Pharmacologists practice a completely different job than pharmacists. Pharmacists may work in drug stores, convenience stores, pharmacies and grocery stores to dispense medication to patients with a prescription and offer them advice on side effects, how to take the medicine and what to expect.
Pharmacologists often may work for pharmaceutical companies that sell those drugs to the pharmacies around the world. The story is much more complicated than that, of course. The clinical trials required to market a drug in the United States with Food and Drug Administration approval are rigorous, take many years and can cost millions of dollars. 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.
Because the drugs and the organic molecules on which they act are microscopic, some of the resulting activity of medicine must be scrupulously analyzed under a microscope. Other chemicals can be analyzed in the patient’s blood, stool, urine, saliva or sweat. As the complex drug molecules are broken down by the body’s digestive system and metabolism, the resulting smaller molecules must do no harm to the person, or at least as little as possible. 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.
How to become a Pharmacologist
Like many healthcare fields, the barriers to entry for becoming a pharmacologist are steep, but those who have the talent, drive and resources to overcome these hurdles should have an easy time finding good-paying employment as our nation continues to age, medicate itself and sue over problems related to bad responses to medicines.
Before considering how to become a pharmacologist, one should first consider the reason. There are ways to make good money that don’t involve years of pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, then possibly a doctorate degree. Unlike other medical fields, pharmacology often involves spending less time in direct contact with patients and more time with chemicals, computers and lab animals. Pharmacologists rarely help individuals, although the work that pharmacologists do can help thousands of people through the creation of better, safer drugs. Pharmacologists are scientists, and the love of answering difficult questions (such as, how will 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.
In addition to achieving good grades and doing well on the ACT and SAT in high school to get into a good college, future pharmacologists must score well on the GRE and MCAT to get into good graduate schools. In planning how to become a pharmacologist, consider the expense of four years of undergraduate school followed by two to three years of master’s degree study and another couple years of doctoral research. While the length of time and the cost varies from school to school, the money can run into several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, the jobs usually pay well.
Unlike in a pharmacy program, pharmacologists are trained to be researchers, not to dispense pills and elixirs in drug stores. Before a pharmacist is able to provide medication and describe its effects to patients, a pharmacologist has studied the chemicals that make up the drug, run studies to determine what negative effects might occur, and investigated how the drug mixes with food, alcohol and other drugs. Pharmacists usually work in retail environments; pharmacologists work in laboratories, schools, and in clinical research facilities.
Preparing for a pharmacology education starts in high school. This is not a field for those who shun math and science. Algebra, statistics and calculus are critical skills that will prepare students for the rigorous coursework they will face in undergraduate school. Chemistry, health sciences, anatomy and biology are also the foundation of all medicine and will provide the solid background necessary to take the more difficult classes that must be passed while earning a bachelor’s degree.
Classes required for a pharmacology undergraduate and graduate degree include a variety of biological, chemical and other life sciences, such as
- Scientific communication
- Drug development
- Autonomic pharmacology
- Molecular neuropharmacology
- Cardiovascular pharmacology
- Molecular neurobiology
- Laboratory techniques
- Dental pharmacology
- Neuroendocrine pharmacology
- Gene regulation
- Receptors and signal transduction
- Cardiovascular pharmacology
- Reproduction system drugs
- Vitamins, minerals and herbs
- Gastrointestinal pharmacology
- Drug interactions
It is interesting to note that many schools offer pharmacology and toxicology departments. A beneficial drug that has harmful effects on the human body is, in effect, toxic to that person. Pharmacologists spend years studying the effects of organic and inorganic chemicals on the human body and become experts at determining what are the likely results of exposure to a variety of substances.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology is an option, but there are far fewer pharmacology degrees offered by undergraduate four-year programs than there are pharmacology degrees offered by master’s and doctoral programs. 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.
While not a requirement to land a job with a drug company or research facility, a Pharm. D or a PhD in pharmacology are more typical degrees 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 will 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 not required.
Bachelor Degree in Pharmacology
According to the New England Health care institute, 51% of Americans over the age of 65 take at least 5 different medications each day; while 25% report taking between 10 and 19 medications daily.
Given that nearly half of all Americans are on a daily medicinal regimen, there is certainly a need for professionals who can dedicate their time to discovering new cures and making therapeutic medicine more effective. The Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Science degree prepares students to pursue entry-level positions in the pharmaceutical industry and to advance to graduate-level education.
The Bachelor of Science in Pharmaceutical Science degree is an undergraduate degree focused 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 Program
The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET) lists only 12 undergraduate programs in pharmacology, but lists 191 pharmacology graduate schools. Many of these are schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy or health sciences.
The entire course of a pharmacology educational career involves deep study into complex mathematical and life science subjects. Graduate school is even more in depth. Whereas the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree may require taking elective courses or exploring a variety of liberal arts subjects (not a bad goal in itself), graduate school focuses exclusively on the topics required in the topic being studied.
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 research training. Most graduate schools conduct their own research, often based on grants received by corporate or government sponsors. While these sponsors may expect research to focus on their own needs, it is up to the professor, the university and the department to determine if the work is relevant to their discipline and appropriate for students to spend time working on.
Clinical pharmacologists study how drugs affect people and help pharmaceutical companies design more effective and safer medicines. This may involve performing studies on animals that were given the drug to determine how their organs were affected by the drug’s chemicals. One of the other critical jobs in pharmacology involves performing statistical research on a computer, analyzing the results of hundreds or thousands 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.
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 study how drugs affect human behavior, the brain and the rest of the human nervous system.
A toxicology pharmacologist (or toxicologist) looks at non-food substances that adversely affect human health, such as hazardous chemicals used for industrial applications or household products. Cosmetics firms also employ pharmacologists to ensure their products do not harm the wearers when inadvertently ingested, or through skin contact.
Doctors also take pharmacology classes to better understand the prescription and over-the-counter medications they prescribe for patients.
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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. Pharmacologists often complete a PharmD or a PhD. These professionals are different from pharmacists, who fill prescriptions and advise patients on the way in which to take medication. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean earned annual wages for medical scientists, which include pharmacologists, were $90,160, as of May 2014. This calculates to more than $43 a hour, with the states of Idaho, Kansas and Connecticut paying the highest, according to the BLS.
Is there job growth in the field?
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Job growth for medical scientists is expected to reach 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, shows the BLS. This is job growth that is about as fast as average for all occupations in the U.S., and could result in more than 13,000 new jobs becoming available, the BLS says. Increased reliance on medications, an aging Baby Boomer population and expanded research into diseases like AIDS and cancer should help drive the need for pharmacologists, according to the BLS.
What room is there for advancement?
Pharmacology can 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. The BLS reports that the need for pharmacologists should remain great since they are involved in finding the treatments essential to improving people's health.
The American Board of Clinical Pharmacology (ABCP) has accredited seven clinical pharmacology programs, as well as another 10 institutions in the U.S. that offer clinical pharmacology postdoctoral research training. According to the Institute for Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology in Graz, Austria, there are 1039 pharmacology schools from 99 countries on the planet. North America is host to dozens upon dozens of these departments. Mexico has 3 and Canada has 16 pharmacology departments. The United States features 169 such departments, sections and divisions that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in pharmacology.
Some of these pharmacology schools focus exclusively on pharmacology, while others combine multiple disciplines and specialties into a department. Some examples are listed below.
- pharmacology and therapeutics
- Pharmacology and experimental therapeutics
- pharmacology and physiology
- pharmacology and toxicology
- molecular pharmacology and biological chemistry
- medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology
- pharmacology and neuroscience
- pharmacology and cancer biology
- cellular and molecular pharmacology
- pharmacology and cell biophysics
- integrative biology and pharmacology
- veterinary biosciences
- veterinary physiology and pharmacology
- molecular pharmacology and biotechnology
- Immunopharmacology and targeted therapy
- Clinical pharmacology and hypertension
- Veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacology and physiology
- Biomedical and therapeutical sciences
Pharmacology graduates can seek specialized training in two-year fellowships after graduation. Very often, pharmacology schools assist students in identifying internships with cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and clinics. Where a student seeks an internship likely depends on his or her choice of pharmacological specialties. Here, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), are some categories in which students can receive pharmacology training.
- Behavioral pharmacology looks at how medicines affect human behavior (such as how psychoactive drugs affect the mind).
- Biochemical/cellular pharmacology studies how drugs work with and within living cells and with organic molecules.
- Chemotherapyis a tool used by pharmacologists and oncologists to treat cancerous cells while minimizing the damage done to the patient.
- Molecular pharmacology looks into the microscopic activity at the point where drug molecules interact with the molecules of living cells.
- Veterinary pharmacology studies animal medicines.
- Therapeutics analyzes how a person with a disease can actually change the drugs they are given because of their body’s altered chemical makeup.
- Cardiovascular pharmacology focuses on the heart and blood vessels and how drugs affect them.
- Drug metabolism studies pharmacokinetics, the methods by which drugs enter, are used and broken down, then excreted by the body.
- Endocrine pharmacology looks at hormonal drugs.
- About Pharmacology, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, no date. http://www.aspet.org/knowledge/what-is-pharmacology/
- Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/medical-scientists.htm
- Medical Scientists, Except Epidemiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes191042.htm