What is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL)?

Let's talk about the purpose of an MSL, why pharmacists are a good fit, and why these roles are so competitive.

What is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL)?
Photo by Artem Zhukov / Unsplash

The Medical Science Liaison role is one of the most sought after jobs in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. These roles generally require a terminal degree such as an MD, PharmD, or PhD. Having said that, many pharmacy students aren't even aware that these roles exist! This is especially true in geographies where there aren't well established companies nearby.

Let's talk about the purpose of an MSL, why pharmacists are a good fit, and why these roles are so competitive.


Purpose of the MSL

The MSL role can vary a lot from company to company, especially when comparing "big pharma" vs biotech vs medical device companies. We'll focus on pharmaceutical companies for now, as this is the most common employer of MSLs with a PharmD background.

Even within the pharmaceutical industry, MSL roles can vary depending on therapeutic area, product lifecycle, and geographic location. However, according to the Medical Science Liaison Society, MSLs generally have the following responsibilities:

  • Engaging external stakeholders: developing Key Opinion Leader (KOL) engagement plans, collecting insights, identifying clinical investigators, communicating medical and scientific data, connecting internal and external stakeholders, providing conference support, supporting external stakeholder research activities, and responding to medical information requests.
  • Collaborating with internal stakeholders: providing training, supporting clinical research teams and serving as a subject matter expert (SME) on internal cross-functional teams.
  • Maintaining MSL expertise: remaining current on scientific knowledge, maintaining knowledge of pharmacoeconomics, and coordinating activities with other field personnel in territory.

According to a 2018 survey, over 90% of MSLs do the following 4 activities as part of their job:

  1. Deliver scientific presentations
  2. Educate KOLs and healthcare providers (HCPs)
  3. KOL relationship management
  4. Attend medical congresses

Importantly, MSLs do all of this with the objective of contributing to medical practice and enhancing patient outcomes in a NON-PROMOTIONAL fashion. These are medical experts, and they are not considered commercial roles. In fact, there are many strictly enforced rules at most companies that prevent commercial teams from regulating the actions of MSLs. This is so that scientific exchange between MSLs and KOLs/HCPs remains data driven, patient focused, and protects the integrity of all parties.

Why pharmacists become MSLs

Pharmacists often make fantastic MSLs, and the industry knows this. In the United States, >30% of MSLs have a PharmD!

Pharmacists have a broad background of medical expertise and have a base knowledge that can easily be built upon. MSLs are life long learners, so having this background is extremely important. Generally speaking, MSLs will become experts in a niche area such as a specific tumor type or cardiovascular disease. The area of expertise is determined by the companies products. For this reason, many pharmacists will transition into MSL roles after years of clinical experience. In this case, the pharmacists may already be SMEs in their respective therapeutic area, which the companies will highly value.

Lastly, pharmacists have a lot of experience communicating with other HCPs. We've all had many interactions with physicians, nurses, NPs, PAs, surgeons, etc... Having that experience and being comfortable collaborating with clinicians is crucial to the MSL role! It goes a long way when you can use the same medical lingo as an HCP and can "talk the talk" during your interactions.

Why MSL roles are so competitive

When I say these are hypercompetitive roles, I mean it. Only 1-2% of applicants get hired as MSLs, and for every job opening there are ~200 MSL candidates according to surveys. If you're applying for MSL roles, it may take 10-15 applications before you ever land your first interview! There are a lot of reasons for this, but here's an incomplete list in no particular order.

  1. High salaries: see the list below from the MSL society
Medical Science Liaison Salary & Compensation - MSL Society
  1. Travel: MSLs get to travel a lot while attending medical congresses and meetings with KOLs. For instance, the European Society of Medical Oncologists meeting was held in Madrid this year!
  2. Expertise: Like I said before, MSLs get the opportunity to dive deep and become experts in their field. This is required if they are to successfully interact with KOLs! Many pharmacists relish the opportunity to become such an expert and live on the cutting edge of medicine.

I hope you have a better understanding of what an MSL does and what their purpose is. If you're a PharmD looking to transition into an MSL role, I wish you the best of luck!