How to Become a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative

Overview

Sales rep talking with two doctors

Pharmaceutical sales representatives educate physicians and other medication-prescribing professionals on new developments in the rapidly advancing pharmaceutical industry. These professionals connect providers with the knowledge, drugs and treatments they need to provide cutting-edge care to their patients. They also work to educate physicians, pharmacists, health care facilities and consumers about new pharmaceutical products.

Pharmaceutical sales reps, also known as pharma reps or PSRs, have an excellent understanding of pharmacology - the science of medications and their effects on the human body. When selling a new product, they must be able to describe its chemistry, method of action, side effects and potential interactions with other drugs. By specializing in a certain group or class of pharmaceuticals such as cardiac or psychiatric drugs, PSRs can deepen their knowledge base, making them more valuable to healthcare providers and more effective at promoting their products.

Most PSRs are salespeople who work on commission within a certain geographic territory. In this role, they schedule and attend sales meetings with health care providers, follow leads and cultivate new customers for the company. They may also attend industry conferences, speak at provider events and conduct continuing education sessions for medical professionals. In addition to their sales duties, many PSRs conduct field research on behalf of their employers. They may be responsible for monitoring physicians’ prescription patterns or gauging reactions to a new treatment.

Experienced PSRs enjoy the intellectual challenge the job provides. Because the pharmaceutical industry advances rapidly, there are always new products to research. Reps find great satisfaction in communicating exciting advances at the forefront of medicine to stakeholders and bringing new and sometimes life-saving treatments to the public.

Work Environment

Though they may be based in a home- or company-based office, pharmaceutical sales representatives spend much of their time on the road visiting physician’s offices, hospitals and nursing homes. These professionals work independently and have considerable freedom to set their own schedules. However, because their pay is commission-based, they need to put in a significant number of hours. Reps often spend their evenings and weekends at conferences and networking events where they can develop contacts for future sales.

Requirements

Education

While there are no specific educational requirements to become a pharmaceutical sales representative, most of these professionals hold a four-year bachelor’s degree. Many have science backgrounds, which help them to understand new products and to communicate effectively with health care professionals. Aspiring reps should therefore take some coursework in biology, chemistry and statistics. Business training is also desirable to sharpen sales and negotiation skills.

Representatives who hold graduate degrees in business or the life sciences are especially attractive to employers. To apply to graduate school, candidates must earn a four-year degree from an accredited institution and achieve a high score on the Graduate Records Examination (for science programs) or the Graduate Management Admissions Test (for business programs).

Training

Most pharmaceutical companies provide on-the-job training to new sales reps as well as tuition reimbursement for ongoing coursework in pharmacology and the life sciences. PSRs are expected to engage in rigorous continuing education throughout their careers.

Licensing and/or Certification

Voluntary certification as a Certified National Pharmaceutical Representative (CNPR) is available through the National Association of Pharmaceutical Representatives. Candidates must complete an accredited training program (offered online and at over 300 colleges nationwide) and pass a knowledge exam.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Pharmaceutical sales reps must have the curiosity and intellectual capacity to understand the science behind the products they sell. Excellent verbal skills help them to communicate this information to health care professionals clearly and objectively. As salespeople, they must be skilled at building relationships and earning the trust of clients. Because they sell to busy providers who are alert for conflicts of interest, they must be patient and persistent without coming across as aggressive or pushy. Prior sales experience is desirable (though not required by all pharmaceutical companies).

Opportunities for Advancement

With time and experience, pharmaceutical sales representatives can advance to administrative positions in which they supervise the work of junior salespeople, plan and manage campaigns and oversee product launches. Reps enhance their skills and earnings through continuing education or by pursuing advanced degrees.

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Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary of wholesale and manufacturing sales representatives (including PSRs) was $74,750 in 2010, and most earned between $38,520 and $146,380. Those who work for established companies enjoy competitive benefits packages that often include a company car, business trips, expense accounts, stock options, bonuses, medical and life insurance, tuition reimbursement and retirement plans.

Because they work on commission, pharmaceutical sales representatives have some control over their earnings and can improve their pay by increasing their sales.

Job Outlook

CNNMoney.com projected job growth of 12% from 2006 to 2016 for pharmaceutical sales representatives. Demand is highest for knowledgeable sales people who are able to stay up to date in a rapidly changing industry and communicate effectively with health care professionals.

The pharmaceutical industry is based largely in California, New Jersey and parts of the Midwest, so candidates who live in these areas may have an advantage when it comes to obtaining entry-level positions. Those with a strong educational background in the life sciences, business and statistics are also attractive to employers.

Further Reading

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