Education and Training Requirements

High School

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, precalculus, 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.

Postsecondary Training

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.) and pharmacology doctorates. Some pharmacologists who specialize in animal pharmacology are also doctors of veterinary medicine (D.V.M.). Many courses in pharmacology closely resemble medical school courses, and doctorates 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. 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 to gain further research skills, experience, and maturity.

Other Education or Training

The American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists offers online training courses like "Fundamentals of Biotherapeutic Development," a primer on the subject of practical biotherapeutic development and related therapies. It also offers webinars and conference sessions and workshops. In addition, continuing education opportunities are provided by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. Contact these organizations for more information.

Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements

Certification or Licensing

Pharmacologists may choose to become certified within a special area of study. The American 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 postdoctoral work in clinical pharmacology, among other requirements, before being eligible for the exam.

The American Board of Toxicology, Inc. offers a certification in toxicology, which is often required for jobs as a toxicologist. Certification is achieved after passing an exam as well as having a specified number of years of experience and education. Unlike pharmacists, pharmacologists do not have to be licensed.

Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits

Aspiring pharmacologists should take as many math and science classes as possible and participate in college internships to gain experience in the field. Those interested in pursuing a job in academia often gain experience by landing a postdoctoral research position at a large hospital, research institute, or government research laboratory.

Pharmacology is a great option for someone who is interested in pharmaceuticals, but doesn't want to be a pharmacist directly interacting with patients. Pharmacologists, however, must be highly intelligent, inquisitive, and flexible to learn new techniques. They must perform multiple tasks simultaneously, keep accurate records, follow instructions, and present their findings to a group of peers, occasionally while being asked difficult questions. Pharmacologists need to be patient and willing to work long hours, often alone, to master research that does not provide quick answers. When working with others, communication skills are vital.