Date of seminar at Penn State: 3/28/16
HGSAC career seminar series: “My Path to Becoming a Medical Science Liaison: A Journey from Academia to Biotech to Pharma”
Meet Dr. Josh Yoder. He obtained a B.S. in biochemistry and molecular biology from Penn State in 2000. His former undergraduate advisor was Dr. Craig E. Cameron. After graduating from Penn State, Josh received a PhD. in virology from Harvard University in 2006.
Dr. Yoder has worked as a scientist with over 15 years of laboratory experience in academia and industry. In his career, he has worn many hats: he has worked as a developmental scientist at Thermalin Diabetes, LLC; he has been a Research Associate at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a postdoctoral research fellow at Penn State University; and he specialized in virology, biochemistry, biophysics, molecular biology, and insulin research during his time at the bench. Currently, he works as a medical science liaison at Sanofi Pasteur (pharmaceutical company).
On March 23, Dr. Yoder gave a compelling talk about his career as a medical science liaison. During his talk, he was a very outgoing and efficient communicator, which are key traits. You could tell he enjoys public speaking and communicating ideas to scientists as well as non-scientists, owing to his success as a medical science liaison.
While here, Dr. Yoder gave us some insights about his life, career, and how Penn State has impacted him. We asked him the following questions, and here are his responses–in his words:
- What’s your educational background? Is there anything specific that prepared you for your current career?
BS in BMB, Penn State University, 2000
PhD in Virology, Harvard University, 2006
The PhD is useful for my career as an MSL because it indicates an ability to learn advanced topics and function independently. The science aspect of the PhD is only half of what is most valuable though. The communication skills developed through my scientific training and other activities are at least as important, and likely more important, than my scientific background. One-on-one communication, group presentations, and written communication are all critical to my job function.
- What are your current roles/responsibilities? How have these changed over time?
As an MSL, my top priority is building and maintaining relationships with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in my field. I currently work with a vaccine company, Sanofi Pasteur, so the science was a natural fit, but the role is completely different than anything I’ve done in the past. I had been in research labs from the time I started working with Craig Cameron in the BMB department as an undergraduate research assistant in 1999 until I started this job in April of 2015. My role had been evolving from undergrad to grad student to postdoc and finally to a development scientist in a small biotech company, but each of those were more similar to one another than any of them is to my current position.
- Was this career path something you had always considered?
This is definitely not a career path I have always considered. I didn’t even know it existed until about two or three years ago. The first time I got a good description of the role was from the book “The Medical Science Liaison Career Guide: How to Break Into Your First Role” by Dr. Samuel Dyer. As I was reading the opening pages, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. It combined all of the elements of science that I enjoyed most. I think I always kind of thought I’d end up in industry as opposed to running an academic lab, but I also kind of thought it would be in research. I never really deeply explored alternative options to research, whether they were still related to science or not.
- What skills have made you and others in your field successful? Were there any unexpected skills that you needed to learn?
I think the most valuable skills in my current position are interpersonal skills. You need to be able to productively interact with a large number of people with a variety of backgrounds in training (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, researchers, public health, advocacy, marketing, sales, etc.), function (some people need basic information, some have opinions to share, some need training for speaking engagements, MSL colleagues, sales colleagues, Medical Affairs colleagues, etc.), and personality (almost anything you can imagine!). I don’t think anything in particular was unexpected once you know what this job entails, but there are certainly things that not all scientists are trained for or experienced with.
- What’s the most challenging part of your career?
Day to day, the most challenging part is consistently scheduling time with KOLs. They are very busy people and often have schedules full months ahead of time. Our geographies are large as well (mine is Western PA, OH, MI, and WV), which means we may have to meet people in locations that are quite distant from one another on consecutive days to make it work in their schedules. This can lead to other difficulties, including a good bit of travel. This can be positive, negative, or neutral depending on the person. My territory is most conducive to driving, which I don’t mind doing, so the travel does not bother me much, although I often drive over 1,000 miles per week. It could be an issue for others who have to fly more than me or who don’t want to drive so much. This can also lead to nights away from home. I typically don’t spend more than one or two nights away from home per week, which is manageable for my family. Obviously, this is a very subjective issue as well.
- How do you think your career will change in both the near and distant future?
Great question and one I wish I knew the answer to! I have been in this job for about a year so I don’t anticipate a big change in the near future. I enjoy what I do and still have plenty to learn about this role and other related functions in Medical Affairs. I do hope to learn more about what our Medical Affairs department does within our home office in Swiftwater, PA, so perhaps more interaction with them will be a near term change. I’m open to almost anything in the distant future. I think it will continue to be in science, but I could imagine being in Medical Affairs, R&D, moving into the business side, or doing something I haven’t even heard of yet!
- What can a young scientist do to position him or herself for a career as a Medical Science Liaison? Any tips on specific ways to network in the field?
I think the best thing to do for this field, or any other field, is get out and talk to people that are doing it. It is important in any field because it gives you a chance to learn from people that are doing it every day what it is like and how they got there. There may be some similarities, but every story will be unique in some way that you can relate to. You may also find that the position is not at all what you expected as far as day to day work, lifestyle, or what qualifications you need. It’s better to learn that early in the process and adjust as necessary. For MSLs specifically, this is a very important aspect since it is more or less what you do when you have the job anyway. When I was interviewing for my position, I asked my current manager what they were looking for aside from experience since I didn’t have any. The response I got was, “This!” They wanted to make sure a candidate could have a productive conversation with someone. Regarding how to network, I don’t think it’s any different from any other field. Use LinkedIn, Google, and especially the Penn State Alumni Network. You have a huge built-in network filled with people willing to help. Use it! Even people you don’t have a connection with on LinkedIn or other sites are often willing to talk and help. If you find someone that went to Penn State, you already have a connection even if you don’t know any people in common.
- After Sanofi Pasteur, where would you like to work?
My passion is improving public health, which aligns well with the vision of the company of a world in which no one suffers or dies from a vaccine-preventable disease. I don’t know that there is a place that is a better fit for what I want to do, so I certainly don’t have current plans to work for any other company. That said, I have no idea what the future holds, and if the right opportunity came up with another company, or if I saw a good opportunity to start a company of my own, I would certainly be open to it.
- How easy/difficult is it to balance work and personal/family life in your career?
It has been fairly easy for me to balance work and family life throughout my career, largely because I am very lucky to have a wife that worked in labs for many years as well and has always understood crazy and sometimes unpredictable schedules. I am also fortunate that she has the ability and desire to stay at home with our three children whenever I need to be away from home for work. This job also has a great deal of flexibility that allows me to adjust my schedule to facilitate both work and family obligations. Many jobs require a great deal of hard work and dedication that could easily sway the work-life balance into an area that may not work for many people. With some focus on how to approach both the work side and life side of that balance, and perhaps acceptable compromise on one or both sides, I think anyone can achieve the balance they need. It may not be easy, but it’s vital to success in both areas.
- What advice do you have, about anything, for current graduate students?
Don’t go to graduate school! Oh right, you are already current students… I think you really need to keep following your interests. People that do great things often find success by solving problems that are important to them either personally or because they think it will have a positive impact on the world. If you can identify something that is interesting and important to you, it will give you the motivation to work through hard problems when they arise. Think about what you are good at as well. Everyone has things they are good at, whether we know it or not. What do your friends and family ask you for help or advice with? If you can identify your strengths and match them with your interests, there is a good chance you will find an area where you will do well. If that area doesn’t exist, create it. Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you aren’t failing at something regularly, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. It doesn’t have to be complete failure, but push in new directions so you can always keep learning and developing. If you try something and really don’t enjoy it, stop and go in another direction. Don’t quit at any sign of adversity, but don’t get stuck in something you don’t enjoy just because it’s there. Keep looking. If you’ve made it this far, think any of this rambling advice is useful, and still haven’t found an answer to your question, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to try to help you in any way I can. Good luck in whatever each of you decides to do!