From community pharmacist to Medical Science Liaison

Sinead Monaghan, Medical Science Liaison, Sanofi

I graduated with a master’s degree in pharmacy from Queen’s University Belfast.I undertook my pre-registration year in a community pharmacy chain in Northern Ireland. I was employed as a pharmacist manager with the same company post pre-registration year. I spent a further four years as a community pharmacist.

I thoroughly enjoyed this role, especially being a pharmacist tutor. This very much sparked my interest in training others. I had always been curious about alternative pharmacist roles, but felt my knowledge of career paths was limited.

When I thought about industry I just pictured laboratory work and didn’t realise the vast career paths available to pharmacists. It was a family member that suggested venturing industry opportunities. This family member had worked in industry for many years and was aware of opportunities for pharmacists. I began researching medical roles and shortly came across the Medical science liaison (MSL) role.

I met with an MSL who lived and worked in Northern Ireland to gather information on the role. I soon realised that it would a great opportunity for development and sounded like something I would really enjoy and succeed in. After interviewing for a few roles, I was offered an MSL role in a large global pharmaceutical company. I was so excited.

As I was living in Belfast at the time, I had to relocate for my initial role in industry. I spent three wonderful years in Liverpool where I gained a lot of experience working across the English and Welsh healthcare systems. The MSL role allowed me to meet lots of healthcare professionals, learn about new medications and upcoming research, work with various departments in my company, upskill my clinical knowledge and most importantly allowed me to develop my career.

After three years in the role, I knew that industry was the career path for me. However,there was one thing I had always wanted to do before I settled in to the role long term. I took some time out to travel. When I returned eight months later, I was offered a maternity cover MSL role within the company I had left in a different therapy area. Once the maternity cover was finished I interviewed for a permanent role in yet another division within the company.

I was delighted as I was able to return home to Ireland and work there. To date, I have worked in three different therapy areas and across all of the health care systems in the UK and Ireland. This has given me broad clinical experience, broad knowledge of healthcare systems and allowed me to work with health care professionals across many disciplines.My day to day work is extremely rewarding. I am continually learning and meeting so many interesting people along the way. It has been an amazing experience and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a career change.

For more information on how to get a job in the pharmaceutical industry, visit our website

How Sarah became a Medical Science Liaison

Dr. Sarah Anne Goffin, Medical Science Liaison at Sanofi

I come from a family of healthcare professionals and have always been passionate about science, so pharmacy seemed to be a perfect fit for me. 

I undertook my undergraduate at the University of East Anglia between 2006 and 2010 and completed my pre-registration year in 2011. As I worked part-time as a counter assistant in community during my degree I wanted to take the opportunity to increase my experience in hospital pharmacy. 

At the end of my pre-registration year I reached a dichotomy: I loved the healthcare and clinical aspects but was starting to miss the core science that I covered during my undergraduate. I therefore decided to pursue a PhD in Medicinal Chemistry entitled ‘Targeting the p53/MDM2 protein-protein interaction’ at the University of East Anglia. 

During my PhD I was fortunate to present my research both at National and International Congress as well as publish two papers on my areas of research. The PhD was incredibly tough but really enabled me to hone my research skills and independent thinking, as well as critical appraisal and presentation skills. I had, however, realised that bench-side research was not the career for me long-term, as I missed the patient focus and a more structured lifestyle. 

I graduated from my PhD in 2016 and decided to locum in community pharmacy/private hospital pharmacy for some time, which gave me the fantastic opportunities to travel and volunteer overseas. Whilst this served me well for some time, I found myself once again missing the core science and the scientific discussions that I had during my PhD. 

Finally, it was by some stroke of luck that I discovered the MSL role: I was well aware of pharmaceutical representatives, but had never come across this role, which I initially interpreted as field-based medicines information (but have subsequently learned and experienced that there is so much more to it!).  

I have now been an MSL for about 2.5 years and for me it really has been the best job that I have had: I work an area, have a fair degree of autonomy in my work, I am still heavily involved in the science of our products and able to have conversations with key opinion leaders within my therapeutic field. 

Parallels between sectors

Communication skills are VITAL in this role: whilst the nature of the interactions that are had with healthcare professionals differ from what one would do in clinical roles (I am not working in the capacity of a healthcare professional here), being able to communicate scientific concepts, as well as empathise and help to problem-solve challenges that customers may have are absolutely key points of the role. 

A core understanding is also very useful in terms of internal discussions relating to adverse events or pharmacokinetics of products: my knowledge of pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics has been able to permit me to engage in internal discussions relating to theoretical interactions or risks that could require mitigation. I also feel that this is strongly supported by research experience too! 

Transferable skills 

To be an MSL, it is vital to be able to critically appraise and present data, have an understanding of pharmaceutical calculations and be able to translate high-level science into training for the commercial teams as well as the clinical potentials. 

The pharmaceutical industry is also tightly regulated and has its own code of practice. Pharmacists are well-equipped to understand the professional decision making and behaviours of this code, which do have some overlap with the GPhC guidance 

If you work in community or hospital and want to get into industry, where do you start? 

For an MSL role, whilst a PhD is not always required many job adverts will request it. The discipline is less important, but in the minds of the recruiters shows that you will have had a strong experience in research, which as mentioned previously is very important for MSLs. 

Being able to demonstrate a background in the therapeutic area that you are applying for is useful. I used the fact that I had done a rotation in my current discipline when applying for my current role, which served in my favour.

Whilst I am an MSL and I truly love my role, there are many different career opportunities in pharma for pharmacists. These range from compliance to health outcomes, medical information to pharmacovigilance, to name but a few.

The longer that I am in post I would definitely say that knowledge of the NHS structure and challenges is becoming ever more important, particularly in terms of identifying customer needs and investigating if the pharmaceutical industry can support them in any way.  

Development opportunities 

There is a great opportunity to develop your skills and career both within your function (e.g. medical) and outside. Due to the wide variety of roles in pharma, training and development tends to encompass wider areas such as:

  • Presentation skills 
  • Pharmaceutical calculations 
  • ABPI code of practice upskilling 
  • Project management 
  • Critical appraisal 
  • Stakeholder engagement 
  • Coaching 

What I like about the pharmaceutical industry is that there are numerous opportunities to develop and upskill depending on what you would like to achieve. I have had a great deal of support from my colleagues and mentors regarding development. 

Much of the training is web-based and you are expected to complete in your own time, however there are also face-to-face trainings that are usually organised around company congresses. As part of my continuing professional development, revalidation and faculty portfolios, I utilise all of these opportunities, as well as my learnings that I get through attending external congresses.

For more information about opportunities in pharmaceutical society, check our website.

Routes to industry roles

By Tarquin Bennett – Coles, Principle Consultant at Carmichael Fisher

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The Life science sector is a vibrant and constantly changing environment that can suit those who like to take educated risks with start-up ventures or those who want a more secure long-term career within a large organisation. Getting into the sector is still people/connection based so establishing a network and reliable advocates will help you make the first step. If you can find a person you can interact with rather than using an online portal then this will improve your chances. 

Deciding on the right role and company for you will require some due diligence on the company values and culture. Most of this can be achieved online. Glassdoor is a useful tool to see what people say about a business, good and bad.

Nevertheless, having someone you can talk to who actually works at the company you are interested in is even more useful. If you can use your network to help you achieve this,  then it will give you a head start.  

To make the right step also requires some realistic self-assessment.  

You can use online tools for this or If you can find someone you work with and ask them how you come across in meetings or day to day you can find out a great deal about how you are perceived. It is also worth thinking about what motivates you, what will drive you to get up for work or travel a long way for a meeting? Do you like to work in a group or independently? Even at an early stage it is well worth thinking about where you would like to land after the role you are applying for. Having this in mind will help you weigh up the potential of the position now and as part of your broader career aspirations even if they change. 

Some individuals choose to join the sector via a service organisation then move across to biophama or MedTech businesses once they have their network in place. This includes joining life science teams in the large consulting houses (PwC, E&Y, McKinsey etc), boutique players (Huron, Cambridge Consultants, Sagentia), outsourcing businesses like a Contract or Clinical Research Organisations (CROs – IQVIA, Paraxel, Covance etc) or biopharma sales companies.  
Others, choose to start out in a corporate setting via the City (equity analysis), private equity or venture capital businesses and then transition across.  

In addition, the emerging data and digital space means some technology players (Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung etc) are moving into the healthcare sector and they require experts with an understanding of life sciences sector so this may also offer a way in.  
Hot areas of growth also include diagnostics & biomarker businesses, AI/Machine Learning, data science and digital health companies. 

Once you have gained some experience, or if you want to make the step immediately, then there are some key skills and experiences that companies most value. If you can highlight these when you apply or at interview then they will help differentiate you and increase your chances of an offer. 

  • Demonstrable track record of success. 
  • Examples of persuasion and influence whilst working outside your area of management control 
  • The ability to prioritise between the urgent and important. 
  • Expertise at working to tight deadlines and dealing with a fast paced environment for service delivery & communication (this should suit all pharmacists). 
  • Project management skills & the ability to switch focus/direction due rapid market shifts or new convergent technologies. 

Right now certain functions and disciplines are in particularly high demand. These include, analytics, data science, informatics, medical affairs and information, toxicology, pharmacology, business development, clinical development, regulatory affairs, market access and pricing and reimbursement. 

Another thing to consider before you join the industry is to choose a location where there is a cluster of companies and sector support businesses already located there. This will increase the opportunity for you to progress and find alternative work if the position does not work out or the company goes through a major transformation or acquisition. In 2019 we are seeing some major merger and acquisition activity. Most successful clusters (Cambridge, London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Cardiff etc) will also have good transport links, access to funding streams, academic and research hubs, hospitals and service businesses nearby.  

Once you make the step do remember you are likely to be joining a sector where there will be five generations in the workplace (Gen Z – 18yrs old in 2018). Each generation defines success and working habits with a slightly different perspective so it is worth considering that if you are working in a cross-generational team or have a line manager from a different era. 

In terms of what lies ahead you have a myriad of choices once you break into the sector so keep checking in on your own plans. Leadership agility is being highlighted as a future “must have” and so is some international experience so if you can add those to your existing skill set, then you will be in a good place to progress. Similarly, there are now more industry collaborations and partnerships than ever before so involvement in such projects will help you stand out. Good luck, you have an exciting future ahead.  

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