Bridging the Gap: Preparing for Your MSL Role

Candace N. Brown, PharmD. Project Adviser: Jane Chin, Ph.D.
Submitted in Partial Satisfaction of the Requirements for MSL Institute’s MSL100 Certificate of Completion.


Most aspiring MSLs continually seek to learn more and more about the position, what they should be doing now to prepare for the MSL role, and how they should train once hired. There is a bridge of time and a gap of knowledge between signing a contract for hire and actively fulfilling the role of an MSL. In addition, MSLs can come from variety of professional backgrounds with a wide array of experiences and specialties, and many are industry-naive.

As a pharmacist and academician, I’ve found that gaining insight about the role and responsibilities of an MSL and how my training can be transferred that role, to be an arduous task. However, it is important to identify which skills and experiences can be applied to the MSL role and what other skills need to be developed through training.

As part of an internship through MSL Institute and as part of the project requirement for MSL Institute’s MSL100 Certificate of Completion for Pre-Hire MSLs, I set out to explore this question with a survey of MSL Institute’s community members. An open-text survey was announced to more than 2000 members of MSL Institute’s community list and data was collected for 30 days. Responders have the option of sharing their contact information for telephone-followup. Based on responses from 18 MSLs, we examined what newly hired MSLs can do to better acclimate to their MSL role.

Survey Results

The MSLs surveyed represented various corporate environments including Specialty (22%), Biotech (33%), Big Pharma (22%), and Contracted MSL services (17%). One person (6%) did not specify the type of company for which they worked, Table 1.

Their duration of employment as an MSL ranged from 0-3 months of hire to greater than 12 months of hire, with the vast majority having greater than 12 months of experience as an MSL, Table 2.

When asked about their prior work experience, there was a variety of skill sets that may or may not have contributed to their ability to get accustomed to their role. Other than those who were previously employed as MSLs, backgrounds that included clinical, patient care and medical affairs experience were listed as being a major help in preparing to be an MSL.

Survey participants were asked to elaborate on their experience as an MSL concerning the following questions:

  • What prior experience best helped you prepare for the MSL role?

  • What are you doing now to prepare to your role as an MSL?

  • What were your training deficits/most difficult things to learn or get accustomed to as a new hire?

  • What characteristics/personality traits best helped during training or working as an MSL?

The responses from the survey were grouped into three (3) categories of responses based on whether or not they revealed a challenge or obstacle, provided best practice training solutions or described a characteristic or attribute that was advantageous for a newly hired or aspiring MSL to possess.

Challenges/Obstacles of Acclimating to the MSL Role with Survey Responses.

Time Management Oriented

Project Management

  • “I think that juggling priorities is always a biggie”

  • “Time management”

  • “Project leadership in drug discovery helped”

Absorbing copious amounts of information in short periods of time

  • “Learning and retaining the over abundance of clinical data on the product and all products in the class”

Territory Management

  • “Learning to live away from the office was difficult.”

Relationship Oriented

Developing Key Opinion Leader (KOL) relationships

  • “Different perspective on working with KOLs (now representing a pharma company)”

  • “Developing creative ways to engage KOLs in discussion.”

Managing sales/drug rep relationships

  • “Different perspective on working with KOLs (now representing a pharma company)”

Collaborating with matrix/cross-functional teams

  • “Ability to work effectively with a matrix team. Business strategy and territory management skills.”

  • “MSL work requires quite a bit of managing various interrelated ideas and goals and people with different backgrounds.”

Pharma Business Oriented

Overcoming a lack of resources to accommodate MSL functions

  • “lack of resources and follow-up internally”

  • “Lack of print materials available for field-based personnel”

Being able to discuss information on a PhD level

  • “PhD-level data. So far, I believe the role is a mixture of knowing the disease state, clinical management and new data. I am well versed in the disease state and clinical management; however, being able to speak/discuss data at a PhD level still eludes me. On the other hand, I see many of my PhD colleagues break into a sweat at the thought of discussing patient management. The gap exists in tailoring the training to areas of knowledge deficit.”

  • “How to discuss the information in a conversation versus "data dump" or didactic type manner.”

  • “medically competent enough to have scientific exchange with Drs.”

Developing Analytical Skills

Distinguishing oneself as an MSL from Sales/marketing personnel

  • “My company did not distinguish between MSLs and sales when it came to training materials, and everything was labeled sales. This caused some confusion as there are many differences in these two field-based roles. There was no MSL training program in place at the time of hire.” Being proficient in the business responsibilities of MSLs

  • “The gaps for a MSL are very individual. I had gaps about contracting, reports, study requirements and availability of information to transitional MSLs”

  • “Telling a KOL what is necessary for an interim report. Reading and understanding contracts with all the new regulations. I have found that KOLs haven’t been informed and are not aware of the mandatory requirements for reporting."

Upholding and executing company policies and standard operating procedures

  • “One can always use more training/experience in the ever changing PHRMA guidelines.”

Becoming well versed in clinical language

  • “Learning the clinical language and norms."

While these challenges and obstacles seem great in number, once conquered, they represent key features displayed by high-performing MSLs and are certainly desired by all MSLs. Balancing time and scheduling tasks within the MSL’s professional responsibilities not only relies on one’s ability to be punctual and prepared for said tasks, but also to recognize when flexibility should be given and adjust accordingly. Beyond the actual MSL job functions, one must also aspire to create a healthy balance between personal and professional obligations (“work/life balance”). If personal and professional obligations are not attended to continually, they will eventually begin to negatively affect each other.

One of the major roles of MSLs is to establish and maintain relationships with Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) on behalf of the company they serve. Appropriately designing and following a strategy to effectively fulfill this function and executing it within industry standards was a recurring theme throughout the survey responses. It is imperative to learn the regulations and company policies and procedures governing their interaction with KOLs.

Requisite in maintaining relationships with KOLs is being able to converse about clinical information with them on the appropriate level. Due to the diverse background that MSLs may come from, those who may not be as versed in clinical language initially may have a higher learning curve with communicating clinical information fluently and confidently.

Another important aspect of maintaining relationships is the management of the relationship between the MSL and the sales/marketing personnel. The expectations for interaction with sales/marketing may vary from company to company. It may also be incumbent on each individual to conduct himself or herself professionally and with integrity to ultimately contribute toward a corporate goal in a compliant manner.

At the same time, MSLs must differentiate themselves from sales/marketing personnel as the MSL’s responsibilities and job functions should be markedly different. Some of the responses gathered imply that when muddled with unrelated sales or marketing activity, the value of the MSL and what they can offer to the company,

KOLs and patients they serve is diminished. The value of the MSL’s role in the company may be assessed by their ability to contribute in cross-functional or matrix teams in which they would interact with others from various professional backgrounds.

how does a newly hired MSL overcome these challenges and obstacles?

Survey responders suggested several training solutions based on their experience once hired, Table 4. Most of the suggestions are centered on building relationships with other MSLs. Mentorships, preceptorships and coaching were mentioned several times throughout the survey responses.

Performing role plays of interactions commonly encountered in the field, going on “ride-a-longs”, and participating in journal clubs and conference calls to share ideas are a few of the activities best for a mentor-mentee relationship with a newly hired MSL. Enrolling in workshops or courses that cover industry related subjects was a training solution that one could undertake individually to further solidify the copious amount of new information.

Potential Acclimation and Training Solutions

Role playing with other MSLs

Mentors/ preceptorships/ coaching

  • “I'm classically trained in the Upjohn mode. All training prepared by team members and mentored by 4-6 senior liaisons during first 2 years.”

“One-to-One Training”

  • “Many preceptorships”

  • “Customer service literature shadowing senior ML coaching ride alongs”

  • “Have participated in various leadership classes, workshops and participating in a 1:1 peer training with Sr MSL.”


  • “Should have insisted on more ride-a-longs. The MSL role is not a set block of activities. It varies weekly and even seasonally depending on where the focus of the company is.”

  • “Near the end of the training period ride-a-longs will take place w various MSLs to get a working knowledge of the marketplace and company policies & regulations in a real world setting. A final presentation is required for each disease state to peers to ensure wide understanding of the disease state and clinical data.

Workshops and courses

  • “CLASSES!”

  • “many symposia and courses, Harvard courses in related therapeutic fields”

Conference calls to share ideas

  • “Upon hire did weekly conference calls with trainer and mentor assigned to me for 3 months. Also did field day ride along with 2 senior MSLs”

  • “I found that people that won’t share information created the most obstacles to me learning my job.”

Journal Clubs

  • “There is a lot of emphasis on presentation skills and meeting skills. There are also informal journal clubs to allow the MSLs to keep up to date on publications.

Most importantly, the newly acquired MSL should be fully aware of their role and related functions. Knowledge of one’s role as an MSL will provide the foundation for identifying appropriate training solutions and acclimating approaches. What exactly is the MSLs role? I could provide several definitions and job descriptions to summarize what an MSL may do, but these still would not fully express the totality of the MSL role.

One may simplify that an aspiration toward an MSL’s role is to be “that” person. However, this creates the challenge to define who “that” person is. In today’s culture of mass marketing and consumerism, people have endless options to choose from when considering a company or a product. Price is a driving force, but there is a force that can trump economic advantage: relationships. There are some services and products that consumer is loyal to, not because the service or product was the best or the cheapest, but because of the relationship they had with the person providing the service or product.

There was a connection to the customer, face-to-face contact, and a trust built because of the relationship that was established. The MSL ultimately needs to be “that” person; the person that the company turns to when they information about a KOL, or the person the KOL trusts to give accurate unbiased information about a product produced by the MSLs company. They need to be the reason KOLs participate in the company research endeavors and the company is able to attract and maintain KOL involvement. MSLs must be of value to both the company and the KOLs.


To become “that” person there are several personality traits and characteristics that MSLs should possess. The survey responders identified 7 of these traits.

Desired Personality Traits and Characteristics of MSLs

  1. Communication Skills

  2. Presentation Skills

  3. Perseverance

  4. Personal Drive/Self-Motivation

  5. Flexibility/Adaptability

  6. Open to/Responds to Feedback

  7. Compassion for those you serve

MSLs must be able to effectively communicate; not just on a scientific level, but on a professional and often times personal level. The MSLs’ ability to relate to the KOLs is undeniably advantageous in their efforts to establish a relationship with them.

Strong presentation skills are also essential for MSLs to possess because delivering presentations is a task that is frequently performed. MSLs should be able to clearly articulate ideas and information and answer questions as needed.

Because the MSLs role requires a lot of time in the field and working from home as opposed to reporting to a headquarters or central office on regular basis, MSLs must be self-motivated concerning their responsibilities. While there are many team-level activities with oversight from MSL managers and directors, many of the day-day functions depend on the individual MSL’s ability to be self-directed.

Flexibility/Adaptability was repeatedly mentioned within the survey responses. MSLs need to be flexible in how they approach KOLs, how they schedule tasks and how they manage projects and assignments. They must align their activities to company priorities and conform to ethical industry standards as well as logistically adapt to accessible resources as they travel. It is important to be prepared and anticipate the likelihood of various potential issues that may arise during the course of fulfilling the MSLs’ objectives.

To improve their performance as field-based medical science liaison professionals, MSLs need to be open to and respond to feedback from KOLs, peers and supervisors. In the event that a KOL gives an MSL feedback about their interaction, and in particular about the KOL’s preferences and expectations for an interaction, heeding the KOL’s suggestions can be fundamental to maintaining the relationship with that KOL.

It is equally important to reflect and respond accordingly to supervisor and peer feedback. Experienced peers and supervisors usually have a larger knowledge of policy and procedure as well as techniques that work well when performing various liaison functions. Attention to their advice can prevent the new MSL from making mistakes that may prove to be detrimental to the MSL’s effectiveness.

Lastly, MSLs should have compassion for those they serve. Ultimately MSLs are serving the patients whose lives will be affected by the work they do to advance research and development within a specific therapeutic area. One responder suggested that joining patient advocacy groups that are related to their area of specialty not only increases awareness concerning that disease state, it also shows patients that the pharmaceutical companies care about their well being and are working to promote better healthcare.

However, pursuing this type of activity should coincide with you company’s policies and procedures before being pursued. Because the MSL mostly plays a “behind the scenes” part of the healthcare system, it is easy to become removed from those who are ultimately affected by the collective hard work MSLs have invested through their role, from giving presentations to attending scientific conferences to interacting with KOLs. Being patient centered in conjunction with alignment of activities to company endeavors brings greater meaning and relevance to the MSLs for the important role they perform in healthcare.