After completing a PhD in Molecular Biology and doing a postdoc, María Carretero is now a Medical Science Liaison in Oncology for Shire. She was kind enough to share her career path with LSN and offer tips for other academics looking to leave the bench.
You did a PhD in Molecular Biology at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre and a postdoc at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. Why did you decide to move away from academia?
I decided to move out of academia because the career options ahead of me weren’t appealing anymore and even though I was still as excited with good results as the first day of my postdoc, this wasn’t enough for me to stay motivated to go to the next step in academia. The possibilities for me were very limited, I didn’t want to pursue a tenure tracked position and spend the rest of my career writing grants and hoping to get money in an increasingly competitive environment, and I didn’t want to get stuck in an endless postdoc without any possibilities to progress, face funding problems, etc, so I decided to move out of academia and look for other options.
While you were a postdoc, you did a mini-MBA at the Rady School of Management. Why did you decide to do a mini-MBA? How did that program work? What did you learn?
By the time I decided that I was ready to leave academia I wanted to learn more about the business world. I started an MBA program in an international business school, which meant that even though I was learning a lot, I was missing a key part of a typical MBA program: the networking. And that is how I ended up applying to a mini-MBA at the Rady School of Management in San Diego. As you might know, San Diego is well established hub of biotechnology companies, from startups to bigger ones like BD or Takeda, and this program is also known because it is heavily oriented towards the pharma/biotech industry which made it even more attractive to me. This is an intensive summer program where you get a good overview of what a MBA program entails. During the program, there are lectures on each of the main topics of a MBA program, finance, marketing, strategy… and you get to practice how to solve a business case study. Moreover, they organize daily “coffee hours” where a small group of us had the chance to talk to entrepreneurs, business development managers, business analysts, and project and product managers in the San Diego county area every day. Each of these invitees had a science background, at some point decided to do a MBA, and told us about their personal career path. As you can imagine, this was a great opportunity to learn about all the options out there for someone with a science background and also to network with these successful leaders in the community.
After finishing the summer program I was definitely more ready to finish the rest of my full time MBA. I had a better understanding of what to expect and I learned a lot from the many conversations I had during the “coffee hours”.
You transitioned from being a postdoc to your current role as Medical Science Liaison (MSL) Oncology for Shire. How did you get that job?
I was interested in the MSL role because I knew it would allow me to stay connected with science and I applied to positions matching my expertise. I did my PhD in molecular oncology and after that, during my postdoc, I worked on chemical physiology and small molecules. In addition, I did a lot of work as a reviewer for several journals. A solid scientific background combined with a good publication record were key to getting the job. I also think that when applying to a MSL role it is very important to be aware of your area of expertise, at least to break into your first role. Applying to a MSL role in GI if you don’t really know anything about it and you haven’t had any previous experience with GI diseases in your PhD or postdoc doesn’t really make sense to me.
What do you do as a MSL? What are your day-to-day tasks? Is there a lot of travel?
By definition, a MSL is in charge of KOL (key opinion leader) engagement and the dissemination of data related to the company products before and after commercialization.
My day to day tasks involve responding to health care provider questions about products, responding to medical information requests, attending medical conferences to stay up to date on clinical research, networking with KOLs and discussing ongoing clinical research with them, giving talks about products, organizing meetings and advisory boards to get advice on clinical issues in the disease states that I cover, and supporting field-based sales staff through training, among other responsibilities.
Yes, there is a lot of travel involved. In my case, I would say, more than 75% of the time. It might vary slightly depending on your disease area and the geographical area you cover, but there will always be a lot of traveling for sure.
What did you learn during your PhD and postdoc that have helped you with this job and what did you have to learn ‘on the job’?
Having a strong scientific background, leveraged throughout my PhD and postdoc, was without a doubt of great help for the MSL role. You face daily conversations that involve scientific discussions, referencing and interpreting scientific papers, reviewing proposals, and discussing scientific data. Without a science background I think it will be very difficult to grasp all the details you need for every interaction with the different stakeholders. Also, during your training as a scientist you learn how to communicate your results and your data to the scientific community. As a MSL, this becomes key. You are not communicating the results of your experiments anymore, but at the end of the day this skill that you have developed during your years of scientific training is used every day.
On the job I learn a lot about how to work in a highly regulated industry, as is the case with the pharmaceutical industry. Working at a global company requires a steep learning curve when it comes to rules and regulations, and sometimes global and local rules are slightly different and you have to learn this pretty much on the fly.
Also, I learned a lot about how to interact and communicate with different teams like marketing and sales and understand their needs and priorities.
Last but not least, you are constantly working with people you’ve never met before but your goal is to develop a relationship with them. I have learned that on each initial face-to-face interaction with a KOL you have only a few seconds to understand how this first interaction will play out and must adjust accordingly to properly conduct the situation. It is a bit of an art and I am still learning.
What was the hardest thing about transitioning from research to working as a MSL? What sort of person would this job suit?
I think that the hardest part of moving out of research is that you will not be the “owner” of a scientific project ever again and you will not have this freedom to decide what to investigate and what is important to focus on. In science, for better or for worse you are responsible of everything that happens to the project you are conducting, it can sometimes be frustrating, yes, but it is also extremely rewarding. You don’t have that as MSL anymore.
To be a MSL and enjoy your job from day one, I think you have to be very independent and know how to work and get things done with minimum supervision. You must be willing to travel a lot and enjoy what it entails: lots of time alone and lots of nights away from home, which some people may not enjoy. And you need to be outgoing, that is key to your daily interactions and to succeed in this job.
Do you have any other advice for scientists thinking about becoming a MSL or moving away from the bench?
Moving away from the bench is a huge decision and it can take time to be convinced about it. It took me a while to be sure about what I wanted and I had mixed feelings for a long time. I would suggest that one talk to a lot of people who have already gone through the transition to different roles and learn from their career paths, take advantage of the career orientation services at your institution or university, work on your interviewing skills, and of course be patient. Getting your first role out of academia and sometimes even your first interview can take a little bit of time but it will happen!
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