Exploring this Job

The best way to learn about pharmacology is to interview professionals in the career. 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.

The Job

Pharmacologists are highly trained scientists who study the effects drugs and other chemical agents have on humans, animals, and plants. If you become a pharmacologist, there are several career paths available. Clinical pharmacologists focus on the effects of medications for treating disease. Veterinary pharmacologists study drugs and their relationship with animals. Behavior pharmacologists examine how drugs affect human behavior. Molecular pharmacologists study how drugs affect cells. The field of pharmacology involves many specialties.

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 identify hazardous substances in the environment and are often referred to as toxicologists. 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.

Because this work is so complex, requiring knowledge of many aspects of different sciences, mathematics, and statistics is required. Teams of pharmacologists often 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 to 15 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. They will often publish findings in research journals and present their research to colleagues.