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How to Become a Pharmaceutical Scientist

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A pharmacist prepares and provides drugs to help customers live healthier and better. A pharmaceutical scientist researches and creates the drugs pharmacies dispense. Scientists typically specialize in their pharmaceutical careers, working in one small slice of a very large industry. To become a pharmaceutical scientist, you need at least an undergraduate degree.

Pharmaceutical Careers

Pharmaceutical science is a big field. Most pharmaceutical scientists will specialize in one aspect of pharma research rather than try to encompass the whole enchilada. Many scientists have drug discovery careers, researching and designing new drugs using natural or artificial ingredients. There's no shortage of other career paths, however:

  • Find new ways to use existing drugs to treat disease.
  • Study disease to gain a better understanding of how to fight it with drug treatments.
  • Study the human response to drugs, with the endgame of developing safer drug regimens with fewer side effects.
  • Determine the most effective dosage for a specific drug treatment.
  • Improving the drug-manufacturing process.
  • Work to keep the quality of prescription medications high.

A pharmaceutical scientist doesn't work alone. Creating new medicines requires large teams with a variety of expertise. The exact day-to-day routine will vary with the specialization you choose. If you go for a drug discovery career, for instance, a given project may involve examining thousand of compounds before finding the right one. Research projects are long-term endeavors; it can easily take a couple of decades from starting the research to having the drug available in local pharmacies.

Pharmaceutical Degrees

Pharmaceutical research actually involves multiple different scientific specialties: biology, chemistry, engineering, medicine and data management as well as pharmaceutical science. Degrees in any of these fields can be the basis for pharmaceutical careers. If you want to be a pharmaceutical scientist specifically, you need at least a bachelor of science in pharmaceutical science, a BSPS degree. Along with BSPS courses, you'll probably have to take a healthy amount of credit hours in chemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy and other related fields.

It's possible to stop your studies this point. There are BSPS jobs available in pharmaceutical research for graduates who don't have advanced degrees. You may be able to improve your chances of getting hired with an internship. Internships at pharmaceutical research organizations give you a chance to gain hands-on experience in the field. Graduate degrees can add to your potential as a new hire.

Like many fields of modern science, pharmaceutical researchers use high-tech equipment and rely heavily on computers. Being comfortable working with tech is important for your career success. You have to be capable of intensely detailed, precise work. Drug development and research is a long, slow process with much testing to deal with, so nobody should become a pharmaceutical scientist looking for overnight success.

Where You Can Work

The range of potential BSPS jobs is quite wide. Pharmaceutical scientists work for drug manufacturing and biotech companies but they also work for contract research organizations, small companies that handle outsourced research. You might find a job in a college or university's research labs or as a teacher in the BSPS degree program. Government agencies also hire pharmaceutical scientists. The Food and Drug Administration, for instance, uses scientists to advise on drug testing or approval issues and in devising new drug regulations.

The Money You Make

The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists says the mean annual salary in the field is $151,700. The mean isn't the same as the average: it means half earn more, half earn less. 25 percent of pharmaceutical scientists earn above $185,000. The mean supplemental income, which can include bonuses, overtime and commissions, is $33,100 a year. Income from professional work in side gigs brings in a mean $5,100. That's considerably better than international salary figures, where the mean salary is $83,500.