HATTIESBURG — Pharmaceutical sales and bio-medical sales representatives can command salaries from between $36,000 to $60,000 annually. In order to prepare students for a career in the lucrative field, the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) offers a pharmaceutical sales program that has placed between 200 and 300 graduates in jobs since the mid 1980s.
The program sponsored by the Department of Marketing and Finance combines marketing and science courses.
Dr. Tom Ivy, as a professor in the USM Marketing and Finance Department, and his colleagues in the marketing department started the pharmaceutical sales program about 15 years ago to give graduates a leg up on the competition.
“One of our graduates had gotten a job with Squibb,” Ivy said. “He dropped by one day and said, ‘You really ought to develop a pharmaceutical sales program. Nobody else does it’.”
A program was devised that combined a core of marketing courses with four hours of chemistry, eight hours of human anatomy and physiology, and three hours of pharmacology.
“There are enough sciences in the program to show these companies that the student can learn what they need to know,” Ivy said. “It is enough to survive the companies’ training programs.”
Because pharmaceutical companies are very particular about the people they hire, the program also stresses extracurricular leadership activities and some practical work experience.
Ivy said the companies are looking for the best and brightest employee to work in a field that pays well, but is extremely demanding.
Pharmaceutical sales is one of the fastest growing careers in the county. Starting pay generally falls between $36,000 and $48,000 annually, with generous benefits. Bio-medical sales, a related and emerging field, starts representatives out at between $50,000 and $60,000 annually.
“We’re placing about 10 to 15 students per year,” he said. “Students who have gone through the program have gone on to do well in the field.”
Sal Gattuso, a 1997 USM graduate who works for Astra Pharmaceuticals in Monroe, La., said the well-rounded program is an important advantage when you’re trying to break into a competitive field.
On average, every opening in pharmaceutical sales has 200 applicants, he said.
“When I got this job, it was my 50th interview,” he said. “It is a very tough job to get because everyone wants one.”
Since its inception, the USM program has been winning over companies. Currently, there are program graduates working for more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies, including Bristol-Myers, Squibb, Eli Lily and Company, Upjohn and Marion Merrill-Dow.
“Every year, a new pharmaceutical firm is added to our list,” Ivy said. “We’re even beginning to place people in the biomedical technology field.”
Bobby Smith, a USM graduate who works for Parke-Davis on the Gulf Coast, said the program at USM has a good reputation.
“I know my company had more new hires from USM last year than from Ole Miss and Mississippi State combined,” Smith said.
Ivy said that if USM had 20 more bright students each year who studied hard, kept their GPA up where it needs to be, went through the course sequence and did the leadership work, there would be no trouble placing them in jobs.
Ivy said the program’s success can be traced back to the fact that it is demanding. In order to be considered by pharmaceutical companies, a student will have to complete the course sequence, carry a 3.0 or better grade-point average and exhibit some leadership outside the classroom.
Greg Abel, a Kenner, La., senior who is nearing the end of the program, said the work is a challenge.
“It requires an awful lot of work,” said Abel, 22. “I didn’t have a background in science, so it has been very difficult.”
The program combines core marketing courses with four hours of chemistry, eight hours of human anatomy and physiology, and three hours of pharmacology.
Ivy said there are enough sciences in the program to show companies that students are prepared to survive the companies’ rigorous training process.
For more information about the USM pharmaceutical sales program, contact the Department of Marketing and Finance at (601) 266-4627.
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