Wanted: Relationship Capital. Seeking: Medical Science Liaisons

Medical science liaisons (MSL) have many aliases: medical science managers, regional scientific managers, medical information scientists, scientific liaisons. Whatever the alias, a medical science liaison’s critical function remains the same: establish trust and credibility from which research collaborations flourish.

Many Faces – One Critical Role
Research collaborations with principle investigators (also called “thought leaders” or “opinion leaders”) are as important to a drug company as drug development opportunities are important to a thought leader. This symbiotic collaboration strives toward an understanding of a disease state, dissection of the roles of classes of drug compounds in the treatment of a disease state, and ultimately contributing to the scientific body of evidence for a biological pathway. Since research investigators are widely disseminated, medical liaisons are thus distributed to serve as points-of-contact between scientific pioneers and industry.

Depending on the company, the medical science liaison group may be as few as a handful of individuals to a team of formidable size (over 50; some companies have over 200 MSLs across many franchises). As a result, geography differs from company to company, and so does the amount of traveling required for a liaison. All liaisons should expect to travel out of state at least a few times year – to attend medical meetings or company business meetings. Some liaisons are road warriors, traveling 80% or more.

The main focus of a medical science liaison’s responsibility is to facilitate and establish research opportunities between his company and a research investigator. A medical science liaison must therefore be able to (physically) get in front of a researcher, address questions on her company’s research goals and product pipeline, and have the capacity to provide necessary processes that a researcher needs to initiate collaboration. What makes a liaison more than mere “technical support” or even “super-rep” is his ability to engage in meaningful scientific discussions with the researcher, both about the disease state as well as on the scientific evidence available.

Medical science liaisons should engage in a peer-to-peer discussion with the investigator, to be able to challenge and cultivate scientific ideas in a discussion. While a medical science liaison does not solicit research ideas, she serves as a catalyst in generating research proposals with the researcher. Active scientific exchange leads to unearthing of questions and to research that remains to be done to elucidate pathways contributing to physiological phenomena.

What’s in a Degree?
An advanced-degree requirement (PhD, PharmD, MD) comes into play based on the previous paragraph. While a doctorate may not be an ironclad requirement, companies often set such requirements due to an increased likelihood for such liaisons to be perceived as scientifically credible by the medical community. In fact, for many companies, a doctorate has become an absolute requirement for a medical liaison position. This trend is unlikely to diminish particularly as the pool of medical liaison applicants is increasing.

Research and clinical training that are integral curriculum in obtaining an advanced degree confers to the liaison an ability to synthesize and comprehend scientific concepts, experimental design, and data. Often, liaisons with advanced degrees may speak from experience of the research work she or he has conducted in a particular field, and in doing so, adds value for the research investigator. A medical science liaison’s research background may not be the same as the therapeutic field he works in; however, his advanced scientific or medical training sets a foundation upon which knowledge from a different therapeutic field may be build.

Medical science liaisons also present – either formally or informally – to various decision makers in the medical and healthcare community. Some medical science liaisons have an added responsibility to give clinical presentations to managed care organizations, and almost all liaisons are expected to be well versed in their company’s pipeline portfolio and R&D (Research and Development) objectives. Medical science liaisons help answer questions and resolve research issues between an investigator and the company. Medical science liaisons may partake in the training process for divisions within the company (for instance, sales and marketing.) In essence, medical science liaisons are in front of both internal and external customers – and people skills are not surprisingly of critical importance.

Beyond “Smile Training”
Having “people skills” extends beyond the ability to smile and start a conversation. Medical science liaisons need to have characteristics inherent of various corporate “buzz words” prominent in large corporations. Medical science liaisons act as rainmakers, change agents, research scouts, and educational/information resources. Being field-based, like other field-based personnel, means medical science liaisons must possess a level of emotional maturity and motivation that are critical for long-term success.

Medical science liaisons are manager-level positions. Even though medical science liaisons do not have direct reports whom they manage, liaisons continually manage all research progresses within their geography, and must continually stay abreast of the latest research developments in that scientific area. Medical science liaisons may report either to a senior manager, an associate director, or a director of a division specific for research (be this scientific/medical affairs, clinical affairs, or R&D.) Medical science liaisons do not have incentives tied to market share of a particular product, as medical science liaisons are expected to communicate with scientific fair balance.

It’s Always (and Should Be) Personal
Prospecting medical science liaison must consider this career path very carefully. Alongside its rewards, this career is not without stress and loneliness and frustration.

In fact, prospective candidates may try writing a “personal statement”, to answer the following questions: “Why I choose to be a MSL, what’s in it for me? Have I researched other career options in the pharmaceutical industry? Where do I see myself three-to-five years from now – on this path or doing something else?” Prospective MSLs need to know their personal motivations, whether they may simply want to get into industry, whether they see a MSL career as a stepping-stone to another career in the future. Whatever it may be, prospective candidates must be clear with their own expectations, and be realistic about the job.