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What is a Medical Science Liaison?

The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a specific role within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, CRO and other healthcare industries. They concentrate on specific therapeutic areas (e.g. Oncology, Cardiology, CNS, Hematology, Women’s Health Care) and disease states (e.g. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Cardiovascular Disease, Diabetes). MSLs have advanced scientific training and academic credentials generally consisting of a doctorate degree (PhD, PharmD or MD) in the life sciences.

Medical Science Liaisons are vital to the success of a company. They work throughout a product’s lifecycle, help to ensure that products are utilized effectively, serve as scientific peers and resources within the medical community, and are scientific experts to internal colleagues at companies. However, the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer to peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), at major academic institutions and clinics.

The History Behind The Medical Science Liaison Role

Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) were first established by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967 as a response to the need for scientifically trained field staff that would be able to build rapport with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in various therapeutic areas of research.

Although originally called Medical Science Liaisons by Upjohn, over the years and today, companies have used various names for the role including: Medical Liaisons, Medical Managers, Regional Scientific Managers, Clinical Liaisons, and Scientific Affairs Managers among others.

Alternative titles to Medical Science Liaison

Many companies use various alternatives to the Medical Science Liaison title, even though the roles have similar or equivalent responsibilities. The MSL Society conducted a survey to see which terms were most used. The most common alternate and equivalent titles include:

The most common titles used for the medical science liaison role.

Click on image to view source report.

Who are the MSLs?

Over the years, MSL teams have been made up of individuals with various scientific backgrounds including: sales reps, those with nursing backgrounds, those with various doctoral degrees or other clinical backgrounds.

However, the required educational and scientific background as well as the purpose of the MSL role has progressively changed over the years since they were first established.

In the late 1980’s, a number of companies began to require those applying to MSL roles to hold a doctorate degree such as an MD, PharmD, or PhD.

Although historically, the educational standard in the industry did not require MSLs to have a doctorate degree, today the doctorate degree has become the educational standard in the industry for the MSL role.

2020 MSL Salary and Compensation Survey demographic information about MSLs in the United States.

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In fact, according to the 2022 MSL Salary and Compensation Survey – which included 2,099 MSL professionals from 60 countries – 77% of current MSLs in the U.S. and 69% of current MSLs globally, across all company types and all therapeutic areas have a doctorate degree.

The Growth Trajectory of The Medical Science Liaison Role

Since being first established by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967, MSLs have become increasingly more important to the success of the companies that employ them.

As a result, the MSL profession has grown exponentially over the last several years, and according to a 2018 global MSL Society survey, 68% of managers plan to expand the size of their MSL teams within the next two years.

MSL team expansion plans data.

Source: 2018 MSL Hiring Practices Survey – Global Results

Although the MSL role is growing and evolving, the MSL community is still small when compared to other professions within the pharmaceutical industry. The evolution and rapid growth of the role has resulted in the need for a professional society dedicated to the MSL role.

Today there is even an official International MSL Day, which occurs every year on March 27th, to recognize the profession, and raise awareness of the importance of the global MSL profession.

Another very important milestone for the profession was the establishment of a Board Certification for MSLs. The Medical Science Liaison-Board Certification (MSL-BC®) is the first-ever board certification for the Medical Science Liaison profession and is an effort to establish industry recognized standards for the MSL profession. The Medical Science Liaison Society is dedicated to the validation, through certification, of a specialized body of knowledge for individuals working as a Medical Science Liaison (or equivalent title) or leading a Medical Science Liaison team.

Professionals working as Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) or managing a team of MSLs can validate a baseline of specialized competency, skill and/or knowledge in the field by meeting criteria and passing the MSL-BC® examination.

Medical Science Liaison Job Description

The role and the activities of MSLs will vary based on several factors including (among others):
  • The Therapeutic Area they support;
  • Where a product is at in its lifecycle;
  • The geographical location of the role; and
  • The company type (i.e. Big Pharma vs Medical Device).

While the MSL role will vary, many aspects and activities are consistent regardless of the above factors. One easy way to understand the differences between roles is to read and compare job descriptions.

A good place to do exactly that is the MSL Society Career Center, which is the only job board 100% dedicated and focused exclusively on the MSL profession.

One of the many unique features of the MSL Society job board is that it’s the only one that allows you to filter and search for MSL roles based on Therapeutic Area:

Medical Science Liaison Responsibilities

The responsibilities of MSLs also vary, but typically include:
  • Engaging external stakeholders: developing KOL engagement plans, collecting insights, identifying clinical investigators, communicating medical/ 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 an SME on internal cross-functional teams.
  • Maintaining MSL Expertise: remaining current on scientific knowledge, maintaining knowledge of pharmacoeconomics, coordinating activities with other field personnel in territory.

What are the typical activities of Medical Science Liaisons?

The activities of MSLs focus, directly or indirectly, on engaging with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and other Healthcare Professionals (HCPs).

The following are the typical activities of MSLs.

MSL Activities graphic that shows the results of the survey.