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Pharmacologists investigate and analyse drugs, chemicals and other substances to discover how they affect biological systems, and to assess how they can be used safely.

Developing a new drug takes, on average, 15 years from its discovery to patient delivery.

What does a pharmacologist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Pharmacologists seek to understand how chemical substances interact with the body. They work as part of a research team that is responsible for screening compounds, developing drugs and undertaking controlled experiments and clinical trials in laboratories. Their aim is to gain a better understanding of diseases, develop new drugs to treat them and promote the safe use of existing drugs. Other substances such as poisons and toxins are also studied by pharmacologists to try to understand how those substances can harm the body.

Pharmacologists commonly specialise in a particular field of research such as toxicology (the study of how toxic substances affect living organisms), neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) or pharmacokinetics (the movement of drugs within the body). It's also possible to focus exclusively on animal medicines.

Typical responsibilities include:

  • designing and carrying out experiments
  • devising and testing hypotheses
  • testing drugs on cells or through clinical trials on humans
  • analysing and interpreting data (often using specialist computer applications)
  • making recommendations based on findings from research and experiments
  • laboratory and staff management
  • studying relevant literature
  • writing reports and papers
  • collaborating with and sharing expertise and research findings with associated staff
  • attending meetings and conferences

Typical employers of pharmacologists

  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Universities
  • The NHS
  • The Medical Research Council
  • Other government research organisations

Vacancies are advertised by careers services, specialist recruitment agencies, in national newspapers, Times Higher Education and relevant scientific publications such as The Pharmaceutical Journal, New Scientist, Science, Nature and their respective websites.

  • The recruitment process is likely to involve a technical interview. Read our article on technical interviews to find out what these involve and how you can tackle them.
  • If you'd like to find out what your salary might look like, take a look at our article on how much you might earn in science on our TARGETcareers website.

Qualifications and training required

You can only become a pharmacologist if you have a degree in a relevant scientific discipline. Pharmacology is the most relevant, but other appropriate subjects include:

  • biology
  • biochemistry
  • biomedical/biochemical sciences
  • microbiology
  • chemistry

A postgraduate research degree or PhD can be beneficial, and may even be necessary, and often leads to higher starting salaries. Read our article on scientific postgraduate study to explore your different options.

Research work and experience gained using relevant scientific and analytical techniques can also be useful.

Key skills for pharmacologists

  • A logical and inquisitive mind
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills
  • Good teamworking abilities
  • Accuracy and attention to detail
  • Analytical skills

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