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Do you want to be an MSL forever?

The MSL role within the pharmaceutical industry has grown significantly in the past decade. It is an attractive career choice for academics as well as pharmacists, nurses, and to a lesser extent physicians. Getting the first MSL job can be challenging and requires perseverance during the application process, which in some cases may take longer than initially anticipated. When trying to obtain the first role, it understandably becomes the focus, with thoughts about later career path being left for the future. Certainly, there are individuals who have a clear idea of where they want to be in a set number of years, but more often this is not the case. Unlike other pharmaceutical roles (e.g., medical advisor, sales representative or markettiers), the MSL role does not always have a well-defined career pathway, as identified in the recent MSLA 2021 State of the Nation Survey(1), and may require each MSL to identify what the next step is. This, without doubt, provides a number of different opportunities. Here we will explore a few potential MSL career paths:

Staying an MSL

There is a perception out there that once an individual has been in the MSL role for several years they will move on to the next role, which may be seen as more senior, higher up in ranks, and holding even more responsibilities. In such instances, the MSL role is considered to be a steppingstone to other roles within medical affairs. It is not surprising that some MSLs, as a result, may feel pressurised to move on. Such pressure may come from the individuals themselves. For example, they may look up to a successful medical affairs professional currently in a role such as medical advisor or head of a medical affairs department, who started as an MSL, and may believe that this is what an accomplished career in medical affairs looks like. Additionally, pressure may come from managers or HR department, who simply want to ensure that employees have identified their career paths allowing the company to provide relevant support. It is not uncommon to hear comments like “Do you want to be an MSL for ever?”, which can be interpreted in a negative way or have a negative tone to it.

However, it is important to understand that there is nothing malevolent hiding behind such questions. If you strongly enjoy the MSL role and cannot imagine yourself managing other people or leaving field activities behind, you should feel empowered to explain that you discovered the best role for you. The MSL career comes with many external interactions and a large number of opportunities to improve patient’s care, which without doubt is rewarding and provides a sense of fulfilment. As an experienced MSL, you will be able to further expand and develop in role and significantly contribute to the growing role of medical affairs within the pharmaceutical industry. Excelling within the role may come with new promotion-levels and titles, such as senior MSL or executive MSL. In the MSLA’s most recent survey, 60% of respondents’ companies now have multiple levels of MSL, with 10% offering more than two levels(1).

If an employee desires a more strategic role involving people, they may consider moving to an MSL manager role. MSL managers oversee MSL teams by training, coaching, and providing strong leadership and support to ensure MSLs meet their objectives. If an individual’s goal is to further enhance and define MSL excellence within the company, they may be able to move up to MSL Excellence Lead or Director roles, should they exist. Such roles are accountable for ensuring strategic alignment of MSL activities as well as MSL capabilities.

· MSL to Senior MSL to MSL Manager to MSL Excellence Lead to MSL Excellence Director

Moving into another role:

- Within medical affairs

For those who would prefer to move away from the MSL role and progress within medical affairs, opportunities are abundant. Below is a representation of a common MSL career path, depicting different roles that may be considered. Often moving from the MSL role means a move from a field-based to an office-based (or hybrid) position. This comes with responsibilities such as preparing and executing medical affairs strategic plans, leading local medical activities, close collaboration with commercial colleagues, as well as people management. The requirement of holding a medical or pharmacy degree for a medical advisor role is still quite common within the UK. This enables an appropriately approved candidate to act as a medical signatory when needed, ensuring materials produced by the company are accurate, balanced and in line with the local codes of conduct, such as the ABPI. For those aspiring to take strategic decisions that can impact large numbers of patients, regional or even global medical director roles may be the goal. Quite often such roles may require a medical degree. With the further expansion of the medical affairs function, requirements for medical roles are always changing and a broader range of opportunities may emerge, especially as the pharmaceutical industry embraces the ‘Omnichannel era’.

· MSL to Senior MSL to Medical Advisor/Manager to Associate Medical Director to Medical Director to Global director

- Outside of medical affairs

One striking aspect of the MSL role is the exposure to a variety of different functions within the pharmaceutical industry. This allows MSLs to gain insights into different roles and responsibilities outside of the medical affairs department and can lead to an interesting career path. Furthermore, it is quite common for pharmaceutical companies to arrange short term secondments within other teams if it is desired by the employee. It does not only lead to enhanced skillsets and knowledge but also provides an opportunity to learn about certain other roles from within. As with any career move it is important to stay proactive and inform your manager of your interest in different roles, as they can often help you gain relevant experience. Below are a few examples of a transition to another department:

· MSL to Associate brand manager to Brand manager to Marketing manager

· MSL to Regulatory Affairs Associate to Regulatory Affairs Specialist

· MSL to Pricing Reimbursement and Access Consultant to Pricing Reimbursement and Access Manager to Corporate Affairs Director

The MSL role is unique in offering a variety of different career options. Those wishing to develop in the MSL role, share their expertise and continue daily interactions within healthcare community, may consider a career path where the MSL role is central. Those wishing to oversee a number of different teams and coordinate the development and implementation of medical-scientific strategy within the company may be well suited to a leadership role within medical affairs. Finally, those with an interest in utilising their commercial acumen can choose to make a move to the marketing, market access or corporate affairs teams.

The direction the MSL career takes is a personal responsibility – the key is to be proactive, discuss and explore available options and look for development opportunities!

If you would like to have a live discussion about MSL career, please join us at MSLA networking event, which will focus on career pathways for MSLs on the 13th of June. Click here for more information.


1. Mark Macdonald, MSLA Chairman, on behalf of the MSLA. “State of the Nation” Survey Results: Medical Science Liaison Association Journal (May 2021) Vol. 4 Issue 1.

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