MSLs: Understanding the Phenotype When Building Your Field Medical Affairs Team

Posted by The Bowdoin Group on April 1st, 2021


Two people wearing masks talking about building a team

Written by Aaron Harris, PhD (Senior Consultant), Lindsey Potvin (Vice President, Team Expansions and RPO Services), and Justin Endres (Managing Director, Life Sciences).

Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) play an integral and specialized role in the growth of life science organizations, and never more so than during the COVID pandemic. When preparing to commercialize, MSLs provide a scientific lens into the efficacy into the therapeutic being developed and through that work, support various functions throughout the organization.

MSLs: The Phenotype and Core Competencies

MSLs are experts in (and often passionate about) the science and cutting edge technology behind the products being developed. These hires are crucial for building key opinion leader (KOL) relationships, therefore communication and relationship-building are key. Internally and externally, they are thought leaders for your organization, and can help drive strategy to prepare for your product launch.

Based on the numerous MSL placements we’ve been responsible for, we’ve identified and outlined the core competencies of the best profiles for your team:

  • Disease State Expertise: Proven experience in the specific therapeutic space; understand endpoints of clinical trials
  • Industry Experience: Expertise presenting to and partnering with medical professionals; understand how providers work and operate
  • Strategic: Are creative and strategic in their approach to get in front of KOLs; willing and excited to come up with new solutions
  • Articulate: Personable, able to communicate effectively cross-functionally with both internal and external stakeholders; able to clearly articulate value proposition of product
  • Motivated & Driven: Desire to hustle hard in order to excel in the role; willing to go the extra mile
  • Self-Starter: Takes initiative and knows self-capacity; will know how to initiate meetings and accomplish goals; creative and flexible with roles and responsibilities as company expands
  • Advanced Degree: Ideally have an MD, PharmD, or PhD, but not necessary if relevant previous work experience is applicable

Today most MSLs have an advanced degree. According to a 2020 MSL survey conducted by the Medical Science Liaison Society, “85% of current MSLs in the U.S. and 77% of current MSLs globally, across all company types and all therapeutic areas have a doctorate degree,”[1] with 38% reporting a PharmD and 37% reporting a PhD. Historically, MSLs have come from varied backgrounds, including nursing, sales, or other clinical areas.[2]

While there has become an educational standard for the MSL role over the last few decades, we’ve found that these arbitrary restrictions sometimes limit the candidate pool and can exclude candidates. For example, some of our recent clients have identified candidates that have a nursing degree, know specific KOLs, and have a proven knack for getting their foot in the door. Another candidate worked as a Physician Assistant in their previous role and understood the patient perspective in that specific disease state. Combining candidates with somewhat non-traditional backgrounds with those who have advanced degrees like PharmDs and PhDs makes for a winning MSL team with your Medical Affairs function.

Medical Science Liaisons by the numbers including compensation information

Building the Right MSL Team

As we see more Life Sciences companies preparing to bring drugs to market, the race has never been more competitive for hiring the best and brightest teams. And while the MSL team is not responsible for the commercialization of a drug, their support can make or break a drug’s success.

So, what do we see our most successful clients doing to build out this crucial team?

  • Starting Early with Recruiting: This is always the biggest way to get a leg up on the competition, but it’s even more important when considering the timeline to commercialization. Teams must hit the window between drug development and FDA approval across different subsegments of their team. Once you’re 12-18 months out, you’ll want to start developing disease state awareness in key medical communities and creating the ecosystem with the team of MSLs.
  • Hiring the Right Leadership: Whether you’re hiring a National Director or Director of MSLs, the most important piece to the puzzle is hiring the right leaders to manage your MSL team. These leaders tend to have worked their way up the ladder, building experience as a Medical Science Liaison themselves so they know when to step in and when to step back. Great leadership sets the foundation for a great MSL team.
  • Understanding the Geographic Differences: With the pandemic’s effects becoming clearer, Life Sciences leaders can no longer have a single approach to physician access and assume that doctors in one part of the country will want to engage in the same way as in another. The phenotype of MSLs hired to service those different geographic areas will increasingly have to respond to more localized needs (e.g. virtual vs. in-person discussions, ad hoc vs. scheduled interactions, etc.).
  • Creating a Blended Team: Diversity is key to any high-performing team, and it’s no different when you think about the strategy behind your MSL team. Creating a team that blends together different backgrounds (PhDs, PharmDs, nursing degrees, etc.) will encourage creative solutions to challenges physicians are facing when learning about the drug. For example:
    • Those with PhDs will understand the disease state and the drug more mechanically.
    • MSLs with PharmDs will understand the MOA (mechanism of action), PKPD (Pharmacokinetic-Pharmacodynamic) analysis, and will better understand the applications of the drug on the body through their training on the drug itself.
    • Nurses will have more experience with the effects of the drug on patients’ quality of life.

Creating a blended team can help address concerns and challenges facing Medical Affairs teams.

For BioPharma and BioTech companies starting to think about bringing their drugs to market, building out your MSL team the right way is critical to the overall company’s success, even if it’s not directly related to the commercialization process. Don’t overlook key milestones, core competencies, or building a comprehensive strategy before starting the hiring process. It’s the Life Science leaders who get ahead of the curve that typically see the best hiring outcomes.

Download the Infographic

Want to learn about The Bowdoin Group’s capabilities across Medical Affairs, Market Access, Sales, and Marketing when building out your Life Science company? Download our latest eBook on Post-Pandemic Commercialization: Building the Best Team on the Timeline You Need.”


[1] Medical Science Liaison Salary & Compensation, Medical Science Liaison Society

[2] What is a Medical Science Liaison?, Medical Science Liaison Society

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