On the job with…Dr Martijn Bijker

EMCR Forum interview with Martijn Bijker
Founder of ‘from SCIENCE to PHARMA’

What is your current occupation or position?

Besides my day job (in pharma) I am the founder of a training and coaching company called ‘from SCIENCE to PHARMA’ that specialises in helping PhD graduates and postdocs to transition into the pharmaceutical industry as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL).

The MSL role is a very highly sought after job for candidates with a PhD. In this role, you are closely involved in bringing new drugs to the market and ensuring the proper use of the current drugs. As an MSL you are connecting the outside world with the inside world of the pharmaceutical company. You are the eyes and ears in the field and you build peer-to-peer scientific relationships with the top clinicians and scientists in your specific disease area by engaging with them using the latest clinical data. The discussions you have with the clinicians will allow you to obtain crucial information that will help drive the strategy for the current drugs and the pipeline drugs. In short, you are literally working at the forefront of medicine, potentially changing the lives of millions of patients.

How did you get into the area?

Five years ago I moved from science to pharma as an MSL myself. At this time the MSL role was still quite unknown in academia and little useful information could be found online. It was one of those mysterious roles: no one knew exactly what it consisted of and how to get into it. All I knew was that a PhD was highly desirable to have and the pay was almost twice that of a post-doc. It took a lot of time reading and talking to people in industry to get myself fully prepared and ready to excel in the MSL interview(s).

During my two MSL jobs in two pharma companies, many of my old colleagues and friends asked me how I transitioned into the MSL role, and asked me if I could help/coach them to make the same transition. Halfway during my MBA study, I thought “Why don’t I start a training company to help other PhDs and postdocs make the same transition as I did?” And that’s what I did two years ago. I developed a comprehensive MSL training and MSL recruitment readiness coaching program. I have since coached several hundred candidates across the globe including people from Australia, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Singapore, Italy, Canada, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, UK, Germany and the US.

What do you enjoy most about working in this area?

As an MSL, I enjoyed working at the interface of scientific research and clinical development, and bringing next generation truly innovative drugs to the market and to the patients. This is true translational clinical research at 1000 miles an hour, something that you can’t do in academia.

In my role as the founder of ‘from SCIENCE to PHARMA’, what I like most is the interaction I have with my candidates. I was in academic research myself for more than 10 years and I fully understand why some of the researchers want to get out (and why others want to stay). And with my academic background, I am able to extract the strengths and qualities they have that they take for granted and my pharma knowledge allows them to become fully prepared for the interviews. It is helping them find their true potential, helping them rewrite their resume to make it stand out as an industry resume that gets traction with recruiters and companies all the way to the (personal) coaching from the first interview to the last interview round. Yes, there are many rounds of interview in pharma, up to four sometimes. During this time I see them grow in knowledge, expertise, and confidence. And the best feeling is when I talk to them and hear that they have managed to get a MSL job! It just feels fantastic.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

There are two challenges that I face day in day out. The first challenge is to build a company from scratch. It takes a lot of time, commitment and dedication to build a company and even more when you have to do this in your spare time alongside a day-job.

The other challenging (and sometimes frustrating) part is to see many people going into this new MSL journey un(der)prepared. I am not sure if it is a mindset, thinking one can wing it, or rather the unknown world outside academia that none of us were exposed to during our academic research and therefore not knowing what to expect in a pharma interview.

We see CVs that show no understanding of what it takes to be an MSL as the CVs often look like one is applying for a postdoc position. Then we hear people reach out to recruiters with really very limited understanding of the MSL role and how the pharmaceutical industry operates. It is therefore not uncommon to hear the phrase “you do not have any (MSL) industry experience and come back when you DO have that experience”. It really takes weeks and weeks to get yourself fully upskilled for the MSL role and get fully prepared for the MSL interview rounds. Even for a ‘simple’ discussion with a recruiter you HAVE to come fully prepared. And if you don’t, you have just burned your bridges with this recruiter who had access to MSL jobs at several companies. It takes time to get fully prepared but with proper training and coaching, a lot of hard work and dedication from the candidate, we have seen many PhDs get into an MSL role without any previous pharma experience.

Describe a typical day in your job?

My alarm will go off around 4:45 [Ed. Who needs an alarm, my five year old does that for me]. I go to the gym/swimming pool or squash court at 5:30 and be back in the car around 6:30 for a 30 minute drive to work and call with one of my candidates from either Australia, the US or Europe. I will arrive at work at 7am to start my day job. I leave around 4pm and on my way home in the car I am either talking to more candidates or talking to recruiters looking for MSL candidates. Then I come home, spend time with my family and work some more at night either doing emails, LinkedIn messaging, talking with business partners or having teleconferences with people we are collaborating with either in Australia or overseas.

What excites you about your area?

What excited me the most when I was an MSL was having hour-long in-depth scientific and clinical discussions with the doctor, where you were able to explain to the doctor the complex mode of action of your drug, followed by discussing potential trials to pursue with that drug in Australia or discuss clinical research project that the doctor had in mind with your drug. You feel you are so close to the clinical science and you are making an impact into translational research and patients’ lives right there on the spot.

As an MSL coach, I love to see my candidates grow over time. I see how they get a better understanding of the MSL role; they are getting better at selling their skills and strengths as a potential MSL; what they are learning from each interview round and their increasing confidence; and then finally I hear the joy in their voice when they have managed to secure an MSL position. That is just priceless.

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research assist you with a career in this area?

For the MSL role you need to have a strong scientific or clinical background and be able to quickly learn new and difficult topics and present them in easy to understand language to doctors (who might not be as scientifically strong as you). For instance, it is common during the second MSL interview rounds that they will give you a clinical/scientific paper to present, but only 24 hours to prepare. For one of my interviews they gave me just 45 minutes, a slide deck and a paper and off you go present. You have to be quick in getting up to speed on that particular topic, extract the right information and be able to present it in a clear and concise way to an audience and at the same time be ready for any difficult questions. Having done many journal club presentation during my PhD and postdoc really helped with this.

Finally, perseverance. As a PhD or postdoc, you have learnt to deal with setbacks. You learn to always get back up again. It is not a shame to fall, as long as you stand up quickly, brush yourself off and get ready for the next opportunity. Similarly, it is not easy to get into a MSL role, you will hear NO quite a few times. Just get back up again, upskill yourself even more and try again. You will get there eventually.

Any advice for EMCRs wishing to pursue a career in your area?

Come prepared to any interview! They pay you well, starting total packages range between $135,000 and $165,000!!! And there’s a reason for that. They are looking for the best, so make sure you are the best and come fully prepared!

[Ed. The NatureJobs blog recently tackled this very topic]

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