The Job and What's Involved

Pharmacologists study the way different chemicals affect the body and how medicines work. The role is vital to the advance of medicine. Pharmacologists play a big part in discovering new medicines to treat diseases and ease pain. They work to ensure that these new drugs are used in the most safe and effective ways.

Some pharmacologists carry out fundamental research in universities and research institutes. Others apply this research to specific medicines, working within the pharmaceutical industry. Nearly a quarter of the world's top medicines have been discovered and developed in the UK.

A pharmacologists role may include:

  • Designing tests to study the effects of medicines or drug compounds, using cells, animals or human volunteers.
  • Modelling experiments by computer simulation.
  • Overseeing tests in the laboratory.
  • Writing papers for scientific publications or to seek approval for new medicines.
  • Presenting research findings to scientific colleagues.

New advances in molecular biology (the study of cell systems) and genomics (the study of an organism's genes) are having a big impact on pharmacologists' work in drug discovery.

The work can be exciting and satisfying, but it requires persistence. It takes around 12 years for a new medicine to go through the tests required before it can be prescribed by doctors.

Pharmacologists work with scientists in many disciplines, such as biologists, chemists and toxicologists. They may supervise junior laboratory workers. They may also work alongside other industry colleagues, such as clinical researchers and medical information executives.

Pharmacologists usually work Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm. Longer hours may be required to complete projects.

The work is based mainly in laboratories. Pharmacologists in industry may also spend a lot of time in offices or manufacturing sites.

Laboratory work is carried out in a clean environment. Pharmacologists wear protective gear, including lab coats, masks and gloves. They may work with hazardous substances.

Some pharmacologists travel internationally to present findings and attend conferences.

Typically salaries for newly qualified pharmacologists start at around £21,500 for those with a first degree and £26,000 for those with postgraduate qualifications. With more experience, pharmacologists may earn £30,000 to £40,000. The most senior pharmacologists may earn up to £100,000.

In industry, earnings may be boosted by bonus schemes and other rewards, such as share options and company car. Salaries in universities are often lower.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

The pharmaceutical industry employs around 73,000 people in the UK. There are hundreds of pharmaceutical companies, ranging in size from small research laboratories to household names such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline.

Contract laboratories, which test new drug compounds for safety on behalf of pharmaceutical firms, also employ pharmacologists.

Universities and medical research organisations are the other main employers. There are also jobs within some government regulatory bodies, such as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), government laboratories and environmental agencies, and publicly funded research organisations, such as the Medical Research Council (MRC). NHS hospitals also employ pharmacologists, usually for clinical trials.

Competition for jobs can be keen. Gaining related work experience early in your career or while studying could be an advantage. The website of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) provides a list of pharmaceutical recruiters on their 'getting into the industry' section.

Vacancies may be advertised in national press, in specialist publications such as Nature and New Scientist, and and on the website of the British Pharmacological Society (BPS).

Education and Training

A degree in pharmacology is almost always required. Because competition is keen, many pharmacologists also have a postgraduate degree.

Pharmacology degree programme's run in several UK universities. It is possible to combine a pharmacology degree with other subjects, such as biochemistry, chemistry, languages, immunology, management and physiology.

Entry requirements to a pharmacology degree are normally at least three A levels, including biology, chemistry and either physics or maths, plus five GCSE's (A*-C), including English and maths, or equivalent qualifications.

Graduates with a first degree in another subject may take an MSc in pharmacology. Those with a first degree in pharmacology may go on to postgraduate study in a specialist field, such as toxicology.

It may be possible to enter the field as a laboratory technician within pharmacology through an apprenticeship, and then to study part time for a pharmacology degree.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Pharmacology degree courses develop students' understanding of how the body works, how diseases occur and how different drugs affect the body. Students look at the actions of medicines in computer simulations, in cells and tissues from animals, and in student volunteers. They also carry out a substantial amount of practical laboratory work.

There are opportunities in most BSc pharmacology courses to do a year's work placement in a pharmaceutical company in the UK or abroad. This kind of experience offers big advantages to those seeking to work in research and development within industry.

In vivo pharmacology experience - that is, carrying out trials involving living animals or human volunteers - is similarly useful. All research involving animals is strictly regulated through the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Scientists who carry out experiments involving animals must hold a personal licence, issued by the Home Office.

The BPS Diploma in Advanced Pharmacology is aimed predominantly at scientists who have entered the field from a different discipline.

Pharmacologists need to keep skills and knowledge up to date throughout their career. As well as developing ongoing research, this may include attending short courses offered by universities and science training centres. Continuing professional development (CPD) programme's are offered by both BPS and ABPI.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A pharmacologist needs:

  • An understanding of science, maths and statistics.
  • Excellent skills in analysis and problem solving.
  • Good communication and presentation skills.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Persistence.
  • To work well as part of a team.
  • Leadership ability.
  • A fluent writing style.
  • IT skills.
  • Flexibility.

Your Long Term Prospects

The career of a pharmacologist can progress in different ways. With a PhD, some enter academic research and teaching posts in universities. The subject is part of many science and professional courses, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary science and nursing. At this level, it would be expected that researchers start to form their own research group, possibly specialising in a specific field such as neuroscience or cardiovascular disease.

Others enter the pharmaceutical industry, where careers can develop into areas linked specifically to research, management, clinical trials or regulatory affairs.

Pharmacologists in industry may also take on sales roles, using their scientific background to:

  • Promote products to healthcare professionals.
  • Contribute to product strategy and marketing.
  • Train as patent agents, protecting the design of company products from being copied by rivals.

It may be possible to move into medical writing for pharmaceutical companies or for a medical or scientific publisher.

Progression is further improved by working in different research environments and countries, including Europe and the USA.

With further training, pharmacology graduates can move into medicine, dentistry or veterinary medicine. With a pharmacology degree, it is possible to apply for a shortened graduate medical training course, typically lasting around four years.

Get Further Information

British Pharmacological Society (BPS),
16 Angel Gate, City Road, London EC1V 2PT
Tel: 020 7417 0110

Medical Research Council,
20 Park Crescent, London W1B 1AL
Tel: 020 7636 5422

Medicines and Healthcare products
Regulatory Agency (MHRA),
10-2 Market Towers, 1 Nine Elms Lane,
London SW8 5NQ
Tel: 020 7084 2000

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