MSL Insights: On Evaluating a Career as a Medical Science Liaison, How to Best Prepare for KOLs, and Managing the Variety Each Day
In the pharmaceutical industry, it is well-established that the overarching goals of Medical Affairs include Key Opinion Leader (KOL) engagement and education. Whether it is responding to inquiries from physicians and the treatment team, presenting new information on clinical data and treatment options, or engaging on clinical trial initiatives, KOL engagement is a significant responsibility. It affects not only the medical function, but the entire company as a whole.
Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) on the field medical team work as part of a larger medical affairs cohort responsible for building, maintaining, and growing relationships with KOLs. Much has been written about the best strategies to implement to ensure a strong relationship over time for the field medical team.
I recently sat down Viorela Pop, PhD, a MSL with MacroGenics, to discuss her career as an MSL. Viorela and I met through a combination of the MSL Society, ASCO, and Flower Child Cafe in Santa Monica, CA. I find incredible value in Viorela’s work and her approach to life as a successful MSL, mother, and wife.
Viorela shared her personal insights on transitioning into a role as an MSL, and strategies she implements to stay at the top of her game, because this is a journey that never stops! Thank you to Viorela for sharing her tips and offering a view of her life as an MSL. I hope you enjoy!
Viorela Pop, PhD
Medical Science Liaison
As someone who started working as an MSL relatively recently, what are the top 3 “surprises” or things you didn’t expect in your career as an MSL?
One of the important skills you need as an MSL is figuring out brand new people in a short timeframe. You have to be “quick on your toes.” Maybe it’s the thrill of being in a new situation, but it is enjoyable! You have only seconds to make a good impression, and mere minutes to identify what will make the interaction productive and valuable. And you truly only know if you were memorable and had an impact once you meet them a second time, if you get the chance.
One thing I didn’t anticipate is missing the prior roles I’ve had in research, teaching, and a "regular" office environment. I’m now just passed a year into the MSL role, and there are days I still miss having colleagues in a nearby cubicle, someone to eat lunch with, office parties, and even the office drama, students to train in the classroom or lab…but then I remember how fortunate I am. This is in fact my favorite job…ever.
Travel all over the USA has been manageable and fun! There have been some adventures through strange weather, a TV cameo (or maybe an episode or movie, not sure yet, as it hasn’t aired), lengthy drives and five states in five days. One time as I exited the airplane, I found not one, but two $50 bills crumpled right in front of me as I walked passed the first class aisle.
Overall, travelling provides a good combination for me to be away from home completely immersed in work, then have days back for recovery. It meets the needs of my life and couldn’t happen without my amazing, supportive husband and family. Sure, the everyday tasks may pile up and my garden grew some extra weeds this year, but the important things are solid and the work gets done.
They say each day is different when you are an MSL. Can you describe how you spend an average week or month in your role?
What they say is true! It can be challenging to go along with unexpected changes, new tasks or responsibilities, delays and cancellations, but that’s what makes it exciting. The past year has had its share of busy seasons and lighter days. Besides dates set in stone for conferences or training, there has been flexibility and an independence that makes it a wonderful combination. You never know who you might get introduced or referred to, or what new nugget of knowledge you’ll gain.
To be successful as an MSL, you have to be self-paced, driven, and disciplined. You undoubtedly will have to work odd hours, sometimes for long stretches. Some days may be quiet or lonely followed by days where you are overwhelmed by masses of conference people.
It’s important for me to add…while it can be tempting to work pretty much 24/7 when travelling overnight (and I’ve tried it, to the detriment of my lower back!), I’ve found it’s important to make time for what I might call an "art of science break" while being in the field. I recall an overcast day seeing a botanical and glass sculpture garden, visiting an underground waterfall, watching movies, walking through a park or on a sandy beach…and finding it so rejuvenating to take in some local art and nature along my routes. On another visit, I enjoyed walking the paths of my old university stomping grounds, and twice last year I had dinner made by my grandma who lives out of state.
MSLs have to stay abreast of all new scientific information and developments in a particular therapeutic area. What are some strategies you incorporate to stay current and up-to-date?
Daily Google Alerts are an excellent source of the latest news on any topic of your choice. For articles, PubMed searches and our company database provides most everything I need. Clinicaltrials.gov is my go-to for trial updates and details (…well, the public details anyway!)
Attending conferences and seminars is very important and provides an ideal learning environment for me. Last year I attended 3 major conferences and a few additional events, and kept connected with team members who attended other events about their experiences and the intelligence they were able to gather. Colleagues often share ongoing intelligence about competitive landscape through company portals and other communications.
Listening to webcasts and conference calls about new research is a great way to stay informed. Asking KOLs what they’re excited about in their field of expertise is also a great way to learn more about a particular therapeutic area and the KOL’s interests.
Working with KOLs is a big part of being an MSL. What is your approach in preparing for a meeting with a new KOL?
Two approaches need to be taken – internal and external. Internal consists of checking existing files and discussing with my colleagues about prior interactions. Have we met with this person before and in what context? Then we can look externally - reviewing profiles and summaries on their institute’s website, LinkedIn, Twitter feed, etc. Reviewing any recent speaking engagements or publications is also important to see where a KOL’s research interests are. The authorship list and collaborations are key to help paint a picture of the KOL.
For those harder to reach, getting to know their research personnel, RNs, CRCs, CRAs, is helpful, as is connecting with any journal co-authors or other colleagues at the same institution.
At the actual meeting, I like to remind myself of the following…it helps things flow and keeps me from being distracted (…I mention these because I’ve completely and utterly made the mistake of NOT doing them, and had some awkward moments that can break up the fluidity of the interaction):
- Wear something that is both professional and comfortable, and have some knowledge of the temperature of where you’ll be (outdoors and indoors) so you can plan accordingly
- Arrive at least ~15-20 min early and have time to park, find the meeting location, and take care of any check-in at front desk or computer/display set up if that will be required
- Finish any food or beverage, including gum or mints, prior to the meeting
- Carry as few items as possible into the meeting
- Keep my dominant hand free…e.g. I keep my right hand ready for that first handshake
- Hold any items I have to carry in my other hand (clothing/bag/computer/notebook)
- Take in the layout of the space….are we in their office? a conference room? open space?
- What items are on the walls, the desk, table or anywhere else in this space that can give me clues as to what may be relevant to this KOL during this very minute?
I’m still surprised overall by how much good old plain intuition is required, even with thoughtful pre-meeting prep. But, being well-prepared on at least a few of these items has made a big difference in having a great first conversation.
How does this differ when you meet with a KOL you already know? How is the preparation and approach different?
The hard part is over for the most part, IF I’ve indeed done my homework the first time we met!
I review my notes from our last meeting, any emails we’ve exchanged, to offer new information, or focus on a different aspect from last time to provide valuable information to them. I always have questions prepared to ask them. Many KOLs want to share their input, knowledge, have their voices heard, and I want to be a resource for them, to learn from them and to share.
I check if they’ve published new articles or had recent speaking engagements. I follow-up with my company colleagues, if the KOL is a part of advisory or other committees, on any recent communications they may have had, or any new updates on a project. I also use the Larvol app to track KOL engagements.
It can be difficult to do all the items I’ve noted above prior to the first meeting, so I often check back with my own ‘to-do’ list and fill in any major knowledge gaps.
At each meeting, I try to remember what I can do to keep things fluid. Have 4 or 5 topics you can share that are just good “conversational” tools, but probably best to avoid anything too controversial. Some good options might be a recent sporting event, restaurant you enjoyed, vacation or getaway spot, or your review of the new Apple iPhone.
What are strategies for dealing with a KOL that seems to either be uninterested or rushed?
I just go with it…my goal is always to make the situation comfortable so we can have a productive conversation…so I try to discover what might pique their interest and go from there. Asking them an open question (where the answer is not a simple "yes" or "no") can lead to the KOL talking about their interests and concerns. I’ve slowed down my pace and speech, to see if it slows them down…sometimes yes! I’ve talked fast and mentioned the 1 or 2 most salient points and reason for my presence…then wait to see the response or questions that may arise.
I mention my general plans, free hours, availability in case they prefer to connect at a better time.
The interaction has to come naturally and picking up cues from the other person can help. Are they standing towards or away from you? Checking their watch, phone or just looking elsewhere?
Sometimes, none of these strategies work. I give myself the grace I need and settle for the quick “hello”, or just the handshake, or at least some eye contact and a smile.
If your close friend was starting (or pursuing) a role as an MSL, what are the top 3 lessons or tips you would share with him/her to be set up for success?
Get connected with other liaisons and see if they’re open to sharing their experience with you. Build your network. Find opportunities to attend events where you can meet medical affairs professionals. Read the book on breaking in by Samuel Dyer…maybe at lightning speed the first time, just to see if the role actually resonates with you. A second time, read between the lines and just do what it says, to the letter. Many of my experiences were 99% like the book describes.
Be patient…the application process and first role will take time. Read the job descriptions.
Intuition is very important…the science you know, you’ve been trained to learn it quickly. But the job is more than sharing data…if you’re reading the job description for an MSL and it sounds like someone took the words right out of your brain, it probably resonates well with you. If the description makes no sense, find out why if you can, and consider other options.
Each job has its mundane tasks, and sometimes you’ll spend hours as a professional travel planner…that’s ok, enjoy the independence these tasks can provide.
It’s critical to join a team and company culture that resonates with you as a person. Ask yourself, “what kinds of people, processes and environment will help me truly excel in this role?” When they are interviewing you, remember you are also interviewing them. There are many different ways to grow professionally and learn...and if you can actually connect and enjoy the time you spend with others within your organization, that’s a major bonus! I’ve been so fortunate to have positive connections and thoughtful, candid conversations with people I admire in leadership, colleagues, teammates during the liaison role with MacroGenics and PRA. Find a good fit. It matters.
Innovation is incredibly important in order to continuously provide value as an MSL. Are there any areas you feel are ripe for exploration/innovation as an MSL?
Face-to-face interactions remain ideal, but there is a growing need for remote connections with KOLs. The use of web-based applications for virtual meetings is probably going to increase in use. Personally I’ve found that a quick phone call can accomplish a lot…it’s easy and doesn’t require any fancy log-ins or passwords or KOLs being at their desk.
Anything else on your mind?
This role has been a great opportunity for me. I’ve learned a lot and continue to grow personally and professionally.
Lastly, it turns out that I am not really $100 richer (yeah, I gave those two $50 bills to the airline’s lost and found) but I have much to be thankful for and glad for the past year’s new challenges and new conversations. Oh yes, and of course I couldn’t live without the homemade desserts and new pairs of wool socks my grandma knitted for all five in the family…they almost didn’t make it through the airport scanner!
A few words from me...
A truly heartfelt thank you to Viorela for sharing this very candid feedback on the MSL role! It's wonderful to hear such a true and honest perspective, that includes real tips and suggestions for someone evaluating whether the MSL role is a good fit, or for those looking for guidance on how to stand out in their role.
I hope you enjoyed the first in this series of Expert Opinion! I hope to continue to share valuable perspectives with you in the future.