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Pharmaceutical Sales

Note: The Health Professions and Prelaw Center does not offer specialized advising for pharmaceutical sales, and generally cannot address related individual questions. We offer the resources below for informational purposes only.


Description of the Profession


"Pharmaceutical sales" includes many possible professions and career paths, including field sales, sales management, market management and market support, and sales training. The information on this page focuses on field sales, or work as a pharmaceutical sales representative [a.k.a., "pharm rep," "pharma rep," "drug rep," or "detailer"). An internet search for "pharmaceutical sales" yields plentiful results. Those interested in a career in this industry are well advised to invest considerable time in researching it.  [NOTE:  HPPLC does not provide advising services for this profession.]

Pharmaceutical sales representatives promote sales through one-on-one and group presentations with prospective clients, during which the pharm rep communicates current information about treatment programs, explains the characteristics and clinical studies associated with the given products, provides product samples, and takes orders. Pharm reps invest much time and effort in fostering productive relationships with prospects, who can include physicians, pharmacists, dentists, hospitals, managed care companies and retirement homes, retail stores (including pharmacies), drug wholesalers, and patient advocacy groups. Reps may also have some quality control responsibilities; for instance, making sure clients do not have outdated or discontinued products.

Pharmaceutical sales is widely considered to be a demanding, highly competitive profession. According to The Princeton Review, pharm reps "spend most of their business time on the road, talking with [prospective clients], increasing the visibility of their company's products and the volume of their sales. [T]he best reps follow any lead, making every possible effort to sell their product. [Many] attend meetings where contact with purchasing professionals is rich, such as an association of pharmacists or a convention of hospital administrators." It should be noted that "[t]his territory-oriented business can be a hard life, particularly for those trying to maintain their family life as well. The need to sell extends to social functions and free time," and often can interfere with family time.

On the other hand, if you are a "people person," want to function with relative independence, and enjoy the kinds of challenges noted above, then you should continue your career research. Throughout your research process, weigh your academic, career, and personal priorities and aptitudes in terms of what you learn about this profession. The assessment in the previous paragraph constitutes one opinion. Other pharm sales reps may have different experiences; for instance, some work as part time reps, or manage to carve out a career with less travel and a more standard work week. Nonetheless, the standard wisdom seems to be that, in most cases, pharmaceutical sales is not just a career choice, but also a lifestyle choice.

Skills and Characteristics Important to this Profession

Strong writing ability (including business and professional writing); public speaking, interpersonal communication, time management, and leadership skills; assertiveness and persistence; the ability to take rejection gracefully and to work under pressure; the ability to work both independently and as part of a team.

Training and Preparation

Indiana University does not have a pharmaceutical sales program; however, a wide variety of undergraduate academic programs, coursework, and other experiences can help you develop the skills and background necessary for success as a pharm rep. Majors / minors / certificates / individual courses from different areas could be strategically combined during your undergraduate degree to form this foundation.

(Pharm sales training programs do exist, but before making any such decision, carefully research accredited certification programs and university-affiliated degree programs (e.g., Rutgers' Pharmaceutical MBA). Whether such programs provide an edge in the job search is debatable. See related article here.)

Some Academic Areas of Study to Consider

  • Advertising or Public Relations (School of Journalism)
  • Allied health fields (Refer to HPPLC's Health Professions Descriptions handout)
  • Biology (including human biology, microbiology, etc.)
  • Business
  • Chemistry (including biochemistry)
  • Communication and Culture (especially rhetoric / verbal and written communication)
  • Dietetics
  • English
  • Liberal Arts and Management Program (LAMP)
  • Management (KSB, SPEA)
  • Nutrition Science
  • Pharmacy (A graduate-level degree. See HPPLC's Prepharmacy information)
  • Public Health (HPER, SPEA)
  • Other health or business-related areas of study, or any area of study that can help you develop the skills previously noted

Some Courses to Consider

  • Acting courses (THTR-T 120, et al)
  • Anatomy (ANAT-A 215: Basic Human Anatomy)
  • Biology
  • Business (e.g., K201, to learn Excel and Access)
  • Chemistry
  • Communication and Culture (CMCL-C 121: Public Speaking, C122: Interpersonal Communication, C225: Discussion and Decision Making, C228: Argumentation and Debate, and other rhetoric / verbal and written communication courses)
  • Economics (ECON-E 201: Microeconomics, E202: Macroeconomics)
  • Ethics (PHIL-P 140: Introduction to Ethics, REL-R 170: Religion and Ethics, REL-R 373: Religion and Bioethics)
  • Health-related courses (e.g., HPER-H courses)
  • Medical Terminology (CLAS-C 209)
  • Medical Sciences (MSCI-M 131: Disease and the Human Body, M264: Psychoactive Drugs)
  • Nutrition (e.g., HPER-N 231: Human Nutrition)
  • Philosophy (PHIL-P 105: Thinking and Reasoning)
  • Physiology (PHSL-P 215: Basic Human Physiology)
  • Psychology
  • Writing courses, including business and professional writing (e.g., BUS-X 204, CMCL-C 223, ENG-W 231, ENG-W 270), or any course requiring substantial writing)

Some Activities and Experiences to Consider

  • Leadership development courses (e.g., HPER-R 110) and / or leadership development programs (e.g., the Liberal Arts and Management Program (LAMP); the Political and Civic Engagement certificate program (PACE).
  • Personal development courses (e.g., the Alpine (Aspen) Ski program, HPER-E 296 or 396).
  • Take on leadership roles in student clubs and organizations (Visit this site for a list. Since the list is incomplete, also ask the advisor in a given area about other opportunities.)
  • STEPS computing workshops, many of which are free to students (Visit the IU IT Training).
  • Internships; sales or pharm industry experience (e.g., find a job as a pharmacy tech).
  • Networking: Do you know any pharm sales reps? Do you know someone else who might know any pharm sales reps? Can your family physician or local pharmacist refer you to any pharm sales reps?
  • Job Shadowing: Through your networking, see if you can arrange to shadow a pharm rep as they make their rounds. If you can establish a good rapport, ask questions like: How did you acquire sales experience? What were the most valuable of these experiences? How did your undergraduate degree help prepare you for this career? What have you since learned about the industry that has helped you on the job or helped further your career? How has the profession effected your lifestyle? (It is important you ask such questions knowing that you are only gathering opinions. What worked or is true for one person may or may not be so for another, and you may even hear conflicting viewpoints.)

Other Resources



This information was prepared for Indiana University Bloomington students by the Health Professions and Prelaw Center. Please note that specific requirements and policies can change at any time without notice. Students are responsible for obtaining the most current information directly from application and testing services, and the schools and programs in which they have an interest. Refer to each program's web pages, bulletins, and other publications for the most current information. Students are responsible for understanding degree course requirements, as well as other requirements, policies, and procedures related to the degree(s) they are pursuing; for enrolling in appropriate courses; for understanding IU policies/procedures; and for following through properly with regard to all of the preceding.