Career area: Medical affairs – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Medical affairs

Medical affairs is a department within pharmaceutical companies that deals with scientific and clinical support for medicines. Life scientists are often employed in this department, particularly in “Medical Science Liaison” (MSL) positions. MSLs are experts in the science related to a particular therapeutic area (e.g. oncology, cardiovascular etc) – and act as a bridge between the company and health care providers. MSLs also manage relationships with clinicians in their specific therapeutic areas and ensure that the value of the company’s products is understood by health care providers, providing timely scientific updates and information. They also bring back information from health care providers that influences companies’ R&D strategy e.g. on unmet clinical needs. These roles are generally “field-based” with very frequent travel within the (local) region for meetings with clinicians, and other work (calls etc) completed at home or sometimes from a regional office.

Roles and responsibilities

Possible tasks may include a subset of the following activities:

  • attending relevant medical conferences,
  • identifying and directly engaging with “key opinion leaders” (clinicians in the relevant field) in a specific geographic region,
  • exchanging information with clinicians, for example, on unmet clinical needs in their area, how different products are perceived by doctors and patients – and then reporting this information back to the company,
  • working closely with clinical operations teams e.g. on presentations of clinical data that can already be communicated to clinicians,
  • sharing the latest clinical data with clinicians,
  • generating / delivering training material for sales and marketing teams,
  • reviewing information on specific medicines,
  • staying up to date on the latest developments in the therapeutic area you are responsible for,
  • organizing your meetings and communications.

Knowledge and skills

In our careers and skills survey,  7 medical affairs professionals told us the competencies they use most in their daily work. The most frequently selected competencies were:

  • effective communication (selected by 100% of respondents)
  • teamwork (selected by 71% of respondents)
  • deep knowledge of the scientific field (selected by 57% of respondents)
  • networking (selected by 57% of respondents)
  • clarity of thought (selected by 57% of respondents)
  • providing broader impact (selected by 57% of respondents)

Language skills

For MSL roles in countries where English is not the main language, strong communication skills (B2 or above) in the local language are often required, as clinicians may prefer to communicate in this language rather than English.

Career entry and progression

MSLs are employed directly by big-pharma, as well as by contract research organizations (CROs) and other similar agencies (companies) that provide out-sourced support to pharma and biotech. A strong scientific background, preferably a PhD or pharmacy qualification, is required to become a MSL.

Some courses are available on coursera or other by commercial providers and provide an overview of clinical trials and commercialization of new medicines, some also focus on understanding the MSL role in this process. Taking such courses will likely improve your chances of obtaining a position directly from academia in an agency or pharma company. Alternatively, graduate trainee programmes offered by pharma companies also offer an opportunity to break into the field. These multi-year programmes generally offer rotations in different business areas, and often include medical affairs among other non-research focused areas. Some trainee programmes also exist specifically focussed on medical affairs. Finally, it is also possible to enter from other types of role, including e.g sales.

Career progresssion

The next step on the career ladder for MSLs can be a medical advisor / manager role, responsible for the therapeutic area across an entire region. MSLs can also move laterally into other roles in pharma, including sales & marketing.

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, scientists working in medical affairs told us that they appreciate that their work:

  • is financially rewarding
  • is intellectually stimulating

Want to learn more?

Sources / further reading

Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can also be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Last update: October 2022

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The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.