Have you ever wondered how a plant or a patch of mold becomes a pill that a doctor prescribes to treat disease?
While pharmacists dispense and educate patients about existing medicines, pharmaceutical scientists discover, develop, test and manufacture new medications. These highly trained experts spend most of their time in a laboratory studying how different molecules and compounds interact with the human body and with the cells and organisms that cause disease.
Developing new drugs takes a very long time and costs a great deal of money. There are three stages to this process:
Creating new medicines requires a large team of scientists with training in many different scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biology, bioinformatics and genetics.
During the research phase, pharmaceutical scientists may examine thousands of molecular compounds before they find one that effectively fights disease without hurting the patient. If a pharmaceutical scientist identifies a promising new drug agent today, it may take up to 20 years before the medicine is available in your drug store.
Pharmaceutical scientists usually specialize in one aspect of the drug development process. They may:
Regardless of where they choose to specialize in the drug development process, pharmaceutical scientists have the satisfaction of spending their time looking for ways to help people fight disease and stay healthy.
For more information about this career, read the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists' brochure:
Is a Career in the Pharmaceutical Sciences Right for Me?
You can download, save and print a PDF of this career profile:
Pharmaceutical Scientist 31 Dec 2008 [pdf, 192 KB]
Most pharmaceutical scientists are employed by large drug manufacturing companies. Many work in laboratories as part of a large team of scientists and technicians developing new drug therapies. Others teach and work in offices near universities or hospitals, supervising clinical drug trials, or in manufacturing centers, overseeing the large-scale production of medications.
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To become a pharmaceutical scientist, you must have a strong interest in mathematics, biology and the scientific process. You may want to decide early on which aspect of the drug development cycle you want to focus on – research, testing or manufacturing. In college, you can major in the pharmaceutical sciences, pharmacy, biology, chemistry, medicine, engineering or a related field.
Good communications skills are important, because you’ll be working as part of a scientific team of diverse backgrounds. You’ll need to be able to stay motivated and keep your team energized throughout the long development process. You also must be able to handle failure and disappointment: Most promising new drugs are rejected before they ever reach the market, because they are dangerous, don’t work consistently, or have unacceptable side effects.
During college, get involved with the student chapter of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists. Explore internships in the field and look for opportunities to meet and “shadow” working pharmaceutical scientists.
Many pharmaceutical scientists begin working in the field after college, and then go on to complete advanced degrees in more specialized subjects. Pharmaceutical companies often pay for talented workers to complete graduate and postgraduate degrees such as Masters of Science (M.S.), Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), to help them qualify for advancement.
Pharmaceutical scientists just starting their careers earn an average salary of $85,000. With experience and increasing responsibility, their compensation can grow significantly. They also can receive bonuses when they successfully develop a new drug.
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Last updated: May 20, 2013
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