by Liz Bajema
If you find Christiane Carney on a typical day, she’s likely to be training medical practitioners, brushing up on scientific literature, or interacting with key opinion leaders in women’s health. Christiane is a medical science liaison (MSL), an increasingly popular profession among PhD scientists. MSLs typically work for pharmaceutical companies, acting as a scientific resource for the medical community. In summary, “You are a scientific expert on your company’s products, answering scientific and clinical questions for doctors and nurses.” This requires in-depth knowledge of a particular therapeutic area, in addition to strong verbal communication skills. As for Christiane, her specialty is women’s health. She has long been passionate about her field, and finds that being an MSL allows her to make a unique and tangible impact on patient lives and outcomes.
Christiane’s career path was strictly academic prior to becoming an MSL. As a chemistry undergraduate at Portland State University, she found excellent mentorship in the lab of Prof. Mark Woods. That experience drove her to pursue a PhD in chemistry at Northwestern University, where she worked to develop MRI contrast agents for cell tracking and labeling. It was toward the end of her graduate career that Christiane first became interested in becoming an MSL. The job was a perfect fit for her, since she was interested in stepping away from lab work, but also had a keen desire to put her PhD to good use.
However, being an MSL requires not only scientific knowledge, but also a strong understanding of clinical work. Since her graduate work leaned toward basic science research, Christiane obtained a postdoctoral position that was more clinical in nature. This postdoctoral role in the University of Chicago’s OB-GYN department was a crucial, transitional step for her. It allowed her to gain insight into clinical research, as well as expertise in women’s health. After six months of working at her postdoc, she began applying to MSL jobs.
The only downside of seeking an MSL job is that the field can be quite challenging to break into. Especially as a PhD, Christiane says, “Getting your first MSL job is always hardest; it’s much easier to switch between MSL roles from there.” Many MSL roles have historically been held by PharmD degree holders. However, Christiane feels that her PhD and postdoctoral experience prepared her exceedingly well for her job. In fact, she was offered her current job at Bayer only 2 months into the job search process. For graduate students considering a career as an MSL, Christiane recommends networking with MSLs at conferences and joining the MSL society. It’s also important to match your PhD skills to a particular area of expertise. Since MSLs specialize in a particular field (oncology, cardiology, or dermatology, for instance), it’s good to leverage your PhD skills into one of those roles.
For Christiane, being an MSL includes all of her favorite things about PhD work: analyzing data, looking for trends, and talking with key opinion leaders about science. Thus, she travels 2-3 days each week to meet with doctors in other states and go to relevant conferences. When she’s not traveling, she’s working from home to prepare for presentations and meetings, as well as keep up with relevant scientific literature. For this reason, she emphasizes that a successful MSL must be very self-motivated. Although it’s a busy job, Christiane loves it first and foremost because it’s a job that has an impact. Although MSLs never give clinical advice, they have the “big picture” view to identify and address important trends. Because they work so closely with doctors and nurses, they can teach and inform them on how to improve outcomes. Christiane remembers a time early in her MSL career when she trained practitioners who had no formal training on IUD insertion on how to do the procedure. This directly led to their patients having more contraceptive choices. That’s the sort of thing that makes her job rewarding.