The Magnificent 7 Points that Separate the Best from the Rest for the Emerging MSL Profession

For those organizations that do it better, the Medical Science Liaison (MSL) role is emerging as a competitive advantage for BioPharma, Medical Device, CRO and Contract MSL (such as TMAC, Tardis, etc.) organizations that strategically utilize this force better than their rivals. The MSL role is the Field Force of the Medical Affairs department and these MSLs are proficient in the scientific exchange necessary to educate and return insights while developing relationships with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).

  1. Peer to peer KOL relationships are the key to MSL engagement so ensure the MSL role is comprised of team members with doctorates like the KOLs they are engaging. Typically 55% of new MSL hires have their PhDs, 25% are PharmDs and 20% are MDs. These percentages are from an online presentation by Samuel Dyer of the MSL Society. It is this peer to peer relationship that the regulations refer to when they permit certain scientifically based off label discussions to occur.
  2. Compensate your MSL team well. Glassdoor reports that the MSL is the 4th highest paid position in the US if you exclude C level roles like CEOs or CFOs. Provide incentives for the MSL to stay and grow, like training, career advancement and growth opportunities, bonus, pension, profit sharing and stock. It is not enough just to have these benefits, they must be competitive to attract and keep the best talent.
  3. Scientific exchange is a two way street. Ralph Rewers, US Medical Science Liaison Head at AbbVie, shared at the annual MSL Society Conference in Las Vegas in September that he tries to remind his MSL staff regularly that they have two ears and one mouth and should use that ratio of listening to talking with KOLs.  Doing this ensures they are bringing back useful insights from the key leaders in the field. He also provides quarterly guidance to retrieve certain types of priority insights from his field force.
  4. EQ over IQ! No, not really, but IQ plus EQ is optimal. I’m using these terms loosely but the point is MSLs must have deep therapeutic scientific knowledge (IQ) but also have the soft skills (EQ) or as Ralph called them  during the MSLS conference “foundational skills” to build and grow KOL relationships.  These EQ skills include presentation skills, interpersonal skills, self-awareness, command presence, influence and persuasion skills and active listening.
  5. Understand the scientific data you are presenting, know the source of that data, but most importantly be able to tell the “story” of that data; how it was gathered, what makes it fluctuate, outliers to look for, and how it all came together to tell a story with lessons learned or the moral of the story. Some people find the STAR interview approach helpful as a framework to tell the story; Situation, Task, Action, Result.
  6. Pick Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that strategically match your goals and product life cycle stage. Of course, you can’t use sales as an MSL KPI but maybe presentations given isn’t the best metric either and surveys returned from KOLs can sometimes be subjective. You must track performance but make sure you are tracking things that matter and that may mean changing your KPIs for your MSLs as your product matures through its life cycle. Perhaps, for prelaunch activity it should be number of new KOL meetings, or post launch maybe management might want to focus on primary investigators and clinical trial grants, locations, enrollment, etc. The point is one size does not fit all and must change as objectives do.
  7. The old carpenter’s motto to measure twice, cut once. Here is how that applies to the MSL role; prepare for your KOL meetings so you have the best chance of building that relationship and completing a successful scientific exchange by finding out things in advance of the meeting. Does this KOL have experience treating patients? Do they publish? Are they an advocate or detractor for your products? Are they a global, national or regional ranked KOL?

Being an MSL is an engaging and exciting career path.  Interested?  Contact Smith Hanley MSL Executive Recruiter, Nihar Parikh at

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