David Crosby urges young scientists to take real advantage of the mentorship opportunities that abound everywhere.
After completing a PhD at the University of California, Irvine and a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, David Crosby found job satisfaction teaching health care providers the latest information about hepatitis therapies. Here he describes how he founds this career, and the connections to land his first position.
Read more about David’s career transition here.
What’s the difference between medical science liaisons (MSL) and pharmaceutical sales reps?
In sales, they are principally involved in promotion. They spend a lot of time talking about the product, its utility within that physician’s practice, and strengths in comparison with the competition. My role, on the surface, it looks similar. I too go into the physician’s office and discuss the disease state and available medication. But my goal is not specifically to motivate the physician to use our product versus another product.
How did you learn that MSL jobs exist?
My sister-in-law has been in pharmaceutical sales for fifteen years. She asked me “did you ever think about becoming an MSL?” I said “what’s an MSL?” She plugged me in to some former colleagues who gave me more insight from the perspective of former bench scientists.
Then, I talked to a friend of mine from University of California, Irvine. She was a crystallographer, and she ended up going down the MSL route. I thought, “I’ve spent the last nine years working in infectious disease. That’s a little bit more closely related to the clinic than crystallography!”
And then you started talking to people you’ve never met?
My brother, who has been working in customer relations for a long time, gave me really good advice on how to write emails to strangers. He told me to make it no longer than 5 sentences, say who you are, what you want, and ask for something. I’d use LinkedIn to filter for people that I at least had some tenuous connection with. And from there, I’d send a request and a short email. I’d talk to them on the phone for a half hour or even an hour.
When it came time to really get out there and get interviews, I had 20 or 30 people I had already spoken to who were willing to help me go through my slide deks, my CV, even the salary negotiation.
I spent nearly a decade in training programmes rooted in the highest quality Socratic-styled education. Yet I, and many others, fail to take real advantage of the mentorship opportunities that abound everywhere.
What are employers looking for in their candidates?
With the degree and the postdoc, no one doubted that I was a smart person. There’s a real soft skill aspect that’s just hard to quantify on paper. It’s the art of the conversation. Do candidates know how to navigate a conversation, do they know how to interact with people who have oftentimes decades more experience in the topic?
Why did you go to graduate school?
My route to grad school was twisty turny. At UC Santa Cruz [where Crosby majored in molecular biology], I never had any imagination of going on to graduate education. My brother and I were the first kids to go to college in our generation. I ended up at Genentech doing quality control. I spent three years or so in industry, and I just wanted to be challenged in different ways, so I started talking to people who worked in research, and the one thing that came into focus was that if I wanted a position in research that involved a lot of independent decision making, and being creative, I had to go get a PhD.
I got my PhD in virology, but kind of missed the boat in HIV science. A lot of companies had downsized or shut down their virology research.
And then what?
I took a postdoc to buy myself some time and better training and just more opportunities and to get a chance to move back to San Francisco. The PI who hired me was looking for someone who could kind of fill two roles. Someone who would operate the virology core and do a lot of experiments for other labs, and also do some postdoctoral research at the same time. My own postdoctoral work kind of suffered as a result. Even if you can work well with people, you need a strong first author publication record. I had gone on a few bench scientist-y interviews just to test out the water. I realized I didn’t have the publication record that I needed to have to be a really competitive scientist at a larger company.
What advice do you have for discouraged bench scientists?
So many people get so hung up on the literal thing that they do, but a PhD or postdoc is an intrinsically valuable thing. You know how to think, your reading comprehension is probably phenomenal, you know how to ask questions, and you learn how to be a healthy skeptic. Whether or not the ten years you put into zebrafish facial development are directly applicable to a job that is going to feed you and your family someday, that’s a different question. Along the way you learned how to do something really important with that spongy thing in your skull. It’s just a matter of branding and convincing people you know how to do stuff.
Interview by Monya Baker