What is a Pharmaceutical Science Degree?

Pharmaceutical science can be summarized in four words: discovery, development, testing, and manufacturing. During the discovery phase, pharmaceutical scientists may examine thousands of molecular compounds and hundreds of molecular pathways before they find a combination that effectively fights disease without harming the patient. In the development and testing phase they administer the new drug to animals and humans to make sure that it is safe and effective. Following these processes, the new drug is manufactured in large quantities for distribution. All of this can take up to 20 years.

Degree programs in pharmaceutical science start by providing students with foundational knowledge in chemistry, biology, engineering, informatics, and medicine. They then begin the work of training them to become the next generation of scientists whose lifework is to look for ways to help people fight disease and stay healthy.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmaceutical Science – Four Year Duration
The pharmaceutical science bachelor’s program provides students with a foundation in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, and exposes them to core pharmaceutical areas such as the chemistry of medicines, drug discovery, product development, and ethical considerations in research and practice.

Graduates with this degree go on to further study or to work in entry-level technical positions in the field. Some schools may require completion of up to two years of a pre-pharmaceutical curriculum, which is focused predominantly on biology and chemistry.

The following are core courses of the pharmaceutical science bachelor’s curriculum:

  • Principles of Pharmaceutical Science – drugs are molecules exhibiting both individual molecular properties and the collective properties of molecules which make up the dose of a medication; this course examines the basic principles of governing molecules, equilibrium (the balance between opposing – forward and reverse – reactions) and kinetics (reaction rates), and properties exhibited by dispersed systems (systems where one substance is dispersed within another substance) such as colloids (aerosols, foams, emulsions, sols, and gels)
  • General Principles of Drug Action – introduction to general terminology of drug action (the action of drugs on the human body; drug effect on the disease), drug-receptor interactions, receptor and ion channels, and second messengers
  • Pharmaceutical Dosage Forms – concepts of pharmaceutics that are important for the design and function of pharmaceutical dosage forms (a drug is defined as a substance used for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of disease; a dosage form of a drug, also called a unit dose, is a pharmaceutical drug product in the form marketed for use, with a specific mixture of ingredients and in a specific form, such as liquid, capsule, tablet, or new product of biotechnology)
  • Principles of Pharmaceutical Science Practicum – introduction to the various methodologies used within the pharmaceutical science laboratory; discussion of research literature and how to plan, conduct, and disseminate research; laboratory safety training
  • Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics of Drugs –pharmacokinetics refers to what the body does to a drug, to the movement of a drug into, through, and out of the body; pharmacodynamics refers to what a drug does to the body, to the biochemical, physiologic, and molecular effects of a drug on the body; this course considers the chemical characteristic of molecules that are important to the development and use of drugs
  • Disposition of Drugs in the Body – further discussion of the primary determinants of what happens to a drug after it enters the body; absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME)
  • Drug Discovery and Development – understanding the drug development process; introduction to scientists working in both industry and academia
  • Individualized Medicine: Informatics and Pharmacogenomics – the relevance in the pharmaceutical industry of information from populations (informatics) and information from individuals (pharmacogenomics) to lead to more effective and personalized use of medicines
  • Laboratory Research in Pharmaceutical Sciences – students conduct research under the guidance of faculty members; they develop a hypothesis driven research project, conduct related experiments, and present the results of the research project

Master’s Degree in Pharmaceutical Science – Two Year Duration
The common requirement for admission to a pharmaceutical science master’s program is a bachelor’s in pharmaceutical science, chemistry, biology, or other related discipline. The master’s curriculum emphasizes basic and applied research in drug delivery and targeting, utilizing medicinal chemistry, computational chemistry, pharmaceutics, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, immunology, and molecular and cell biology.

Schools often offer two options to complete the degree. Students can select the research track or the non-research track, which requires that students conduct an extensive review of literature in a specific focus area.

The second year of the master’s program is typically dedicated to the research project or literature review. During their first year, students take some advanced courses in areas such as:

  • Pharmacogenomics
  • Proteomics (the term proteome refers to all of the proteins that a an organism can express; proteomics is the study of the proteome, the investigation of how different proteins interact with one another and the roles they play within the organism)
  • Pharmaceutical Chemistry
  • Structure-Activity Relationship ( the relationship between the chemical structure of a molecule and its biological activity) and Drug Design
  • Spectrometry in Biomedicine (spectrometry is used to determine the molecular weight of compounds by separating ions on the basis of their mass and change)
  • Computing Applications in Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Immunopharmaceutics (drugs acting on the immune system)
  • Pharmacokinetics
  • Dosage Form Design and Evaluation
  • Drug Discovery and Design
  • Molecular Structural Biology
  • Intracellular Drug Delivery and Targeting (drug delivery systems are developed to effectively deliver the required amounts of drugs to appropriate target sites and to maintain the desired drug levels)
  • Drug Metabolism (Morphology)
  • Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Sciences, Research, and Ethics
  • Cell Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Genetics

Doctoral Degree in Pharmaceutical Science – Four to Five Year Duration
The exact time required to earn this degree depends on the time needed to complete the dissertation. Doctoral programs in pharmaceutical science typically allow students to specialize in a particular area of the discipline. Here are some examples:

  • Drug Discovery and Development – employing cutting-edge technology to create new molecular therapeutics that target human diseases
  • Pharmaceutics and Pharmacokinetics – the design and development of pharmaceutical dosage forms; creating formulations to optimally control the bioavailability of pharmaceuticals (the ability of a drug or other substance to be absorbed and used by the body)
  • Health and Pharmaceutical Outcomes – critically analyzing the impact and outcomes of pharmaceutical products and services within healthcare systems
  • Pharmacology and Toxicology – determining mechanisms of action for pharmaceuticals, identifying potential drug targets, defining adverse effects of chemicals such as drugs, industrial chemicals, and environmental pollutants

Degrees Similar to Pharmaceutical Science

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.

Chemistry is the science that deals with identifying the substances that make up matter. Degree programs in chemistry focus on investigating these substances: their properties; how they interact, combine, and change; and how scientists can use chemical processes to form new substances.

Genetics is concerned with how traits such as hair color, eye color, and risk for disease are passed or inherited from parents to their children, and how these inherited traits differ from person to person. At the center of the study of genetics is the genetic code or ‘genome.’ This genetic information is made up of a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and is stored in almost every cell in the body.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature.

At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.

Skills You’ll Learn

Graduates of pharmaceutical science programs gain these transferable skills through their course of study:

  • Abstract reasoning
  • Academic writing and presentation
  • Awareness of ethical issues
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Confidence working with technology, systems, and processes
  • Experiment design
  • Laboratory skills
  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Meticulous attention to detail
  • Observation, investigation, and critical thinking
  • Organization and time management
  • Research and data analysis and interpretation
  • Summarizing vast amounts of information
  • Use of statistical tests in data analysis

What Can You Do with a Pharmaceutical Science Degree?

Graduates of pharmaceutical science apply their knowledge and skills across several sectors:

  • Government policy and regulatory affairs – ensuring companies and products meet government regulations through agencies like the Food and Drug and Administration (FDA) and national laboratories such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Biotechnology – harnessing cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet
  • Food science
  • Healthcare administration and provision
  • Medicine manufacturing
  • Medical device sales and marketing
  • Pharmaceuticals, including generic medications
  • Nutraceuticals, dietary supplements, or cannabis products
  • Personal care products, including shampoos, lotions, and makeup
  • Veterinary drugs
  • Paint and other industrial formulation manufacturing
  • Quality assurance management
  • Biomedical research / clinical trials
  • Forensic science – analysis of illicit substances and drugs, fire and explosives investigation
  • Research, science writing, and teaching with universities


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