As a medical science liaison (MSL) you'll be your company's scientific expert for specific drugs, acting as the key link between clinicians, research and the pharmaceutical industry
The role of an MSL is focused on education rather than sales. The main purposes of the job are to:
- educate key clinicians about specific drugs or medical devices
- answer their scientific questions about these products
- feed key information back to colleagues in commercial functions, such as marketing and sales, to inform their strategies.
Consequently, it's your job to provide clinicians with accurate and balanced information about a specific drug and relevant data from drug trials, so that they can make decisions on how to use that drug.
As an MSL, you're likely to be assigned a specific geographical area to cover, and will specialise in a particular drug, medical device or therapeutic area.
Depending on the company, medical science liaison may also be referred to under different titles, including medical affairs, medical scientific adviser, medical manager or regional scientific manager.
As an MSL, you'll need to:
- identify leading influential experts in fields of medicine or research relevant to your product, e.g. senior physicians and professors. These experts are referred to in the industry as key opinion leaders (KOLs)
- build peer-to-peer relationships with KOLs
- provide medical and scientific information to respond to KOLs' technical questions about your drug or medical device
- lead meetings with KOLs to discuss relevant scientific literature and address their scientific enquiries
- make educational presentations to senior doctors and researchers, for example on clinical trial data
- respond to scientific enquiries from distributors and internal colleagues
- gather information from KOLs as to how they are using your drug
- feed this information back to marketing and sales colleagues to help develop marketing materials and commercial strategy
- develop and deliver scientific training courses to other staff members and international distributors
- provide information to clinicians with an interest in studying your drug in a different context, or with a different patient group from the one it was initially intended
- coordinate trials to test the drug in these different contexts
- keep up to date with the latest scientific research and clinical data relevant to your focus drug or device.
- Starting salaries for medical science liaison roles typically range from £45,000 to £65,000. The average base pay for an MSL in the UK is just over £60,000.
- Experienced MSLs can earn between £60,000 and £75,000.
- MSLs progressing to associate medical director roles can earn between £115,000 and £125,000.
Pay is often supplemented by bonuses. Many companies also offer yearly car allowances or a company car. Other incentives and benefits can include laptop, mobile phone, pension and private health insurance.
Income data from Glassdoor and From Science to Pharma (FSTP). Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours typically include regular extra hours and evening work, for example taking calls and answering enquiries during the evening.
You're likely to spend between two and four days a week working out at sites, including hospitals and clinics, within your geographical area of responsibility. Depending on the company you work for, this may include some overseas travel. You'll often spend the rest of your working hours undertaking desk research and meetings from an office or from home.
You'll occasionally need to attend and/or present at national and international conferences, which may involve working weekends. In larger companies, conference attendance is usually shared out across the wider MSL team.
Job shares and part-time work are unlikely due to the depth of expert knowledge typically required for MSL posts. Self-employment and freelance work are uncommon.
What to expect
- The MSL role is varied, as you can expect it to change over the product lifecycle of a drug or device. You'll work with different people at different stages, depending on whether your product is in the development stages, is just being launched or has been on the market for a number of years.
- Although the role involves some desk research and internal meetings, you'll also spend a significant amount of time out and about, building relationships with important clinicians in your therapeutic area, making presentations at hospitals and universities, and attending conferences.
- The job requires a lot of confidence to build relationships with very senior people including consultants and professors. This can be daunting, but also intellectually stimulating as you'll often be working with experienced experts in your therapeutic area.
- Dress codes are usually business casual, with full business dress only required at more formal events.
- Depending on the company, your job may involve international travel and being away from home overnight.
As MSL positions are so specialised, having the relevant knowledge background is important. Oncology, haematology, neuroscience and immunology have been popular focus areas in pharmaceutical R&D over the past ten years, meaning many treatments in these areas are now coming to market. This has resulted in high demand for medical science liaisons with these specialisms.
A postgraduate research degree linked to a relevant disease pathway will significantly increase your chances of securing a role. Approximately half of MSLs currently working in the UK have a PhD, PharmD or MD degree, and the number of positions asking for a doctoral qualification is on the rise (From Science to Pharma, 2019).
It's possible to become an MSL with a BSc or Masters degree in pharmacy or a related field, but you'll usually need significant experience in the pharmaceutical industry first. People tend to move into MSL roles from areas such as medical sales and drug safety, as well as biomedical scientist roles in the NHS and clinical research associate roles.
You'll need to have:
- scientific expertise in the relevant therapeutic area
- excellent communication and presentation skills
- teamwork skills and an ability to work effectively with a variety of colleagues
- networking skills and the confidence to interact with senior experts on a peer-to-peer level
- critical data analysis skills
- a willingness to keep up to date with scientific literature
- the ability to adapt your writing to meet the needs of different audiences, for example business-focused versus technical audiences
- a high level of emotional intelligence to work effectively with stakeholders
- commercial acumen.
The level of work experience required varies depending on the company. Some companies offer extensive training platforms for new employees, so will hire candidates straight from a relevant PhD. Other firms, however, will require relevant experience. In either case, you should try and get experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry. This is because adapting from an academic to a commercial environment can be a steep learning curve.
A sandwich year or placement in a biotech or pharmaceutical company may improve your chances of getting a job. Experience in clinical-focused research can also be helpful as an understanding of clinical codes of practice is beneficial.
PhD or postdoctoral research experience working on relevant disease pathways is also very useful. You'll need to be able to align your knowledge and experience with the diseases and drugs the company is working on. Consequently, you should focus on applying for MSL roles in therapeutic areas that match your expertise to increase your chances of success.
Consider becoming a member of the Medical Science Liaison Association (MSLA) to help you network with current MSL professionals and develop your understanding of the role so that you can demonstrate this in your applications.
The main employers of medical science liaisons in the UK are:
- pharmaceutical companies
- biotechnology companies
- medical device companies.
For details of pharmaceutical companies who may advertise MSL roles, see the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) members' list of pharmaceutical recruiters.
Look for job vacancies at:
Recruitment agencies also handle MSL vacancies. Relevant agencies include:
Initial training is provided by your employer and tends to be well-structured. Training usually covers knowledge of the product you'll be responsible for, as well as company processes.
In smaller companies you may undertake a period of field-based training, shadowing MSL colleagues out at hospitals, clinics and other sites in their designated area. In some larger companies training may be more instructive and based on-site. It may be several months before you start working out in the field in your assigned geographical area.
Membership of relevant professional bodies can also help your professional development. These include the:
- Medical Science Liaison Association - UK-based professional association that runs annual conferences and regular professional training through both face-to-face workshops and webinars
- Medical Science Liaison Society - a largely US-based society that works to advance the global profession, but also runs training and networking initiatives for those working in medical science liaison.
Continuing professional development (CPD) is vital throughout your career, and involves keeping up to date with new products, changes in regulations, developments in research and changes in the NHS.
Roles and prospects vary from company to company. Typically, you can progress to a role as senior MSL with three to five years of experience. Some companies offer opportunities to take on a larger territory with these senior MSL positions. This could mean progressing from covering a single region in one country to covering multiple countries, for example.
Progression from senior MSL to MSL manager depends on the company's structure. With at least eight years' experience, it's possible to progress to medical director. These more senior roles tend to be based at head office and involve more work on commercial strategy.
You can also progress into other more office-based roles in medical affairs, such as medical adviser or medical information roles. The work of medical information professionals tends to be more reactive (i.e. responding to requests for product information from customers and colleagues), whilst MSL work tends to be more proactive.