If you browse job listings on the websites of pharmaceutical companies, it’ll soon become apparent that there are a slew of titles and abbreviations, which often differ between companies…it can get confusing! Sometimes, at Company X an ‘Associate’ scientist has more experience than a ‘Senior’ scientist. Who knew that a ‘Clinical Research Associate’ (CRA), which sounds like a role requiring a medical degree, actually describes a lab-based PhD scientist? Hmmm…
For me, one of the most mysterious job titles was ‘Medical Science Liaison’ (MSL). I had the opportunity to talk with an MSL from Novartis over a coffee a few weeks ago (my first official informational interview!!), so I thought I’d share what I learnt.
First, just like the CRA, no medical degree is required. MSLs are usually PhD-qualified scientists (the MSL I spoke with actually had a Masters, but told me this was getting less common). They represent the company and meet with ‘key opinion leaders:’ doctors, senior nurses and medical consultants and other healthcare providers within their geographic area, at hospitals and medical institutes.
MSLs provide information about drugs currently in the company’s pipeline as they progress to the market, via one-to-one meetings, larger presentations and workshops, and are involved in designing and facilitating clinical trials. MSLs cover a specific therapeutic area (some of the hottest fields: oncology, arthritis, cardiovascular), and they need to know all the intricate details of each drug, to be able to describe how they work biologically, as well as possible side effects doctors should look out for.
A misconception is the MSLs function as sales reps, but apparently MSLs are not even allowed to discuss drug prices at all (the one I met only had a vague idea of prices when I asked about this). They are not paid on commission either. However, there are two similarities with pharma reps: MSLs have their own ‘territory’ and need to travel, either by car or plane, and they also are relatively independent and their work schedules can be very flexible. While pharmaceutical companies have been down-sizing their sales forces, MSLs are increasingly important, as competition gets tougher and the growing demand for demonstrated drug ‘value’ as well as efficacy.
One last insider’s tip: if you’re interested, one way to progress to MSL is first to apply for a CRA position and move on from there. Good luck!