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Break into Pharmaceutical Sales

Break into Pharmaceutical Sales

Does a job with a good salary, a company car, a flexible schedule, generous bonuses and no boss breathing down your neck sound like a dream come true?

It's a reality for pharmaceutical company representatives. But the work isn't pure glamour. It's also intense, highly competitive and sometimes frustrating. Insiders say it's difficult to get your foot in the door with a drug company, and that it's challenging to excel once you've landed that first sales job.

Do you have what it takes to make it in the field? A long-time pharmaceutical sales representative and a new hire offer some of the keys to finding -- and keeping -- a job in the industry.

Sell Yourself Shamelessly

Before you can start selling for your company, you have to sell yourself to potential employers. That can be tough, considering the level of interest in pharmaceutical sales. "For every opening, we get a minimum of 150 applicants," says Corey Nahman, who has more than 25 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. He also maintains a Web site for pharma sales reps.

The best way to set yourself apart is through networking, Nahman says. Companies advertise only those jobs they can't fill by word of mouth, he says. "There are 58,000 drug salespeople in the country," he explains. "So, chances are your friend's friend or your neighbor's friend is a pharmaceutical rep." You should get reps' business cards from your doctor and call them. Most companies offer bounties to salespeople who refer new employees, so a random rep may be willing to talk to you.

Not for the Meek of Heart

The process of applying for pharmaceutical sales jobs, wrangling interviews and enduring rejections offers a taste of what the actual sales rep job will be like. "Companies are looking for people who are confident and positive," says Adam Rothenstein, who left a job in management consulting to accept a position with AstraZeneca as a general medical sales representative. "If you're meek, the job is not for you."

Pharmaceutical companies don't look for one standard profile in their sales forces. Generally, companies require sales reps to have at least a bachelor's degree, and some prefer MBAs. Employers don't necessarily require degrees in areas such as chemistry or biology, but reps must be willing to learn -- and be able to master -- science. "An aptitude in science is a prerequisite," says Nahman, a former pharmacist. "If you don't like science, this job will be a living hell."

Some companies weigh previous marketing or healthcare-industry experience heavily, although clinical skills alone won't get you hired. "The most important qualifications are people skills, such as tact and diplomacy," Nahman explains. "Science can be learned, but people skills can't be learned."

If you're lucky enough to land an interview, be prepared to ask and answer questions about the company's products and direction, Rothenstein says. You will probably have to shine during several interviews, from an initial telephone interview to a meeting with a trainer and an interview with at least one district manager. You may also be asked to accompany another sales rep on his rounds.

According to the Salary Wizard, the national median salary for a pharmaceutical sales representative is around $56,000, not including bonuses.

Running Your Own Show

Once you've landed your first job, you have to hit the ground running and excel in a profession that's for self-motivators. "Basically you're running your own business," says Rothenstein, who received intense sales and product training and spends his time educating doctors about assessing breast-cancer risk.

Besides being self-starters, pharmaceutical reps must be good at following up and deciding where to focus their time and efforts, Nahman says. In a typical day, a pharma sales reps makes several calls to hospitals, HMOs, doctors' offices and pharmacies. Life in the field can be lonely. "The biggest challenge is to be psyched up every day," he explains. "If you're excited, that translates visually, and the doctors feed off that excitement. You have to have mental stamina to be just as fresh for that last call at 6 p.m. as you were for the first call at 8 a.m."

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