How to Become a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative

Learn about the exciting and rewarding career of a pharmaceutical sales representative.

Last updated: Jun 29th, 2021
Pharmaceeutical rep

What Does a Pharma Rep Do?

Pharmaceutical sales representatives educate physicians and other medication-prescribing professionals on new developments in the rapidly advancing pharmaceutical industry. In addition, they connect providers with the knowledge, drugs, and treatments necessary 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 specific geographic territory. In this role, they schedule and attend sales meetings with health care providers, follow leads and cultivate new customers. 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 educating stakeholders about exciting advances at the forefront of medicine and bringing new and sometimes life-saving treatments to the public.

Workplace Details

Though they may work in a home- or company-based office, pharmaceutical sales representatives spend much of their time on the road visiting physicians' offices, hospitals and nursing homes. Pharma reps 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 to develop contacts for future sales.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary of pharmaceutical sales representatives is $99,680, and half earn between $59,590 and $127,800. 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.

The BLS expects a job growth of 4% for all sales representatives of technical and scientific products (which includes PSRs) between 2019 and 2029, which is average job growth. 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. Those with a strong educational background in the life sciences, business and statistics are also attractive to employers.

Steps to Become a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative

Earn a bachelor's degree

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.

Consider earning a graduate degree

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 undergraduate 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).

Gain on-the-job training and continuing education credits

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.

Consider becoming certified

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.

Look into advancement opportunities

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.

Explore Degree Paths

While it's a bit of a long shot, some pharmaceutical companies will hire sales representatives without bachelor's degrees. To increase your odds, gain a few years of experience in business-to-business sales. You'll need an exceptional track record to break in this way.


Most jobs in pharmaceutical sales require a bachelor's degree at minimum. Many companies suggest majoring in:

Pharmaceutical business and management

A few schools, including Ohio Northern University and St. Joseph University, offer undergraduate majors in pharmaceutical business. Programs blend science and healthcare business classes.

Biological sciences

This includes majors like biology, biochemistry, physiology, nutrition, and animal science. Having a science background can make it easier to educate yourself about the products you're selling. It also gives you credibility with your future clients, who may include physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and veterinarians.

Business and marketing

Having some background in sales, marketing, communications, manufacturing, and the regulatory environment is helpful in this line of work. If you major in a science, definitely take some business courses or consider a minor in this area.

The following courses can help you develop skills and knowledge you'll use in pharmaceutical sales:


Study how biological molecules are structured and interact at an atomic level, plus the role electricity plays in body function.

Organic chemistry

Survey the structure and reactions of molecules containing carbon.

Public speaking

Covers topics like structuring and organizing a presentation, delivery techniques, and tips for overcoming anxiety.


Learn the communication strategies you need to influence others, overcome resistance, and reach agreements.

Finally, use your college years to network and gain as much experience in the industry as possible. Consider interning with a pharmaceutical company and attending industry events and conferences.

When looking for your first pharmaceutical sales rep job after graduation, your best chances will be with larger companies like Pfizer, Merck, and Novartis. Another common pathway after graduation is to gain a few years of business-to-business sales experience in another industry at a company with a strong sales training program.


Earning an MBA prepares you to hold a senior leadership position within a company. In pharmaceutical sales, this might mean becoming a sales manager or marketing executive. Also, a few pharmaceutical companies only hire sales representatives with a master's.

A word of caution: an MBA will probably not help you get your foot in the door when it comes to landing an entry-level pharmaceutical sales position. That's more about your sales record, drive, network, and personal characteristics. The best time to consider an MBA is when you've been working as a representative for a few years and have clear advancement goals in mind.

Consider a number of factors when choosing an MBA program. Some actually offer concentrations in healthcare or pharmaceuticals. Many have a distance option for working students. Prestige may be important if your goal is to hold an executive position at a pharmaceutical giant like Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

MBA coursework covers leadership, accounting, finance, economics, and marketing. Some courses you might encounter in a program with a pharmacy concentration:

Business ethics

Looks at moral issues that arise when companies manufacture pharmaceuticals for profit.

Supply chain management

Study ways to design, build, manage, and assess the strategic partnerships needed to create a pharmaceutical product.

Health care policy

Examine how laws, regulations, and court decisions impact healthcare cost, quality, and access.

Sales management

Learn to get the most from your sales representatives and gain a deeper understanding of the psychology and strategy of selling.

Keys to Success as a Pharma Sales Rep

Necessary Skills and Qualities


Pharmaceutical sales reps must have the curiosity and intellectual capacity to understand the science behind the products they sell.

Strong and persuasive communicator

Excellent verbal skills help them to communicate this information to health care professionals clearly and objectively.

Knowledgeable about sales

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).

Additional Credentials

Several organizations offer certification in pharmaceutical sales. These include professional societies, private companies, and even some colleges and universities.

Many of these programs are marketed aggressively online. The target audience: people who are struggling to break into pharmaceutical sales.

Despite what these companies claim, there's really no certification required to become a pharmaceutical sales rep. Recruiters are far more interested in sales skills, track record, personal drive, and fit for the position.

So don't take online claims about pharmaceutical sales certification at face value. Before paying for a certification course, discuss the decision with your network, mentor, academic advisor, or a real-life recruiter at a pharmaceutical company.