Pharmacologists investigate how drugs interact with biological systems, undertaking 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. 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. Their work involves a high level of collaboration with other scientists. Areas of specialism include: neuropharmacology; cardiovascular pharmacology; in vivo pharmacology; psychopharmacology; veterinary pharmacology.
Although pharmacologists are involved in clinical trials, clinical pharmacologists are practising doctors who have specialised in clinical pharmacology. They may be involved in research and trials in addition to their clinical duties. Closely related fields include toxicology, biochemistry and DMPK (drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics).

Typical work activities

  • 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.
  • Organizing 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 and/or mentoring early-career pharmacologists.
  • Disseminating the results of work to others is important, as is maintaining an awareness of other pharmacological research. This may involve: reading specialist literature, being aware of scientific developments and how these might be applied to research.
  • Sharing results and findings with colleagues and team members in group meetings.
  • Producing written reports, if you work in a contract research laboratory, you will be required to submit reports to your customers in the pharmaceutical industry. Written reports are also required to obtain approval of medicines by regulatory authorities.
  • 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.

Technical Skills

  • 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.
  • Ability and desire to work collaboratively in multidisciplinary teams.
  • Enthusiasm and aptitude for learning new skills and techniques.
  • Time management and organisational skills.
  • Methodical approach to work.
  • 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.

Career Development

Opportunities for career development are good in both the academic and commercial sectors. Within universities, many students advance into a postdoctoral research position following completion of a PhD. These tend to be fixed-term contracts. Career development for contract researchers may be limited and job security may become an issue. However, you may find that such research contracts are necessary, along with the production of published research papers, in order to progress. Having completed postdoctoral research, you may then gain a research fellowship or lectureship. Career progression from this stage may involve an increasing amount of teaching, supervising, administration and management. Within 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. Once you have gained experience at this level, you may move on to a more senior management position, which is likely to involve spending less time on practical and laboratory-based scientific work and taking on more office-based and supervisory work. In order to advance your career, you may also opt (or be required) to work in other countries. You may also have the opportunity to move into different functions within the organisation. For example, within the pharmaceutical industry, pharmacologists can be found not only in laboratory-based research and development, but also in: information science; product licensing; regulatory affairs; product management; sales and marketing; clinical research and trials; safety and toxicology; finance; post-marketing surveillance; business development; portfolio management.
Many pharmacologists, having gained grounding in experimental science, academia or industry, may branch into associated fields such as medical writing, writing for the media, patent work, regulatory affairs, medical sales, or advisory roles in government bodies and medical charities. Other options include moving into the business management side of a commercial enterprise, marketing a new medicine, or becoming a recruitment consultant for a specialist agency serving the pharmaceutical industry.

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