Everything you need to know about Medical Science Liaison
About a month ago, we asked you to send us your questions about the medical science liaison role. Dr Martijn Bijker, PhD MSc and founder of "From SCIENCE to PHARMA", shares with us his opinion on this job he is passionate about.
What is the role of a Medical Science Liaison expert?
The medical science liaison (MSL) is the scientific and clinical expert working with top clinicians in the country to bring innovative new pipeline drugs to the market and support the quality use of medicine that are already on the market.
Is a "wet lab"-based PhD preferred?
Not per se. In our recent UK MSL survey, 47% of the MSLs had a PhD (3% MD, 34% Bachelor’s and 16% Master’s). Having a research background linked to a human disease (pathway) helps with your MSL candidature. For instance, quite a few drugs for different oncology diseases target the signalling pathway involving EGFR/RAS/MEK/BRAFF. If you have worked in this area it helps to better understand the working of the drug and the effect on the disease.
What is the average first year salary range and what does the 5 or 10 year salary/professional progression look like?
In our UK salary survey from 2017, the starting base salary of an MSL is on average GBP56,000 and reaches around GPB60,000 on average after 3+ years. There are extras such as (but not limited to): car allowance or a company car and on average a 14% end of year bonus. Most MSLs would not be in the job for 5-10 years and would have progressed into more senior roles.
What areas of science are most in need and likely to hire a MSL ?
Oncology/immuno-oncology, auto-immune disease and neuroscience have large numbers of MSLs and are growing quite rapidly because of the large number of new indications and drugs that are coming to the market.
For those who do not have the preferred degree subject right after PhD, are there alternative routes to becoming an MSL ?
Having a more clinical-focussed research background and working on topics that are relevant for human diseases or working on actual diseases during your PhD/Postdoc are well received by companies. If you don’t have that, you have to upskill yourself on these topics and that does not have to be doing another postdoc. Approximately 50% of the MSLs in our UK survey did not have a terminal D degree (PhD, PharmD, MD). Two thirds of them had a bachelor’s degree and one third had a master’s degree. Pharmacist are also well placed for MSL roles in the UK. Many of them start working as a sales rep, clinical research assistant, medical information or drug safety associate and then move into an MSL role.
For those who do fit the profile, what is the best way to prepare for the interviewing process ?
To get invited for an MSL interview, your CV/resume has to be MSL-industry ready. An academic CV highlighting all your research achievement will not cut it anymore. Being successful in the MSL interview requires a lot of preparation. Some companies have assessment centres where MSLs will be tested on different topics for a whole day. Other companies have 3-4 rounds of interviews with interview/behavioral questions, questions around your knowledge of the drug, competitors, disease, guidelines, providing clinical paper presentations (with little preparation time), competency tests, grilling by a panel etc. to select the right candidate. It requires a lot of work to get ready for these interviews and we have seen many candidates who do not go into these interview fully prepared. That was one of the reasons why we have built an online MSL training platform, to get you ready for your interviews.
Which platforms are adapted to MSL job-hunting?
However, many jobs are not advertised, and networking with the right people (on LinkedIn for instance) would help you to get access to many more potential MSL roles.
Is this a career path with a long-term progression or are there common exit opportunities that may also be interesting along the evolution of a MSL expert?
Some MSL stay in the MSL job for many years and might become senior or executive MSL or MSL manager, as it provides a lot of freedom and flexibility. Others move into more strategic roles such as medical advisor or managing jobs such as medical manager, or (associate) medical director and these roles could be in the UK, regionally (i.e. European head office) or globally (Global head office). You also see MSL moving into marketing, sales, or health economics for instance. In short, there are plenty of career opportunities after the MSL role but it might require you to move closer to a company’s office.
What interpersonal skills are needed and will be developed along a MSL career?
You should be comfortable working with people, able to adapt to different styles of people internally and externally and be able to resolve conflicts without escalating them. There are lots of skills to learn once you are in the role and some companies provide good support in the form of training.
In what work structures can MSLs work? Can they be independent/private or are they always linked to a pharmaceutical company?
Most MSLs are hired by pharmaceutical (or biotech) companies directly. They will often be working in a team of several MSLs with an (MSL) manager. You see in some countries a rise of contract MSL, who are working for agencies or large Contract Research Organisation (CRO) that might also be involved in running clinical trials (i.e. IQVIA).
What is the difference between an MSL and a sales rep?
Sales reps are hired to increase the sales of a product and influence the current prescribing behaviour of a doctor. The MSL on the other hand does not have ANY commercial targets and should never be judged on increasing commercial targets (i.e. for their end of year bonus). MSLs are the scientific experts and spokesperson and are there to better understand the future treatment algorithms and how that affects your company’s drug in the near future.
Is training provided or are you expected to learn on the job?
MSL training provided by companies can vary from very little to very extensive training. Some companies are better than others in onboarding MSLs. There is a lot of self-studying, on the job learning and learning by just doing it. Over time you get better and know how to work (better) with certain doctors.
Does this job role require a lot of travel?
The MSL is a field-based role, which means you are travelling. It depends on the company how much travel you need to do and if this is just by car or if it requires flying as well. If your territory covers the whole of the UK and Ireland, you will be required to travel more than if you have a smaller territory and can do it by car/train. There are national and international conferences involved in the MSL role that require you to fly. This could be also a nice perk of the job, going to places you would normally not go to.
Can you still have a work-life balance as an MSL (in terms of having a family)?
Absolutely. You are not working 24/7. Yes, you do have occasionally conferences that span the weekend, but that also happens as a researcher. It is however a very well paid job, so you do have to work hard. But I have always loved my work and it did not therefore feel like work. It felt like they were paying me a very good salary to talk science with very smart doctors and clinical researchers for a well-paid living.
Are there any career events for MSLs and could MSLs offer career talks at a university?
We have an upcoming free MSL webinar coming that you can sign up to, to explore if this job is something you like as a career in the future. You can find it here.