Pharmaceutical sales is a fast-paced, high-turnover business that rewards assertiveness, persistence and knowledge, but it isn’t for the meek at heart.

A career selling pharmaceutical products can often be like riding a rollercoaster — fast paced, intense and a mix of ups and downs.

The job certainly has its benefits — nice salary, company car, flexible schedule and generous bonuses — which is why so many are drawn to the field.

But it’s not all glamorous. It’s also extremely competitive and often frustrating. Many job seekers find trouble getting their foot in the door, and when they do, often encounter roadblocks to excel once they’ve landed their first sales gig.

In fact, the process of applying for pharmaceutical sales jobs, juggling interviews and overcoming rejections offers a sample of what the actual work will be like, as companies are looking for people who are self-confident, positive and rebound quickly from setbacks, says Bob Vogel, vice president and managing director of Ventiv Recruitment Services in Somerset, N.J., which specializes in recruitment of pharmaceutical sales employees.

“As with any sales job, there can be a lot of rejection, so you have to be able to deal with that,” Vogel says.

Moving around

Pharmaceutical sales reps spend much of their time on the road, meeting with pharmacists, hospital personnel, physicians and patient advocacy groups to increase visibility of their company’s products and generate sales.

Working with a smaller company could bring some travel, while reps with larger firms typically cover part of a metropolitan area.

With a salary, commission and bonus, a successful rep can take home a sizeable income. The median salary for pharmaceutical sales reps in the Philadelphia region is about $59,246, but adding commission and bonuses can often boost annual earnings by $20,000 per year or more.

A bachelor’s degree is standard for the job, but many employers prefer master’s-level candidates who have some education in biology, chemistry, biochemistry or organic chemistry. Coursework in English, public speaking, finance and negotiation techniques can also be helpful.

Certification is offered through the American Pharmaceutical Sales Association (APSA), but is not necessarily required.

The APSA provides ongoing training programs and 45 certification courses each year for entry-level sales representatives, and certification boosts hiring rates to 40 percent in most markets, says Robert Panfili, executive director of the APSA.

“Our mission is to properly educate entry-level candidates on the true aspects of gaining pharmaceutical sales careers, while also working in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry,” says Panfili. “Candidates who complete the program will earn an APSA certification and are considered members of the American Pharmaceutical Sales Association. That serves as a springboard to securing pharmaceutical sales employment.”

Pharmaceutical sales reps have to be well versed in data, statistics and issues in the health community, and persistent learning is also necessary to stay on top of the latest advances in medicine and new products.

Knowledge is key

Chris Bogan, CEO of Best Practices LLC, a workplace research and consulting firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C., says pharmaceutical sales reps must have a deep understanding of both the products they sell as well as each customers’ specific needs to achieve success.

“Selling skills and product knowledge remain important for the sales rep, but to engage customers successfully, reps also need to fully understand customer needs, competitor offerings, industry regulations, highly complex scientific information and the market and regulatory environments in which they work,” Bogan said. “Savvy companies are building comprehensive training programs with content that covers all these critical areas. The key goal is to develop reps with the ability to understand and explain how a product can meet customer needs to improve patient care.”

Not only is sales competition fierce once you enter the field, but just landing a job can be very difficult with so many candidates striving to get their foot in the door.

“While the job outlook is great, pharmaceutical sales can be a difficult career to get into,” says Panfili. “Industry-wide, only about 1 percent of applicants end up getting hired.”

Pharmaceutical sales jobs aren’t just for candidates fresh out of college, and attendance at APSA programs reflects this, Panfili says.

“What often surprises people is that only about 30 percent of our attendees are recent college graduates, while the other 70 percent have been employed in other fields and are looking to make a career shift,” he says.