If you have a strong science degree with good technical skills you could be working in a cutting-edge field researching and developing new and existing drugs

Pharmacologists aim to understand how drugs work so they can be used effectively and safely. They also conduct research to aid drug discovery and development.

The work involves investigating how drugs interact with biological systems. You could be carrying out in vitro research (using cells or animal tissues) or in vivo research (using whole animals) to predict what effect the drug might have in humans.

There is a high level of collaboration with other scientists and it is typical to share your results with colleagues through meetings, reports and conferences.

Types of pharmacologist

You can choose to specialise in one area of pharmacology, such as:

  • neuropharmacology;
  • cardiovascular pharmacology;
  • in vivo pharmacology;
  • psychopharmacology;
  • veterinary pharmacology.

Closely related fields include toxicology, biochemistry and DMPK (drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics).

Responsibilities

Much of the role is lab-based, working as part of a scientific research team, and may include:

  • designing, planning and conducting controlled experiments to improve understanding of a compound's activity;
  • using computers, high technology measuring systems and other sophisticated equipment to collect, analyse and interpret complex data;
  • applying and developing the results of research to work through a variety of applications, such as new products, processes, techniques and practices;
  • drawing up proposals for future developmental tests;
  • organising and overseeing tests of new drugs and medicines, ensuring quality control and securing approval for their use;
  • liaising with regulatory authorities to ensure compliance with local, national and international regulations;
  • planning, coordinating and supervising the duties of other technical staff and training or mentoring early-career pharmacologists.

You will need to disseminate the results of your work to others, which may involve:

  • writing original papers based on your findings for submission to specialist publications;
  • attending scientific meetings and conferences in order to present posters, give talks, and listen to presentations from fellow pharmacologists and key opinion leaders.

You will also need to maintain an awareness of other pharmacological research by reading specialist literature.

Salary

  • PhD studentship,s which allow you to study for a PhD while also carrying out research work usually pay a stipend. Research Councils UK (RCUK) suggest a minimum rate of £14,296 for the stipend but some employers may pay more.
  • Salaries for postdoctoral positions in academia range from £25,000 to around £40,000.
  • Lecturers with the right combination of qualifications and experience can earn over £55,000.
  • Work at a senior level or with significant experience in industry can attract salaries of £35,000 to £80,000.

Salaries in industry tend to be higher than those in academia, and pharmacologists with a PhD are likely to earn more than those without.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Pharmacologists rarely work 9am to 5pm as flexibility is needed in order to monitor and manage experiments. Some weekend or shift work may also be required for the same reason.

Part-time work and flexible working arrangements are available, and career breaks may be possible. Consultancy work is an option once you become more experienced.

What to expect

  • Opportunities are available throughout the UK and work may take place in universities, government-funded research institutes, commercial research centres, contract research organisations, pharmaceutical companies and medical charities.
  • Although there are many women studying pharmacology, they are still under-represented at the top levels of the profession. For current initiatives to support women in the field see British Pharmacological Society (BPS): Championing Women in Pharmacology.
  • A significant part of pharmaceutical research involves the use of animals, although this does not necessarily have to be part of your work.
  • Experimental work may involve working with hazardous and toxic materials and may need to be carried out in sterile conditions. The wearing of protective clothing is generally required in order to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Travel within a working day is occasionally needed. You may also have to attend conferences and seminars in various places across the UK or overseas.
  • Most major pharmaceutical companies have global offices, and there are universities and research organisations across the world, so there are many opportunities for overseas employment.

Qualifications

The complex investigations involved in pharmacology require a sound scientific degree. The following subjects are relevant:

  • chemistry;
  • biochemistry;
  • biology;
  • biomedical science;
  • molecular and cell biology;
  • neuroscience;
  • pharmacology;
  • physiology;
  • toxicology.

Occasionally, it may be possible to start a career in pharmacology with an HND, but this is not common, and further study would be required to progress within industry.

A postgraduate qualification such as an MSc in pharmacology or a related subject, or a relevant PhD, is advantageous and sometimes essential for employment with a major pharmaceutical company where competition can be high. Search for postgraduate courses in pharmacology.

It's possible to study for a PhD while working in research. This helps to 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.

Skills

You will need:

  • strong IT skills, including data retrieval and analysis;
  • good communication skills for writing papers and reports and giving presentations;
  • problem-solving skills and the ability to find and employ creative solutions when carrying out experiments;
  • the ability and desire 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.

Work experience

Relevant lab experience and knowledge of the range of techniques used can be gained through a year's industrial placement. It will also help you to build up contacts and demonstrate your interest and commitment to employers.

Experience can also be gained through lab assistant work, vacation work experience in academia or industry or through work shadowing.

Free student membership of the British Pharmacological Society (BPS) is available to anyone studying a degree that has a pharmacology element. It is useful for networking and gives access to information and advice.

Employers

A large number of pharmacologists are employed by companies in the pharmaceutical industry, where they are involved in discovering and developing drugs and carrying out clinical trials.

Pharmacologists 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 laboratories;
  • 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 also employ pharmacologists to work on clinical trials, as well as clinical pharmacologists, who are qualified doctors with a specialism in clinical pharmacology.

Look for job vacancies at:

For smaller organisations, a speculative letter and CV may be acceptable. Many organisations also use contract staff or employ scientific recruitment agencies to fill their vacancies for them.

Professional development

Most employers provide the professional and specialist technical training needed for you to perform the sophisticated laboratory work.

You will also typically be required to participate in 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.

Jobs in industry tend to be accompanied by structured training programmes that may include completing placements in different functions of the organisation, working with a mentor or buddy, and drawing up personal development plans with line managers.

Continuing education programmes are offered by:

Career prospects

Within academia, if you've completed a PhD you can progress on to postdoctoral research positions, which tend to be fixed-term contracts. Job security may be an issue as you will have to keep securing additional contracts and funding to progress. From here, you may be able 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 are 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.