The medical science liaison (MSL) is emerging as one of the most important roles in the modern pharmaceutical industry¹. The role requires a unique set of skills and competencies that can only be fully developed through experience in the field, so there is interest in MSL onboarding strategies that build confident, field-ready MSLs and put them on the path to long-term success. In my 6 years in the industry, I have gone from being a new MSL with no industry experience to hiring, training, and managing MSLs. Based on what I have seen work well, I have put together a straightforward model for managing the onboarding phase of a new MSL and progressively building their skill over a period of about two years.
The model comprises two components: Effective New MSL Management and Progressive MSL Competency Development. The present article will cover the first of these components.
New MSL management
The MSL is a complex and demanding role, and new MSLs (who may also be new to the industry) need 12-18 months to comprehend its scope and find their feet. The goal of the MSL’s manager during the onboarding period is to reassure and direct the new MSL and guide them towards independence, whilst developing the MSL’s competency in the core medical affairs activities. Some of the practical things a new MSL’s manager can do to achieve this goal are:
- First, be an MSL. The best person to manage MSLs (especially new MSLs) was an MSL for a minimum of 4 years. They have themselves obtained mastery of the core MSL field activities and thus can lead by example. Such a person will obviously have a greater understanding of the pressures and demands faced by MSLs and hence will be better placed to hire and manage the right people and to develop a medical strategy that is aligned with the realities of life in the field. In fact, in the modern medical affairs environment, experience as a field MSL should be an absolute requirement of a person who will be managing MSLs.
- Hire the right person. “Right person” means the best fit for the company, the role, the manager, and the MSL themselves. It’s a task that could easily fill a separate article but suffice it to say, it’s probably the single most important decision the MSL’s manager will make.
- Appreciate the pressure they are under. During this time the new MSL is grappling with a combination of demands: adjusting to the corporate and healthcare environments; finding their feet in a relatively new and ever-evolving role; rapidly acquiring the requisite expert-level therapeutic area knowledge, and being expected to almost immediately develop relationships with KOLs who may be global experts in their field. It’s a lot to deal with and, suffice to say, the understanding of a manager who has themselves once been an MSL will strongly affect the MSL’s professional development over the ensuing 24 months.
- Set up a written MSL onboarding plan. This is the blueprint for the MSL’s first 6 to 12 months and is a live document. Along with the usual orientation information, it should also contain the following:
– An overview of the company’s Medical Affairs operations, categorized by function (Medical Information, Compassionate Access, Medical Education, Field Scientific Exchange, etc)
– The MSL competency development plan (to be detailed in Part 2 of this series)
– guidance and templates for KOL mapping, territory planning, and KOL Engagement Plans
– any expectations regarding time spent in-field with KOLs and on project work
The MSL onboarding plan should be set up during the MSL’s first week and routinely revised after that to ensure that it is pragmatic and tailored to the MSL’s individual situation. It must be flexible and able to evolve based on feedback from the MSL’s experience in-field. Since the MSL is the nexus between strategy and reality, progressively optimizing the onboarding template with each new MSL keeps the company’s approach to onboarding attuned to the needs of the real world.
- Settling in the period. Prior to going out in-field, the new MSL should be given three months to settle in, study the therapeutic area material, adjust to the industry, and come to understand the intricacies of the MSL role and its expectations. This settling-in period should be formally announced to cross-functional colleagues and should be enforced by the MSL’s manager. It is an essential part of managing the demands placed on the new MSL during the onboarding phase.
- Weekly progress meetings. At these meetings, the MSL’s progress against the pre-stated expectations is assessed and the MSL’s own thoughts and feedback on their situation is discussed. New MSLs need to receive regular feedback and to be reassured that they are on the right track and performing according to expectations, otherwise they can easily find themselves feeling directionless and overwhelmed, especially if they work remotely. It is the manager’s job to make sure this does not happen.
- Introductory meetings with key people. The purpose of these meetings is not merely to introduce people. Someone who is new to the industry may simply have no idea what the job titles in a complex pharmaceuticals company mean, so the MSL’s manager must ensure that the MSL comes away with some understanding of their colleagues’ functions and (especially) the day-to-day relevance of these functions to the MSL themselves.
- Shadow an experienced MSL. The obvious ideal is for the new MSL to shadow a colleague who works in the same disease state/therapeutic area and who engages the same clinicians, but there is a benefit (to both the individual and the organization) if the MSL can also spend time in the field with experienced MSLs in other therapeutic areas.
An MSL’s onboarding phase is a window of opportunity that slams shut once the demands of fieldwork take over. Their experience during these initial weeks and months will impact their confidence, beliefs, attitude, productivity, and even their mental health, so the manager must invest commensurate time and effort to create an environment where the MSL can grow into the role at a rate that is only slightly uncomfortable. They can then begin, with the manager’s guidance, to progressively perform and demonstrate competence in the key medical affairs activities, a guide to which – Progressive MSL Competency Development – will comprise Part Two of this series.
- Pharma in Focus, 9th September 2022. https://pharmainfocus.com.au/news_m.asp?newsid=20064
Tim Nielsen, PhD
Tim Nielsen is a medical affairs professional based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a former research scientist who entered the pharmaceutical industry in 2016. He is presently employed by Celltrion Healthcare and has previously worked for MSD and Janssen. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer or former employers.