In the past, earning a PhD degree would typically lead to an academic position at a research institute or university. However, PhDs do not necessarily have to choose the path of academia and research. It’s high time that PhDs are provided with information about various career paths so they can make informed decisions about their future.
In this piece, Mathura Shanmugasundaram MS, PhD, a Medical Science Liaison at OneOme, describes her transition from academia to industry. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
SC: How did your journey as a scientist begin?
MS: That’s a difficult question. I think the most important thing we all have in common as scientists and researchers is that we believe in our dreams and do anything to pursue them. That’s essentially what paved my path. I was fortunate to get a good education in Singapore, where I grew up and where home is for me. This upbringing was instrumental in molding my interest and passion as a scientist. I have always been fascinated with biology, and genetics in particular. I was about seven years old when Dolly, the Sheep was cloned. This was science fiction to me then, and I thought that in the decades to follow the world would be filled with clones. I had found my calling—becoming a scientist, a geneticist. As I grew older, I took any opportunity that would expose me to scientific research. Even before I became an undergraduate, I was in a small lab in India working on micropropagation of tissues. When most of my friends were vacationing, I was wearing goggles and a lab coat. Those dreams led me to where I am today.
SC: And Singapore was the first step toward realizing your passion?
MS: I pursued my undergraduate honors degree in biomedical sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS). During that time, NUS ran the Special Programme in Science (SPS), which took about 30+ students each year from the science faculty and trained us in interdisciplinary sciences. My “vacation” lab work granted me entry into SPS. Through NUS and SPS, I voluntarily reached out and pursued various internships in different parts of the world. At the end of four years, I was fortunate to obtain training from institutions in the UK and Germany. (And of course, I visited Dolly on the first weekend upon my arrival in the UK). During my undergrad years, I spent time at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Freiburg, University of Nottingham (UK), and locally (A*Star and NUS).
My training taught me that great mentors are instrumental to anyone’s growth, especially scientists. I approached mentors and sought advice throughout my journey. I cannot stress enough how important it is to build a network of mentors and forge great relationships. Start reaching out to people now. I am sure you can connect with some who are willing to share their experiences and guide you. I applied to several PhD positions and met with a couple of my mentors to discuss each opportunity before deciding on a path to pursue.
SC: Paris became your next stop?
MS: Institut Pasteur, Paris was instrumental in shaping me for the next four years. I earned my doctorate in genetics and protein networks. I discussed my PhD options with several mentors. I will share a few pointers: 1) You need to love your research topic, 2) Forge great relationships with your team, and 3) Choose a PI who can be a great mentor. It is essential to be with a PI who encourages you, respects your ideas, and has time for you. If possible, visit the lab and the team before accepting any offer and have a good discussion with your PI and what they have in mind for you. It is crucial that you are both on the same page and that you love the environment. You are going to be there for years—you might as well enjoy it!
While earning my PhD, I took on leadership roles, attended and presented at various conferences, took any opportunity to learn and develop new research skills, and studied French. After those years in Paris, I had gained a new-found French family, learned a new language, and moved closer to my childhood dreams of studying science.
SC: How crucial was the post-PhD experience?
MS: I moved to the United States shortly after I defended my PhD. I contemplated the path of a traditional postdoc and spoke to my mentors and PI. They were very encouraging of any path I chose. I knew friends whose PIs and mentors were a little more traditional. If you are in such a situation, try to network and ask opinions of other seniors. It always helps to seek more advice. After much thought, I decided I wanted to be in a field that would allow me to translate my knowledge into a service that would be useful to people. Even though I had previous clinical research experience, I needed to shape it further. I wanted to be in a position that bridged traditional and clinical research. This motivated me to pursue the Global Clinical Scholars Research Training Program at Harvard Medical School. It is a rather intense blended learning program with in-person workshops and seminars on clinical research and epidemiology. It served as a great platform for networking with international clinicians and clinical scientists. I forged great friendships and met wonderful mentors!
SC: Now coming to your current job. What’s a Medical Science Liaison (MSL)?
MS: I first learned about the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role a year ago. I tried to learn everything I could about it — I read books and articles, saw webinars, joined local scientist associations, and sought mentors. I reached out to MSLs on LinkedIn, connected with them through mutual friends, and spoke to them at conferences. These efforts allowed me to understand the role much better and motivated me further. I am now a Medical Science Liaison at OneOme—a genetic diagnostic company. Exactly where I wanted to be. My main responsibilities include: 1) acting as a major scientific/medical resource for a product/disease state (genes and medications in my case), 2) presenting and communicating this information to key thought leaders (influential scientists, medical directors, physicians, etc.) and stakeholders, and, 3) relaying feedback from these healthcare providers to the medical affairs/management team. The MSL role traditionally involves a lot of travel, and I visit various thought leaders, present at hospitals, meet patient groups, and attend conferences and meetings. The MSL role is a very fulfilling job and one that allows me to still be a scientist at heart!
I should also mention that the role differs from company to company and quite a bit from small start-ups to larger pharma, but these are essentially the main responsibilities of an MSL.
SC: How smooth or difficult was your transition? How did you exploit existing resources?
MS: The preparation was tough but the transition itself wasn’t that difficult. As scientists, we already have extensive training in presentations, communication, and key opinion leader relationship building. I did use everything I had at my disposal to get as much knowledge as I could about the role of an MSL. I spoke with MSLs and Senior MSLs and learned about the interview processes, joined MSL associations to network, kept abreast of new pharma and biotech trends, and was constantly trying to find my best fit.
SC: What messages would you like to share with scientists who are considering becoming an MSL?
MS: The first thing you need to hear is that it’s certainly possible. People only told me how difficult and competitive it was/is. As scientists, we possess most of the transferable skills and experience necessary to be an MSL. Most MSLs hold doctorate degrees and possess very good communication and presentation skills, both are which are essential to perform the role well. Speaking and networking with MSLs are truly the best ways to learn more and clarify any questions you may have. Ask a MSL friend/mentor to look at your CV and make it more industry and position friendly. Be on the constant lookout for your ideal position and where you can really contribute. Also, realize that you are not leaving science by moving to biotech or pharma in fact, it is a chance for you to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Truly, one cannot exist without the other.
I have one last bit of advice. We all know what it takes to earn a PhD—years and years of hard work. Take a few minutes to think what it all sums up to. Don’t you want to be in a position that rightfully justifies those long nights and all that effort? Take the time to find the role that best suits you. It might involve investing a lot of time and might be a challenging road ahead but it will be worth it. Haven’t we all been trained for this?
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.
About the Author:
Sayantan is the Editor-in-Chief for the online blogging journal Club SciWri and Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As he grows, he’s looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. A geneticist by training, he is now exploring the realms of immunology as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH in Baltimore.