Written by Celina Liu
“If I had to give one advice, it would be make sure you clearly, truly, absolutely understand what an MSL does before you apply.” – Dr. Kangbin Zhou
Understanding how to transition from graduate school to an industry career can be tricky and the trajectory may not be a linear or direct path. Such was the case for Dr. Kangbin Zhou, currently a medical science liaison (MSL) at Novo Nordisk Canada. MSLs are scientific specialists, who are responsible for building and maintaining client relationships with physicians. They are hired by a company to ensure that their products are used effectively. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Zhou about his post-PhD path to becoming an MSL at Novo Nordisk Canada.
Please give us a little background about yourself.
My name is Kangbin “Odin” Zhou (“Odin” is my dance codename for those who have known me from the Latin dance scene). After finishing high school in China, I traveled across the ocean to the other side of the world as an international student. I completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Pharmacology at University of British Columbia (UBC) and finally learned that “what’s up” doesn’t mean, “what is up there”. I continued my quest in science by enrolling in a Master of Science program in Pharmaceutical Sciences while I began my dance training in salsa in a local Latin dance school in Vancouver. My friends used to joke about me becoming a Master of Science and dancing salsa. My passion for pharmacology landed me a 5-year international student scholarship (Connaught International Scholarship) at the University of Toronto. Because of that, I moved to Toronto for my PhD training and picked up hip hop dance as my new direction of dance training. I was rewarded the inaugural Romet Award for academic excellence while pursuing the art of dance after founding “Urban Dance Revolution” and creating the first tri-campus urban dance competition. A few months after completing my PhD degree with a specialization in clinical cardiovascular pharmacology, I landed the position of a medical science liaison with Novo Nordisk Canada, the biggest manufacturer of insulin in the world.
What was your path to becoming a MSL?
My path to becoming an MSL was very convoluted. I started applying for MSL positions six months before my foreseeable PhD defense. I did not get any interviews even two months after my PhD convocation. During that time, I applied for pharmaceutical sales rep positions based on advice from my mentors, some of whom had worked as reps before becoming MSLs. I did not have luck in that. I tried to apply to clinical research positions that were directly related to what I was doing in my PhD. No luck in that either. Last summer, I landed a part-time position as a biomedical content curator/consultant in Meta, an organization under the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, followed by another part-time position as a medical writer for Integrated MedHealth Communications while I was helping out as a post-doc fellow in my PhD lab. At the 2018 LSCDS Career Day, I connected with AstraZeneca’s VP Business, who later introduced me to the director of their cardiometabolic renal division and offered me an interview opportunity. Through meeting and chatting with the medical sales reps at the Canadian Cardiovascular Conference, I got a chance to meet one of their MSLs, who introduced me to their manager and later interviewed me. Strangely and interestingly, I landed the interview with Novo Nordisk via just applying online. After many rounds of interviews, I received two offers and accepted the MSL position at Novo Nordisk Canada.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no typical day for me because I cover the largest geographical region of the country, from British Columbia to Manitoba. On one day, I can be waking up in my own bed in Richmond and getting ready to drive into downtown Vancouver to meet with a specialist physician. On other days, I can be presenting a scientific update in front of a room full of physicians in the evening and going back to a hotel room in Calgary. Some days, I fly to Regina, go straight to meet a physician in a clinic, come back to the airport, and then fly back home to Vancouver. Sometimes, I can be just chilling and reading scientific papers at a Starbucks while waiting for my next appointment. Meeting physicians and building/maintaining good relationships are the main parts of my job, hence the name “medical science liaison”. These are what we call “field days”. Sometimes (not very often), I stay in my home office (MSLs are field agents like 007 and have no office) to do some administrative work and study papers. Teleconferences are our primary mode of communication with our colleagues in the field and at the head office. Although I try to stay home for conferences most of the time, you might see me in an airport or in a corner of a hospital or clinic with my headphones on, whispering into my microphone.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career as a MSL?
My advice would be to holler at me on LinkedIn and have a chat with me! It is very difficult for me to give general advice. I prefer to know your background, experience and personality before I give out specific suggestions to each person. Landing a position as an MSL really leverages every relevant experience someone might have. For me, it was my dance experience that made me stand out as an interesting person, my background in cardiovascular science, my interactions with the clinicians, etc. Although the positions I applied all required “over 3 years of industry experience and/or MSL experience”, I landed two offers without having any such experience. If I had to give one advice, it would be to make sure you clearly, truly, absolutely understand what an MSL does before you apply because it is a competitive field in which you have to love working. Cold calling people on LinkedIn and networking with people from the industry can help you achieve that!
Although MSLs may have different job titles such as medical or clinical liaisons, landing a job in this field requires extensive training, a dedication to keep up with the latest scientific advancements, strong communications skills, and a little bit of luck. If you are interested in pursuing a career as an MSL, LSCDS hosts mini-networking nights in medical affairs. To see a list of LSCDS’ past and upcoming events, visit https://www.lscds.org/events/mini-networking-series/.