by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Pharmaceutical sales is a popular career choice for job-seekers because it offers excellent potential — in career growth, income, and benefits.
As a resume writer, I get a lot of clients who are looking to switch careers into pharmaceutical sales, as well as new college grads who would like to enter the field upon graduation. Do job-seekers with no experience in pharmaceutical sales — or even no experience in sales — stand a chance of breaking into this popular but competitive field? The answer is a resounding “maybe.” This article will give you some guidelines on increasing your odds.
The pharmaceutical-sales field, often called “recession-proof,” is popular because it offers excellent salary potential, great benefits, flexibility, opportunity for growth, and frequently the use of a company car. An aging population of baby boomers, the shift away from clinical treatment of illnesses in hospitals, and the fact that people seek a good quality of life as life expectancies continue to increase are among the factors spurring the growth of the pharmaceutical sector. “The pharmaceutical industry is among the largest, most stable, and fastest growing businesses in the entire world,” writes Anne Clayton in her book, Insight into a Career in Pharmaceutical Sales. The industry has grown 300 percent in the last decade, according to the Hay Group, a global organizational and human-resources consulting firm.
The job is also seen as somewhat prestigious. “A pharmaceutical sales representative sells a technologically advanced product to highly intelligent physicians in a very professional environment,” writes pharmaceutical sales recruiter Pat Riley, summing up the field’s appeal. Riley is author of several e-books on how to break into pharmaceutical sales.
What kind of people are pharmaceutical firms looking for in sales jobs? For starters, the gender split among reps is just about even. While some employers look at a fairly narrow range of applicants, others are open to many types of candidates. Take Pfizer, for example, which states on its sales careers page that the company seeks “college graduates, experienced salespeople, junior military officers and anyone else with the intellect, experience and stamina to take on the challenges of a fast-track career.” The company further seeks those with “the technical knowledge and business competencies we’re looking for,” as well as those who are creative self-starters with an interest in medicine or science, and strong interpersonal skills.
While some pharmaceutical firms will hire inexperienced college students (Riley notes that only larger firms such as Pfizer and Merck hire new grads), it’s rare to find a job in pharmaceutical sales if you have no college degree. Those hoping to break into the field without a degree will almost certainly need to have successful sales records to be considered.
Pharmaceutical employers frequently seek those with at least two years of sales experience, preferably business-to-business sales. Previous jobs that offered strong sales-training programs also are viewed favorably. A record of promotions can be a big plus.
Of those with no sales experience, candidates with a healthcare or clinical background may have an edge. A strong record of accomplishments is also important.
Other traits mentioned by experts as helpful in landing a job in this field are being organized, goal-driven, creative, polished, persuasive, motivated, energetic, trustworthy, willing to learn, aggressive, smart, ethical, confident, ambitious, positive, self-starting, patient, persistent, a problem-solver, a team player who also performs well independently, a good time-manager and prioritizer, and a personable great communicator. Additional desirable traits include good listening skills, integrity, negotiation skills, and presentation skills. It’s generally OK to be money-motivated. You should have good physical stamina for the long hours and all the driving you will likely do, as well as carrying hefty sample cases. You may be required to travel and relocate.
Enthusiasm for science is important. “If you don’t have an aptitude for science, or don’t like science, this job will not be fun,” writes 18-year pharmaceutical-sales vet Corey Nahman of CoreyNahman.com.
A press release on MedZilla quotes Roz Usheroff, a coach and communications specialist who works with pharmaceutical sales reps. Usheroff has a pharmaceutical firm client that uses an acronym, “PRSAMGH,” to describe key characteristics it looks for in an interview. The acronym, Usheroff says, stands for “proactivity, receptivity, stability, ability, motivation, goal orientation, and honesty.” Riley adds that pharmaceutical firms hire the “best and the brightest” because they “invest more in research and development than any other industry” and “spend millions of dollars to develop and market new products.”
You’ll likely need a clean driving record, a good credit report, and the ability to pass a background check and a drug screening.
For college students — and others looking to break in — getting an internship with a pharmaceutical firm can provide a boost. Sometimes it helps to already be living in the sales territory you would represent.
Foreign-language skills may be a plus as firms vie to break into emerging markets.
The best way to really get a feel for what the pharmaceutical firms are looking for is to study lots of job postings and ads placed by these employers and observe what qualifications they list.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Your Resume
It’s not unusual for a drug company to get hundreds of resumes for every opening, so yours needs to stand out and be strategically targeted not only to pharmaceutical sales, but to the company and opening you’re after. Yes, that means you will need to tweak your resume for every pharmaceutical sales job you apply for. The appearance of job-hopping and gaps in employment can be seen as negatives by pharmaceutical employers, and of course, the best way to avoid those on your resume is to have a steady employment record. If you don’t, you may want to enlist the assistance of a professional resume writer in de-emphasizing the negatives. In fact, several experts on breaking into the field cite professional resume writers as an essential investment no matter what your job record is like.
All resumes should be accomplishments-driven, but one for pharma sales should especially be so. Noting that he is “continually amazed at how many candidates understate vital aspects of their career on their resume because they are too close to their career or they do not know how to say it with power,” Riley recommends a great-looking resume loaded with “accomplishments, accomplishments, accomplishments.” See our article, For Job-Hunting Success: Track and Leverage Your Accomplishments.
An effective pharmaceutical-sales resume also must have the right keywords. See our articles, Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness and especially, Researching Keywords in Employment Ads, which features pharmaceutical sales.
Here’s a sample resume that lists lots of good keywords and highlights appropriate sales accomplishments.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Networking
Networking is a huge advantage in getting into pharmaceutical sales because most firms advertise vacancies only when they are unable to fill them by word of mouth. Tell everyone you know you’re interested in getting into the field. Talk to doctors and pharmacists and ask them for names of reps. Riley singles out talking with pharmaceutical sales reps and district managers as the absolute best way to break into the business, noting that a referral from a rep to his or her manager is “golden,” carrying “more weight than a resume from any other source.”
Establish relationships with recruiters who specialize in the pharmaceutical field.
Keep your eye open for pharmaceutical job fairs, as pharma firms frequently use these for recruiting.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Applying through Pharmaceutical Company Web Sites
While networking is the best bet in landing a job in this field, another way in is through applying on pharmaceutical company Web sites. (See our Quintessential Directory of Company Career Centers: Pharmaceutical Companies, updated with dozens of pharmaceutical firms). But as Riley cautions, the rigorous screening process begins at this point because you do not simply submit a resume; you undergo a screening and ranking test. A better strategy, Riley advises, may be to use your networking contacts to obtain names of people to whom to send your resume.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Brag Books
Many pharmaceutical firms expect candidates to bring a portfolio known as a “brag book” to interviews. Since you don’t know which hiring managers want to see these books and which don’t, you really need to have one ready. You can find more than one anecdote on pharmaceutical-sales discussion boards about candidates with brag books who were hired over those without one. Teena Rose, author of Cracking the Code to Pharmaceutical Sales, writes that a brag book can contain recent awards, recognition letters from superiors, recommendation letters from previous employers, detailed lists of sales achievements beyond what’s in your resume, continuing-education certificates, and personally cultivated sales spreadsheets (as long as they aren’t confidential). Ask other pharmaceutical reps if you can see their brag books to get a feel for how to do yours.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Interviewing
The drug companies want to make sure they get it right when they hire because they typically invest a lot in training new reps. Thus, interviewing for a pharmaceutical sales position is typically a multi-interview process spread out over several months. We’ve read reports of as many as 15 interviews before the candidate landed the job. Riley calls the process “probably the biggest series of exams you will ever take.” The process often begins with a telephone interview to screen candidates and whittle down a large pool of applicants. See our article, Phone Interview Etiquette Can Propel You to the Next Step in the Hiring Process.
The heart of the interview process is with the district manager who hires for his or her district, and interviews over meals may be part of the mix.
Solid preparation is always advisable before job interviews, but for pharmaceutical sales, you may want to kick your preparation up several notches. Job-shadowing, also known as doing a ride-along or preceptorship, with a working rep can be enormously beneficial, as can informational interviewing. Ride-alongs are also frequently part of the interview process; be sure in that situation to observe everything carefully and ask the rep questions, as you in turn will be questioned by a hiring manager about what you learned during the experience.
Of course you’ll scour the employer’s Web site for information, but you will likely want to go beyond that by looking for news items about the company and learn what products might be in its pipeline. Look for annuals reports, news releases, and stock-market reports. Find out about competing products and companies. Some good sources for pharmaceutical-industry news include:
- Bioview industry news
- Bioview industry research
- Drug Topics
- FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research
- Lexi Comp New Information and Products
- Quintessential Careers Guide to Researching Companies, Industries, and Countries
Here’s an example of using information in the news to your advantage in a pharmaceutical interview:
Interviewer: What do you think are the important elements of presenting one of our products to a physician?
Interviewee: Well, I recently read in the Canadian Journal of Clinical Pharmacology that physicians want detailed safety data, comparative data between new and old drugs, and the prices of products. I’d like to explore how [name of company]’s sales philosophy fits in with providing physicians with what they say they want from pharmaceutical reps.
While there is no such thing as a “typical” pharmaceutical sales job interview, candidates will often find common threads running through these interviews. Some questions will probe your understanding of what it’s really like to be a pharmaceutical sales rep. A good article by Pat Riley describing many of these types of questions and how to answer them can be found in this article. Some will be behavioral questions designed to predict your future performance based on how you’ve behaved on the job in the past. You may be asked, for example, questions about how you have typically dealt with difficult supervisors and clients. See our article, Behavioral Interviewing Strategies.
You will probably be asked why you seek a job in pharmaceutical sales. You should be able to demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm for the field. Your response might focus on the pride of offering a quality product that makes a difference in people’s lives, as well as on the comprehensive training program the company likely offers, and its exceptional opportunities for success.
It’s also helpful to be able to talk about your own familiarity with having used one of the company’s products, or a family member’s product use. Any stories you know about someone’s life being saved or quality of life being improved through one of the company’s products also will make a big impression.
Demonstrate your ability to close a ale by asking o the job at the en of the interview. Learn more in our article, Closing the Interview.
One of the best ways to prepare for specific questions often asked in pharmaceutical-sales interviews is to get your hands on one of the many books available about breaking into the field. Two that we like include Teena Rose’s Cracking the Code to Pharmaceutical Sales and Insight into a Career in Pharmaceutical Sales, by Anne Clayton, which also comes highly recommended by Corey Nahman, whose site itself offers lots of helpful information for breaking in. These books and sites typically offer frequently asked pharma-sales interview questions, along with the rationale for why they’re being asked, and suggestions for responding.
As the interview process winds down, and you become one of the top candidates, you may be required to take a pharmacology test involving just a few days to study and lots of memorization.
In a terrific article entitled Job-Search Strategies: Real Estate to Pharmaceutical Sales (Career Change), resume writer Teena Rose interviews a candidate, S. Plamper, who successfully landed a job in pharmaceutical sales. The interview details all the ins and outs of Plamper’s 13-week interview process, which included an online profiling test, a requirement to write a short autobiography, and a ride-along with another rep. Plamper credits her success to having her resume professionally written, networking effectively, picking the brain of a pharmaceutical rep already on the job, delivering creative presentations in her interviews, and connecting with those who interviewed her. That connection with the interviewer can be elusive, but it’s important. When chemistry and rapport are lacking, it can be hard to establish it, but doing so shows you have a sales rep’s knack for building relationships.
Just as with any interview, thank-you notes should be standard procedure. Rose suggests that hand-delivering your note is a great way to show your aggressiveness. See our article, FAQs About Thank You Letters.
Pharmaceutical Sales: What about Certification Programs?
You’ll see ads on the Internet for certification programs for pharmaceutical sales reps. Best advice seems to be to proceed with extreme caution. Chances are they may offer no information you couldn’t gather on your own. If you’re considering such a program, ask for hard evidence that those with certifications have been more successful in landing jobs in pharma sales than those without. According to MedZilla, the only four accredited certification programs are at Saint Joseph’s University Erivan K. Haub School of Business, University of Mississippi Center for Marketing and Management, Rutgers (MBA in Pharmaceutical Management), and Certified Medical Representatives Institute (CMRI). Rose also mentions the American Pharmaceutical Association’s certification program, approved by the Pharmaceutical Advisory Board.
Pharmaceutical Sales: Once You’re Hired…
Expect an intense training period and a constant need to stay abreast of products and disease states. You’ll likely be tested on material not only during the training but as an ongoing part of your job. You may attend trade shows and conferences and read industry publications. You may need to learn about medical terminology, as well as insurance-company reimbursement policies and codes. It’s not unusual for reps to pursue extra training and self-study in chemistry and other areas.
Also expect to compete with numerous other reps to get face time in private offices and hospitals with medical professionals, some of whom will give you only a minute or two. After all, there are some 90,000 pharmaceutical sales reps in the mix, according to a survey by Noesis Healthcare Interactions. Writing for Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, Aissatou Sidime learned from working reps that getting access to physicians is the toughest part of the job and that most sales reps have five or six competitors for each drug they represent. You’ll get to know the “80-20” rule in which reps often find that 20 percent of physicians write 80 percent of the prescriptions, so you’ll learn to focus your priorities on high-prescribing doctors.
Reps may also spend time educating clinical personnel, such as nurses, on how to administer their company’s products. Considerable paperwork, including writing up reports of sales calls, is also part of a rep’s job.
A Noesis survey further reported that knowledge and training, ongoing communication, sales tools and marketing programs, and motivation and incentives are the pillars that make a rep effective and successful. Reps want to learn more about disease states and competitors’ brands, the survey says. Areas for possible advancement include product line manager and district sales manager.
The Hay Group in its 2005 Sales Force Effectiveness Study finds that future trends indicate greater demand for sales staff in the biotech and speciality pharmaceutical sectors. “Pharmaceutical companies have always had the challenge of how to effectively train and develop sales personnel,” says a press release about the Hay Group’s report. “With downsizing in the industry and more sales staff looking for jobs, previous pharmaceutical and specialty experience will be essential. For example, biotech companies are more likely to be looking for sales professionals with education and studies in the life sciences and at least two years of sales or health care marketing experience. The compensation for biotech representatives can be more than one-third higher than the general primary care sales representative,” the release continues.
Final Thoughts on Breaking into Pharmaceutical Sales
For more great tips on breaking in straight from the mouths of experienced reps, see our sidebar Tips from Reps: Advice from Real Pharmaceutical Sales Reps on How to Break into Pharma Sales, as well as these Resources for Those Interested in Breaking into Pharmaceutical Sales.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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