What is a Medical Science Liaison?


The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a specific role within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device, CRO and other health-care industries. MSLs have advanced scientific training and academic credentials generally consisting of a doctorate degree (Ph.D., PharmD., M.D.) in the life sciences. They concentrate on a specific Therapeutic Area (i.e. Oncology, Cardiology, CNS, Pulmonary, Hematology, Surgery, Women’s Health Care, etc) and disease state.

Medical Science Liaisons are vital to the success of a company. They work throughout a product’s lifecycle, help to ensure that products are utilized effectively, serve as scientific peers and resources within the medical community, and are scientific experts to internal colleagues at companies. However, the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s), at major academic institutions and clinics.

Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) were first established by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967 as a response to the need for scientifically trained field staff that would be able to build rapport with Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) in various therapeutic areas of research. Although originally called Medical Science Liaisons by Upjohn, over the years and today, companies have used various names for the role including: Medical Liaisons, Medical Managers, Regional Scientific Managers, Clinical Liaisons, and Scientific Affairs Managers among others. Originally, the first MSLs were selected from experienced sales representatives that had strong scientific backgrounds to bring a higher degree of clinical and educational expertise to the medical professionals they were working with. Over the years, MSL teams have been made up of individuals with various scientific backgrounds including: sales reps, those with nursing backgrounds, those with various doctoral degrees or other clinical backgrounds. However, the required educational and scientific background as well as the purpose of the MSL role has progressively changed over the years since they were first established.

In the late 1980’s, a number of companies began to require those applying to MSL roles to hold a doctorate degree such as an M.D., PharmD., or Ph.D. Although historically, the educational standard in the industry did not require MSLs to have a doctorate degree, today the doctorate degree has become the educational standard in the industry for the MSL role. In fact, according to the 2019 MSL Salary and Compensation Surveyconducted by the MSL Society, which included 1,978 MSL professionals from 71 countries, 86% of current MSLs in the U.S. and 79% of current MSLs globally, across all company types and all therapeutic areas have a doctorate degree.

Since being first established by Upjohn Pharmaceuticals in 1967, MSLs have become increasingly more important to the success of the companies that employ them. As a result, the MSL profession has grown exponentially over the last several years, and according to a 2018 global MSL Society survey, 68% of managers plan to expand the size of their MSL teams within the next two years. 

Although the MSL role is growing and evolving, the MSL community is still small when compared to other professions within the pharmaceutical industry. The evolution and rapid growth of the role has resulted in the need for a professional society dedicated to the MSL role. Today there is even an official International MSL Day, which occurs every year on March 27th, to recognize the profession, and raise awareness of the importance of the global MSL profession. Another very important milestone for the profession is the first-ever Board Certification for MSLs. The Medical Science Liaison – Board Certification (MSL-BC®) establishes an industry standard of professionalism and sets the standard for quality for MSLs globally.