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How to Become a Pharmacologist

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Pharmacologists are medical scientists who research how drugs work and help develop new medicines. Although many pharmacologists change industries during their careers, they typically work in three major sectors -- pharmaceutical companies, government and academia. A pharmacologist education begins with a bachelor's degree in a field such as biochemistry or pharmacology. Most pharmacologists have a Ph.D. in pharmacology or a related major, and some complete multiple doctorates or post-doctoral fellowships.

The Difference between a Pharmacist and Pharmacologist

Pharmacists work in a pharmacy, which can be an independent facility, part of chain drug store, or located in a hospital or clinic. The job of a pharmacist is to dispense prescription medications and ensure the safety of their use. Pharmacists work directly with patients and customers to educate them about the medications that have been prescribed.

A pharmacologist works in a laboratory. They help develop drugs and work with drugs companies to make drugs safer. Their job is research-based and do not interact directly with patients or customers.

Earn a Ph.D. or M.D.

A Ph.D. in pharmacology is a common path to a career as a pharmacologist, especially for jobs in research or academia. Pharmacologist colleges are those offering an advanced degree that takes four to five years to complete and includes classes and lab work in cell biology, medical pharmacology and endocrine pharmacology. Conducting original research and preparing a dissertation are integral to a Ph.D. program. Some also enter the field by obtaining a doctor of medicine degree, while others have an M.D. and Ph.D., or other combination of doctorates. Many universities offer the M.D./Ph.D. in a single program of six to eight years. This program requires medical coursework, clinical medical training, clinical laboratory rotations, original research in pharmacology and the preparation of a Ph.D. thesis.

Choose Alternate Paths

Pharmacologists may also prepare through a doctor of pharmacy degree, sometimes in addition to the Ph.D. A Pharm.D. typically takes four years after the bachelor's and includes classes such as chemistry and pharmacology, plus clinical rotations in pharmacy settings. Some pharmacologists also complete other degree combinations, such as an M.D. plus a Pharm.D., or a master of public health and a doctorate in medicine or pharmacy. Most degree combinations can lead to work in any of the three major sectors. A master of public health typically takes about two years and prepares you more specifically for government jobs.

Complete a Post-Doc

Many pharmacologists complete post-doctoral residencies and fellowships as a bridge between graduate school and permanent jobs. Residencies in pharmacology typically take one to two years and may be followed by two or more years of fellowship training. Locate a residency or fellowship through the American Board of Clinical Pharmacology, which lists accredited programs on its website. A post-doc makes you well-qualified for the job market because it provides training in cutting-edge lab techniques.

Obtain a Position

Use the online job board of the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics to find a permanent position. If you completed post-doc training, take advantage of contacts you made during the training for job leads and recommendations. With a Ph.D. or an M.D./Ph.D. combination, you can apply for research and teaching jobs at academic institutions. Apply at biotechnology companies and drug firms to work on developing pharmaceutical treatments. To serve in public health, apply with federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency or the Centers for Disease Control. Also, search for federal positions online at USAJobs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which tracks data and makes projections for all civilian occupations, the pharmacologist job outlook will be strong through 2026. Medical scientists, including pharmacologists, will likely see job opportunities grow by 13 percent, which is faster than average compared to all other jobs.