Dr. Aoife O Dwyer shares with us her story about why she almost quit her PhD and where she found the motivation to stay. She holds a PhD in Immunology and is the founder of MSL Consultant which helps PhD graduates transition from academia to industry.
Aoife O Dwyer was born and raised in Ireland where she did an undergraduate degree in Genetics and Cell Biology, followed by a PhD in Immunology.
Two weeks after finishing her PhD, Aoife moved to Melbourne, Australia in search of her first Medical Science Liaison job.
Today, Aoife still works full time as a Senior Medical Science Liaison in Melbourne, Australia. In 2018, Aoife published “Medical Science Liaison – The Ultimate Step by Step Guide” and founded MSL Consultant to help PhD graduates transition from academia to a medical science liaison position in the pharmaceutical industry.
In this podcast, Aoife tells about why she almost quit her PhD and where she found the motivation to stay and finish it. She also shares with the listeners what challenges she encountered on her first MSL position.
Hi and welcome to PhD Career Stories, a podcast for people interested in career opportunities after their PhD. My name is Michele Manzo and I am your host today. I am co-founder of this podcast and I support the team behind this podcast working as producer and project manager. Today, we will listen to the story of doctor Aoife O Dwyer, born and raised in Ireland, where she also did an undergraduate degree in Genetics and Cell Biology. After that she started her PhD in Immunology and straight after she was awarded her PhD, she moved to Melbourne, Australia in search of her first Medical Science Liaison job.
Aoife was successful in her venture in Australia, since today she is working as Senior Medical Science Liaison in Melbourne, and in 2018, she published “Medical Science Liaison – The Ultimate Step by Step Guide”. She also founded MSL Consultant in order to help PhD graduates to transition from academia to the medical science liaison position in the pharmaceutical industry.
We are very glad to have you with us today, Aoife. Welcome to PhD Career Stories!
Hello, my name is Aoife O Dwyer and I am the author of “Medical Science Liaison – The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide”. I am the founder of an organization called MSL Consultant, which provides expert advice to help PhD graduates to get a job as a medical science liaison, and I’m also a full-time senior medical science liaison based in Melbourne, Australia.
Today I’m going to talk you through my story and some of the choices I’ve made throughout the years that have led me to where I am today. So if we go back to school, I really loved biology in school and had a great teacher and I just found it really interesting. So, because of that when the time came to choose a degree I looked for the most biology focused degree that I could and my research brought me to an undergraduate degree called Genetics and Cell biology in Dublin City University.
I started my undergrad degree in Genetics and Cell Biology in 2007. It was a four-year degree, with general science in first year. I really struggled with chemistry in first-year, which is something that hasn’t changed much at all. I’m still absolutely rubbish at chemistry. However, after 1st year is over the rest of my degree was pretty biology focused and I really enjoyed it and it was interesting and I thought college and university life was a lot of fun. I particularly enjoyed immunology in terms of lectures and then really enjoyed lab work as well as being at the bench. I thought working at the bench was just fun and more interesting than sitting in lectures, reading clinical papers. And so because I enjoyed lab work I thought when I finished that it would be good to continue to work in a lab.
I was particularly interested in working for the pharmaceutical industry. I thought maybe as a QC analyst. I had done a six-month placement when I was in 3rd year of university and that was a kind of a QC analyst role and it was pretty interesting. Because you work in the lab, the day went really quickly, so I thought, that would be good to give it a go.
When I finished university though, it was 2011 in Ireland and there was a really big recession. So getting a job was not as easy as I thought it would be at all. When I finished uni, I applied for lots of different jobs and didn’t hear back. People didn’t seem to really care that I had six months experience, because there were people, who with much more experience and better experience that weren’t able to get jobs, because there just wasn’t that many jobs around in the pharma industry. So I eventually then broadened the net a little bit and I applied for a research assistant position that came up at a university in Dublin. And I started that research assistant position, so it was a one-year contract position and it was investigating therapeutic targets for inflammatory bowel disease. So it had quite an Immunology focus, which I really enjoyed.
My boss was absolutely lovely and I had a lot of good friends in the lab. So I was quite enjoying the work. I didn’t really know what I was going to do when the contract ended. And about six months into my contract my boss called me into his office and he said he just got funding for a PhD and asked if I would be interested. I wasn’t entirely sure, so I took some time to think about it and I spoke to a lot of different people. I remember one friend in particular who kind of said: “well look, if you don’t take this you don’t know where you’re going to get your next job, and there still aren’t that many jobs available and at least you know you will have a little bit of money coming in and you are working towards something like a PhD, which is obviously such a high qualification over the next couple year”. I had two other friends doing PhD as well, even though they were quite stressed at times, they did seem to be pretty happy with their decision to do a PhD.
So I started my 4-year PhD and for the first year-and-a-half, it went well. I was continuing on from the work that I was doing when I was a research assistant and because of that I already had some results and I was motivated to get more results. I’ve already learned a lot of different techniques in the lab so I was able to kind of hit the ground running, which was good.
But, I remember about a year-and-a-half into my PhD, things really started to change and I wasn’t enjoying it that much anymore. I remember, in particular, there was one bank holiday, a public holiday that I went into the lab because I really wanted to get this experiment done, because I was really looking for additional results to submit to an abstract I had an upcoming talk with. There was a little bit of pressure on me to get some extra results. So I went into the lab on this public holiday and I was the only person in the lab. I went into tissue culture room, treated my cells to extract RNA and I made my cDNA and I put on a qPCR reaction and then went back to my computer and I did a bit of reading. About half an hour later, I went back to check the qPCR reaction, expecting to see all my beautiful results up on the computer screen from my qPCR but there was absolutely nothing because something, somewhere had gone wrong in the experiment. So there was no amplification of the target gene, and there was nothing but primers. I didn’t get any results. I might as well have spent that day in bed because I had literally nothing to show for it and I just remember feeling incredibly frustrated and disheartened.
Then on my way home from the lab, I got a call from one of my best friends who was travelling around South America at the time. She was telling me about all the people she was meeting, all the places she was travelling to, how she was learning Spanish, all the places she was going to travel to, said that the weather was gorgeous. And I just felt that my PhD was the wrong decision for me and that I was wasting my early 20s being stuck in a research lab when I could be off gallivanting across the globe. Another thing that happened around this time is that I was talking to some of the postdocs in my lab and I initially had my head when I started my PhD that if I did my PhD and then if I get a postdoc position or any other position that I would get after my PhD, it would be kind of well-paid position with good hours. And that was something that was quite important to me because financial stability is something that’s important to me. I kind of thought if I am going to spend four years doing PhD at the end of it I do when I come out with a good job.
However, when I was talking to a lot of the post-docs in my lab they kind of told me that even when you get a postdoc position, particularly in Ireland this may vary from country to country, the salary isn’t huge and also you’ll never get a permanent position. It’s mostly two or three-year contracts, as your work is dependent on either you or your supervisor bringing in grants and extra research money. From one of the postdoc I spoke to, she said she found it difficult to get a mortgage because she was only on a contract position. So I was listening to all this and
I kind of thought, what am I doing a PhD? This isn’t something that seems worth it at all! So I organized a meeting with my boss and I showed him some results from experiments that I did and he was like, looks good, do X, Y and Z. I was like cool, I will do that. And then he was like, anything else? Oh yes, I would like to quit my PhD. He was incredibly taken aback, and he kind of asked me why and I told him the reason that I become frustrated, I feel like I’m not getting enough results and I haven’t made much progress and I don’t want a postdoc and if I don’t want to post-doc, then what’s the points in doing a PhD.
And he said: “look, you don’t have to do a postdoc if you do a PhD. I have friends I did my PhD with, who have different types of jobs now”. And I was like “OK well what kind of jobs?”. So he introduced me to a friend of his who did a PhD and then went on to become a medical science liaison, which is the first time that I really heard about the role. And so I spoke to this lady on the phone and she was absolutely lovely. She really said “I understand why you want to quit. Everybody wants to quit a PhD at some stage. It really is a test of your resilience; who stays going”.
And she told me about her job as a MSL, or a medical science liaison, how she got to speak to different key opinion leaders, people who are experts in their fields, clinicians and researchers, and just discuss different clinical papers with them. How she’d do different presentations: sometimes she’d organised for groups of these key opinion leaders to come together as part of an advisory board, and the pharmaceutical company would ask different questions and their thoughts on the data and what clinical trials they should run. And it sounded really interesting. And her kind of fleeting words were; her last words to me were, you know, “in the grand scheme of things you only have two and a half years left on your PhD and then you’ll have your PhD for the rest of your life. So don’t quit because you never know what kind of career you might want to do. But one thing is for sure: your PhD you will always stand to you no matter what you do after your PhD”.
So I went back to my boss and I said “OK I’m not going to quit my PhD”. And he looked incredibly relieved, but then I said to him “I want to finish it in three years not four”. So if I finished in three years it means I would have 1.5 years left and to me that was doable. But I just told him, if I have two and a half years left until I finish I just I can’t do it. I don’t have the motivation to spend the next two and a half years doing this.
So he reluctantly agreed to let me finish my PhD in a year and a half, which makes it kind of approximately a three year PhD. Now in order to finish it in a year and a half I had to make it worthwhile to my boss, so I said “right, look these are the publications that I plan to get out. These are the experiments I need to do. These are the conferences I’m going to present at”. So everything was in place and I just had to do it. Then I was exceptionally motivated to finish my PhD in the next 1.5 years, particularly the last six months. I worked absolutely crazy hours to get everything done. I’d have numerous different experiments running at the same time, but I didn’t care because it was my choice to do that. I knew at the end of it, I’d have my PhD, and then I’d have the freedom to choose a different type of job.
And I decided when I finished my PhD, or even before I finished, that I was gonna move to Australia. There’s a couple of different reasons that I wanted to move to Australia. Number one was that I was really sick of the weather in Ireland. It rains a lot and it’s very cold and I wanted a bit of a change. I had been living in Dublin for the past eight years. So again I just kind of wanted to see something a bit different. I wanted to move to a country, where they spoke English as their first language because it would obviously make it much easier to get a job. I’d spent a couple of summers in the States so I felt like I’d seen a lot of America and was ready to see something new. And I’ve known a lot of people who’d moved to Australia and just really liked it. So I ended up booking a one-way ticket to Melbourne and that was in 2015. And when I arrived I started to apply for medical science liaison jobs, based on the conversation I had had earlier with my bosses friend who was an MSL. I did some of some of my own research and I thought OK this sounds like it’s something that would suit my personality. I do like talking to people, I do like reading and discussing clinical data, I quite enjoy presenting, and as an MSL you should also have what they call a strong commercial acumen and I’d always considered myself quite business minded. So it really did appeal to me on lots of different levels.
And so I started applying for various MSL roles in Melbourne and I wasn’t getting much luck at all. One of the biggest challenges that I faced is that I didn’t have any prior MSL experience. So once I was up against an MSL who had prior experience, my chances were quite limited. And I did at one stage consider applying for postdoc jobs because I was really enjoying Australia and I wanted to stay. But I talked myself out of that because I knew I didn’t want to work in academia. So for me, there was no point doing a postdoc, if I knew I really wanted to try out the MSL job.
So eventually I stuck with it and I got my first MSL job about three or four months after I arrived in Australia. And that was with Glaxo Smith Kline – GSK. There were a lot of different challenges when I first started my MSL job. One of the first things I realised, which I hadn’t realised before, is that everyone in the pharmaceutical industry speaks in abbreviations and for a lot of my first couple of weeks I didn’t have a clue what people were saying.
So for example about two weeks into my job I got an email from my boss and in the subject of the email it just said “W F H tomorrow E O M” and when I clicked into the email there was nothing in the subject box or in the body of the email. So I turned to one of my colleagues and I said “what does this mean”. My colleague was like “oh it just means she’s working from home tomorrow and it’s the end of the message” and I was like “Oh”.
So it was an incredibly steep learning curve for me, not just because of the language that people use in the pharmaceutical environment. I had to quickly learn about a new therapeutic area, and also I had to be the person who didn’t know anything. At the end of your PhD, when you’ve been in the same lab for a couple of years, you are the expert. You know how to get Western blots to work, you know where the autoclave tape is stored. You know how to work on that dodgy computer in the back of the lab you sometimes have to use to read ELISAs. You’re the person that people come to when they have questions and you’re able to kind of mentor and help your colleagues.
Now, I was in a completely new role and I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Because a lot of MSL job was in a lot of different companies and I’ve worked for three different companies as an MSL. They don’t have a very defined MSL training program so you do have to find your feet on your own a lot. And ask a lot of questions to figure out exactly what it is you need to be doing and how you should do that. I was quite lucky that I had an excellent mentor in my first MSL job, who’s still a good friend to this day. And I was able to ask her all my questions and I would sit her down at the start of every week and I would just go through a list of questions I had about things that I had heard in meetings or things that I had read in emails, and I just needed clarification.
So yeah, once I got that I did really start to enjoy the MSL role. Being new to Australia, one of the great perks of the job, is that you get to travel a lot. So for me I was able to go on day trips and overnight trips to Sydney and Brisbane and Perth and Adelaide. So I was able to see a lot of Australia, and with my company paying for it, which was a huge perk to me. I really enjoyed the conversations I had with doctors when I got more confidence about the clinical data I was discussing. I just had some really great robust scientific discussions. Yeah, so all in all, moving to Australia and getting my MSL job was a great experience. But also continuing my PhD was also definitely the right decision for me. If you have any further questions about my history and my career to date, please feel free to get in touch via mslconsultant.com. Thank you!
Thank you for listening to yet another episode of PhD Career Stories. Do you know anybody who’s story will be interesting to be shared in our channels or do you want to contribute yourself to our podcast? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Spotify, iTunes and so on. Thank you for listening! Bye!