By its simplest definition, a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) blends business with technical and scientific acumen to promote disease state awareness, foster communication between clinicians and in-house researchers, and conduct educational seminars on behalf of the pharmaceutical company they represent. MSLs play a vital role in the success of a company and their products in this ever-changing regulatory landscape. They work throughout a product’s lifecycle by educating physicians to ensure that products are utilized effectively, function as scientific peers, and serve as a source of expert knowledge within a therapeutic area. The primary role of an MSL is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), at major academic institutions and clinics on behalf of the pharmaceutical company. Often, they collaborate with clinicians to help guide investigator-initiated clinical trials and publish papers regarding such trials.
The educational requirement for an MSL role is a doctorate degree (PhD, MD, PharmD); more importantly, being an expert in a therapeutic area is the most crucial job requirement (more on that below). MSLs often cover a specific region of the US and are responsible to reach out to and maintain relationships with KOLs in that region. The pros of a career as an MSL include the ability to combine business, science, and technical knowledge, ability to impact treatment options, meeting and building relationships with KOLs, being at the forefront of clinical research, a home-based office, and a healthy salary compensation package. The cons of being an MSL include constant travel within the region, no physical connection to the company itself due to home office, perceived lack of upward career mobility (often lateral moves), and reduced job security (MSL is an administrative job versus technical job). Due to the increase in regulations placed on pharmaceutical sales representatives (who cannot make claims about the science of the drug they are selling), MSLs are expected to build relationships and educate clinicians regarding their company’s drugs. As such, the MSL career outlook is very good. To clarify, MSLs are NOT pharmaceutical sales representatives. They are housed under the Medical Affairs group at most pharmaceutical companies.
If you are interested in being an MSL as a PhD student or post-doc, there are a few steps you can take to align your research and career interests towards such a career:
- Therapeutic Areas are KEY – Generally, a company with have designated MSLs for a specific therapeutic area within a specific region. From a pharma market perspective, key therapeutic areas include Oncology, Cardiovascular, CNS, Dermatology, Musculoskeletal/Pain, Respiratory, Gastrointestinal, and Metabolism. It is worthwhile to know the current research in the clinical realm that is related to your therapeutic area (think New England Journal of Medicine vs Cell). As an MSL, you are expected to be an expert and know ongoing research endeavors and current treatment options in your therapeutic area.
- Become an expert – wait…isn’t this what a PhD is? YES! But more so, become a clinical expert in a therapeutic area. Attend clinical seminars, grand rounds, and medical education seminars (many available at CINJ, RWJ, etc). Know the clinical landscape of your research area.
- Link your research to human health – Pharmaceutical research is patient-centered, and clinical outcomes are paramount. As PhDs, we often look very narrowly at our work: specific mutations, model organisms, assays, etc. Be able to think broadly about the implication of your work and be able to communicate it succinctly!
- Be an effective communicator – Communication and relationship building is KEY for a successful MSL. Your entire job is to build relationships with KOLs and be the communication liaison between your company and clinicians. Take part in leadership roles as a graduate student or post-doc to demonstrate your interpersonal, leadership, and management skills. Present everywhere you can.
- Learn about Clinical Trials – this one is harder as a PhD student, but Rutgers and the NIH offer opportunities to become knowledgeable in the design and implementation of clinical trials. Courses at Rutgers include: Practical Aspect of Clinical Trial Design (16:137:580), Statistics in Clinical and Translational Research, (16:137:581), and Conduct or Fundamentals of Regulatory Affairs (16:137:582). The NIH Clinical Center also offers a zero tuition, certificate program in Introduction to the Principles and Practice of Clinical Research (IPPCR). For more information, visit http://www.cc.nih.gov/training/training/ippcr.html.
- NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK – enough said.
Below are links to excellent resources (websites, books, slide deck) if you are interested in becoming a MSL:
The Medical Science Liaison Society: http://www.themsls.org
The MSL Career Guide: How to Break Into Your First Role: http://www.amazon.com/Medical-Science-Liaison-Career-Guide/dp/0989962601
The MSL: An A to Z Guide: http://www.amazon.com/The-Medical-Science-Liaison-Edition-ebook/dp/B005E8YX6A
What is an MSL? (Slide deck): http://www.slideshare.net/samueldyer/what-is-a-medical-science-liaison-40316262?related=1
You can also follow MSL Society on Twitter @MSLSociety