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The Real Poop

You like science and helping people, but don't want to be a doctor (yeech, too much blood). You're creative, but being a starving artist would take too much out of your bottom line (emphasis on "starving"). You like math, but the prospect of number-crunching leaves you as cold as absolute zero. And you love to bake and cook up recipes, but you don't want to be breathing in clouds of pastry flour, day after day (white lung disease, anyone?).

But hey, want to be a pharmaceutical scientist? Why not? To the non-doctors of the world, this field has it all: science, math, artistry, and invention. Those "pharma" scientists research, test, and manufacture pharmaceutical drugs—those scores of magic pills and creams, or whatever else helps people live healthier and happier lives.

You've heard the phrase "better living through pharmaceuticals?" Well, here's your chance—you can help new therapeutic drugs see the light of day.

Don't mix up pharmacists with pharmaceutical scientists, even though the names are similar. Although they both work with drugs, the scientists work at pharmaceutical companies developing new drugs, and the pharmacists deal with existing drugs, educating consumers and handing out those proven pills. With the proper scribbled signature, of course.

Mega-large drug companies are where most of the jobs are. In companies like these, most pharmaceutical scientists work in small research groups, where each person tackles a problem—the discovery, let's say, of a magic compound that could lead to an anti-obesity drug. It's usually a collegial environment, since people are relying on the scientists' expertise in a certain field, and no one scientist knows everything (even though many think they do). These scientists have access to the best equipment around—stuff outsiders have heard about only in textbooks or dreamed about in graduate school. (If you went to graduate school to study this stuff, you're geeky enough to dream about lab equipment.) Experiments suddenly proceed warp-speed, faster than they ever did in college chemistry lab or even when you were grinding away at your PhD thesis research. Folks, we're talking about lean, mean, automated science machines here.

Options do exist for those brave souls who scorn working at a corporate mother ship. There are outfits associated with universities or hospitals that supervise clinical drug trials, or manufacturers that oversee medicine production.

More about that PhD thesis—you don't need a thick stack of degrees to become a pharma scientist. This field can be lots of things to lots of people: It includes many disciplines—hard-core science, business, economics, marketing, to name a few. You can earn a college or advanced degree in chemistry, biology, medicine, pharmacy, or all their permutations. Or, you can take the business path and pivot into being a pharma scientist. One goal, many paths. And the money you'll make will definitely pay the rent, and maybe even a mortgage. The median annual salary is around $70k. And depending on the job and location, the bucks could nudge you into the six-figure class.

Pharma scientists start their climb up the career ladder as research assistants, those foot soldiers in the pharmaceutical army. They and other newly minted scientists collect, tabulate, and write technical reports on drugs in development. They spend lots of time in the laboratory, modeling the latest fashions in latex gloves and white lab coats (it's the new black!). They may be testing a compound in a cell line for safety. Or they could be collecting and testing blood samples from animals. Or maybe they are following a proven recipe to manufacture large quantities of a drug that will hit the market.

You'd think that most of a pharma scientist's job takes place at a lab bench, where the hapless scientist ruins good posture while huddling over a microscope. Truth be told, meetings take up a good chunk of time, too—maybe 10 to 25 hours each week. There are meetings where scientists present their most recent research and new findings. There are meetings when scientists meet with specialists in a disease or technology. The more meetings there are, the more time these scientists must spend analyzing data, and preparing written reports and PowerPoint presentations. All of this, of course, cuts into time spent on the job the hapless pharma scientist thought he was hired for—doing scientific research.

Ah well—didn't someone say that human beings are social animals?

In addition to the daily bench research and meetings, every so often the pharma scientist is forced to meet deadlines. If procrastination is a habit that's hard to break, the pharma scientist may end up cramming in important work right up to the drop-dead deadline, which could make for a hectic, stress-filled experience. Fortunately, the white lab coats don't show sweat stains all that much.

Besides putting in the occasional crazy hour when facing deadlines, pharma scientists enjoy a normal work schedule. They'll come in around 9am and leave by 6pm. Laboring on Labor Day? Setting up experiments on the Sabbath? That's pretty much unheard of—for security reasons. That also means that pharmaceutical scientists have to budget their time well, since everything has to get done during a workday.

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