How to Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales: A Headhunter's Strategy

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This year, CNN/ selected pharmaceutical sales as one of the ''Top 20 Best Jobs in America.'' Why? Three key words: salary, benefits, and lifestyle. According to, the median salary, including benefits, for a pharmaceutical sales representative nationwide hovers close to $95,660. A partial list of those extensive benefits includes the following: an average of three weeks of vacation in the first year, reimbursement for a company car including all gas and maintenance, full health insurance (covering one’s spouse, pregnancy and childbirth, and children), daycare service discounts, reimbursement for home office expenses including a laptop and cell phone, and full tuition reimbursement if the employee chooses to go back to school for an MBA. Some pharmaceutical companies even offer part-time sales positions, which can be ideal for parents with young children.

While no easy feat, it is possible to break into pharmaceutical sales. A few years ago, I got a call from a young woman who wanted to do just that. She was a recent college graduate with no sales experience, but by the time I put down the receiver I knew that she would succeed. Why? She possessed four qualities:

  • an extraordinary drive.
  • an unshakable self-confidence.
  • a willingness to listen to everything I told her.
  • a resolve to take action.

Clearly, the road to success starts with attitude. I advised her to start by going to hospitals and meeting pharmaceutical sales representatives as they worked their territories. “Introduce yourself politely,” I told her. “Let them know you are seeking a career in their field, collect their business cards, and stay in touch with those who are receptive. She did. Months later, one of the contacts she made led to a job. When she called to share the news, I wasn’t surprised.

Between making that contact and receiving her offer, this candidate-like every other successful candidate I’ve worked with-did many, many other things right. I recently wrote a book, How to Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales: A Headhunter’s Strategy, that contains all the strategies for breaking in that I’ve gathered over my 18 years in the business. Here’s a crash course:

  • Step One: Set a goal for finding a position in pharmaceutical sales and write it down. Just the act of writing down your goals generates an alchemy that will propel you to achieve them. Ask yourself, “How many contacts will I make this week? How many resumes will I prepare? How many emails will I send?”

  • Step Two: Write your best resume. Recruiters and pharmaceutical companies spend just seconds (literally) looking at resumes. Make yours stand out. Click here and copy the format exactly. That’s right; steal ours. It works. 

  • Step Three: Research. Candidates in this field succeed or fail based on what and how well they research. The Internet is the best source and contains detailed information about every pharmaceutical company. To prepare for an interview, you must know cold how, when, and why doctors prescribe the medicines you would be selling in a particular position. One of the best forms of research is the “ride along,” in which you spend the day driving around with a working representative, learning the job as you watch him or her do it. If you know any working representatives, try to ride along. If you don’t know any, try to meet them (see step one).

  • Step Four: Network. This is a must for anyone looking to break in. In order to get those key interviews, you’ve got to muster a little creativity and fearlessness. Go to doctors’ and dentists’ offices. Politely request copies of the business cards the representatives who regularly visit them have left. Call or email those individuals. Attend pharmaceutical industry events to meet people. Go to job fairs. One good contact may be all you need. 

  • Step Five: The phone interview. The phone interview is as important as any in-person interview. Treat it as such: wear a suit, stand up, and walk while you talk. Don’t forget to smile!

  • Step Six: The in-person interview. Every second counts. Be prepared for the most obvious question, which is usually the first: “Why do you want to get into pharmaceutical sales?” You need to know this answer cold. Be prepared for surprise questions as well, such as “What did you tell your current employer you are doing today?” There is only one right answer: “I took a personal day.” For other sample interview questions, click here.

  • Step Seven: Close the interview. There’s no way around it; you must close. For anyone who hasn’t worked in sales before, this means you must tactfully but forcefully ask your interviewer for the job you are seeking. You must ask him or her to handicap your chances and tell you what you still need to do to secure the position if it’s not a done deal. Not closing the interviewer is like presenting flowers to your spouse and forgetting to say “happy anniversary.”

  • Step Eight: Creative follow-up. There are so many strategies. Here’s one: Leave a handwritten thank-you note for your interviewer with the receptionist before getting into your car. Follow up again, with a short, polite email. Keep your name at the front of your interviewers’ minds.

You’ll find much greater detail and many more important pointers about how to succeed in your job hunt-and your life-in my new book, How to Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales: A Headhunter’s Strategy.

Have fun. Good luck. And remember:

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” -Goethe

About the Author

Tom Ruff is the president and CEO of Tom Ruff Company and the author of How to Break Into Pharmaceutical Sales: A Headhunter’s Strategy. Tom Ruff Company is the preferred recruiter for more than 100 of the nation’s top pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott Laboratories, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson.

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