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Starting a new MSL Role: what to expect

Throughout an MSL career, a change in therapy area as well as employer is almost inevitable. This may become even more pronounced with the growing role of medical affairs and an increasing organisational appetite for diverse experiences, broad expertise, and for individuals with the ability to easily adapt to change. The reasons for a move to a new company or disease area are very diverse: a change in personal interests or circumstances; an opportunity for career development; an enthusiasm to explore different business models, and many others. No matter what the reasons for such a move are, there are three key steps to becoming a fully effective member of a wider team after starting a new MSL role. These steps are also crucial when starting your first MSL job.

1. Becoming an expert in the new therapy area and the company’s products

Medical science liaisons are externally facing representatives of an organisation and act as the company's scientific experts for specific drugs and relevant disease areas. As such, MSLs are expected to be well versed in all relevant research, clinical trials, and most recent developments. It is not a surprise that with a new MSL role comes a requirement for speedy learning. The onboarding process differs between employers and can range from pure self-study to attendance of training courses delivered by specialised training departments (internal and oftentimes external).

It is a responsibility of the MSL to guarantee they utilise all available resources to become an expert in their new field and they should always endeavour to demonstrate leadership by driving their own learning process. In collaboration with their manager, an MSL can develop a robust learning plan taking into consideration expectations of the new employer: when is the MSL expected to be fully versed in the relevant information by? When is the MSL expected to start meeting healthcare professionals? What are the current needs of the company? The number of therapy areas and products to cover, prior experience as well as other responsibilities, such as getting familiar with company’s policies, meeting new colleagues, attending meetings, will also have an impact on a learning timeframe.

Overall, the first few months in a new MSL role are highly focused on learning: academic as well as about the company, including colleague roles & structures. This is a great time to develop first internal relationships by being inquisitive and asking questions. The first few months also present an excellent opportunity to learn from other MSLs, if they are already in place within a company. They will be able to direct you to the relevant information, which can be difficult to navigate at first, and update you on the hot topics.

2. Establishing relationships with internal stakeholders

Starting a new role is never easy when it comes to remembering new names, roles, or responsibilities of internal stakeholders. Especially when at the same time an MSL is trying to get up to speed with company’s policies, procedures, and therapy area. ‘Internal stakeholders’ can be anyone within the company who an MSL interacts with on a regular basis to get the job done. The wider medical team (other MSLs, medical information, medical advisors, R&D, clinical operations), marketing colleagues and cross-functional field partners (sales, market access, etc.) are on this list. It is also important to look a bit further and identify who could play an important role in enabling your success within the company. It may be beneficial to establish relationships with departmental administrators as well as learning and development partners. New colleagues may reach out to an MSL seeking introductory meetings; however, it is important for an MSL to take responsibility in leading this process. For someone new to industry, it may take a bit longer to get familiar with different functions across the company but being open to getting involved in collaborative projects further down the line will really help in understanding roles and responsibilities, establishing relationships, and increasing learning.

3. Establishing relationships with healthcare professionals

Discussions about starting a conversation with HCPs usually commence just after your manager is confident you are well versed in your therapy area and have sufficient knowledge on the company’s products and data. It is usually two to three months after starting the new role, but this varies across different employers, and it may follow a formal validation process. Depending on the lifecycle of the company’s products, identification and building new relationships with HCPs may be necessary. In other instances, where the products have been on the market for a while, relationships with key HCPs will already be established by the cross functional team. In any case, the process of establishing MSL relationships with external stakeholders begins with introductions. These can be arranged directly by the MSL or by cross functional team colleagues if such relationships are established. This process may look a bit different if an MSL moved to a different company within the same therapy area where they already had established significant relationships - an email informing key HCPs about such a move may be all that is needed at the start.

For someone starting their first MSL role in pharmaceutical industry, it may be extremely useful to shadow fellow MSLs when they are visiting HCPs. This will not only allow a new starter to learn about the conduct of MSL meetings but will also enable quicker learning. By observing conversations between experienced MSLs and HCPs, a new colleague will also be able to pick up key questions asked by HCPs, which provides an invaluable insight into trending themes. These are likely to be the main topics of discussion once the new MSL starts visiting HCPs on their own. In view of hybrid working these days, it’s not difficult to have remote shadowing.

Overall, it takes around one year to become a fully established MSL within an organisation. This is when an MSL feels comfortable in solving problems, new development, and coming up with new ideas. At this point, an MSL has established the beginnings of relationships with HCPs and is an integral part of the cross functional team. While becoming an expert in the field requires learning on the job and is a continuous process, the groundwork is done during those first months of employment.

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