Pharmacologists understand how medicines and other drugs work and how they're processed by the body so they can be used effectively and safely
As a pharmacologist you'll investigate how drugs interact with biological systems. You may carry out in vitro research (using cells or animal tissues) or in vivo research (using whole animals) to predict what effect certain drugs might have on humans.
You'll also conduct research to aid drug discovery and development.
Your work is used to:
- discover new and better medicines
- improve the effectiveness and safety of current medicines
- understand how and why people react differently to different drugs
- find out why some drugs cause addiction or unwanted side-effects.
There's a high level of collaboration with other scientists, and it's typical to share your results with colleagues through meetings, reports and conferences.
It's also possible to focus on medicine for animals, rather than humans.
Types of pharmacologist
You can choose to specialise in one area of pharmacology, such as:
- cardiovascular pharmacology
- veterinary pharmacology
- clinical pharmacology.
Pharmacological specialties are often grouped according to body systems, but can also be subdivided based on other aspects of health and disease.
Clinical pharmacologists work on the development and delivery of medicines to patients. This can either be as a clinical pharmacology scientist developing a medicine through clinical trials or as a medical doctor who will prescribe medicines directly to the patient. Clinical pharmacologists can work in academia, the NHS or for drug discovery companies.
Closely related fields include toxicology, biochemistry and DMPK (drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics).
As a pharmacologist, you'll need to:
- design, plan and conduct controlled experiments and/or clinical trials to improve understanding of a drug's activity
- use computers, high technology measuring systems and other sophisticated equipment to collect, analyse and interpret data
- apply and develop the results of research to work through a variety of applications, such as new products, processes, techniques and practices
- draw up proposals for future developmental tests
- organise and oversee tests of new drugs and medicines, ensure quality control and secure approval for their use
- liaise with regulatory authorities to ensure compliance with local, national and international regulations
- plan, coordinate and supervise the duties of other technical staff and train or mentor early-career pharmacologists.
To disseminate the results of your work to others you'll need to:
- write original papers based on your findings for submission to specialist publications
- attend scientific meetings and conferences in order to present posters, give talks and listen to presentations from other pharmacologists and key opinion leaders
- keep up to date with pharmacological research by reading specialist literature.
- PhD studentships, which allow you to study for a PhD through carrying out substantial research work, usually pay a stipend. The national minimum doctoral stipend for 2020/21 is £15,285, but some employers pay more. For current information on funding for research training, see UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
- Salaries for postdoctoral positions in academia typically range from £28,000 to £40,000.
- Lecturers with the right combination of qualifications and experience can earn over £55,000. See the University and College Union (UCU) Salary Scales for details.
- Work at a senior level or with significant experience in industry can attract salaries of £35,000 to in excess of £80,000.
Salaries in industry tend to be higher than those in academia, and pharmacologists with a PhD are likely to earn more.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Although you'll typically work Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, you may need to be available to monitor and manage experiments. This can include some weekend, evening or shift work.
Part-time work and flexible working arrangements are available, and career breaks are generally possible. Consultancy work is an option once you become more experienced.
What to expect
- Much of the role is lab-based, working as part of a scientific research team.
- Opportunities are available throughout the UK.
- Most major pharmaceutical companies have global offices, and there are universities and research organisations across the world, so there are opportunities for overseas employment.
- A significant part of pharmaceutical research involves the use of animals, although this doesn't have to be part of your work.
- Experimental work may involve working with hazardous and toxic materials, which is carried out in sterile conditions. You must wear protective clothing for health and safety reasons and to avoid cross-contamination.
- Although travel isn't generally a feature of the role, there are opportunities to attend conferences and seminars across the UK or overseas.
To work in pharmacology, you'll typically require a scientific degree in pharmacology or a related subject such as:
- biomedical science
- molecular and cell biology
Entry with an HND only is rare and you'll need to do further study to progress within industry.
An MSc or PhD in pharmacology or a related subject is advantageous. In some cases, for example employment with major pharmaceutical companies where competition for jobs can be fierce, a postgraduate qualification is required.
It's possible to study for a PhD while working in research. This helps you develop strong technical research, laboratory and communication skills and can lead to postdoctoral research positions. PhDs that are funded by industry are available and are a useful way to gain relevant experience and contacts if you want to work outside of academia.
For more information on how to get into a career as a pharmacologist, see the British Pharmacological Society website.
- strong IT skills, including data retrieval and analysis
- hands-on practical laboratory skills
- good communication skills and confidence in giving presentations
- writing skills for preparing papers and reports
- problem-solving skills and the ability to find and employ creative solutions when carrying out experiments
- a willingness to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams
- an enthusiasm and aptitude for learning new skills and techniques
- time management and organisational skills
- a methodical approach to work and attention to detail
- networking skills and the ability to build effective links with external organisations
- leadership potential and the skills to manage and motivate others.
It's important to get relevant laboratory experience through a year in industry, summer internship or other work placement. This experience will help you build up a network of contacts and prove your interest and commitment to employers.
Experience can also be gained through laboratory assistant work, vacation work experience in academia or industry or through work shadowing.
Free student membership of the British Pharmacological Society is available to anyone studying a degree that has a pharmacology element. Membership provides access to useful information, advice and opportunities, as well as a network of national and international pharmacologists at all career levels.
A large number of pharmacologists are employed by companies in the pharmaceutical and biosciences industries involved in discovering and developing drugs and carrying out clinical trials.
You may also work for clinical or contract research organisations (CROs) or for companies that target particular aspects of bioscience that relate to drug discovery and development.
Other employers include:
- academic departments within universities, where research projects are often funded by government or charities
- government agencies
- environmental agencies
- charity-funded research organisations such as the Medical Research Council (MRC)
- other research institutes
- the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) where work is carried out on patents.
NHS hospitals employ clinical pharmacologists, as well as pharmacologists to work on clinical trials.
Look for job vacancies at:
- British Pharmacological Society - Jobs & Opportunities
- Nature Careers
- New Scientist Jobs
For smaller organisations, you could try a targeted speculative CV and cover letter. Some also use contract staff or employ scientific recruitment agencies to fill their vacancies for them, so registering for recruitment agencies is often a useful step in identifying available positions.
Most employers provide the professional and specialist technical training needed for you to perform sophisticated laboratory work.
You'll also need training on health and safety and good laboratory practice (GLP). This training may include risk assessment workshops and Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations training.
In addition, short training courses are usually offered in areas such as:
- data interpretation
- presentation skills
- project management
- report writing.
If you are working in industry, this is likely to be a structured training programme that may include completing placements in different areas of the organisation, working with a mentor or buddy, and drawing up personal development plans with line managers.
Continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities, for example workshops and conferences, are available through the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and the British Pharmacological Society.
If you have completed a PhD and are working in academia you can progress to postdoctoral research positions, which tend to be fixed-term contracts. Job security may be an issue as you'll have to keep securing additional contracts and funding to progress. From here, it's possible to gain a research fellowship or lectureship, which can involve an increasing amount of teaching, supervising, administration and management.
If you work in a university department you're likely to be part of a research team and, as your career progresses, you may become principal investigator leading a team.
Career progression within industry is generally based on increased responsibilities, such as supervising and managing projects. More senior management positions tend to include more time spent in the office rather than in the lab.
You can also choose to use your pharmacological knowledge in different areas, such as:
- advisory roles in government bodies and medical charities
- business development
- information science
- medical sales and marketing
- medical writing
- patent work
- product licensing or management
- regulatory affairs.