How to get into pharma

A common first role in the pharma industry is the Pharma Representative. Not so long ago this meant calling on the physicians in your area as often as possible to promote your medicines because physicians were the key decision makers. Today, NHS procurement is much more centralised; budget management and prescribing decisions are made by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).

CCGs are clinically-led groups that include all GP groups in their geographic areas. The aim of CCGs is to give GPs and other clinicians the power to influence commissioning decisions for their patients. On the whole, pharma reps today enjoy greater ownership, and have much more in common with account managers because the environment is challenging and competitive; commercial competition and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence’s influence make things even tougher. Steely determination and a broad skills-set are essential.

Employers normally look for a degree in a Life Sciences subject such as Biology, Pharmacy, or Biomedical Sciences. It’s not essential but it does help. Graduates from a different subject, or with an academic background but no degree are still well-placed to consider a pharma sales role, so long as they can demonstrate the ability to assimilate information. A background in healthcare or nursing, or sales and marketing, with an understanding of medical sales, is a good starting point too. The most successful pharma reps will have honed analytical and planning skills; employers also look for individuals who can successfully work as part of a team because it’s more than likely that you’ll work with perhaps two or three other sales reps from the same company, sharing the same results.

Another way to demonstrate your determination to get into pharma sales is to work towards qualifications from professional organisations such as the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management (ISMM) and the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM). Shadowing a rep is another great way to make yourself attractive to your desired employer. Take a look at our ‘Shadowing’ guidance below if you’re interested in pursuing it further.

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You can expect to undergo an initial training course (ITC), which will teach you all about the products, therapy area, and how to promote them in a very competitive environment. The PMCPA Code of Practice also requires pharma representatives to take and pass an examination within two years of taking up a position as a medical rep in the UK.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), is the self-regulatory body which administers the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s (ABPI), Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry at arm’s length of the ABPI. You must have been entered for it within a year of starting work as a representative. The PMCPA ensures that the promotion of medicines to health professionals and administrative staff is carried out within a robust framework that makes sure patient care is of the highest possible quality. The Code also sets standards relating to the provision of information to patients, the public and relationships with patient groups.

To move onwards and upwards in your career, you’ll need to demonstrate that you’re able to deliver on your sales and activity results. Successful pharma sales representatives do have multiple career options available to them; many go on to excel in sales training, area management and product management/marketing-based roles.

As well as a good starting wage, many pharma reps benefit from very competitive perks and bonus opportunities; because reps often work from home and/or spend a lot of time in the car covering their territory. They often benefit from a company car or car allowance, and a laptop.

How to organise shadowing

Every day we receive countless requests from people asking us to help them organise field visits. While it would be easy for us to do so, if you’re asking us this question, you’re probably missing the point. To be brutal, how can we take you seriously if you haven’t experienced first-hand, elements of your chosen career? In view of the overwhelming competition to secure jobs within the pharmaceutical industry, the answer is... probably not!

You must also understand that pharma sales is not a soft option. You’ll need levels of business acumen, resilience, flexibility and drive that are well above those required in other sales professions. Taking the time to shadow a pharma representative demonstrates that you’re serious and perhaps, more importantly, offers you the chance to make sure you’ve made the right decision.

As with your future sales role, arranging to shadow a rep will probably present a few challenges, unless you’re lucky enough to know a pharma representative already. Many pharmaceutical companies don’t allow their representatives to take non-employees on the road. Your ability to overcome minor hurdles will further serve as evidence that you have the necessary tenacity to excel in the pharma sales arena.

Below, you’ll find a number of ways to gain contact with a helpful pharma representative...

Via your local Doctors Surgery

You could talk with your GP or with the Practice Manager at your local surgery. Explain that you’re planning a career in the pharmaceutical industry and that you need to shadow a pharma representative. Ask them for some personal introductions or for some contact details of the representatives that they know.

Another approach would be to ask the Practice Manager for work experience. Offer your services, free of charge, for a few days. In doing so, it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to meet with pharma representatives as well as the opportunity to talk with your future NHS customers. Look for the opportunity to converse with everyone and to learn about their views on the pharmaceutical industry and its sales representatives.

Create opportunities to witness the interaction that takes place between pharma representatives and practice staff. By doing so you can begin to form your own opinions and learn about the skills required to ‘open doors.’ This level of ‘go the extra mile’ research will pay dividends and to a certain extent will allow you to stand out from the crowd when you interview.

Via your local Retail Pharmacy

All Pharmacists know pharma representatives. Why not adopt a similar approach as discussed above? Ask for personal introductions and consider a day’s work experience.

Via your local Post-Graduate Education Centre

Most hospitals have educational facilities for their resident NHS staff. These are usually termed ‘Post-Graduate Educational Centres’ and are always frequented by pharma representatives.

You may wish to seek a meeting with the Manager of your nearest ‘Post-Grad Centre’, explaining your goals and gaining his/her permission to attend the centre at the appropriate times.

If nothing else, this will allow you the opportunity to meet with a number of Medical Representatives and to witness one aspect of their sales/educational role.

In our experience, the above methods work and it’s likely that you’ll learn a whole lot more than you would from a shadowing experience alone.

We guarantee that if you heed this advice, the recruitment process will be a smoother journey for you, with less setbacks and a higher probability of a successful outcome.