Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Vita

 June 26, 2019

Heather Vita, Ph.D.

Heather Vita is a senior Medical Science Liaison (MSL) at SAGE Therapeutics. In 2004, she received her Ph.D. from Duke in Pharmacology with a certificate in Integrated Toxicology. Her Ph.D. work focused on neuropharmacology. After completing a brief postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, she started her journey as an MSL at the pharmaceutical company UCB and worked there for 11 years. In 2015, she joined Teva Pharmaceuticals as a senior MSL before moving to her current position at SAGE Therapeutics in 2017 as a senior MSL. Her expertise spans areas related to epilepsy, migraine, movement disorders and women’s mental health.

How would you describe the role of a Medical Science Liaison? What do you do every day?

Medical Science Liaisons serve as a bridge between clinicians and the pharmaceutical company. We identify key opinion leaders (KOLs) in a specific therapeutic field, talk to them to gather insights about a specific disease, and bring the information back to the company. The information we gather will be used to drive the company’s strategy in research. The day-to-day work for an MSL varies widely, although we spend most of our time meeting and engaging KOLs in our territory. MSLs attend medical congresses, identify potential clinical trial sites, and support the various advisory boards in our company. In addition, we train our internal colleagues in sales so that they understand our products and how they serve clinical needs. Travel is a significant part of this job and we can sometimes be on the road 45-75% of the time. However, much of this travel will be within our own designated territory, which means that we take frequent extended day trips, which are still compatible with a wonderful work-life balance. MSLs on the East coast travel a bit less than our colleagues on the West coast. Occasionally I travel to Charlotte and come back within a day. When I am not traveling, I mostly work from home, conducting conference calls, keeping up with scientific literature, and managing email.

What are the most important skills to develop for a career as an MSL?

For an MSL, therapeutic and clinical expertise is essential. It is a great job for people who love science and want to immerse themselves in it every day. MSLs usually require a D-degree. It can be a Pharm.D., an M.D., or a Ph.D.

To be successful in this role, MSLs should have strong communication and listening skills. We need to be able to work independently, since most of the time, we are working by ourselves in our own territory. MSLs need to know the top clinicians for a certain disease in the field and the clinical needs of the area in particular. We may be asked to dive into various therapeutic areas or move to different physical locations when needed, so flexibility and open-mindedness are essential. Last but not least, MSLs need to be innovative thinkers. MSLs do have a voice at the table in pharmaceutical companies, especially in smaller organizations driven by personal relationships. If an MSL is a creative thinker, he or she can contribute significantly to shaping a company’s strategies.

What are some other scientific roles available for Ph.D. students at pharmaceutical companies?

The most commonly known scientific role for Ph.D. students in pharma is probably R&D (research and development). The process involves drug discovery, preclinical study, and clinical trials. R&D is very similar to the experience of graduate students and postdocs in lab; in both cases, there is a lot of bench work! Preclinical study in pharma mostly refers to research on drug dosing and toxicology.

The patient advocacy function in a pharmaceutical company also needs people who understand science, because patients are at the heart of the pharmaceutical industry. This function engages patients in specific therapeutic areas.

One of the least well-known sectors within pharma is Health Economics Outcomes Research (HEOR). The goal for this job is to communicate and support the economic value of a company’s products to decision-makers such as clinicians, governments, and insurance companies. To do this, individuals who work in this area collect evidence of the real-world effectiveness of products by conducting studies using claim data, electronic medical records, and patient registries.

How did you break into the pharmaceutical industry and begin working as an MSL?

When I was in graduate school, we did not have much dedicated support for non-academic career paths, and we certainly did not have access to professional development workshops. Instead, we created our own! With other friends and colleagues who were interested in exploring opportunities beyond academia, we started an underground career group that met once a month. The chair of my department at that time was not very happy with us. However, we believed that what we were doing was important and we received broad community support.  We even found a local pharmaceutical company willing to “sponsor” us by providing pizza for our meetings! I also actively networked with people in local pharmaceutical companies.

The experience of running the career group and networking locally might not have directly led to my first job, but it showed me that industry positions like Medical Science Liaisons did exist for STEM Ph.D.s. I completed a short postdoc after graduation because it was a natural progression from Ph.D. work. I was very forthcoming with my postdoc supervisor about the fact that I was actively looking for jobs in industry. I posted my résumé to the Medical Science Liaison Institute (an organization created to increase awareness of the MSL profession) right after I started my postdoc. Within six months, I was contacted by a recruiter for my first job.

Although I completed a postdoc, I do not believe that this experience is necessary in my field. This job is not about bench experiences or publications; it is about learning, digesting, and disseminating knowledge. Now, it is definitely harder to start a career as an MSL right after completing the Ph.D. A lot of companies require previous MSL work experiences when hiring.

What advice would you give to students who want to break into this industry?

Networking is very important in order to secure a position in this field. Even when a job post says “3-5 years of MSL experience required,” you may still receive an interview as a recent Ph.D. if you know people in the company. A lot of resources are very helpful for networking, such as LinkedIn, MSL Institute, and MSL Society. For LinkedIn, I would recommend that students send an “InMail” prior to sending the “connection request” if you have not met the person with whom you would like to connect in person. Otherwise, it can seem a bit abrupt. Try to connect with people in the pharma industry in local companies and when you go to conferences. You can also seek help from your advisor and the Duke Career Center when it comes to networking advice, interview practice sessions, and more.

In addition to the importance of networking whenever possible, the chances of being hired as a new Ph.D. will increase significantly if you apply for positions within your therapeutic areas of expertise. For example, if you’ve studied the mechanisms of disease X for your dissertation, applying for a position within a company that studies disease X will be very advantageous. After you’ve gained experience as an MSL, it’s fairly easy to move into different therapeutic areas if you so desire. 

There are other things you can do while you are in graduate school. I took a DCRI course on clinical trials while I was at Duke. It was very helpful. There are also online courses available from the NIH and the FDA that can give you a foundation of knowledge in drug development and clinical trials.

For MSL jobs, you should apply at most 1-2 months before you can start the job. Companies won’t wait for you for 6 months.

Could you share any insights about salary and career advancement opportunities?

The base salary for an entry-level MSL is about $110,000 to $130,000 per year. It goes up to about $200,000 per year for a senior MSL with more than ten years of experience. In addition, MSLs also receive annual bonuses of about 20% of base salary, a company car with all maintenance/gas covered, stock options and shares, and excellent health benefits.

In terms of career advancement, an MSL can move in many directions. It depends on your career goal and your expected work-life balance. The job itself is very flexible. However, each time you move up in the vertical leadership hierarchy, you become more distant from the actual science and you lose a lot of flexibility.

What are your fondest memories of Duke?

My mentors for my Ph.D., Drs. Cynthia Kuhn and Donald McDonnell, were incredibly supportive of both my career choices and my research. I am very grateful to them.


Headshot of Hazel Zhang
Hongyuan “Hazel” Zhang

Ph.D. student, Cell Biology

Hazel is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Cell Biology and Orthopaedic Surgery. She studies metabolism in bone development and cartilage tumors in the Alman Lab. She is interested in connecting with people across different industries.