the success or failure of a clinical study? This influencer kept the enrollment on track, reminded the KOL’s team about patients who qualify, or screened patients for eligibility and referring patients accordingly.
I knew a study coordinator in a national cancer institute who told me that the studies that succeed with her KOLs came from MSLs who spent time to interact with her, and communicated what she needed to know. Studies that lagged were with MSLs who were either ignorant of her role in the institution KOLs’ research process, or discounting her as “just a study coordinator, not a KOL, not my job”. We think about influencers and immediately look to KOLs and KOL peers in an institution, department, or clinic. However, key influencers exist within a KOL’s team as well, and may not be immediately recognizable.
Influencers may be a particular member of the KOL’s team who perform an administrative or organizing role, and be easily overlooked. If you find yourself brushing off a KOL’s staff member because “she’s not a KOL” or “he’s just the nurse or clinical coordinator” (worse yet – “this is really the reps’ focus, not mine”), ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”
There are many influencers around KOLs who don’t have to be KOLs. Influencers do not have to be a decision maker to have impact on the execution of a decision that affects the outcome of your efforts. As yourself how something gets done with KOLs’ projects, and who are the ones making sure this gets done. Some KOLs are like celebrities who are the “face” of their brand, but have teams of people who do the hard work behind the scenes.
Some influencers have an equal or even greater role in making the decision than the decision maker, especially if the influencer deals with issues that the decision maker does not want to deal with. Clinical research is a great example of this: success with a trial often resides in the “back-end” behind the scenes work with enrollment, not just the “front-end” face time with the KOL.
2 Key Personality Traits of the Enduring MSL
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Being a medical science liaison requires technical (scientific expertise), and we often hear about the importance of communication skills and interpersonal skills. However, here are 2 key personality traits make a MSL a truly Successful and Enduring Performer.
PERSPECTIVE: Same games, different package.
No matter where you go, most companies offer you similar games in a different package. The biopharmaceutical industry is incestuous. People move around and eventually end up working with each other one day down the road. Not only will you see the same corporate rah-rah in most of the places (unless you’re in a radically different setting, like with a start up biotech and you are employee number 3), you will work with the same types of people. Read a few companies’ vision and mission statements – chances are, these will read alike. There will something about wanting to help patients and improve lives, some may even elaborate on how their values should make them a different company.
Sometimes to keep you perspective (and your sanity), you have to take packages with a grain of salt.
ATTITUDES: Flexibility is more than a state of mind.
If there’s one thing you’ll learn in this job, it’s that flexibility is not just a virtue, it’s an absolute requirement to survive a medical science liaison career. Job descriptions desire personalities that are adaptable and able to stay cool under high-pressure circumstances.
Medical science liaison (MSL) responsibilities are intertwined with the life-cycle management a pharmaceutical compound. Medical science liaisons work toward mid- to long term objectives integral to corporate strategies for a given product. Because of this nature, fluctuations are inevitable. A strategy can go through ten face-lifts and end up in its original state.
Sales functions can get their results relatively on a weekly basis to gauge their next steps. Results are quantifiable, and therefore, strategies may be regimented. You’re given the map and are in the race to the destination. Medical liaisons will be lucky if they get a map – often, the coordinates aren’t even mapped out – sort of like ‘here’s an X that marks the treasure… we think.’
It is not unusual for a medical liaison’s schedule to change several times during the week. It is also not unusual for appointments to be canceled at the last minute, or for the physician to cut out of the meeting when the liaison had flown hundreds of miles to get some face time.
Expect to be dissed, rudely awakened, walked out upon, interrupted, and thrown into the deep-end when you only learned to dog-paddle. This is a game, and the ability to look cool, collected, and in charge goes hand-in-hand with softening your mind. Let changes wash over you and don’t try to swim madly against the stream unless you’re salmon and spawning is in your biology.
Then again, my husband still has to remind me the words to ‘Row Your Boat’ gently down the stream (and not up the stream) on some very bad dynamically challenging days.
4 Practices of High-Performing MSL Professionals
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Now, more than ever, companies are looking for high performing MSLs and professionals who can demonstrate a track record of success. Here are 4 on-the-job practices that can help you gain visibility as “The MSL to Watch” at your company.
1. Track Timelines and Deadlines.
I know that you work with projects that are lengthy and have long vesting cycles. This doesn’t mean that timelines don’t exist and deadlines will constantly shift downstream. Some companies ask their employees to respond to phone calls and emails within 24 hours. This can become too demanding for MSLs who travel a lot. You can adjust your personal response time accordingly but hold yourself accountable to a turnaround time. When I was a MSL working 10 states, I used to make an effort to respond to calls and emails within 36 hours.
2. Focus on Fruitful Interactions.
Too often MSLs go for KOLs they feel comfortable with, rather than KOLs with whom their companies can collaborate strategically with. Getting used to being uncomfortable is a mental muscle that you can train. The more often you practice building bridges with KOLs who may at first brush you off or discount you as a professional, the better you become at crossing that barrier. This also makes you a more valuable, marketable MSL in the big scheme of your career.
3. Ask More Questions.
MSLs are in the business of being experts – whether this be therapeutic experts or product experts. Sometimes MSLs can get trapped into the dangerous mindset of thinking that they know everything, or must act like they know everything. The know-it-all is an exhausting act, and often unpersuasive. The funny thing is that the more questions you ask and the better you become at listening, the more people think you know and the smarter people think you are.
4. Care about Crossfunctional Colleagues.
Stop seeing sales and marketing as the enemy. I know some sales and marketing folks see you as an extension of their effort. A smaller percentage may even treat you as an off-label sales person. For the most part, sales and marketing teams have a job to do just like you do, and they want to do an ethical job at their company, just like you do. Rather than running in the opposite direction, approach sales and marketing from a sincere attitude to want to collaborate in a way that does not compromising to the company’s reputation or bottom-line. Ask them what they would do if they were in your position, and bound by the guidelines and ethical rules that you are bound by.
What are your ways to high performance?
5 Keys to Succeeding as a MSL
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Field-based professions have unique challenges, one of which is a requirement for you to be a self-starter and often, self-mentor. Here are five keys to succeeding as a MSL – whether you are a newbie or a veteran.
1. Capitalize and Build on Strength. This is why being a good team player is so important – not just to get a good performance review under “teamwork” but to be able to call on the strengths of your team mates in areas where your are lacking.
2. Go Beyond Content for Context. When interacting with thought leaders or internal stakeholders, go beyond what that person is saying and look to understand why the person is saying it. How does this reflect their thinking process, motivators, decision making behavior? Too often we are tempted to take information at face value (“content”), but successful MSLs want to know how the information fits in the big picture and what is motivating a person to behave a certain way.
3. Pair up Planning with Execution. Execution without planning gets you at least some result. Planning without any execution gets you nowhere. Many MSLs are excellent planners and detailed oriented experts. But you need to get out there and act so your talent is put to work for healthcare and patients.
4. Saying Yes all the Time Won’t Make You More Popular. It just makes you a Yes-Man (or -woman). Fawning yes-men don’t last very long or earn much respect; being able to think critically and support your thoughts with evidence makes you a peer when you are willing to challenge. This is most visible when interacting with thought leaders, when you may diplomatically question a person’s assumptions. It also takes a lot of mental steeling. Peer-to-peer does not start with the other person – it starts with you. You determine and control the peer-to-peer process with your approach.
5. Start with a Vision, Mission, or Objectives. The rest are details.
This article was written by Jane Chin, Ph.D. earlier in 2008, as part of research for a manuscript on success factors of MSLs of the future.
Dr. Chin and coauthor Dr. Peter Dumovic’s peer-reviewed journal article, “Marketing Masterclass – Medical science liaisons: A look to the future” was published in the Journal of Medical Marketing (Journal of Medical Marketing (2008) 8, 193-197. doi:10.1057/jmm.2008.12; published online 6 June 2008)
Traits of Effective MSLs
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Traits for an effective medical science liaison
Handle Change and Ambiguity
Understand the MSL Role
Strong Listening Skills
“There are so many key success factors in the MSL role, however, the one deserving the position at the pinnacle would be integrity. From this all else flows – diplomacy, justice, and self-discipline.” ~ Jane R. Medical Science Liaison (Pharma)
“If I had to pick one that is currently front of mind, it would have to be Patient Focused Integrity. The MSL role and influence is used (and abused) in this industry and is threatening the very reason for its existence. It seems that there is a trend for folks courting a distinct business and sales advantage to direct MSLs into compromising clinical situations. MSLs are being encouraged to persuade practitioners into uses of a drug that is not substantiated by quality clinical data as a means to capture off-label use. As sales quotas and company stakeholders become more demanding, along with the FDA getting more restrictive, this trend will likely continue. With all that said, a quality MSL will stick by his or hers clinical and moral ethics and do what is best for patient care. That is, if they do not feel comfortable in forcing a questionable or unqualified issue, they will refuse and back that up with clinical integrity. The targeted physicians will greater respect that MSLs position and view their stature as a valuable resource to his or her clinical practice. If an MSL goes the way of promotion in lack of sound data, they have cheapened themselves and that of their profession.” ~ B. M., Medical Science Liaison (Biotech).
“Effective and Timely communication to internal and external clients.” ~ New Medical Science Liaison (Pharma).
“Because of the nature of our job, we could be buried by work and out of everybody’s sight for weeks. If we don’t remind ourselves to keep our customers (external or internal) informed, i.e. in the loop, periodically, the customers will think that we had forgotten about them and don’t take them seriously. Needless to say, no MSL could build a relationship with customers that way. A good MSL has to ensure that communication does not get lost.” ~ Nancy H, Medical Science Liaison (Biotech).
“For any medical liaison to be successful, he/she has to be able to communicate with all levels of the organization. Failure to communicate with sales, managed care and marketing colleague to ensure that they are aware of our roles and responsibilities (day to day interactions) creates an unnecessary wall between ourselves and our internal customers” ~ JH, Medical Science Liaison (Pharma).
“You must be versatile, be able to anticipate the needs of your customers (both internal and external), be well spoken both with clinical knowledge as well as everyday knowledge – key opinion leaders aren’t going to want to spend time with you if you’re one dimensional. The liaison must be able to speak at various levels, be it to primary care physicians, specialists, nurses, pharmacists, etc. The liaison must be able to weather the tremulous periods of a shallow pipeline or a product line that is nearing the end of its life cycle. One must be willing to sacrifice at times their personal time with all the travel that may be required over a given period. Understanding family and/or friends are vital to keep the liaison grounded with what is important in their personal life. The liaison must be self motivated and resourceful to work in a home office without the direct supervision of a manager or director. That said, the liaison needs to have good time management skill to juggle all that is requested of them.
While this is not an all inclusive list, I think that the liaison must be open to the idea of working in position that probably never entered their mind while in school. This job function is not for everyone, but those that are willing to open up to new ideas seem to enjoy the freedoms that of being a liaison.” ~ SK. Medical Science Liaison (Pharma).
HANDLE CHANGE AND AMBIGUITY
“Handling change and ambiguity well is important for an MSL. Reality is constantly being pulled out from under the MSL (and their Manager) all the time. What was a company directive today, may be something completely different tomorrow. A good MSL will recognize this, pull themselves up by the boot straps and start walking in a new direction without a glitch.” ~ DC. Medical Science Liaison Manager (Biotech).
UNDERSTAND THE MSL ROLE
“The ability to effectively leverage a KOL relationship to positively position a product along its lifecycle.” ~ Medical Science Liaison (Biotech).
“Ability to merge science and marketing. As an MSL, one has to report to internal and external clients. Internal clients include sales and marketing, and external include physicians, pharmacists, MCO, administrators and CME coordinators. It is important to be able to navigate in both worlds as different as they might be. We as MSL have to remain true to science however we should not forget who pays our bills.” ~ Medical Science Liaison (Pharma).
“I would say that one success factor to being an effective and successful MSL is really understanding the role for the MSL. MSLs, as we all know, are primarily involved in thought leader and advocate development, and in some cases working with investigator initiated trials. I have talked to some MSLs who are totally focused on the science, sometimes to the point that they forget who they work for and who pays them. A successful MSL will be someone who is passionate about the science but can also use that to develop strong relationships for the company they work for.” ~ DW. Biopharmaceutical Executive Recruiter.
STRONG LISTENING SKILLS
“We have seen today that an effective MSL must demonstrate keen listening skills to understand what their clients are truly asking for. This takes a lot of practice regarding knowing when to stop talking and listen. Second we have seen that the successful MSL should not pre-assess an individual or situation and think that he or she has all the answers. We have found that it is best if the MSL can determine what the community based physician or client contact is interested in and be able to speak about that area intelligently. Finally while the MSL must have clinical credibility, an effective MSL needs to understand that there will be commercial ramifications that tie to the clinical strengths of the product and appreciate that aspect.” ~ GC. Biopharmaceutical Executive Recruiter.
MSL Performance: 8 Questions to Ask
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
This is the perfect time for you as a MSL to contemplate on The Critical 8 and answer each question for yourself.
If you do this, you’ll be off to a head start for the new year, or a worthwhile reflection for this current year.
You will stay focused and on purpose, instead of wandering wherever pressure is applied.
1. What is my role as a MSL at my organization?
2. What value do I generate for my team? My department? My company?
3. What am I going to accomplish each year? What information must I have to create a plan?
4. How do I create an action plan from my annual objectives?
5. How will I manage and juggle multiple deadlines?
6. How do I know I am effective and doing the right tasks?
7. How do I know when or if I need to change my approach or plans?
8. How do I make myself more competitive in the marketplace as a MSL?
Here’s to your outstanding performance as a MSL for the next business quarter.
Your First 30 Days as a Medical Science Liaison
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
These tips are written for new medical liaisons (to the profession itself, but also helpful for those new to a company/therapeutic area). While these tips were gleaned from my personal experience when I was a MSL, please keep in mind that field-based programs differ from company to company, and the size of the program determines your allocated geography. This in turn affects your strategies for territory management.
Tip # 1: Don’t study in a vacuum
Usually the first few weeks are study weeks, complete with caseloads of text books, reference materials, and articles. The danger of slipping into a vacuum as you study is real, so make an effort to stay connected with colleagues who are starting out as you are, and those who are seasoned veterans. Make a point to review materials with your peers; the interactivity will help you retain and comprehend information. You will also gain insight from the experience of your peers. Unless your company has a structured study schedule, you should give yourself a deadline to get out and “learn on the job”.
Tip # 2: Write a brief list of what you want to accomplish in the next 30 days
Not counting the study time you are allotted, what do you want to accomplish 30 days from now? Meet the majority of your thought leaders face-to-face at least once? Attend medical meetings? Facilitate a research or educational objective? Write this list down as a compass to position yourself for success early on. As you formulate this list, keep in mind the next tip.
Tip # 3: You can’t be everything to everybody
Unless your company has a formidably sized field-based medical program that affords you three or four colleagues in the same area, you will probably receive an abundance of requests from various field-based personnel (sales, managed care) who may need your clinical support. It is important to focus on your objectives early on so that you can proactively manage different types of appointments including thought leader interactions. Be realistic about what you can do within a span of time.
Tip # 4: Learn the system early on
You will probably be given contact protocols for various processes during training. If not, find out Who to call, what to do, what is due when and how. Don’t wait until you are already in a process of facilitating a task; it will save you time and stress under the confinements of a deadline.
Tip # 5: Keep a realistic perspective on thought leader development
As you contact and meet with your thought leaders, assess which thought leaders you can establish a productive working relationship immediately (likely the ones who have had positive collaborative experiences with the company already) and which thought leaders you will have to keep in touch for the long haul (likely the ones who may have experienced challenges with the company before). You may then determine what you would realistically like to accomplish with each thought leader.
Tip # 6: Make a list of travel essentials
If you are not used to traveling in your previous job, you are likely going to travel at least 50% of the time for a medical liaison position (more if you have a larger geography, less if you have a smaller geography or many overlapping colleagues). If you are new to the road warrior lifestyle, you may want to consider making a list of travel essentials that you can check off when you pack. You minimize the risk of not packing something important if you were ever on a “whirlwind travel tour” and in a rush. Far Side (Gary Larson) fans will know what I mean: don’t be the one who came without a duck.
Tip # 7: Make a commitment to exercise while traveling
This is especially true if you travel days at a time or participate in week-long business meetings where you may not even “see the light of day”. Ample supply of starch-heavy foods and easy access to decadent desserts aren’t much help either. Hotels often provide exercise equipment for guests. I have run up and down flights of stairs for half an hour as exercise when there were no formal exercise facilities. Go for a jog. Take the stairs instead of an elevator. Avoid getting the sedentary sluggishness during long indoor meetings by maintain regular physical activity. I have found that this helps me feel less physically and mentally fatigued during trips.
Tip # 8: Don’t wait until the year-end review to collect your accomplishments
The time to start documenting that you have done something right and are on the right track is now. Create folders (online and off-line) where you can store letters and notes of appreciation and recommendation. Got a glowing voicemail? Pass it on to your manager and make a note of it in a logbook. Your conscientious documentation keeps you motivated and takes the stress out of remembering all your accomplishments for a year-end report/review.
Simple Secret to Success (MSL, Life, Whatever!)
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Want better career prospects? Better coworkers? Better boss?
START WHERE YOU ARE, NOW.
I have come to observe more and more that there is a simple secret to success getting what you want, whether you want to:
– make yourself more attractive as a MSL job candidate
– feel more passionate about your life your career your relationships
– be more successful whatever that definition is for you
… is to MAKE IT HAPPEN WHERE YOU ARE, RIGHT NOW.
If you feel burned out, do something about it NOW, not by escaping to a new job (take it from me, the former job hopper!).
If you feel bitter, do something about it NOW, or bitterness will follow you to the new place/new person/new “life”.
If you want more passion about your life or business or career, deal with whatever is siphoning that passion out of you NOW, or you will get deflated yet again wherever you end up.
It is a big matter of attitude – not so much external circumstances – that we become our own worst enemies. It is so easy to escape as if something external can rescue what is an inherently internal state of mind (or being).
It is the same principle of “want to attract your dream spouse? BECOME a dream spouse”, applied to everything including jobs and life!
Want a better MSL boss? Be the better MSL employee.
Want better MSL coworkers? Be a better MSL team mate.
Want more success? Be grateful for all the success you already have AND find ways to help others be more successful.
I can go on and on… but would love to hear from you.
How to Be a Real MSL Star
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Over the years I have met many MSLs who aspire to be stars at their companies. I also have met many MSLs who already think of themselves as stars.
As a former subjective insider and a current more objective outsider, I realized that being a true MSL Star is not only about accolades and recognition. As I think back of the colleagues whom I’ve admired and trusted, I realized that these true MSL Stars weren’t always the first to speak up or the most visible on the team.
True MSL Stars are those who:
KNOW WHEN TO LEAD AND WHEN TO FOLLOW. In my mind, a real MSL star knows that he doesn’t know everything, and supports team mates who take a lead based on their expertise. In the same vein, when he knows he is an expert and can contribute, he will not shy away from the visibility of leadership. The emotional intelligence comes into knowing “when” to step up and when to step aside.
TAKE THE LIAISON PART OF THEIR JOB TITLE SERIOUSLY. Many companies like to use their own fancy titles, but I hope they will keep the “liaison” part of the MSL job title. A real MSL star knows that she is most valuable for her ability to liaise – to connect people and process and opportunities. A hotshot scientist without an inkling of social skills will never be an effective liaison; she’d be better off aiming for the Nobel.
UNDERSTAND THAT MANAGERS ARE REALLY MESSENGERS. It’s a ripple down effect, really: the big bosses ask, “how do we know what the MSLs are doing is valuable?” All the stakeholders voice their opinions or consultants are called in. Then the managers have the lucky job of telling the MSLs what the stakeholders and consultants recommended that the executive team agreed with. A real MSL star knows that his manager has bosses who have bosses, and won’t take the messages personally, and at the same time, figures out a way to ethically does his job.
Hey, I never said being a Real MSL Star is easy.
What do you think makes a Real MSL Star?
Dealing with a Demoralizing MSL Director
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
A medical science liaison emailed us about a situation where some of the MSL managers at the company are leaving because of the MSL director is selecting only “yes” people and micromanagers on the team. The MSL sees this as demoralizing for the MSL team but wonders if this situation could be brought to upper management’s attention without committing “professional career suicide”.
Based on feedback from some members of our editorial advisory board, this MSL may consider the following approach:
1. Gather facts. Opinions are subjective and biased, and would not make a strong case for upper management as to the havoc the MSL director may be creating. Develop a case that details the business implications of the actions of this “destroyer” individual, and include financial as well as staffing implications.
2. Assess the political climate. Another important piece of information to gather is how this MSL director is viewed by key members of upper management. Perhaps the director has convinced upper managment that this particular approach is necessary. If the political climate is such that the MSL director’s approach is endorsed, perhaps even cultivated by executive management, then the MSL may better spend the time and energy looking for a new job instead.
3. Identify key executive decision maker. Once a business case is constructed and is grounded in facts rather than emotion or bias, the case should be delivered to a member of upper management who has decision making ability. If the MSL does not want to be the messenger, perhaps a recently departed MSL managers would want to do their former MSL team a favor and be the messenger – maybe through a written letter to executive management. (The letter should be copied to a senior HR executive as well.)
If upper management has good business judgment, then the “messenger” – whether this be the MSL or a recently departed MSL manager – should not suffer career suicide. However, if upper management does not treat this with confidentiality and make an honest effort to support the business, then the MSL should look for another company to work for.
MSLs – Watch Your “Keys” on Soc/Nets
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
The wonderful thing about the web 2.0 world is that you get to become visible in more ways than before. This accessibility and visibility also make social networking sites and social media sites dangerous.
Not long ago, on one of the many medical affairs LinkedIn groups, one of the members asked a question about a MSL program practice. One of the MSL members in the group gave a helpful answer, but then deleted the answer a short time afterward because he saw that almost all activities he conducted on LinkedIn was clearly branded with his name – and since he had filled out his employment history as expected by LinkedIn – his current company name was also displayed. His picture and name and affiliation remained in display next to the flag, “Message deleted”.
Companies are beginning to create policies for their employees related to social media, but they will generally blanket this under “Internet” or “Web” policies for employees. For the most part, companies won’t try to stop you from providing personal opinions on the internet, or have a problem if you put up a personal homepage. They’re more worried about you leaking what may be considered trade secrets (now what may be considered trade secret may be vague and open to interpretation) or putting the company at risk because you decided to give advice that may be interpreted as the company’s stance because of your employment.
I’ve seen some excellent use of social media and social networking tools both from the employer/employee side. Companies are increasingly adopting social media as part of their “marketing” channels. Employees are also networking more online via major networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. The unemployed or contract employees are leveraging social networks to land a new job.
You probably already know that your boss or coworkers or recruiters may be searching your name on the web, don’t you? (If not, you know now!) The old background checks have become easier to conduct in today’s globally connected web.
The problem is that we can get a bit complacent when we have the illusion that there is a “wall of privacy” for some of the major social networking sites. Facebook for example, recently added many privacy settings that you can adjust. Twitter long gave us the ability to delete tweets we didn’t like… but there’s a catch – your tweet will REMAIN in Twitter search, which means everyone in the world can still see what you’d rather take back (just ask the POTUS and the infamous tweet about his “off the record” remark about Kanye’s outburst).
Just because social media/social networking sites ask “What’s on your mind?” doesn’t require you to literally spout off whatever was on your mind, thinking that you’re safe behind the privacy walls.
You may control whom you allow into your network, but you don’t – and can’t – control your network’s network. If you believe in a six-degree of separation phenomenon, then your comment may be just a few degrees away from people you really don’t want to be reading your complaint about the stupidity of your company or why a certain employee is clueless. You may be commenting on someone else’s comment, and somehow it evolves into a discussion about how you can take advantage of the company expense account… of course, all in jest – you’re just joking! Surely people can tell you’re joking!
But this is probably a bet you don’t want to make, or be on the losing end of it.
Want to share examples of what to do or what not to do on social networking sites?
When is it Time to Leave?
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
If you are a medical science liaison with experience, you are probably already getting propositioned by recruiters on a frequent basis, offering you “fantastic opportunities with lots of growth potential”, accompanied by a nice bump in base salary. Some of these opportunities sure sound promising! However, if you are an experienced MSL professional, you’ve been on the block long enough to know that the field is not always greener on the other side, and you smartly decide to stay put with your current company.
So… when is it time to leave your current company? You may consider one or all of these reasons when you are prospecting an exit strategy:
* My Boss
* My Team Mates
* My Company
* My Growth
* My Career
* My Work-Life Balance
Here, I’ll cover the first three items.
My Boss is a Jerk/My Boss Doesn’t Care
If you report to a manager or director who is uncommunicative, unreachable, or uninterested in you/what you’re doing, you won’t go very far in the company. Even if you love autonomy, there is a delicate balance between independence and desertion. Or, the manager/director may be at the other end of the control spectrum and wants you to send an update every hour, on the hour to believe that you’re actually working.
The “boss” factor usually emerges when the boss you’ve known and loved leaves and a new boss comes in. New bosses are always eager to please to have something to prove to their bosses, which sometimes translate to dysfunctional behavior. Give the new boss a chance (remember how eager you were when you started out with the company), but if he or she doesn’t calm down or connect with you by the end of 3 months, it may be time for a heart-to-heart talk with the boss, or to start answering those recruiting calls.
I Have Toxic Team Mates
Toxic team mates are usually people who have been around long enough to develop deep cynicism and whose modus operandi is “Why suffer alone? Share the misery”. Toxic team mates may never “calm down” or acclimate, which means you’ll have to decide whether the toxicity level is a “manageable side effect” or whether you’re in a situation requiring a “black box warning, yesterday”.
Good people begin to behave badly when they have been mistreated or asked to do illegal things (see next section). If corporate ethics are involved, the idealistic ones will work hard to make a change, and if they realize that resistance is futile, they will probably leave quickly.
Toxic team mates, however, are usually good people who start behaving badly to ease their own boredom or tension. Instead of solving problems, their out-dated coping skills eventually turn them into not-so-good people because they have absorbed too much of their own bitterness. You may want to spare yourself the same bilious possibility by leaving for a new team.
I Think This Company is Behaving Unethically
No brainer here: if you see your company doing illegal things, you should leave. Keep in mind, however, that what may be “unethical” may not be necessarily “illegal”, and vice versa. Thus this is more of an issue of your personal ethical values and whether you feel as if you are asked to compromise your values in order to keep your job.
If you are afraid to document something that may be viewed by the likes of FDA, OIG, or DOJ, then chances are good that you’re asked to cross the line.
MSL Job Satisfaction: Job Hopping Traps
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, I was a medical science liaison, gaining experience so I can shuffle to greener pastures.
Once I gained experience I shuffled to what I thought was a greener pasture. After a while, and enough times of shuffling, I began to realize that:
1. The grass looked greener over there because I had a specific shade of green in my mind as “greener” versus that grass being truly greener.
If my greener grass was about more money — and let’s face it — often it really is about the money, then I was probably not measuring how much it would cost me to get that money. I wasn’t looking at the number of hours of work travel I’d take away from home, which I personally did not like although for others they may enjoy being away from home.
How to avoid this trap? Assess whether you are paying an intangible / tangible cost to earn that extra money.
2. The grass may look greener because I’ve neglected my own patch.
If I didn’t water my own lawn, the best plot of green will dry up and die. Maybe I was waiting for my manager to come give meaning to my job, maybe I was hoping for the sales reps to change and stop looking at me like I’m their dedicated tech support….
How to avoid this trap? Do your part to make your job meaningful beyond the money and manage coworker expectations.
Learn how to say “yes” and “no” nicely; yes, this is easier said than done.
3. The grass is greener because the grass is truly greener.
Maybe that company’s boss is more enlightened about the value of MSLs, maybe the internal stakeholders have mostly gotten along, maybe the MSLs are “appropriately” compensated and recognized for their contribution…
How to avoid this trap? You don’t — if this is indeed the case, then you would join a company like this.
For many of the MSLs I’ve talked with, I’ve observed that the above scenario tends to be the “start-up MSL culture” of a “start-up company.” Because they’re the first employees, their opinions are heard and they are acknowledged. They are big fishes in a small pond.
Yet… Know that these situations are rare because as soon as this state is attained someone buys the garden, fires the old gardener or brings in a new “alpha gardener”, installs a fountain that is a gross status symbol not to mention a drain on resources, and ignores staff and employees who have withdrawn from tending the garden.
I still say — look at #1 and #2 because the “grass is greener” trap crops up more often within these 2 assumptions.
MSLs in Start-Up Companies
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
It’s no mystery – if you want growth and ground-up opportunity to build – then start-up companies and small companies are the way to go.
At least, that is what many MSLs assume.
Many seasoned and tenured MSLs eventually look to the start-up environment to flex their entrepreneurial muscles. They want to get in on a team at the ground level, be one of the first MSLs for the company where they can actively participate in that company’s growth and help educate the company’s stakeholders on the MSL role.
There is also the perception of growth opportunities, where expansion comes with the chance to get into MSL management.
Here’s a reality check.
Unlike the past (i.e. 5 years ago), more and more small companies are becoming M&A targets rather than aiming to become a vertically integrated pharmaceutical companies.
What this means is that the risk of joining a small company has just become riskier for the MSL professional.
Rather than counting on the company growing organically, start-up companies’ MSLs are watching their companies bring in new management. Almost overnight – their companies’ culture seems to change with the new management.
Did the medical director change in the last 3-6 months? Did someone new appear suddenly to replace the mysterious disappearance of the previous director? Did the MSL manager who hired you and whom you love get a sudden promotion to a different department within the company? Did your company’s flat organizational structure get even flatter? Are you getting new pressure to show your activities, account for every line item of your expense report, and asked multiple times a week to show how well you are supporting your commercial colleagues?
Maybe it’s a sign that the company is positioning itself for a merger and/or acquisition.
Usually by this time the venture capitalists (VCs) come in to start directing management on how the company should be run, and to ensure the conservation of cash and an increase in sales numbers.
So is smaller really more beautiful for the experienced MSL? Or has the risk become too risky to be worth the potential growth reward? You tell me.
Recession-Proof Your MSL Career
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
If you are in school or heading back to school to get a MBA or other degree, good for you. I’m not going to knock on getting more education. Frankly, many of you are back in school not by your choosing, but because you were told that your decade-experience is less desirable than a doctorate degree with a couple of years of experience (or even no experience at all). Then there are those of you who are back in school because your peers are getting that extra degree, and suddenly your “one doctorate” looks lonely after your name.
I am concerned to see more MSL professionals armed with multiple advanced degrees but vulnerable on demonstrable leadership record. Our MSL resume database are seeing increasing numbers of multi-degreed candidates. The danger this poses is that those of you with many advanced degrees appear “more expensive” or “harder to develop” in a profession that has seen a steep rise in salaries.
With industry-wide cost cutting and sales-job cutting, you may wonder if the MSL profession offer you better stability. Is “field science” in a better professional position than “field sales”? You may worry about the future of your jobs and wonder what your career path will look like 2-5 years from now.
I don’t know the definitive answer, but I have concerns about the development of the MSL profession.
I can say this: at a time when everyone is cutting back because they are scared, you want to invest in yourself by:
1. Acquiring applicable skills that make you truly marketable.
2. Demonstrating leadership that increases your company’s confidence in your ability to get significant things done.
3. Focus first on value you provide before aggressively negotiating perks and benefits for yourself.
What does this mean in the real world?
* Volunteer for that special project within your company.
* Take that personal development seminar even if you have to do it on your own dime and your own time.
* Be proactive in ethically and effectively reaching across functional silos.
* Show that you can be a leader with peers OUTSIDE your company, within your profession at large.
In my years working with MSL Institute, I’ve learned that many of you WANT to lead, but you may not have the platform or the opportunity. The question then becomes, how do we create these opportunities in our organizations?
MSL Career Development: Reinvent Before You Need To
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
I was listening to a public radio interview with two people who appeared in the 2010 film, Up in the Air, a movie about people losing their jobs. I was intrigued by a movie that takes a very personal view of getting laid off.
One of the guests worked in HR, specifically in the hiring process. She said that when she lost her job, the hiring freezes made her job search even more difficult, because her specific function has become downsized by virtue of less hiring. Talk about double bad luck. When the host asked her about her plans, she said she may go back to school, and that she needed to reinvent herself.
I’ve seen some tough employment years for MSLs. I know many MSLs who have gotten laid off, some who have a lot of experience, and MSLs who weathered long months of job hunting and many more disappointing rejections.
For those of you who kept your jobs and have since found new jobs… a lesson learned from job market turmoils is this:
The time to reinvent yourself is BEFORE you need a new job!
We can get caught up in the busyness of business and get comfortable in the routines and the stresses of the MSL job. So we are not always thinking about “what if” and “what’s next” – until we are forced to think about it.
MSLs are luckier than pharma sales representatives (this is my personal opinion) in that MSLs often come into their positions with skills that transfer into other related, but different careers. Pharma sales reps who have gotten laid off by the thousands have a tough time doing the same thing – pharma sales is an interesting beast where you act as a middle man (rep) to another middle man (docs) who then writes your product for the actual customer (patients). There aren’t that many careers related to pharma sales, other than perhaps sales of other types of life science products (devices, diagnostics).
Did your MSL job description call for you to be entrepreneurial? Then take that trait seriously.
Often companies mean “self starter” when they use the word entrepreneurial in their job descriptions. Anyone who has founded a business: had an idea, build a company around that idea, and sustained that business beyond the 5 year “death of most start-ups statistic” – knows that self starting is a given in entrepreneurs, but is far from sufficient. Even good organizational skills and creative thinking are expected in entrepreneurs who want to generate an actual revenue out of their ideas.
Entrepreneurs who succeed reinvent all the time, often before they are forced to capitalize on that reinvention. They look at service extension, creative collaborations, and sometimes strategically enter new segments one or two years before they plan to work that segment.
What this means for the MSL professional:
Start creating the pathway for your next jobs, when you do not need these jobs. This may be a good time to look at skills that you have, but may not have developed them to capacity in your current position. Don’t rely only on your manager to develop you, you are accountable for your reinvention! You do want to ask for help and work with your managers and mentors, but don’t hand over the direction of your future to someone else.
How have you been reinventing – do you know where to start?
MSL Work-Life Balance: Hours for Pay
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
How much do you want to work?
What are you working toward?
What does it look like when you get there?
Recently I created a poll asking how many hours people want to work if they are paid the same per-hour rates:
Would you work 40 hours to earn $200,000?
Or would you rather work 20 hours to earn $100,000?
I’ve been thinking about this question for a while. 2.4 years, to be exact, because this is how long I have been a parent. I was always a borderline workaholic…. OK, if you asked my husband he will tell me to remove “borderline” and restate the sentence.
After all, the very first “popular” article I wrote was when I worked as a pharmaceutical sales rep and I entered Pharmaceutical Representative magazine’s 1999 writing context. I won $50, a T-shirt, and an honorable mention for my article, “The Overworked Rookie”.
I never appreciated “work-life balance” when I worked as a MSL, because work was my life. The very first time when I seriously thought about what work-life balance meant to me was shortly after September 11, 2001. Two people from my husband’s work site were in one of the planes that hit the NYC Twin Towers. The aerospace industry imploded along with various other industries.
I resumed traveling extensively as a MSL shortly thereafter, when my husband’s company announced over 7000 layoffs (the company laid off over 30,000 people in total). Week after week, my husband saw his coworkers packing their personal items and leaving the office and he wondered about his turn. During this time I stayed overnight at hotels and traveled – it was MSL business as usual.
One evening before a company dinner, I called my husband to say hello. He told me who got laid off that day and sounded despondent, but he wished me a good evening. After I hung up the phone, I sat in the hotel room and wondered what I was chasing after and what I was really working toward.Then I went to dinner. However, I changed to a MSL position that afforded me less travel, even though I loved the MSL team I was working with and had a great relationship with my boss at my former company.
When I founded the MSL Institute in 2004 I immediately forgot about work-life balance; after all, I was now responsible for my own paychecks! But the same questions that first nagged me in 2001 loomed in the back of my mind: what am I chasing after? What am I working hard toward? When I got busy, those nagging questions got pushed to the background, so I made sure I kept myself busy… really, really busy…. until I became a mother in 2007. Then the questions returned in full force, this time, accompanied by the howling chorus of a newborn who didn’t care about his mother’s existential struggles – he wanted to eat, he wanted to be dry, he wanted to be held – and he wanted it all NOW!
It’s been 9 years since I wrote this, and I still don’t have 100% of the answers to my questions.
But I know this much: whatever I am chasing, wherever I am heading – if or when I do get there, I want to have walked my path in a way that preserved the relationships that matter most in my life, so I can have people I love to share the joy of solving these existential mysteries.
What about you?
Personal Success Benchmarks – Do You Have Yours?
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
With the flurry of activities and meetings, it is easy to lose focus. With the isolating nature of being a field-based medical science liaison, it is even easier to lose ourselves in the busy-ness.
This is where Personal Success Benchmarks come in.
Let’s face it, most of us are in this MSL community because we are high achievers and we set lofty expectations for ourselves. We constantly set goals. We keep our eyes on the ball. We aim for personal bests, but then we’re onto the next level of success we aspire to.
But what many of us forget to do – at least I forget more often than I want to – is setting my personal definition of “Success” and creating benchmarks to this definition.
And when I forget to do this, then I quickly begin to feel like I was doing a lot of things, but can’t see where everything fits in the big picture of how I want to contribute to my industry. I feel as if I’ve lost touch with the very meaning of why I got into this job in the first place. Pretty soon I’m on the fast-track to the burn-out lane!
When I worked as a MSL, I used to deal with burn-out by looking for something “new”. Like a new MSL job opportunity. You know how that story ends. New lasts for a few months and then I’m reunited with that old flame I thought I’d dumped – burn-out.
This is why defining a personal definition of success is so important.
You come up with a list of criteria that you accept as “I have arrived!” or “This is what success means to me.” Then you look at some metrics to tell you if you’re closer to farther away from your own meanings of success.
If you feel that you’re farther to success than closer every day, you need to figure out why. It may be what you’re doing or how you’re doing it – or maybe – just maybe – your success definition needs more clarification.
Recently I did this exercise and I started with a purpose statement:
“I want to retrain my thinking to (1) recognize all that I’ve accomplished and (2) be grateful for all that I have and more importantly – (3) give myself permission to enjoy my success.”
This led me to develop a list of personal success benchmarks, which included my desire to have more time to take my (as of this writing) 2-year-old son to the beach now that he’s discovered the joy of rushing at the surf of the Pacific Ocean, and my desire to “have the freedom to accept only projects and consulting gigs I am genuinely interested in, and say ‘no-thank-you’ to the rest.”
Then from here, I begin to look at what behaviors and thinking process are taking me closer or farther from “success”.
What about you? Do you have a personal definition of success? Do you have Personal Success Benchmarks?
MSL Teamwork: Thinking Outside the Box
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
You know how we’re constantly talking up the need to “Think Outside the Box”?
The only way anyone gets to “think outside the box” is when:
we have people who define the box,
we have people who support the box and are willing to work “inside the box”.
Don’t diss, or dismiss those who work primarily inside the box.
MSL managers: these are often your most reliable work horses who quietly keeps producing.
Medical science liaisons: these are often your most supportive coworkers who let you outshine them.
Let’s recognize the MSL team members who are low key, ready with a supportive word and a knowing smile, and who embody quiet confidence even as the rising stars exude big hairy ambition.
Staying Motivated as a Medical Science Liaison
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Medical science liaisons are naturally motivated, since MSL directors selectively hire self-starters. But motivation can wax and wane with any job. How can you as a medical science liaison stay motivated?
1. Identify what components of the MSL role is the most motivating for you.
Don’t just say “interacting with thought leaders,” because this is too general a statement. What types of interactions are energizing to you? Is it talking about ideas for clinical studies? Is it dissecting clinical data and translating this to patient care? Is it standing up in front of an audience and giving a clinical presentation?
2. Once you’ve identified the motivators, look for ways to consistently build these actions into your work week.
You may even want to schedule the most motivating tasks at strategic points of the week that can feel the most challenging (for example, mid-week or beginning of the week) and use these to set or sustain the tone of motivation for your week. Set up your tasks to increase the opportunities for you to be reminded of “this is why I became a medical science liaison” at least once a week.
3. Track and update your motivators.
As you grow in this role, you may discover new motivators. Maybe you started the role enjoying dialog with thought leaders but grew to become passionate about mentoring MSL colleagues in your areas of strength and expertise. Update your list on a semi-annual or annual basis.
Even when you start out as a highly motivated MSL, motivation isn’t a quality you want to take for granted, especially when the job is isolating (from one’s team or coworkers), when the job is stressful (with extensive travel or time away from home), and when the value from the job requires a lengthy period to become visible (MSL metrics, anyone?).
Medical Science Liaison: A Dead-End Job?
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
I met a few MSLs when I gave a keynote for a PhD career symposium held jointly by postdoc associations of two research institutions. We chatted about what’s happening in the “MSL industry.”
On the one hand, it’s gratifying for me to see how many people continue to see the MSL career as one of the most interesting and challenging “alternative” careers for healthcare professionals.
On the other hand, I hear from MSLs who want to stay MSLs and not be a manager but some see this as a “dead-end job.”
I’m not talking about new, ambitious MSLs itching for a boost up the management ranks: these are very experienced (think 10+ years) MSLs feeling stagnated and disengaged.
This is a very real concern: not every MSL can (and should) aim for the management tier.
But if you don’t aim for a MSL manager position, how else can you grow as a medical science liaison in the long term?
When I started MSL Institute in 2004 I wrote an article asking MSL directors, “Whose job is this, anyway?” — Whose job is it to keep MSLs engaged in their roles, so that the ones who work best as MSLs will remain challenged and satisfied in their position?
Is this the medical directors’ job, to carve out a better defined career path for these MSLs?
Is it the MSL managers’ job, to engage in constructive dialog about special projects that can pique senior MSLs’ interest?
Is it the MSLs’ job to figure out for themselves what will keep them engaged and take responsibility for their own career engagement? But I’ll hear statements from MSLs like, “that’s giving me more work without giving me a pay raise, why would I want that?”
It’s eerie how the more things change the more they stay the same: we still haven’t figured out MSL career paths in the long term.
We also haven’t figured out demonstrating MSL value but then we’ll enter a major treatise on measuring intangibles.
My personal bias has always been, “It’s up to me to figure out what I want to do with my life when I grow up,” but being a field-based professional comes with its own set of challenges. Being field-based and therefore out of the loop with corporate headquarters means MSLs must have open and frequent communication with people who are supposed to be the “leaders” – MSL managers and MSL directors.
I think MSL career development is a shared responsibility — between MSLs, their managers/directors, and the companies’ executives. But sharing responsibility of this kind takes trust.
Ah, trust between MSLs and management. That’s another soap box.
Is the MSL Job a dead-end job to you?
MSL Retention: Is Grass Greener on Other Side?
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Let’s talk about grass. Specifically, how the grass seems greener on the other side.
Those of you who are veteran MSLs, you know how it goes…
First, there is a seed of dissatisfaction.
That seed grows into a weed of discontent, which over time becomes poisoned with gossip and the next thing you know, the garden is choking from deteriorating morale. This is when MSLs leave in droves for greener pastures.
I was speaking with a former colleague and a seasoned MSL, who said that the years of being a MSL has made her realize that the most critical factor she considers in staying or leaving a position to matter is…. her relationship with her MSL coworkers.
When she likes the people she is working with, it makes everything else on the job easier to stomach. This person has learned, as I have learned over my years working with different MSL teams at different companies, about the fallacy of greener pastures in MSL programs at companies.
The life science industry may be large, but the MSL niche is still a small niche even with continual expansion of MSL teams. New leadership within the MSL space will emerge over time, but management cultures change as slowly as trees grow. This means there are inbreeding ideas and ideals. This also means MSLs may not be getting something new by leaving their current companies to join new companies promising them the moon.
So for the new year, as I reflect on how I used to be a chaser — chasing after goals, recognition, next rungs of a success ladder — and how far I have come to appreciate what I already have — I want to ask you to consider something for the new year:
Pretend for a moment that you cannot run away from all the seeds of dissatisfaction that has sunk your morale about your current MSL job.
Maybe it’s the annoying sales people who can’t seem to get that you’re not at their beck-and-call.
Maybe it’s the management that can’t seem to get what MSLs do and why they can’t settle on objective metrics.
Maybe you’re getting restless with the routine of the job.
Maybe you’re feeling frustrated with the lack of support for your growth and development.
Pretend that if you were to go to a new company, the very things you’re running away from will follow you there.
You’d get the same annoying reps, ignorant management, job angst, lack of training funds. Sure, they’ll show up wearing different faces and names and clothes, but they will show up all the same.
Now what will you do?
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t check out greener pastures, if you are presented with a golden ticket to work at your dream company.
I’m saying that sometimes we’re fooled into thinking that we’ve left for greener pastures when we’re still circling the same patches of lawn.
I’m saying that you have more power than you realize to totally change your own morale at any given job.
Art of MSL'ing: Don’t Forget Business Process
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Medical science liaisons must have a high degree of subject matter expertise (SME) to be effective. You don’t go into a meeting with an international key opinion leader and expect to have a productive dialog if you cannot speak to the depths of science and clinical research.
Many MSLs pride themselves in their expertise of a disease state, especially those who are hired specifically for their research and clinical experience in the disease state they will represent for their companies to the healthcare community.
On the other hand, what differentiates a good MSL from a spectacular MSL goes beyond subject matter expertise to business process expertise (BPE). This is because the MSL role spans across clinical dialog to create a clinical value for both KOL client and employer client.
The rationale is: SME can be taught. BPE is harder to teach and the results of poor BPE skills can be disastrous.
Many directors look at a MSL who is well-grounded in science but lacks business acumen and wonder if this MSL can be trained to better appreciate the program’s business challenges. They may hire a seasoned MSL who has demonstrated a track record of business results but who may have other therapeutic experience.
Medical science liaisons can look at a medical director who is a subject matter expert but who has never worked with MSL programs and who may not appreciate the delicate relationships between commercial and medical functions to appreciate how important BPE plays in a leadership role.
Business process expertise deals with:
Even though BPE can fall into the same debate as “are leaders born or made”, if you are a medical science liaison, you don’t want to wait around for a resolution of this debate before you ensure that you identify gaps in your business process expertise and create a professional development plan to fill those gaps.
Medical Science Liaisons’ Career Limiting Trap
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Medical science liaisons know the importance of relationships with key opinion leaders. Many MSLs love their job because of their KOL relationships, and intellectual stimulation from dialogs with therapeutic KOLs can be a major source of job satisfaction.
On the other hand, relationships with internal stakeholders (you can even say these are your “internal KOLs”) tend to be the source of contention and even job dissatisfaction for medical science liaisons.
These internal stakeholder relationships become a career limiting trap if MSLs do not strike a careful balance between their approach to their internal stakeholders.
Ask yourself these questions to gauge whether your current interactions with your internal stakeholders may hold room for improvement:
1. How do internal stakeholders view your role? What’s the purpose they see in your role to the company and what “impact” do they recognize from your role? If you aren’t sure, how can you find out?
2. How do internal stakeholders expect you to interact with them? Do they prefer to hear from you in person, by phone, over email? Different companies may have different rules and expectations of interactions between field-medical and internal stakeholders (especially with stakeholders within the sales and marketing functions.)
3. How do internal stakeholders expect your relationship to grow? What does growth look like? Obviously these internal stakeholders cannot expect you to work “for” them, but they should be able to expect some level of information sharing that are within the boundaries of your respective roles at the company.
One of the best insight I got about MSLs’ approach to internal stakeholders was from a senior medical affairs executive who said that tension is a natural part of these internal stakeholder relationships.
Push and pull are aspects of a natural phenomenon of any corporate dynamics and human relationship. Rather than taking the tension as a confrontation, he looks at this as part of the corporate ecosystem and then looks for ways to strike the optimal balance for his MSLs.
How do YOU strike this delicate balance with internal stakeholders as a MSL?
MSL Job Karma
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
You may now be a medical science liaison reporting to a MSL manager/director.
Within a few years time, you become a manager/director supervising your former MSL manager/director, who is now reporting to you.
Or, you are a MSL manager/director.
Within a few years time, usually due to life or company circumstances, you become a MSL reporting to the person whom you use to manage at a former company.
This karmic dynamic offers medical science liaisons and MSL managers/directors an interesting question for self-reflection:
If you are a medical science liaison now, knowing you may one day manage the person who is now managing you, how will you behave / work differently with your current manager?
If you are a MSL manager/director now, knowing you may one day report to the person you are managing, how will you behave / work differently with your current MSL?
This is MSL job karma, and one of the aspects that makes the MSL profession so interesting.
Maybe some of you reading this will need re-evaluate the way you may be currently working with your manager/MSLs.
Medical Science Liaison Career Planning Points
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
From personal experience and speaking with MSLs from different backgrounds and tenure, I’ve learned that:
Your career plan must be inwardly driven.
You know what you are happiest doing – let’s say – fulfilling your MSL duties. But you see your peers going after that MSL manager promotion or leaving to other companies with management opportunities. After a while you start to wonder why you aren’t developing that urge to move “forward and upward.” Next thing you know, you’re signing off expense reports and hating every minute of it.
This is where a trusted advisor or mentor can help you stay focused on your own internal values and motivators. Given how MSLs are naturally an overachieving group, you can’t take for granted that you will automatically “stay true” to your internal motivators.
Your career plan must be immune to external changes.
Most of the time MSLs’ “career” plan is really a list of job titles they want to attain, which makes it a “job” plan, not a “career” plan. When something happens to the department or to the company or to the industry, that plan becomes obsolete. To immunize your career plan against external changes, shift your focus on what you enjoy doing as part of a career, instead of only paying attention to the next job title you desire.
In touchy-feely speak, I’m talking about your passion. If you look at true geniuses at work, you won’t hear them profess to manifest their “genius” because they had a list of job titles they want to achieve. Geniuses work and live from passion, which shows up as creativity and innovative thinking. 95% of my “career” plan didn’t work out as I had planned (because it was really a list of job titles, not a true career plan).
You must be accountable for the quality of your own career development.
Note that I said “quality” instead of “outcome”. If you want to explore where your unique MSL career profile can take you in the future, you are accountable for seeking out people and resources that give you the information you need to make the best decision for yourself. Quality that comes from your own thoughts and actions is really the only thing you can control. Whether your manager turns out to be completely laissez-faire to your career interests or pushes you too hard in a different direction is beyond your control.
Once you recognize your locus of control, cut yourself some slack if your career isn’t moving as you’d like it, and you know you’ve put forth your best quality effort. Sometimes where you ultimately end up can be more fulfilling than where you originally “planned.” If my original career plan had worked out, I’d be living on the East coast shoveling snow so I could find my car, get to lab, and finish writing my eleventh grant application. I probably would not be enjoying my career as much as I am today.
Wishing you success in your MSL career path.
MSL Work-Life: Organizing Tips
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
I touched a nerve with many of you when I shared my personal story of how I came to care about work-life balance. I appreciate some of the heartfelt (and heartbreaking) stories that I’ve received via email and via comment form on MSL Institute.
I’ll keep this article more practical – and share some of the ways that I have approached work-life balance with you, by addressing one of the comments I have received:
“I am exhausted and frazzled every week.”
If you came to me to work on this – we’d look at this from at least two angles.
First, how much is shear exhaustion? I don’t mean sheer, I mean shear, as in “physical wear and tear”. Travel does this to you – and we’d look at ways to better manage your physical endurance so that your body withstands the physical exhaustion.
Is this a matter of reducing noise-induced exhaustion? Buying a pair of Bose noise reduction headsets was one of THE BEST investments I’ve made. At one point when I was feeling like I was jumping out of my skin from exhaustion (agitated exhaustion?) I had the headsets on in the airport as well as on the airplane.
Is this a matter of increasing your stamina and endurance? Paying close attention to exercising, diet (especially reducing food intake while increasing water intake), and sleep…. these require discipline to manage on the road. I was reading in a magazine that some of the toughest road warriors will cut down on food during the trip and ramp up on drinking water (not alcohol).
Second, how much is organizational? I have a tendency to let entropy take over, and not reduce clutter and stick to an organizing or filing system when I have too much on my plate. Then I start forgetting important tasks, losing my place in a project, or misplacing key files.
If this sounds like what is happening to you, maybe it’s time for an “organizational” make-over, and for you to put in place a “process” or “system” when handling administrative tasks like email.
If you can, do not handle a piece of email more than twice. Do it, delete it, or delegate it.
Finally, how much is mental? Most of us do not realize that our mental energy is just like our physical energy – it is finite, and mental potency can be corroded by competing demands for attention (translation: multitasking).
I’ve personally found that if I needed to do my best work, I need to avoid checking emails, or tending to voicemail, or engaging in activities that nibble away at my mental acuity. If I do those things first and use up precious mental acuity, by the time I sit down to write something important or read something difficult, my neurons are breaking for lunch.
I have found personally that doing this has eroded my short term memory to the point where I would literally forget what I wanted to do within 2 or 3 minutes. I had to put myself on a “multitasking-diet”. This means no texting, no emailing, no IM/chatting at the same time that you are trying to learn something from a teleconference or a webinar. You’d be better off pairing a mental activity (learning) with a physical task (walking or something physically repetitive). And if you are really serious: cut down the # of computer task windows (web browsers, applications) to no more than 3 at a time and no more than 5 internet browser tabs (I’m up to 2 apps and 4 browser tabs when writing this)!
MSL Teamwork: Good Team Playing starts with Peer Recognition
Jane Chin, Ph.D.
During one of my MSL jobs, I had as part of my MSL role a significant amount of managed care clinical presentations that I had to give. Shortly after I joined the company I was scheduled to give a presentation. Since I was new, I felt quite nervous.
One of my MSL colleagues offered to walk me through the presentation. For 2 hours, this colleague listened to my presentation, gave me constructive feedback, and offered me advice about managed care presentations. He was also 3 hours ahead (I was on the West Coast, him on the East) and by the time we were done, it was quite late on his end.
I was grateful for his time and advice, and sent a note to the MSL director on how much I appreciated my colleague helping me as a new MSL.
We talk about being a team player in the MSL profession, and an effective way to contribute toward team congruence is by giving positive peer feedback. The benefits of peer recognition for you, the MSL giving positive feedback to your MSL colleagues, are numerous:
1. You learn constructive ways to encourage people. Those of you interested in getting into the management track can start this practice and make it a habit.
2. You earn positive karma points. You may never know when a colleague can use a positive boost, because the MSL job can be an isolating job, and often MSLs don’t immediately see the impact of their work. It’s especially gratifying to have a peer recognize you.
3. You become more aware of positive behaviors that you want to model and exhibit, and this can become part of your “leadership brand.” This is self-reinforcing. You want to be the MSL who keeps a team motivated.
For peer recognition to be effective, the recognition needs to be:
* Specific. Vague flattery isn’t really flattering and it isn’t very helpful for peers to know which behaviors to do more of. Sharing what the peer did specifically well and why this mattered or made a difference to you as a member of the MSL team comes across as more genuine than a verbal pat-on-the-back.
* Timely. Don’t postpone when you have something nice to say, especially when the best peer recognition notes should also be:
* Concise. Why must you be concise? Because you are going to cc (digital carbon copy) this to the MSL manager/director, and they read a ton of emails. The shorter the email, the better chance it stands at being forwarded as an example of teamwork working.
Do you have a good peer recognition story to share?