A Tale of Two Pharmacologists


1. What can I do with my pharmacology degree?

Dear CareerDoctor,I’m a third-year student studying for a B.Sc. in pharmacology. Can you tell me the types of jobs that are specific to my course? Also, can you tell me how to become a pharmacologist, whether there’s another exam needed, and what job I should look for?Many thanks,Amy

Dear Amy,

You will probably be reassured to hear that you can start your career as a pharmacologist straight after your finals. But although anyone might very understandably want to concentrate on getting them out of the way, you are right in also trying to think about what’s coming next, and my ‘Help! What Do I Do With My Degree’ column may assist you with this process.

Pharmacology–investigating how drugs interact with biological systems–is the gateway to a vast range of jobs. For a start, the complexity of the systems studied is such that there are many different ways in which to apply your knowledge. For example, you may have a preference for particular aspects of pharmacology–perhaps pharmacokinetics (looking at the absorption, distribution, and excretion of drugs) or toxicology (looking at the adverse effects of drugs and other chemicals). Also, pharmacologists may work for a variety of employers including universities, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, the Scientific Civil Service, and research organisations. Although you can expect to have a hands-on laboratory-based role, the specific tasks depend very much on the employer, and each sector will thus offer very different careers.

One place that offers a general view of what you can do with a pharmacology degree is the Prospects Web site. Also useful is the degree discipline chart on the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry Web site, which tells you the areas of the pharmaceutical industry in which a pharmacology degree is relevant. And if you would like to find out a bit more about what pharmacologists actually do, there are two very good sources of specific information: the careers section of the British Pharmacological Society Web site and the Pharmacologist in close-up section of the Prospects Web site.

Don’t be too intimidated by the diversity of opportunities. At your stage, the choices you need to make are more general, such as deciding what kind of employers you would like to work for. Few of them will expect you to have a great insight into the specifics of the different roles without extensive experience.

Similarly, don’t get too excited by the prospect of being able to specialise already. Your degree is the key requirement for working in pharmacology, and if being specialised appeals to you, you may be better off doing a Ph.D. to build further expertise. Indeed, whether or not you want to undertake further study before starting a career is another major decision you need to make now. You may be strongly encouraged to do a Ph.D. by your department, and you may find that many of the pharmacologists you meet or talk with will have doctorates. Here again, it depends very much on the sector you choose to work in. Although a Ph.D. is required for most research posts in academia, it is not essential to have one to work in industry.

If you are interested in working in hospitals, you may also want to get further training, and the most relevant clinical training post would be in toxicology. However, the initial closing date for 2003 has now passed, so you would be dependent on vacancies left after the first round of recruitment or have to wait until next year–which is great if you fancy taking a gap year! If, on the other hand, you want to find out more about toxicology, check out the online careers guide provided by the British Toxicology Society, which will give you a very lively introduction to the variety of opportunities available.

If you decide to go for a job now and have identified the kind of work that appeals to you, I would suggest you visit your university careers service to get some advice on where graduate-level positions are advertised. They can also advise you on how best to market yourself to employers and may be able to put you in touch with some local pharmacologists who may be willing to discuss their careers and your options. Similarly, ask in your department for contact details of recent graduates, and you may also want to use the strategies I’ve previously suggested for finding vacation work as a way to identify potential employers or contacts.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

Dear CareerDoctor,I’d like some advice on finding a job in research, because I have an unusual background.Basically, I graduated with a 2:1 B.Sc. in Pharmacology from UCL in 2000 and have since been working as a Trainee Chartered Accountant until recently. This means I do have experience but not relevant (read laboratory) experience, which is what most employers in the research sector prefer.I’m now working for a life sciences professional body in an administrative role on a temporary contract.I would be very grateful if you could give me some information on people to contact or advise me as to where to look for jobs for graduates (e.g., Research Assistant/Trainees).Soneya

Dear Soneya,

Perhaps more crucially than Amy, a question you need to ask yourself is whether you should undertake further qualifications and if so, to what level. It is my belief that after nearly 3 years, you will need to refresh your technical knowledge and skills with some time back in education or with up-to-date experience, but confirm this by asking pharmacologists for their thoughts on whether you need this to land a research post.

In any case, you specifically mentioned research in your question, so a Ph.D. may be the best choice if you intend to pursue a career in this area. The good news is that with a 2:1, you are likely to receive full funding for your research, and with Ph.D. grants set to rise, it may not involve as many sacrifices as you imagine. There are no restrictions to Research Council funding for students who return to doctoral research after a break, and I doubt other funding bodies would discriminate in this way. Now is a good time to start making enquiries if this idea appeals to you, as you have the advantage of knowing your degree result, unlike current finalists against whom you may be competing.

A shorter alternative would be to do a taught master’s course that includes a research project (usually about 3 months). That would provide both an adequate refresher and some level of specialisation (although obviously not to the same degree as a doctorate). Places on some master’s courses are funded, and I know of a number of people who have used them successfully to return to scientific careers or change direction, from chemistry to biomedical sciences, for example. You’ll find an extensive database of further study opportunities on the Prospects Web site, but keep in mind you’ll need to apply directly to the institution–unlike first degrees, there isn’t a central admissions system. Be prepared to ask admissions tutors questions about possible careers following on from their courses, as well as their other benefits. They should have details of the destinations of former students, which may help you decide whether the course meets your needs. If places aren’t funded, ask how existing students are funding themselves. They may have already identified other funding bodies, which would save you some of the hard work of having to find them yourself.

When it comes to finding a job, the range of options available to Amy also applies to you. But, although you left science over 2 years ago, you are also in an enviable position working for a life sciences professional body. Your colleagues will have contacts in a great range of relevant careers, and although these may not be pharmacologists, you have a good chance of tracking one down. If your contract expires before you have managed to exploit these contacts, it may be worth joining another professional body or network to build links with scientists.

Although you are not a woman returning to science after a family break, it may also be worth asking individuals at the trusts that support those award for some advice (see my previous column Returning to Work After a Career Break). Even if they can’t offer funding to you, they may be able to suggest some strategies for approaching scientific employers.

If advice isn’t available from these trusts, don’t forget that as a recent graduate you are entitled to support from any university careers service as well as online and telephone support for 5 years following graduation. There is more information, including a database of what different universities offer, on Prospects. Many will take a small charge for these services, but the charges are considerably cheaper than those of commercial careers consultants and on the whole offer more appropriate advice. If you still live near your place of study, I would suggest you contact the University of London Careers Service, as they will be able to help you in many ways: advice on your CV and interviews, access to vacancy bulletins, and use of their library, to name just a few. You may also be able to attend employer presentations, use their networks to track down contacts in relevant areas, and get individual guidance from an adviser.

It is important that you get advice on how to present your recent career history in your CV. Of course, you shouldn’t mislead or lie in a CV, but this doesn’t mean that you have to draw attention to your time away from science. Use headings like “relevant experience” and “other experience” to push your time in accountancy off the front page. This will also allow you to highlight the skills and techniques you developed whilst studying. And be prepared to talk about them if you decide to return to science without further training, as employers are certain to want evidence that you will be able to make a contribution despite your time away. This means demonstrating that you remember and understand your discipline and know what’s going on in it at the moment!

One sure thing is that, having made the difficult and brave decision to return to pharmacology and research, you will receive a lot of support from other scientists as you investigate your options.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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