Medical science liaisons (MSLs) are health care consultants who typically work in specific domains ― such as pharmaceuticals, biotech and medical device manufacturing ― as experts in specific products and clinical research trends. While MSLs do not need to be licensed medical doctors, they must still have advanced scientific training and medical knowledge.
They may in fact possess an M.D., D.O., another postgraduate degree such as a Ph.D., PharmD, Master of Science, or Master of Business Administration (MBA) in the life sciences (e.g., a health care-focused MBA), or an advanced degree in nursing or dentistry. According to the Medical Science Liaison Society, 90% of MSLs have a doctorate degree of some kind.
A look at medical science liaisons
The term “medical science liaison” was coined by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967 but has since passed into general usage. Upjohn’s original definition described the MSL position as being dedicated to various “education services.” That included helping with lab-based drug studies led by pharmaceutical companies, as well as with the setup of symposia and workshops at academic institutions.
Such responsibilities are still central to the MSL position. As the job title shows, MSLs are expected to liaise between stakeholders including physicians, researchers and other key opinion leaders (KOLs) on the one hand, and companies such as medical device manufacturers and drugmakers ― who are often their employers ― on the other.
Indeed, their work is frequently (but not always) focused on promoting certain products and services for use in health care environments. They may also provide important updates on advances in medical treatments and devices, analyze and present on trends in clinical data, and handle any incoming requests for information from health care professionals.
There are many synonyms for this role, including clinical science liaison, medical science manager and regional medical scientist. No matter the title, MSLs typically work for health providers (hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, etc.), in academia or within pharmaceutical research. They may specialize in specific scientific, clinical and therapeutic areas, such as infectious diseases or rheumatology.
What do medical science liaisons do?
MSL job responsibilities vary from place to place and by the employer. That said, they generally revolve around a few key tasks such as:
- Working with researchers to understand drugs and medical devices
- Promoting and advocating for these same products
- Hosting advisory boards, panels and other meetings
- Reviewing relevant scientific and medical literature
- Assisting with compliance with relevant government regulations
- Building professional working relationships with KOLs
- Training and assisting sales teams
- Responding to information requests
How does someone become a medical science liaison?
As discussed earlier, it’s very common for MSLs to have a doctorate degree or to be licensed medical doctors. A Ph.D., PharmD, M.D., D.O., D.D.S. or D.M.D. will provide the necessary background for success as an MSL. Note that the combination of a Ph.D. with a medical degree like an M.D. is a popular pairing in related professions such as medical scientist, and can work for MSLs, too.
Before reaching the doctorate level, though, aspiring MSLs will need an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as one of the life sciences, physical sciences or mathematics. A health care-focused MBA, such as the online HCMBA available through the George Washington University (GW), can also be helpful in developing the knowledge and skills needed for pursuing a career as an MSL. The coursework in the GW HCMBA covers topics in clinical medicine and research, in addition to the managerial focus of a traditional MBA.
What is the career outlook for medical science liaisons?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not maintain a formal listing for medical science liaisons. However, the BLS does track statistics for related professions like medical scientist.
According to the BLS, there were more than 130,000 medical scientists employed in 2018. From 2018 to 2028, their total employment was expected to increase by 8%, which is faster than the growth rate for the average occupation. This projection is attributable to the aging population and to the accompanying demand for treatments for a wide range of chronic conditions.
Median annual pay for medical scientists was $84,810 in 2018, which is well above the national median income. Scientists employed in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing had the highest earnings, at more than $115,000 annually.
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