Dr. Martjin Bijker shares his journey into the pharmaceutical industry and how he became a career coach.
Martijn Bijker was born and raised in the Netherlands where he did both his Masters and PhD in immuno-oncology. In 2007 he moved to Sydney, Australia to start his postdoc at the Garvan Institute and 4 years later transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry where he consecutively worked as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL).
Nowadays Martijn is an entrepreneur, and his career and coaching company "from SCIENCE to PHARMA" helps many PhDs and Postdocs to prepare for a smooth transition from academia into the pharmaceutical industry and MSL positions.
Welcome to episode #49 of PhD Career Stories. My name is Jo Havemann and I have the pleasure of introducing Martijn Bijker today.
Martijn was born and raised in the Netherlands where he did both his Masters and PhD in immuno-oncology. In 2007 he moved to Sydney, Australia to start his postdoc at the Garvan Institute and 4 years later transitioned to the pharmaceutical industry where he consecutively worked as a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) with Abbott, AbbVie and Amgen.
He quickly realised that like him, many other PhD/Postdocs struggled to find good information to prepare themselves for the transition from academia into the pharmaceutical industry. This inspired Martijn to found his own career and coaching company.
And here he is, sharing with you his story:
Hello my name is Dr. Martin Bijker! I am the founder of the only Online medical science liaison training company in the world. Today I would like to share with you my story how I got to where I got, and what choices I made.
So just to go back all the way to my junior time. First I started chemistry. I did a bachelor in chemistry in Amsterdam. I really like chemistry and biology so I started chemistry. It was pretty full on, full of mathematics and physics and hardcore chemistry, so I enjoyed when a bit of more biology came in. I really enjoyed biochemistry and the molecular biology of that area. So I chose to do biochemistry as my masters.
So... in a masters you have to do a major and a minor; I choose to do actually three majors. My first major was molecular biology I really enjoyed it, I worked on yeast. But not so much disease related. I got to a class where it was a bit of immunology, which really got me interested so… Immunology is not given at the chemistry faculty so I had to go to the biology faculty and chase the professor to make me allowed to join that program. And until the day it started I was not allowed in but I pushed a bit harder and he allowed me in at immunology. I think it was the best choice ever. I really enjoyed immunology and I still do; in my job now I work on immunology.
During that training or doing the class I got interested in immuno-oncology, so how the immune system react to cancer. Based on that I did a second major in immuno-oncology. Or first in immunology and then immuno-oncology. I did an extra internship in immunology. I had always had a long-term dream since my high school to go to the US. I combined it to my second traineeship. They had contacts in the US and I was lucky enough that they were willing to send me over to the US. I went to San Diego De La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology. I worked on T-cells and and how the immune system works and that was really a good place for me to set a tone for my PhD.
The professor there in the United States actually used to do his postdoc in the Netherlands so I went back to the Netherlands to the same place actually where he did his postdoc. That was my Ph.D so actually interestingly I had a few Phd positions but I really liked the Immuno-oncology. That PhD position did not have the money yet so it took a while before they obtained the money and in the meantime I had to kind of… I said no to a few Immunology PhD positions, and probably the reason was at that time my mother had the recurrence of breast cancer and I always wanted to do immuno-oncology and how the immune system rejects cancer. At that time, having my mom getting recurrence of the cancer, really made me understand what I wanted to do and actually the job I wanted to have was cancer vaccines. And the other jobs were interesting but they were not in immuno- oncology; it was more immunology.
So I set my focus on my immuno-oncology PhD position. I rejected all the other ones I did not have a job yet at the place in Leiden. Luckily a few weeks later, maybe a month I think , they did eventually come back and said I could start so that was great. I did my PhD in… it was roughly almost five years…. Yes, five years I really enjoyed it, it was a good team and a good boss, several bosses, [who] worked on how cancer vaccines work and how they do not work and that was kind of my PhD.
A lot of vaccines they used for the wrong things, actually that was what I found in my PhD. They use the wrong combination of things and it looks like you have a good immune response but actually it does not last long. I was very compassionate about immuno-oncology and the how immune cells reject cancer vaccines and it was becoming a bit of a “hot topic” at that time. The Pharmaceuticals were working at the vaccines on immunocologie. so so I think it was at the right time… the right place and the right time in In my career.
So some of the questions... was I doubting about my career? Sometimes. I mean, everybody doubts about their career. I like what I was doing I was at the end of my PhD. It was interesting because I was thinking “should I do my postdoc or not?”. I was chatting to a... we had a meeting one day, it was a career coach and she said but you're so passionate went when we talk about your research you're so passionate so I don't know why you're doubting yourself. I think that was a sign of that I've reached my limit of research Or actually bench research. because I actually like to talk about, like most talking about science, the actual doing of the experiments. I was getting less interested in doing my PhD.
So I did a postdoc afterwards and actually it was interesting. When I was in the US my wife was there, still my girlfriend then. So my wife was there she did not want to stay in the US so she said “let us go home and let’s do the PhD in the Netherlands” and I said “great I'm happy to do that but make sure to remember that when I am finished with my PhD we will be going overseas again”. So two and a half years in we started to have this discussion “where are we going?”. She did not want to go overseas again. I said “yes we are going”, so we had a bit of a list. I said “let us go to the US” and she said “no I do not want to go there”. She wanted to go to Canada. “It is beautiful there” she said and I said “it is quite cold I do not like the cold”. Also partly it is French, French speaking, and my French is not that good so then the other options… I actually wanted to go to an English-speaking country. So the UK is the other option which is across the channel From the Netherlands so I said “It is so close and to wet”.
So we had two other options which was New Zealand and Australia. Actually it was a conference in New Zealand that year, The Australasian Society of Immunology in 2006, so I went there. I did a bit of a presentation there and I had a discussion with some people there a bit of a postdoc tour. New Zealand... There is not a lot of research of what I wanted to do so that was not anything I could find there. I had set a few meetings in Melbourne. Because a lot of the research at The WEHI Institute there was of interest to me. That did not work out.
I did manage to book some last-minute flights to Sydney to meeting people I saw and was speaking with at the conference in New Zealand so I had a meeting there. It looked alright and I decided to go to Sydney. So a year later I when I finished my Ph.D, had my defense and published several papers and started my postdoc in Australia, at the other end of the globe. So it was a bit challenging and interesting as well, going so far away. The research was more about autoimmune disease so I kind of flipped the coin of immuno-oncology. So if you get too little immune response you don't get rejection of your tumor, if you have too much you might get autoimmune disease. So I thought it was a nice complement of my skill sets.
So when I started it was not a great project. I think it was what I thought it was there was not there, let us call it like that. There was a bit of a struggle, quite a bit of a struggle. I did not enjoy my job for a long time. I changed professors within the Institute that was not actually associated with the projects because the first professor left, and it didn't work out well either. So I was really depressed at the end. My wife did not enjoy me; I was complaining constantly about my work and when I got home in the weekend and in the morning so she just tried to encourage me to find something else. I did not want to leave because I thought that it was time well invested, but at that time two and a half... the first two years, the first three years of your research... It feels like your baby; you have invested so much time in it. You do not want to let it go and cannot take it with you and go somewhere else.
So that was a bit of a challenge for me, so I wanted to stay but it was not a good place to stay. So actually one day, she [my wife] sent me a job description of “medical science liaison”, she was working at pharma at the time, and she said “honey, maybe this is something of interest to you”. I was looking at the job description and it sounded really interesting “what is this all about?”. And I said “yeah, it sounds great” and I wanted to know a bit more of what it actually is, other what that it says there in the job description.
The one thing it was, it said “80 percent travel”, a medical science liaison, also called MSL, has a bit of a travel component there, so that was a bit putting me of. “Just call them up and see how it goes, maybe it is something in there…” In a year or two years time, I put it to rest, it was somewhere in my email box…
A while later, I think maybe, was it seven, eight months later…? We had a career day at the institute and I remembered what a gentleman told me, or told all of us, that you should really have a Plan B. Because only when you have a good Plan B, you can go full ahead with your Plan A. You can take all the risk and taking all the risk because you have a Plan B, can get you to great heights. You take all the risk and you might get your Nature paper, or your Science Paper, or whatever, and you get there. If you do not get there, you do not have to worry, because you have a good Plan B, as a backup. So I was a bit of struggling that day “shall I go… Which one shall I make my Plan A and my Plan B?”. So actually, on that day I said “I am going to try again. My Plan A is going to stay in academia, I am gonna make it work there. My Plan B is going to be to become an MSL.” Not long after it, I thought “I am going to switch my Plan B, it is going to become my plan A. I am going to be a Medical Science Liaison” and I was heading for it. And I think it was probably the best decision I ever made.
So what was it that really caught me in that job description that my wife sent? And it was the following; it [the advert] said “do you have a pivotal role in educating influential clinicians and key opinion leaders. So, I like talking to people. It also said “includes standing up in front of the sales marketing teams to provide their particulate area training”. I mean, I quite enjoyed presenting and talking to people, and giving presentations, so it was a good thing for me. “You will be involved in advisory board meetings, a key player in development and clinical trial meetings”, and interestingly I had always wanted to become a part of an advisory board myself, but more as a professor. I always wanted to become a professor myself, and be part of the advisory board and give advice to a company. But in this function, it was the opposite side, I was part of the advisory board as a… Someone who get the advisors together. And, yes, did the travel. And again, so that was the MSL job.
At that time there was, around 2010 or 2011, there was not a lot known of MSL jobs.There was little things you could find on the internet, there was not a lot of people who had the job, not a lot of people knew about the job. So that was kind of the challenge to actually move into a job that you do not know what it is all about. So what I did to prepare, I went on the internet and looked on LinkedIn, there were a lot of forums there. I joined the forums, emailed people on LinkedIn, read books, bought books, looked in Wikipedia, and really, really prepared very well. Interview questions, everything you can think of. One recruiter saw a potential in me and put me forward to a company, and actually pretty quickly, I had my first job.
My first job was at Abbott, I was working in gastroenterology, an autoimmune disease of the bowl, small and large intestine. Great job, great managers and I enjoyed the team. It was a good team spirit there as well, within pharma, so everyone working on one common goal and that is to get better patient care, more benefit for the patient and making the disease a less burden to the patient. So, that was a great common goal to have compared to academia where I was used to kind of work on your own. Also a nice thing, was that I actually felt much more appreciated in pharma. I remember something, when I did something nice or did some overview or something, and they really liked it and they gave me a $150 voucher, just to a little reward that I did something great. And I thought “but you pay for me, you pay for my salary, right?” “Yeah, yeah, but this is something else. You did above and beyond something that we would not normally ask for.” And I said “great, that is a great place to be in”.
So I enjoyed that job really a lot. I did move to another company, I moved to AmGen later on, I worked a lot there on phase one, two and three-trials. I also had products that were already in the market, so there was a great overview of how the product life cycle of a drug really worked. And how you can be involved as an MSL and having those great discussions with the doctor.
So, just to talk about bit more on that. So, not a lot of people do understand what an MSL job is, or what you do. And it is really depending on what kind of drug you work on, what is your therapeutic area, where the drug is in its product life cycle - early, mid or late stage. But in general, you are seen as the therapeutic area expert, so they often want you to have a scientific degree, could be a Masters a lot of companies, a lot of countries, they want you to have a terminal D degree, like a PhD, or PharmD, or an MD or a Doctor of Nursing, so having that high level scientific medical clinical background.
So your the disease area expert, so you will have peer-to-peer discussions with the key opinion leaders, “KOL” that they also call, it and these are the top leaders in the field in which you’re working. You might be working in hematology, so you're working with the hematologist that could be head of departments, and it could be a running clinical trials, then you might be talking to a head of pharmacies, really that top-notch people that are top leaders in the field in your country but also outside that - they are international experts. What you like to do is try to connect with them via science, you use papers, conference abstracts to having high-level discussions with them.
It works a bit two-way: one it's sharing what's new in your clinical data, in your drug pipeline, but at the same time is, when you have those discussion, you're trying to understand if what you've done in your clinical trials is actually real-life, I mean, how does it work for the doctor, are these patient in the clinical trial representative for the cohort of patient that he or she has in the clinic, are the response rates similar or the side effects similar, are the side effects worrying for the doctor or is it just very easy to do. I mean, neutropenia for hematologists - it's like with low levels of neutrophils you can get more infections - it's very easy to manage but for another indication or another therapeutic area that might be challenging and scary.
So you're trying to understand these doctors, what they think of your data, of the landscape, how your drug will fit into the current disease landscape or current treatment landscape: you might have two or three drugs already on the market, and you will be fourth one. Will your be better, less side effects, more side effect, or more manageable side effects, better response rate or is it only a different route of administration, which makes it easier, say, from infusions to subcutaneous injection or, maybe, a weekly pill? Those are things you try to understand, while you have this discussion with the doctor: how that really works and how that will help, influence, and change their that practice. Because those things you want to get back to your company and share that with your internal stakeholders, your colleagues, to better understand where your drug fits in and how you can position your drug so that the doctors have the best options for the patient and the patient have the best disease management. So that's a bit about the job.
A lot of people ask me also what's the career progression of an MSL. It, I would say, depends a bit where you live, which country. If you are close to the head office it's often easier to grow internally into the company and have some more senior jobs within the company. If you're far away and, I mean, really far away from the head office, for instance, you work in California and the company is in New Jersey or New York, or on the other side of the country, in order to grow your career, you, probably, have to move to the head office.
But in general, in MSL after a few years, you can become a senior MSL, so for instance, in the US you have a lot of people who have career MSLs, they don't want to move to the head office, they stay in the territory where they are, so they are the rest of their lives MSL: well paid salary, well-paid job, great interaction with doctors and so they enjoy.
If you want to grow a bit, and we call it “medical affairs” for the medical department, the next step you can take is becoming a medical advisor or medical manager - depends a bit on the country what they call it. But it's a more strategic rule, so you're more in the office, more working with the internal stakeholders: regulatory affairs department, health economics, pricing, marketing sales, supply chain, clinical trials - that's what you do when you're getting more into the office as a medical manager / medical advisor. You can become a senior medical advisor, a social medical director and medical director. So those are a few things that you can grow within the company, like vertically within the medical department.
If you want to grow horizontally in other departments, I've seen people go into commercial sales, medical health economics, like working with the government to get your drug reimbursed and paid by the government, business development. I've seen people moving internationally to the regional office or the head office, and the international head office. It can be either in the medical departments or the commercial department, so quite a few options for your career to grow after your MSL role.
From that when I was an MSL, I started my MSL-training company, and the reason I started that because a lot of people asked me how did I manage to get into the MSL job. The MSL job often in the advertisement asks people to have two years experience, and so it's a bit of a catch-22 - how do you get experience if you can't get the job. People ask me how did I manage to get in without MSL experience, it was in 2011.
So I had a lot of chats with people, coffees, launches, I had phone calls with them, and I tried to help them and several were successful transitioning in. When I was only a few years MSL, I was doing my MBA or, I think, it was a year of my MBA. I had back surgery, so I was out for seven weeks, and my brain started to think what can I do - can I make a training company out of that?
And that's what I did - I started to prepare trainings, started to register my company and that's what I did. I started the company, I started training one person, one-to-one, I still remember that very vividly, it was at the MBA place, I just rented a room and had the one-to-one training for a few hours, and then I did another one over Skype, and then had a few people face-to-face, and then people wanted to join from different states and different countries. Before I knew that, I was running webinar for 10, 15, 20 people at the time, and then I thought if it takes a lot of time out of my daily schedule doing all those webinars for hours, so then I decided to work with a friend of mine and to put this thing online.
So we have a fully online medical science liaison training platform plus for now we're the only one in the world. That's where we try to train and coach people. The nice thing is you don't have to take a day off, you don't have to travel, you don't have to fly somewhere to attend a meeting - it's just online you can just dial-in, you have to have internet - that's the only thing you have to have,you have an iPad, iPhone, computer, and you can watch in the comfort of your chair, couch, in the train, in the bus, and do the training. That is, I think, our unique value proposition of our training.
We also provide a lot of coaching. So we do see that people who get coached by us and to get them ready for the interview rounds, do a lot lot better and they manage to get to an MSL job a lot faster.
So a few tips and tricks for aspiring MSL candidates.
First is, you probably have to have a terminal degree - PhD or postdoc, MD, PharmD - but do check it in your country. Some countries are different: I know, Netherlands - I'm originally from the Netherlands - they allow a lot of Masters of Science set to become an MSL as well, so definitely possible.
Skill set: you should like and really enjoy science or reading science, you should not be afraid of working with people or presenting, or standing up for a room, or walking up a professor at a conference. And you should be able to work with a lot of different kind of people, you should be able to draw different people in and work with different people, and different kind of people - because sales people might be different than regulatory affairs people, might be different one doctor versus the other doctor, versus the professor, versus the nurse, versus the pharmacist. You have to have the ability to quickly adjust yourself and your story to different people.
So some other things I would really recommend. We see a lot of people with we call it the MTCV syndrome: they've done a lot of research and more research, and papers, and presentations but - that is great, you can see that you're a good scientist - but what else do you have? Make sure you do other things. If you have time doing some extra courses, uni courses, could be about commerce, or business, or marketing, or medical writing - those things might help you to build up your CV a bit.
Doing committee work, being involved in organizing things, conferences, journal clubs, presentation - that that shows that you have that ability to connect with people, arrange things and organize things and that's what you do as an MSL as well. You sometimes have conferences, congresses that you have to organize and work with the speaker, so if you've done them before in your career that's a good thing to do.
If you can focus your research more on clinical research - working with doctors and hospitals, building a network of doctors / key opinion leaders - that's good to have because once you start as an MSL, they would love to have you have a network of clinicians that you can already start working with, so that you can leverage on. That's a good point to have.
Your papers and presentation don't really matter so much. I mean, if you have one or ten - it doesn't really matter. It's a nice but don't focus too much on your papers and presentations. Actually, I’d put the papers almost last on my CV, and if you have twenty you only pick the five most relevant so don't show off your papers. I know, you're proud of it but for an MSL job it doesn't really matter so much.
A lot of CVs we see, we review are not ready, not industry ready. If you see it, it looks like someone is applying to a postdoc position - it's full of techniques, it's full of research. Things that you've done in the past don't get you the next job. You have to switch things - that you can do PCR, western blotting and flow cytometry and...I don’t know whatever ... it's not important, those things have to be removed from the CV because it looks like you're still stuck in your old job as a PhD or a postdoc. You have to think about the next job, what's the next job? What have I done in the past that I can leverage in my new job that's kind of similar? Not the research things. In general yes but more disease level, less so the techniques.
Who to work with. I mean, definitely don't start talking to recruiters if you're not fully ready, so make sure you're fully ready for the interview. Don't have a chat with a recruiter, make sure you're ready to do an on-the-spot interview, you know about the MSL job, you know why you want it, why you would be good, what does it entail, who you work with, why you do things as an MSL, make sure you come prepared. Because the recruiters they get so many questions from people that they have to sift through the good ones and the bad ones. If you come unprepared, you're probably the one getting on the on the pile of “Reject” or the CV gets rejected, so make sure you come really prepared. That's what we help our candidates with.
Interview rounds are tough, my interviews for postdoc was very easy - just a chat with the professor, few questions and then was “When can you start”, “Can you write a grant”, “Good, see you next year”.
In pharma it's different you have two, three, four, sometimes five rounds of interviews with different people, with HR, with sales, commercial, you have to present, they put you through the ring with presentation. Sometimes they'll give you 24 hours for a presentation. I once a had - I come to the office, and they said “Here is a paper and a computer with the slide deck or deal on the PowerPoint, and you have 45 minutes to prepare to give a 50-minute presentation.”
So, yeah, they put the bar high because they want to have the best, and because they want have the best, they often pay pretty good. Some companies it's like three times a post-doc salary, and if you're on a PhD stipend, it's several times your PhD stipend, so five-six times sometimes. So yes, they put the bar high but that's for a reason because they want to have the best of the best.
So that's a bit in short the MSL job, my career changes, and and some tips. If you want to read more about the MSL role, we've written quite a few blogs so far. One thing I really like, the blog is Nature Career blogs and it's called “The changing landscape of Pharma: a new route for PhDs?”. We're also working with IgeaHub, so if you google “medical science liaison “all you need to know”” or “medical science liaison “why pharmacists make a good MSL candidate”” - those are some good starting points to start reading about the MSL career.
Thank you for listening! If you want to reach out to us please do so: on LinkedIn it would be Martijn B, our email address would be [email protected] or our website where you can find all our training and global jobs will be http://www.fromsciencetopharma.com/.
Thank you for listening and look forward to hearing from you!
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