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Being an MSL: 3 Big Pharma vs. Small Pharma Misconceptions

Separating opinion from fact can boost your MSL career by revealing more opportunities

As MSL recruiters who speak with many people every day, we hear a lot of different opinions about what it would be like to work for certain companies. This is especially true when it comes to working in big pharma compared to small pharma. It’s clear there isn’t any shortage of thoughts about what it means to work on one side of the fence versus the other. Based on experience, we hope Being an MSL: 3 Big Pharma vs. Small Pharma Misconceptions offers a bit of clarity.

1. Salary

We hear this one all the time. We call a candidate about a position with a small pharma company and provide the job details. Frequently, they respond with “you said they’re a small company, so they probably can’t pay what I’m currently making.”  There isn’t much of a correlation between salary range and company size in the MSL world, however. Sure, the big pharma companies might have more money in the bank, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve established higher MSL salary ranges. There are companies, both big and small, that push the limits of what you can pay MSLs higher and higher, and there are companies – again, both big and small – that pay MSLs base salaries below the industry average.

2. Ability to hire entry-level candidates

Another misunderstanding is that perhaps only big pharma companies can hire MSLs without any prior MSL experience. The implication is that bigger pharma companies have better training programs and bigger MSL teams. Therefore, they have more bandwidth to hire MSLs that need to learn the ropes under their more senior counterparts. Conversely, some think that a small pharma company’s MSL team is likely too small to allow for inexperience to make up for such a large percentage of the MSL team’s bandwidth. But a company’s ability to hire inexperienced candidates depends much more on two things: timing and hiring manager preference. Some companies, either big or small, may pass on inexperienced candidates at any given time because they may be expecting a launch soon and they don’t have the time to train new MSLs. Hiring manager preference can also play a large role. There are hiring managers out there who love to hire and train new MSLs, and these hiring managers can work at companies of all sizes.

3. Stability

Stability and instability can the blessing or the plague of either big pharma or small pharma. The kneejerk reaction is to think that larger pharma companies are more stable than small pharma companies or biotechs are. But in reality, all of pharma has the ability to be unstable sometimes – it’s the type of instability that varies. Smaller companies are, indeed, more likely to have a smaller product portfolio or a more fragile pipeline. And yes, if something goes wrong with those products there could be layoffs. But big pharma is just as capable of missing their financial projections and cutting costs by way of layoffs. And as the ongoing Takeda-Shire merger would suggest, even big pharma can get caught up in acquisitions. There are multiple forms of stability and instability in pharma, and neither stays loyal to just one type of company.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t stereotype big pharma or small pharma in just about any facet. Whether you think you’re a small pharma person or a big pharma person, you just might be surprised!

Let us know if you found Being an MSL: 3 Big Pharma vs. Small Pharma Misconceptions helpful, and please share!


Author: Lawrence Beck, CPC

Lawrence joined SEMbio in 2011 and is a team leader in recruiting and business development. He attended Texas Tech University on a path that led him to obtain his Master’s degree in Sports Management which provides Lawrence a unique perspective as a recruiter.
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