Pharmacology: Education, Schools, and Career Overview
Pharmacologists typically work for pharmaceutical companies that sell drugs to the pharmacies around the world. The pharmacologists who help design the drugs, and then ensure that they are safely metabolized in a variety of people (nursing mothers, children, diabetics, patients with heart problems) are in high demand. The activities of medicines on the human body are often subtle, and it takes a pharmacologist with statistical tools to determine whether the drug (compared to a placebo) actually improved the conditions of patients the way it was intended to.
Pharmacologists also study the effects of drugs on the human liver, as it filters out toxins in the blood stream to keep them from accumulating in other parts of the body.
Nature of Work
Pharmacologists are scientists, and the love of answering difficult questions (such as, how may diabetics metabolize a drug’s active ingredients differently than non-diabetics?) through detailed research and analysis is part of the charm in this job. Chemistry, biology and math concepts play a part in the everyday life of a pharmacologist.
One of the other critical jobs in pharmacology involves performing statistical research on a computer, analyzing the results of patient drug interactions to look for trends that suggest the drug is working, the dosage needs to be modified, or people with certain health conditions should avoid the drug. Pharmacologists also study non-drug comestibles, such as food colorings, additives and flavorings to ensure they are safe for people to ingest.
How to Become a Pharmacologist
Algebra, statistics and calculus are critical skills that may prepare students for the rigorous coursework they may face in undergraduate school. Chemistry, health sciences, anatomy and biology are also the foundation of medicine and may provide the solid background necessary to take the more difficult classes that must be passed while earning a bachelor’s degree.
Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacology
Bachelor’s degree in pharmacology typically focuses on training students to understand the various methods of medication administration, how drugs interact when absorbed by the body, and how to develop the laboratory skills critical to pharmaceutical discovery and development.
Pharmacology graduate schools further focus students on topics like cellular biology, biometrics, experimental design, human physiology and pathophysiology. Other classes may include cell signaling, how to mass spectrometry and proteomics. Additional courses in molecular genetics, neuroscience and immunology help graduate a well-rounded pharmacologist. Time in pharmacology graduate school is split between didactics (classroom) study and practical experience.
Master’s Degree in Pharmacology
Pursuing a master’s degree in pharmacology involves studying the activity of specific drugs within the body, how the human body responds to them and the best course of action to respond to an overdose of these substances.
Advanced Degree in Pharmacology
An advanced degree in pharmacology is a more typical degree for pharmacologists. It is not unusual for a person to attend medical school and become a pharmacologist or for someone who earns a pharmacology degree to ultimately become a medical doctor, a registered nurse or a physician assistant.
During the course of study, a pharmacology student may rotate through laboratories in addition to spending many hours in classroom lecture (as well as plenty of self-study time). Unless the focus is on clinical pharmacology, hospital internships are typically not required.
Career Advancement Opportunities in Pharmacology
Pharmacology may be divided into a number of specialties including behavioral, cardiovascular, clinical, endocrine, toxicology and many others, according to the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET). Pharmacologists typically continue to be involved in research after completing an advanced degree, and may be able to work in a niche field based on their areas of interest.
Pharmacology graduates may seek specialized training in two-year fellowships after graduation. Here are some categories in which students typically receive pharmacology training:
- Behavioral pharmacology
- Biochemical/cellular pharmacology
- Molecular pharmacology
- Veterinary pharmacology
- Cardiovascular pharmacology
- Drug metabolism
- Endocrine pharmacology
Skills and Qualities
Pharmacologists may be required to have a strong background in math and science and need to be able to gather, analyze, and understand medical data. Additionally, they may also be required to have excellent written and oral communication skills. They typically know how to capable of operating medical equipment and other machinery used in research.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
Pharmacologists are a group of medical scientists with a deep knowledge of mathematics, biology, human anatomy and chemistry, and the complex interactions that drugs have on different types of people. These professionals are different from pharmacists, who fill prescriptions and advise patients on the way in which to take medication. Increased reliance on medications, an aging baby boom population and expanded research into diseases like AIDS and cancer should help drive the need for pharmacologists, according to the BLS.
Some pharmacologists focus exclusively on animal medicines. This is a huge industry as people are willing to spend money to assist their (generally uninsured) pets and farmers, racehorse owners and animal trainers want to keep their livestock or thoroughbreds healthy and active. In fact, most of the antibiotics produced in the country go to livestock rather than humans.
Neuropharmacologists and psychopharmacologists typically study how drugs affect human behavior, the brain and the rest of the human nervous system.
A toxicology pharmacologist (or toxicologist) typically looks at non-food substances that adversely affect human health, such as hazardous chemicals used for industrial applications or household products. Cosmetics firms may also employ pharmacologists to ensure their products do not harm the wearers when inadvertently ingested, or through skin contact.
Doctors may also take pharmacology classes to better understand the prescription and over-the-counter medications they prescribe for patients.
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- About Pharmacology, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, September 2018, https://www.aspet.org/aspet/education-careers/about-pharmacology
- Medical Scientists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, October 2018, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm
- Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, March 2018, https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes191042.htm