Opportunities and Considerations for Pharmacists as Medical Science Liaisons

Medical science liaisons are biomedical professionals who are responsible for scientific management of multiple aspects of a product, such as a drug, diagnostic test, or medical device, before and after launch.

Retail and inpatient careers continue to dominate the pharmacy landscape. Careers in the pharmaceutical industry also can offer pharmacists a different environment to practice in with unique challenges, rewards, and considerations.

Numerous pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies offer a variety of positions a pharmacist could fill. Although careers in research and development often come to mind when considering an industry trajectory, there is also a need for pharmaceutical professionals outside the lab. One such role is that of a Medical Science Liaison (MSL).

Pharmacists may find a career as an MSL challenging and rewarding. MSLs are biomedical professionals who are responsible for scientific management of multiple aspects of a product, such as a drug, diagnostic test, or medical device, before and after launch. MSLs generally work within a medical affairs department of a company and have an integral role in the success of a product.

MSLs have numerous responsibilities that can vary from company to company. Most MSLs have a minimum of a doctorate degree, often with additional advanced training in a therapeutic area or relevant field. Pharmacists who hold a PharmD and relevant focused training, such as a fellowship, residency, or additional graduate degrees, will be the most competitive candidates for these positions.

Academic pharmacists can be especially well suited to transitioning to an MSL role given their research and training. MSLs are among the most highly credentialed and diversely skilled professionals employed by a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. The advanced training is necessary as MSLs are expected to be scientific peers, thought leaders, and other influential individuals in a particular field. Beyond hard clinical and scientific skills, MSLs also need to be expert communicators and possess the soft skills needed to advance the company’s goals in an ethical, evidence-based way.

In general, MSLs coordinate cooperation between the company and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in the relevant therapeutic field. KOLs are prominent health care providers, scientists, academics, and others that possess knowledge and influence in the relevant therapeutic area. These KOLs are important for the safe and effective utilization of a specific product and product development. MSLs can effectively communicate key scientific information to relevant parties with their company from the KOLs.

MSLs also are responsible for workforce training of regional sales personnel within the company on a given product, while serving as the key scientific resource for the sales personnel on the team. Although MSLs may occasionally interact with the sales arm of the company, they are expected to approach issues in an evidence-based way. Often, there is a ‘firewall’ between sales and medical affairs in order to preserve the scientific integrity of the MSL team.

Education of health care professionals using the biomedical product can also fall to the MSL. Given the MSL’s advanced scientific training and breadth of knowledge of the product, and the associated therapeutic area, they are commonly tasked with presenting key data and clinical trial findings at relevant conferences.

These are some of the tasks that MSLs are responsible for, but they may vary depending on the employer and product itself.

Beyond some of the unique qualifications and responsibilities that go along with being an MSL, there are some lifestyle considerations as well. MSLs live and work on the road and in the air. Like sales representatives, MSLs are generally assigned a region to cover. The size of the region can vary greatly. An MSL could be responsible for a single state or a quarter of the country, depending on the product and employer. An MSL can expect to be traveling up to 80% of the time, often by plane and car. While many pharmacists work fixed shifts, an MSL is rarely ‘off the clock.’ Depending on expectations, an MSL can spend most of their time away from home. This also requires a savvy understanding of efficient travel methods in a particular region.

A career as an MSL has many positives, in my experience. As an MSL that had New York State, including the New York City metropolitan area as my territory, I was able to travel to some exciting places, and meet some incredibly talented people.

The ability to network is a key positive to a career as an MSL. It is also rewarding to be an integral part of a corporate team that is comprised of diverse professionals sharing a common goal. The financial incentives are often generous, with compensation packages that dwarf those offered to most practicing pharmacists in retail or inpatient roles. There is also upward mobility in industry compared to health care and retail institutions. In my experience, there is also more independence and ability to implement change, compared to more traditional pharmacist roles.

While a career as an MSL can be exciting and rewarding, there are potential negative aspects as well. From my experience, burnout is a real possibility. MSLs generally do not have defined hours. They often have key productivity indicators (KPIs) to meet monthly or quarterly. The time needed to complete these KPIs varies and depends on the season, availability of KOLs, or territory. It could take 20 hours a week to achieve the goals or it could take 60 hours.

The travel aspect can also be a negative. While it is enjoyable to see new places (especially with a comprehensive expense account), travel can be the most grueling aspect of the role. In the northeast, getting stranded in the winter due to cancelled flights was common. There are often stipulations in employment contracts that require residency near an airport. This can make the work-life balance a difficult one. A good manager that stresses the importance of maintaining work-life balance can mitigate this negative factor.

MSLs can be laid off when a product loses a patent or sales suffer. Although some would argue job stability is a potential negative, this is not a large concern. After 1-3 years of experience as an MSL, job prospects are high, minimizing any potential unemployment window.

A career as an MSL should be on the radar for pharmacists interested in a new direction. Although challenging, a career as an MSL can be rewarding and exciting. Expertise in pharmacotherapy, communication strategies, and health care logistics make pharmacists well suited for these unique roles in industry.

Erik Hefti holds a PharmD as well as a Master's and PhD degrees in pharmaceutical science from the University at Buffalo. His research focuses on pediatric pharmacogenomic factors impacting cardiovascular toxicity following cancer chemotherapy and genetic testing utilization to improve healthcare outcomes. His clinical focus involves optimizing pharmacotherapy in patients with genetic disorders. He is the program director and assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA.