Pharmacologists play an important role in medicine and in science by studying the effects of drugs, chemicals, and other substances on humans, animals, and plants. These highly educated scientists conduct research on living tissues and organs to determine how drugs and other chemicals act at the cellular level. Their results help to discover how drugs and other chemicals should be most effectively used. The study of pharmacology is necessary to standardize drug dosages; analyze chemicals, food additives, poisons, insecticides, and other substances; and identify dangerous substances and harmful levels of controlled chemicals.
Pharmacologist Career History
Pharmacology is not the same as pharmacy. Pharmacology is the science concerned with the interactions between chemicals and biological systems. Pharmacy is the practice of preparation and dispensing of drugs to patients.
Past civilizations, especially the cultures of ancient Greece and China, compiled the earliest written pharmacological knowledge, identifying certain diseases and the recommended “prescriptions” for these ailments. It was not until thousands of years later that organized experiments in pharmacology began. Many credit Francois Magendie, an early 19th-century French physiologist, with the birth of experimental pharmacology. The research of Magendie and his student, Claude Bernard, on poisons such as strychnine and carbon monoxide, and on the use of curare as a muscle relaxant, helped to establish many of the principles of modern pharmacology. In 1847, a German, Rudolf Bucheim, started the first institute of pharmacology at the University of Dorpat, establishing the study of pharmacology as a singular discipline. A student of Bucheim, Oswald Schmiedeberg, became a professor of pharmacology and further passed on his knowledge to students from all over the world. One of these students, John Jacob Abel, is credited with bringing experimental pharmacology to the United States.
The medical achievements and discoveries of pharmacologists are numerous. Their work has helped in the development of antibiotics, anesthetics, vaccines, tranquilizers, vitamins, and many other substances in wide medical use today. Pharmacologists have been instrumental, for example, in the use of ether and other anesthetics that have modernized surgical procedures. Their research was used in the development of lifesaving drugs such as penicillin, tetanus and polio vaccines, antimalaria drugs, and countless other compounds. In addition, pharmacologists have helped to develop drugs to treat heart disease, cancer, and psychiatric illnesses.
With the scientific advances of the early 20th century, especially the introduction of antibacterial drugs into medicine, pharmacology gained recognition as a distinct discipline. Spurred by pharmacological research, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was introduced, requiring rigorous studies of drugs before they could be marketed. Regulations continue today through the Food and Drug Administration.
Unlike early pharmacologists who were strictly devoted to developing new drugs, modern pharmacologists perform a much broader range of activities. They test pesticides for harmful reactions, identify poisons and their effects, analyze industrial pollutants, study food preservatives and colorings, and check other substances for their effects on the environment as well as on humans. Their research includes all aspects of modern molecular and cellular biology as well as effects of drugs in animals and humans.
Pharmacologist Job Description
Pharmacologists are highly trained scientists who study the effects drugs and other chemical agents have on humans, animals, and plants. They may create new drugs, test old drugs for new uses, or study the interaction between drugs or other chemical agents and an organism to find out how a disease progresses. Pharmacologists perform research in laboratories using cultured cells, laboratory animals, plants, human tissues, precision electronic instruments, and computers. They try to answer such questions as: What is a drug’s effect on the cellular system of the tissue or other subject being studied? How is the drug absorbed, distributed, and released from the cells or organism? Are the cells or organism developing sensitivity to the drug and how is that happening? Pharmacology also involves studying therapeutics and toxicology as they relate to drugs and other chemical agents. Therapeutics refers to the drugs or other agents’ action or influence on diseases as well as the diseases’ influence on the properties of drugs and other agents. Pharmacologists specializing in drug research, for example, may study the therapeutic effects of medical compounds on specific organs or bodily systems. They identify potentially beneficial and potentially harmful side effects and are then able to predict the drug’s usefulness against specific diseases. They also use this information to recommend proper dosages and describe circumstances in which a drug should be administered. Toxicology refers to the toxic effects of drugs used to treat diseases as well as the toxic effects of chemical agents in the environment, agriculture, and industry. Pharmacologists trying to identify if there is a hazardous substance in an environment that is making people ill, for example, are involved in toxicology. They may analyze chemicals to determine if dangerous amounts of lead, mercury, or ammonia are in workplaces, pesticides, food preservatives, or even common household items such as paints, aerosol sprays, and cleaning fluids.
The complex field of pharmacology is divided into several areas in which pharmacologists may choose to specialize. Neuropharmacologists focus on drugs relating to the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Cardiovascular pharmacologists specialize in the effects of drugs relating to the cardiovascular and circulatory systems. Endocrine pharmacologists study drug effects on the hormonal balance of the body. Molecular pharmacologists study the biochemical and biophysical interactions between drug molecules and cells. Biochemical pharmacologists use biochemistry, cell biology, and physiology to determine how drugs interact and influence the chemical makeup of an organism. Veterinary pharmacologists are experts on the use and study of drugs with animals. Behavioral pharmacologists, sometimes known as psychopharmacologists, specialize in studying drugs that affect such things as behavior patterns, learning processes, and mental illnesses. Chemotherapy pharmacologists focus their work on creating drugs that will stop the growth of or kill infectious agents or cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Clinical pharmacologists specialize in studying how various drugs and chemical compounds work only in human subjects.
Because this work is so complex, requiring knowledge of many aspects of different sciences, mathematics, and even technology, it is not uncommon for teams of pharmacologists to work together, especially in the development of more complex drugs and compounds capable of treating numerous diseases. Pharmacologists may work for laboratories of pharmaceutical companies or universities. A number also teach at universities or medical schools. Research projects take considerable time to complete. In general, it takes 10 years for pharmacologists to develop, test, and refine a new drug product before the Food and Drug Administration will approve its use for the public. Throughout this entire process, pharmacologists must pay strict attention to detail and keep accurate documentation.
Dr. Dennis Mungall is the director of clinical pharmacology and anticoagulation services at a family practice residency. His clinical research involves cardiovascular medicine and coagulation disorders. He also works as a teacher, helping physicians-in-training, pharmacy students, and general health care providers understand drug therapies and side effects. “I teach how to streamline care,” he says, “so that it’s cost-effective and easy for the patients. I teach them how to pick the best therapy that fits the patient’s pathology. Drug-drug interactions can cause adverse effects; I teach how to understand these and how to avoid them.” Mungall says this work is a science of tailoring drug therapy to the individual patient.
Pharmacologist Career Requirements
It takes many years of education to become a pharmacologist, but you can begin to prepare yourself for this work by taking college prep classes while in high school. Naturally, you should take science courses, including biology, chemistry, and physics. If your school offers more advanced science courses, such as molecular biology and organic chemistry, take these as well. You will also need a strong math background, so take four years of mathematics, including algebra, geometry, statistics, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus, if your school offers this. Keep your computer skills up to date by taking computer science classes. Because you will need strong researching, writing, and speaking skills, you should also take four years of English classes.
Your next step after high school is to earn an undergraduate degree. A few universities offer an undergraduate degree in pharmacology. Because of the limited number of schools offering this degree, however, many students choose to get bachelor’s degrees in chemistry or a biological science, which are also appropriate. No matter what your major is, your college studies should again focus on sciences (biology, physics, organic and inorganic chemistry) and mathematics (such as differential calculus and integral calculus). Other courses to take include English, computer science, and a foreign language.
After college, you need to complete graduate-level work. To conduct research, teach at a medical school or school of pharmacy, or advance to high level administrative positions, the minimum education you need is a doctorate degree in pharmacology. Many pharmacologists, however, have more than one advanced degree. Some, for example, have a doctorate in another science, such as biochemistry, and a doctorate in pharmacology. Others have medical degrees (M.D.s) and pharmacology doctorates. Some pharmacologists who specialize in animal pharmacology are also doctors of veterinary medicine (D.V.M.s). Many courses in pharmacology closely resemble medical school courses, and Ph.D.s in pharmacology are offered at medical schools, schools of pharmacy, and research universities. Certain veterinary schools offer degrees in veterinary pharmacology as well.
The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, a professional organization of pharmacologists, provides a list of accredited pharmacology graduate programs as well as other relevant information. (Visit the Training Programs section on its Web site, http://www.aspet.org/.) Once you’ve been accepted to such an institution, the Ph.D. program generally takes between four to six years to complete. Studies involve intensive courses in cellular and molecular biology, physiology, neuroscience, basic and molecular pharmacology, chemotherapy, toxicology, statistics, and research. The major portion of the Ph.D. program requires students to undertake independent and supervised research and successfully complete an original laboratory project. Graduate students must also write a doctoral thesis on their research project.
After receiving their Ph.D., many pharmacologists go on to complete two to four additional years of postdoctoral research training in which they assist a scientist on a second project in order to gain further research skills, experience, and maturity.
Certification or Licensing
Pharmacologists may choose to become certified within a special area of study. The Board of Clinical Pharmacology, for example, offers certification in clinical and applied pharmacology. Applicants are judged based on training and experience. They must first receive their doctoral degree and complete at least five years of postdoctoral work in clinical pharmacology, among other requirements, before being eligible for the exam.
“Communication is the most important part of the job,” says Dr. Dennis Mungall. “You’ll be organizing patients, administrators, people in business, and others—bringing people together for projects.” Mungall also emphasizes creativity. “Being creative,” he says, “adds to your ability to be a good researcher, to be a good thinker.”
Pharmacologists must be creative, curious, and flexible in order to entertain new ideas or investigative strategies. They need to be patient and willing to work long hours in order to master research that does not provide quick or easy answers. They must also be able to work alone or with similarly dedicated and driven colleagues to the conclusion of a project.
Exploring Pharmacologist Career
The best way to learn about pharmacology is to interview professionals in the career. Your high school counselor or science teacher may be able to arrange an interview with a qualified pharmacologist or even help plan a tour of a pharmacological facility.
Contact professional organizations for information about this career. The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics provides information on the field of pharmacology, including educational programs and academic institutions, the various subspecialties of pharmacology, and laboratories, drug companies, and other branches of the profession that employ pharmacologists.
Medical and other laboratories frequently employ part-time personnel to assist with various tasks. Information regarding summer or part-time opportunities can be obtained by contacting work-study or student research programs and student placement services. But you need to keep in mind that these positions can be hard to come by because you may be competing with pharmacological graduate students for jobs. If you are unable to get one of these positions, consider getting any type of work or experience that will give you the opportunity to be in a laboratory or medical setting. For example, you may be able to volunteer at a local hospital’s pharmacy or find part-time work at a doctor’s office. While you may be filing papers and updating computer records, you will also be learning about various drugs and what they do.
Pharmacologists are employed as faculty in medical, dental, veterinary, or pharmacy schools, and as researchers in large hospitals, medical centers, or research institutes. They also work for government agencies involved in research such as the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.
Drug companies, research organizations, medical, dental, and pharmacy schools and universities, and federal and state governments often recruit pharmacologists while they are in the process of earning their doctorates. By the second year of their doctoral program, most pharmacologists have chosen a subspecialty and seek out employers representing their chosen area.
If you have not taken a job with an organization recruiting on your campus, you should be able to consult your school’s placement office for job leads. If there are research institutes or pharmaceutical and chemical companies of interest to you, you can send resumes directly to them. Additionally, pharmacological journals often list job openings, and professional organizations usually provide employment services or news.
Most beginning pharmacologists start out in academics at the assistant professor level or work in laboratories, assisting advanced pharmacologists in research. Beginning pharmacologists work to improve their laboratory procedures, learn how to work with the Food and Drug Administration and various other government agencies, and gain experience testing drugs and other substances on both animal and human subjects. In research institutes, private industry, and academic laboratories, advancement in the field of pharmacology usually means moving into a supervising position, overseeing other scientists in a laboratory setting and heading up major research projects. Pharmacologists who work as teachers advance by serving as department heads, supervising research laboratories at universities, presenting public papers, and speaking at major conferences.
Pharmacologists often view their advancements in terms of successful research projects. Dr. Dennis Mungall is looking forward to branching out into other areas to combine his interests in pharmacology, writing, and the Internet. “I have a grant from the American Heart Association to do just that,” he says, “using the Internet to improve health care communication with patients”
A 2004 survey (the most recent information available) by the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists places average base salaries (excluding bonuses) for pharmacologists at $105,200 a year for those working in industry, $85,300 for those in academia, and $99,800 for those in government. The survey also compared salaries by education level and work experience. Pharmacologists with a master’s degree and 0 to 5 years of experience earned annual mean salaries of $56,300; with 10 to 20 years, $91,500; and 30 or more years, $112,300. Pharmacologists with a Ph.D. and 0 to 5 years of experience earned annual mean salaries of $82,200; with 10 to 20 years, $123,900; and 30 or more years, $148,100. Bonuses, especially for those in industry, can increase yearly earnings considerably. Benefits generally include health and dental insurance and paid vacation and sick days.
Pharmacologists work in academic settings or laboratories and generally work 40 hours a week, though they may sometimes be required to work extra hours to monitor experiments that need special attention. Most laboratories associated with academic or major research institutions are clean, well-lit, pleasant workplaces equipped with the sophisticated instruments necessary for modern research. Because pharmacologists perform such a vital role with respect to drug and chemical research, their laboratories tend to be fairly up-to-date.
Pharmacologists often work on projects that require years of effort and may for months show seemingly little progress. Pharmacologists must be able to deal with other professionals during what can be frustrating times as research and experiments do not go as planned. They must also be able to deal with the potential stresses associated with working in close quarters with others, sharing laboratory space or other resources.
In some cases, pharmacologists are called upon to work with forensic biologists, coroners, or others involved in determining causes of death under specific circumstances. They may also be asked to travel to other research institutions to share their findings.
Pharmacologist Career Outlook
Although the U.S. Department of Labor does not provide information on pharmacologists, it does recognize the related position of medical scientist (scientists involved with researching the causes of diseases and finding treatments for these diseases). The department predicts the employment outlook for medical scientists to be much faster than the average through 2014, although competition for jobs will be extremely keen. This is because research work is dependent on funding, typically from government sources. In recent years government cutbacks have limited the amount of funding available and, thus, limited research and work opportunities. Pharmacologists, who are also dependent on funding for research projects, are likely to face this same stiff competition for money and jobs. So while the employment outlook overall is good, only those with the most advanced and updated education will have the best prospects in future expanding and specialized job markets.
Areas in which growth is expected include health care, education, and research. Expanding health care needs and services should result in employment opportunities for pharmacologists in drug companies, hospitals, and medical and pharmacy schools. Pharmacological research done by government agencies will also continue.
Teaching opportunities should be plentiful as schools, universities, and medical centers will need qualified pharmacologists to train future students.
The growing elderly population will require pharmacologists to conduct more drug research and development. Pharmacology is also crucial in the development of drugs to battle existing diseases and medical conditions such as AIDS, muscular dystrophy, and cancer, and to facilitate the success of organ transplants.
Further study into drug addiction, gene therapy, and the effect of chemical substances on the environment, including their relationship to cancer and birth defects, will also provide research opportunities for qualified pharmacologists. The increasing interest in more non-traditional medical treatments will also open doors to pharmacologists in such subspecialties as herbal pharmacology, which focuses on the medicinal values of plants.