What’s a pharmaceutical sales rep? We’ve all seen them at doctors’ offices, dressed to the nines while the rest of us are in yoga pants, sniffly and feeling bad in the waiting room. They work for some big drug company and come stocked with freebies to encourage the doctor to help sell their product. Sales representatives sell prescription drugs as well as medical equipment used to administer them, such as intravenous devices. The clients are usually medical doctors; however, you may also frequent pharmacies and labs.
Often, their job includes the potential for bonuses, plenty of opportunities for travel, access to a company car, and other benefits. Being a pharmaceutical sales rep is a lucrative gig. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2020 that average salaries for pharmaceutical sales reps are between $80,000 to $110,000. That’s not counting the bonuses that can often drive yearly earnings for pharmaceutical sales representatives as high as $130,000 or even $150,000, according to pharmaceutical industry recruitment firm Global Edge Recruiting. It’s worth noting that the larger field of wholesale and manufacturing technical and scientific products sales representatives has historically had such a large wage gap between the highest and lowest earners that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a wage difference of $111,580 per year for the occupation in 2015.
If you have ever thought about becoming a pharmaceutical sales representative, you may wonder how to get on the path to this career that’s at the intersection of pharmaceutical science and sales. A college education is a good investment in your future career in pharmaceutical sales.
An Overview of Pharmaceutical Rep School Requirements
The most important aspect of higher education for pharmaceutical sales representatives isn’t what they majored in but rather whether they have earned a bachelor’s degree. Although some sales reps make it in this difficult field without a four-year degree, having a baccalaureate degree in any subject is a common requirement employers impose on prospective job applicants. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, you’re going to be at a disadvantage, since most candidates for pharmaceutical sales rep jobs are likely to have a degree.
Of course, your degree has to be in something. Some pharmaceutical sales reps take a winding path into this occupation, but if you already know that this is what you want to do, it makes sense to choose a major based on these career plans.
Most employers won’t limit qualifications specifically to those who chose a certain major. They realize that numerous programs of study can equip students with the skills that are essential for a career in pharmaceutical sales, such as interpersonal skills, customer service skills, sales skills, communication skills, and the ability to build relationships and rapport with the physicians. Still, pharmaceutical sales representatives don’t sell just any product; they sell pharmaceutical products, like prescription medications, that are inherently related to branches of science like chemistry and biology. For that reason, having a background in science or health is valuable for aspiring pharmaceutical sales representatives. However, many other majors feed into the pharmaceutical sales rep occupation, including business, marketing, communication, liberal arts, and more.
Most pharmaceutical sales reps can prepare for their career in just four years by earning a bachelor’s degree. If you want a role with more responsibility or prestige, it may make sense to go back to school to earn a master’s degree.
The Best Majors for Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives
Do you like dressing up? How are you with persuasion? These skills and aptitudes may be more surface-level, but as a pharmaceutical sales rep, you will need to really know how to push your product – and that’s going to take not just strong social skills but an in-depth background in pharmaceutics. You can gain this background through on-the-job training, but having at least a basic foundation in science is often valuable.
The Case for Majoring in Science
The extensive laboratory and research work involved in majoring in science may seem daunting if you don’t actually want to be a scientist, but hear us out. Earning your bachelor’s degree in a subject like biology or chemistry will help you understand the details of how pharmaceutical products work, such as the properties of the drug, its uses, its mechanisms of action and its potential side effects. Science coursework at the undergraduate level usually isn’t as research-heavy or as specialized as what you would find at the graduate level, and developing a broad understanding of topics in biology and chemistry will make it easier for you to feel comfortable speaking to physicians and pharmacists.
Chemistry and biology are equally applicable to a career selling pharmaceutical products. Chemistry is the study of the properties substances have and the reactions they undergo. Biology is the study of living organisms. While chemistry is the branch of natural science that has more to do with the chemicals that appear in pharmaceutical products, biology more strongly emphasizes the systems of the body in which medicines work.
Students of either chemistry or biology are likely to take coursework in other areas of physical and natural science, like physics, as well as math. A chemistry major may take courses in the principles of chemistry, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, quantitative analysis and specific areas of interest. For biology majors, classes will likely include functional biology, organismal biology, microbiology, genetics, zoology, botany, ecology and physiology.
Prospective pharmaceutical sales reps who are interested in studying science may also choose a more focused program of study. A bachelor’s in pharmacology degree program will often include a blend of coursework in biochemistry, human physiology, pharmacology and genetics. This option is great for students who know they want to have something to do with the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries but haven’t yet decided between roles like pharmaceutical sales rep, pharmacist, doctor or biomedical researcher. Pharmaceutical sciences is another major to consider, covering specific coursework in drug classes and mechanisms, drug discovery and development, dosage forms, immunology and principles of pathophysiology and drug action.
Although it may sound like an odd choice, pharmaceutical sales reps also come to the field with a background in toxicology, which is the scientific study that is concerned with poisons, toxins, and adverse effects chemical substances have on humans. A toxicology degree program will likely cover laboratory coursework in biology and chemistry, as well as specialized classes in the principles of toxicology, pharmacologic toxicology, analytical and quantitative toxicology, regulatory toxicology and molecular toxicogenomics.
Whatever science major you choose, you can expect to spend a lot of your studies taking laboratory courses and learning the fundamental principles and practical methods used in professional practice.
Majoring in Business, Marketing and More
Although the principles and practices of science are crucial parts of the pharmaceutical industry, sales reps aren’t scientists. They’re business professionals. It makes sense, then, to prepare for this career by majoring in business administration or in a more specialized business major like marketing. Aside from teaching you basic sales techniques, your background in business can help you learn how to build a rapport with physicians and foster those relationships by getting to know the needs of their practice.
Majoring in business administration typically means taking coursework in all areas of business, from less applicable topics like accounting and finance to areas like marketing and management, which are more pertinent to your work as a pharmaceutical sales rep. Most bachelor’s in business administration programs allow students to choose an area of concentration in which they take more coursework to develop a greater depth of knowledge.
Marketing majors who aren’t pursuing a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree will take fewer core business courses and more marketing-specific classes. Studies in business writing and communications, marketing principles, consumer behavior, marketing research, marketing strategies, marketing communications, branding, personal selling and digital marketing are common.
Let’s not discount the importance of communication. A big part of success in any sales role is good communication. To convince doctors to use or prescribe your product, you need your communications with them to not only accomplish giving them accurate and useful information about the drug but also convey authoritativeness and trustworthiness. You need to be persuasive as well as informative, and that takes incredible communication skills. A bachelor’s degree in communications, mass communication, corporate communication, public relations, journalism or professional writing can all help you develop these integral communication skills on which you can build a career in pharmaceutical sales.
If you’re pursuing the business major route to a career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, you might not want to end your studies at the undergraduate level. A Master of Business Administration (MBA) in pharmaceutical marketing or management may be of interest to those looking into advanced positions in the field, such as a supervisor role.
Specialized Degree Programs Can Give Students the Best of Both Worlds
If you come to a doctor’s office without fully understanding your product, with nothing but a spiel and a smile, physicians will see right through you. If you’re fully proficient in the science behind pharmaceuticals but you lack the communication and interpersonal skills needed for the role or the poise required to stroll into a doctor’s office with confidence, you’ll struggle despite your technical knowledge. Mastering both aspects of this career is essential.
You may benefit from choosing an interdisciplinary major that combines coursework in science and business, such as a bachelor’s degree in healthcare sales, pharmaceutical and healthcare business, or pharmaceutical and healthcare marketing. In a program like this, you will take core business classes, much like you might take as a BBA student, but you will delve deep into specialized classes in pharmaceutical marketing research and strategy, pharmaceutical sales and promotion management, pharmaceutical channels and pricing and the pharmaceutical marketing environment.
There are also non-degree options available for preparation for this career path, like the Certified Pharmaceutical Sales Representative online course from the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Professional and Continuing Education program. These options are ideal for aspiring pharmaceutical sales reps who already have a bachelor’s degree but don’t feel prepared for the profession yet, and they typically cover subjects like medical terminology, pharmacology and pharmacoeconomics, drug classes, anatomical and physiological effects of medications and pharmaceutical marketing laws and regulations.
Getting your degree is only one part of becoming a pharmaceutical sales rep. Some companies offer paid internships in pharmaceutical sales and marketing, but many professionals in this field get started through networking, according to the job search website Monster.
Is Pharmaceutical Sales Representative the Right Job for You?
Pharmaceutical Sales positions obviously vary from one drug company to another, but generally, you will specialize in a certain area of medicine, such as psychiatry, gastroenterology, oncology or bio-pharmacology. Specializing helps you really develop a depth of knowledge in the primary area of science and medicine in which you work, which is particularly helpful when your science background is somewhat limited. If you didn’t major in science, you might only have one or two classes’ worth of college-level science knowledge under your belt, and even if you did major in science, your level of science knowledge probably isn’t as extensive as that of drug researchers, pharmacists or physicians.
Of course, you need to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of this type of gig. Representatives are expected to travel frequently to pitch their products to their clients. Be prepared to spend a lot of time in your vehicle or outside – we’re talking a lot of hours on the road – and to do a lot of schmoozing and, as some might say, “pill-pushing.”
You may find the work of a pharmaceutical sales representative ethically hard at times – even though, ideally, the pharmaceutical products you’re selling really will help patients – or just plain exhausting. Juggling job duties and family life is often difficult in this field, but if you have the personality and skill set to excel in this career, you’re likely to feel satisfied with the work you do and the income you make.
Getting to know the receptionists and nurses, and establishing a sense of trust to get yourself in the door of a doctor’s office, can take all the finesse of a lawyer or politician.