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The Real Poop

You've heard this one before, right? (And if you haven't, you're lucky.)

Here's how it goes.

Person A: "My dad/mom/caregiver is a (Nobel prize winner)(Master of the Universe)(circus performer). So-o-o-o-o, what does yours do?"

Person B: "Sells drugs."

Chances are, unless the parental unit is on the lam or in prison, Person B's talking about a pharmaceutical representative.

Drugs. Ha-ha. Pass the aspirin.

Pharmaceutical representatives field bad punchlines and even worse jokes, but they do get the last laugh. Pharma reps (yep, that's the lingo), can make mountains of money as virtual Pied Pipers of legal drugs, hawking the likes of Xanax (anti-anxiety) and Celebrex (anti-pain) to doctors and their health-care cohorts.

Pharma reps educate doctors and other medical professionals about pharmaceutical drugs ("medicines" to the rest of us). Typically, pharma reps specialize in a few therapeutic areas, like pain management or psychiatric drugs. They travel to hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors' offices—anywhere you might find sniffling, aching, or otherwise miserable-feeling people in need of a drug-infused boost. There, they try to persuade physicians to prescribe the drugs made by the companies they represent. Then, these pharma reps head to local pharmacies to see how many of those drugs end up being prescribed.

These representatives are generally well-versed in drug lingo—the side effects, contraindications and all that other fancy jargon. They educate others on how their snazzy drug is so much better than the competition's and why theirs, of course, is the best in the show. These reps do a lot of marketing and PR for the drugs, too. A pharma rep must wear several different hats—science wonk, salesperson, marketing maven—and look stellar in all of them.

Attention all introverts. Pharma reps gotta like people—a lot. They sell their drugs by becoming the doctors' best friend, pharmaceutically speaking, stopping by the office and telling them the good news about the latest drugs. This means glad-handing, bonhomie, Cheshire-Cat-style smiles and friendly chatter. Typically, most pharmaceutical companies expect their sales reps to visit about eight different offices each day, depending on the size of the sales district. That's a lot of meetings to fit into a day, so many pharma reps end up smacking the alarm clock way early. Doctors aren't exactly known for being the type to sleep in, and pharma reps typically start their day by meeting with a doctor before the doctor sees the first patient of the morning. Fortified by that IV of caffeine, pharma reps strive to be chipper and compelling as they tell the doctor about what drugs their company has to offer.

Being a good rep is more than good cheer and hard work. Reps should love the art of the sale. Sell, sell, sell is their mantra. They must also stoke their competitive impulses because pharma reps from competing companies are always trying to muscle into territory and poach clients.

If you dread desk jobs, this is your line of work. Pharma reps spend a lot of time on the road, driving from office to office, especially if the district spans a large geographical area. So, keep that driver’s license current. In this line of work, seriously consider one of those beaded car seats, and be well-prepared to grapple with the challenges of developing a numb butt.

Pharmaceutical reps aren't just people who drive around fancy cars and communicate well with others. They've also got to know all the details about the drugs they are promoting. Remember, the pharma reps teach the doctor the ins and outs of a particular drug, so that means they've got to learn that stuff first. We're talking the metabolic makeup of the drug, the human trial statistics and side effects, dosages, and whatnot. A bachelor's degree in science comes in mighty handy when it comes to making sense of all that data. Lots of medical jargon and details are associated with any product, and reps must be able to intelligently convey that information to doctors.

But the science geek with a pocket protector who dreams in organic chemistry molecules isn't necessarily the ideal pharmaceutical representative. Yes, at the minimum, a bachelor's degree is required. And add to that de minimis sheepskin college courses and knowledge of business, finance, and public speaking.

Face it—learning should come easy to a pharma rep, because there's going to be a steady diet of it. Pharma reps are expected to learn and relay a lot of detailed information about their product, and there are always new drugs in the works. Some reps find that taking an advanced course in pharmacology (the biology of drug action) helps them understand their product better—and makes them better reps. That training is typically on the company credit card, of course.

A few caveats here, though: It's not easy to break into pharma sales. Companies are looking for college grads with a science background and sales experience and internships and…you get the idea.

But if you do break into the field, all your hard work can pay off. Pharma reps, depending on company and location, can pull in anywhere from $50k to well into the six figures, when you add up base salary, bonuses and expense accounts.

Sounds like a sweet deal.