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A Day in the Life of a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative

Pharmaceutical sales is a fast-paced, high-turnover business that rewards assertiveness, persistence, and knowledge. Pharmaceutical sales representatives spend most of their business time on the road, talking with pharmacists, hospital personnel, physicians, patient advocacy groups, and even retirement homes, increasing the visibility of their company’s products and the volume of their sales. “Sell sell sell learn learn learn sell sell sell,” wrote one sales rep, who included his business card with his survey, in case we wanted to purchase any pharmaceutical supplies. Many other sales reps agreed that the best reps follow any lead, making every possible effort to sell their product. A number attend meetings where contact with purchasing professionals is rich, such as an association of pharmacists or a convention of hospital administrators. This territory-oriented business can be a hard life, particularly for those trying to maintain their family life as well. The need to sell extends to social functions and free time, and the already precious family moments can erode further to the point where many reps are forced to reevaluate their commitment to their profession. This difficult balancing act is complicated by the additional pressure of being in a commission-based occupation. For many, a significant portion of their income is riding on their ability to get the product into the hands of the consumer. So, why is this job so addictive? Perhaps because the excessive profit margins of many brand-name pharmaceutical products can mean enormous commissions. In addition, products are generally consumed fairly quickly and not stored, so old markets rarely disappear; they need regular servicing. The second most attractive job feature that the sales reps mentioned was the intellectual challenge the job imposed. Education is the norm in this field; learning about a company’s product line is like taking an advanced course in pharmacology (which many do take during their initial years in the industry). They have to be familiar with data, statistics, and issues in the health community to be able to communicate successfully with businesspeople and doctors. Although this job has some aspects that are unquestionably grueling-one sales rep said he put in 184 days on the road in 1994-many love it, and “love” is the only term that accurately describes their zeal, dedication, and willingness to make sacrifices for their job.

Paying Your Dues

Pharmaceutical sales representatives with a science background have an advantage in this profession, in terms of both their credibility and their ability to educate themselves about product lines. A college degree is standard for this job, with many employers looking favorably on graduate work. Useful courses include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, organic chemistry, English, public speaking, finance, and negotiation techniques. Professional education is the norm for all sales representatives, both on their own products and on other companies’ product lines. The ability to read a scientific study and examine its assumptions is critical to a PSR’s success. Licensing is available through professional organizations, but it is not required to advance to managerial positions.

Present and Future

The discovery of penicillin was the beginning of the development of a host of anti-infection and anti-bacterial drugs. These sparked a nationwide frenzy of biotechnological invention. In fifty years, the U.S. outpaced the world’s production of synthetic biological agents from the dawn of time to the turn of the twentieth century. With this growth of options came the growth of competition-many products had similar effects, and companies found it useful to go directly to physicians and hospitals to show them the benefits of their products. Pharmaceuticals are a multibillion dollar industry, and sales representatives who keep doctors interested in their supplies are worth much to their employers. The future of pharmaceutical sales representatives is uncertain, primarily because of the uncertainty surrounding all health care issues. Pharmaceutical products will certainly continue to be important, but it is not clear how much latitude doctors in managed care plans will have to prescribe various medications. Many managed care plans impose “generic” standards on physicians. These standards state that when a generic substitute for a brand-name product exists, the plan will pay only for the cheaper, generic substitute. Other scenarios such as government-distributed health care, price limits on products, and disallowances for research costs may further erode the position of pharmaceutical sales representatives.

Quality of Life


At the beginning of the profession, sales representatives have few contacts and little experience selling their products. Their potential clients are usually doctors with a number of years of experience driving bargains and negotiating with other sales representatives, so many new reps view this period as an education rather than a profit opportunity. Many reps say that doctors will often talk them into handing out free samples. Sales reps often spend significant time in training programs and at professional conferences learning about industry issues. Hours are long.


Five-year veterans have a much rosier day-to-day existence, though it is a very busy one. Many spend more than 110 days on the road, visiting hospitals, physicians, and other health-care professionals, trying to sell them their products. They have established regular routes, and those who are successful have expanded their client base. Some experience financial windfalls; others use those people as models and struggle harder to succeed. Dedication is evident. Satisfaction is high.


Some pharmaceutical sales representatives say ten years in this profession is a lifetime, but very few leave it. Many have moved into managerial positions or have been given control over a large territory. These start the process again on a grander scale with greater potential income. Only a handful make the extremely large amounts of money that mark the superstars in this profession, but the culture makes all reps aware that the best sales representatives make the most money. Satisfaction is high. Hours are long. Family life may suffer.