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Becoming a Medical Science Liaison: An Expert’s Guide to a Growing Profession

The trend right now, as a result of Covid, is that the MSL role globally has become completely virtual.

Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and Chairman of the Board of the Medical Science Liaison Society (MSLS)

Medical science liaisons (MSL) play an increasingly important role in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies. But the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way MSLs engage with physicians, as well as how they break into the profession. The predominant trend for both is increasing virtualization, with a heavy reliance on online resources. According to a series of surveys conducted by the Medical Science Liaison Society, the trend seems likely to be here to stay even after the pandemic recedes.

The primary purpose of an MSL is to establish and maintain peer-to-peer relationships with leading physicians, known as Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), at major academic institutions and healthcare organizations. Serving as a scientific resource within the medical community, MSLs work throughout a product’s lifecycle to ensure that the product is used effectively. The need for MSLs is broad, and also growing: according to a 2018 MSL Society survey, 68 percent of managers planned to expand the size of their MSL teams within the next two years.

Read on to discover what to expect from an MSL career, as well as the perspective of a world-renowned expert in this field.

Meet the Expert: Samuel Dyer, PhD

Samuel DyerDr. Samuel Dyer is the CEO of the Medical Science Liaison Society, which is the first and only global 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the MSL career. He has over 20 years of international MSL experience. During his career, he has managed MSL teams and operations in over 60 countries. He has written extensively on the MSL role, including numerous published articles, benchmark studies, and reports. He has also been a speaker at numerous global conferences.

Dr. Dyer has been sought out as a consultant for a number of pharmaceutical and management consulting companies on MSL projects. He holds a PhD in health sciences and did his medical training in Chicago. He also completed a certificate program in executive leadership and strategy in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology at the Harvard Business School. Dr. Dyer is the author of the Amazon #1 Best Seller The Medical Science Liaison Career Guide: How to Break into Your First Role. The book is the first step-by-step guide on how to pursue an MSL career.

Dr. Dyer graciously shared his thoughts on breaking into the MSL role and how the pandemic has impacted this profession.

The Rising Demand for MSL Professionals

“The MSL role has exploded in growth over the last several years,” says Dr. Samuel Dyer, CEO and Chairman of the Board for the MSL Society. “It’s because KOLs are relying on MSLs as credible resources of medical information and they prefer to engage with MSLs because of the value they provide.”

The pandemic has tempered the optimistic projections of many industries, but the future of the MSL remains bright, largely due to the continued value that MSLs provide to KOLs. An MSL can speak to a larger set of scientific information than a typical medical sales representative, including areas like off-label usage.

The value an MSL brings is further evidenced by the time they’re afforded. According to a survey conducted by the MSL Society, a typical medical sales representative receives an average of two minutes of a physician’s time per visit, while an MSL receives an average of 45 minutes. And while the Covid-19 pandemic has changed some of the particularities of those relationships for the MSL, the underlying value they provide remains the same.

In the midst of the pandemic, the MSL Society and H1 conducted a survey that included 475 US-based KOLs across 21 specialties. It found that 79 percent of respondents said maintaining contact with MSLs during the pandemic was either somewhat or very important, and 61 percent of respondents categorized their engagements with MSLs as either somewhat or very valuable.

The overriding trend of virtualization was apparent in the survey as well, with 77 percent were either somewhat or very receptive to virtual engagement via apps like Skype, WebEx, and Zoom. Most importantly, two-thirds of respondents said MSLs should continue to use virtual engagement even after the pandemic ends. These trends have been largely mirrored in the results of a second, concurrent survey of MSLs by the MSL Society. In it, over 50 percent of managers and directors of MSLs felt there would be a permanent, long-term impact on the MSL profession as a result of the pandemic.

“The trend right now, as a result of Covid, is that the MSL role globally has become completely virtual,” Dr. Dyer says. “In addition to virtual engagements with traditional KOLs, there has also been an increasing focus on non-traditional thought leaders like digital opinion leaders, or DOLs, as well as others like precision medicine, where MSLs are increasingly finding new ways to add value.”

Virtual Training & Engagement with Medical Science Liaisons

Virtual engagement will be a critical function of the future MSL’s role. Online education and digital continuing education will be increasingly important fixtures in the MSL’s journey, too. Some key areas of the MSL role—presentation skills, communications skills, and emotional intelligence—aren’t taught in the traditional doctoral programs (PharmD, PhD, or MD) for MSLs, but are crucial for succeeding in the profession.

“Breaking into the MSL role can be very difficult if you are not prepared, and finding credible and valuable resources is important,” Dr. Dyer says. “The MSL Society offers numerous training programs, which focus on presentation and communication skills, interviewing, and other skills for aspiring MSLs.”

In the last two-and-a-half years, the MSL Society has helped launch hundreds of MSL careers. They’ve done live, in-person training programs in seven countries. But they’re also looking to the virtuality of the profession in the future, having just rolled out a new e-learning program on how to break into the MSL role. Developed over several years, it covers the present and future of the MSL role, job search strategy, and the hiring process.

“If you’re talking about breaking in, the biggest challenge is overcoming the lack of MSL experience, and matching to the needs of the role of the job description,” Dr. Dyer says. “If a company needs A, B, and C, then it’s important for an aspiring MSL to match that, and make it known on their CV as well as during the interview process.”

The New Industry Standard: The Medical Science Liaison Board Certification (MSL-BC)

For MSLs already established within the industry, one way to demonstrate their competence at the role and distinguish themselves within the profession is through MSL Board Certification (MSL-BC).

“The MSL-BC is the first-ever certification for MSL professionals anywhere in the world,” Dr. Dyer says. “It was developed over several years by 23 global MSL leaders, and it follows international standards and the accrediting body’s definition of a certification.”

In order to be eligible for the MSL-BC credential, applicants will need at a bachelor’s degree or higher from a nationally-accredited educational institution, as well as one year of cumulative experience working as a full time MSL. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass a 140-question, four-hour exam. The exam is fully virtual and can be completed from one’s home or office. Full details are available in the MSL-BC Candidate Handbook.

The MSL-BC credential is still relatively new, but it could quickly become the industry standard, along with online forms of continuing education. And, as the MSL profession continues to grow and evolve, online skills and accredited credentials could be a difference-maker in hiring decisions. The future MSL will be digitally savvy, comfortable in virtual meetings with KOLs and DOLs, and competent at working cross-functionally with other departments within their parent company.

“The role of the MSL is going to continue to grow,” Dr. Dyer says. “MSLs are vital to the success of pharmaceutical companies, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As we adjust to this new normal of Covid, the future of the MSL role is that the profession is going to find new ways of not only adding value to KOLs, but new ways to add value to the companies they work for.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.