Updated: Jan 27
Although the role of the medical science liaison is now quite common and the number of MSL roles have increased significantly in recent years, the MSL career path is still a little bit mysterious. I often get asked by my coaching clients what the typical career path of a medical science liaison is and it is an important question to know the answer to, in particular before you embark upon a career as an MSL. Although it varies from company to company and from country to country this article will be an overall guide to provide some examples of medical science liaison career paths.
The typical medical science liaison career path is:
1. PhD Graduate
2. Medical Science Liaison
3. Senior Medical Science Liaison
4. Medical Manager/Medical Advisor
5. Country Medical Director
6. Global Medical Director.
Note: MD is usually required for medical director positions.
This article will also provide an answer to some common questions that I regularly get asked related to the MSL career path.
1. Do I need a PhD to become a medical science liaison?
No, although it will make your transition much easier as many companies require PhDs. That being said I have worked with lots of doctors and pharmacists who don’t possess a PhD and have made fantastic medical science liaisons.
NOTE: The requirements listed on the position description are what the IDEAL candidate would possess, just because it says PhD required, don’t let it deter you from applying.
Furthermore, once you have MSL experience, hiring managers usually don’t care too much what letters you have after your name. An understanding of the MSL role, an ability to interpret clinical data are more important than having a PhD.
2. What type of job can I do to increase my chances of becoming a medical science liaison?
Any job in pharma or related to pharma is a great step in the right direction to get you closer to becoming an MSL.
In particular there are two types of jobs that tend to be easier to get and will help you transition to the MSL role.
Medical Information Associate
This job involves replying to unsolicited requests for medical information from doctors, nurses and patients using a set of standard responses. It will give you a great insight into how pharma works, experience dealing with healthcare professionals and experience referencing the approved product information. It also involves keeping well informed of marketing initiatives, product changes, product issues, and other relevant activities in your geographical area and ensuring relevant supporting materials are available to respond to medical information enquiries which may arise. The downsides are it can get a bit monotonous after a while.
These positions tend to be less competitive and not paid as well as MSL jobs but represent a fantastic opportunity to get experience working alongside other departments within pharma. Once inside a pharmaceutical company, the ability to transition to an MSL role is much easier as you already have relationships with hiring managers and are familiar with company processes.
There are also often external companies that pharma companies outsource their medical information to, these tend to have high turnover and frequent vacancies and represent a good opportunity to get your foot in the door.
GP Sales Rep
Another role in pharma that is often easier to get into than an MSL role is a sales rep position. In particular GP sales rep positions. The reason GP sales rep positions are easier to come by than specialist sales rep positions or account managers positions is that companies have bigger GP sale rep teams than specialist sales rep teams. Example, a drug may have 8 specialist sales reps and 25 GP sales reps working on it. Furthermore, GP sales positions are very open to hiring rookies as the training tends to be quite comprehensive.
Note: Yes, the MSL is a non-promotional role and sales reps are promotional but the skills of discussing clinical data with doctors and building relationship is common to both MSL and sale rep positions so a rep job provides the opportunity to gain these skills and leverage them to secure an MSL position
The advantage of getting a GP sales job, is that you will likely have some kind of access to the MSL in the company and you can learn from them and even shadow them for a day (if this is allowed by your company, check company policy on this). Furthermore, you get experience talking to doctors and working in a highly compliant environment and learning about the code of conducts that govern pharmaceutical companies and their interactions with healthcare professionals.
3. What is the typical career path of a medical science liaison?
As aforementioned the most common career path for MSLs is:
PhD Graduate – Medical Science Liaison – Senior Medical Science Liaison – Medical Manager/Medical Advisor – Country Medical Director – Global Medical Director.
However, I have had coaching clients in the past who I have helped to secure positions in medical affairs and their career path was:
MD – Clinical Research Associate – Regional Medical Director.
Another common career path for medical science liaisons is:
Pharmacist – GP sales representative – hospital sales representative – MSL – Medical Advisor
Note: If asked in a medical science liaison interview what your career aspirations are, avoid mentioning a particular job title and focus instead on adding value to the company.
Example interview answer: “I would like to be in a leadership position within medical affairs, working cross-functionally with other departments and have the opportunity to mentor junior medical affairs members.”
Another important thing to note is that when in pharma many MSLs decide to transition from medical affairs to other departments they have gained exposure to while working as an MSL. That being said, other possible career paths for MSLs include:
PhD – MSL – Associate brand manager – Brand Manager – Marketing Manager
Pharmacists – MSL – Regulatory Affairs Associate
There are many different routes into becoming an MSL and when you have secured your first MSL job there are so many different career options available to you. For those who wish to progress as far as possible in medical affairs they can become global medical directors, an incredibly well paid and responsible job at the forefront of decisions that could potentially impact millions of patients. For those MSLs who want to leverage their strategic side and commercial acumen as much as possible a transition into the marketing department may be better suited to them. Want to learn more about the MSL role? Sign up to our newsletter.