Pharmaceutical Research and Graduate Degrees

Pharmaceutical research encompasses a diverse set of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields that contribute to the discovery, development, and safe and effective use of substances and interventions for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease or restoration and optimization of health.

Major Areas of Pharmaceutical Research

Major areas of pharmaceutical research, around which programs of research and study are often organized, include:

  • Drug discovery and development broadly understood to include the study of chemical and biological molecules and entities that can be optimized and harnessed to treat disease. Areas of study include medicinal chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, biotechnology, bioengineering, pharmaceutics, pharmacology, and toxicology.
  • Clinical and translational sciences advance the application of discoveries and observations from the basic and social sciences towards clinical and patient-oriented interventions and care. Areas of study include clinical pharmacology, pharmacokinetics/pharmacodynamics, experimental therapeutics, pharmacometrics, clinical trials, and implementation science.
  • Social and administrative sciences combine research and practice and are intended to promote adoption of evidence-based care and cost-effective health policy. Areas of study include pharmacoeconomics, epidemiology, behavioral research, health services research, public policy, pharmacy practice transformation, and patient-centered outcomes research.


Types of Pharmaceutical Research

Pharmaceutical research may comprise many different pursuits, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • “Wet lab” or bench research, such as the development of new chemical or biological entities to treat disease.
  • “Dry lab” research utilizing data resources and computational or mathematical techniques, as in pharmacometric studies of potential drug interactions and side effects of new drugs.
  • Social science research on individual or group behavior, such as studies of healthcare utilization and medication adherence.
  • Clinical research on biomedical or health interventions, such as clinical pharmacology studies of optimal dosing and regimen for drug therapies. 

Bench and computational research will typically occur in a laboratory setting with state-of-the art technology and close collaboration with other scientists. Social science and clinical research often happen in community or healthcare settings and can offer the opportunity to engage with patients and healthcare providers. Certain core competencies and application skills are shared across these fields, including hypothesis generation, research design, data analytics, and intellectual rigor.


Types of Graduate Degrees in Pharmaceutical Research

Pharmaceutical graduate degrees differ in the training required for completion and the career opportunities they open. 

  • PhD Degree Programs: PhD programs focus on producing original research aimed at the creation of knowledge, enhanced understanding of phenomena, or development of new technology. The resulting thesis or dissertation must be peer-reviewed and publicly defended. PhD graduates are expected to be able to manage independent research projects and are prepared to embark on careers leading or overseeing research projects and programs in academia, industry or government. Typically, PhD program completion will take approximately 5 years of full-time study, and students can expect to receive tuition and stipend support. Expectations for graduate student teaching and service will vary by program, though, as will the level and source of support.
  • Master’s Degree Programs: A Master of Science, or MS, degree is a program of study focused on a specific scientific topic and may be built around a curriculum of courses and seminars and or be research-based, requiring completion of a thesis project. MS programs are generally focused on preparing students for research, regulatory or project management careers in industry or government, although the MS degree may also be a point of entry into the PhD pathway. Online MS programs intended for working professionals are increasingly common. MS degrees typically take 2-3 years to complete and may be full or part-time, and MS students typically provide their own tuition and support. 
  • Dual Degree Programs: Many pharmacy schools also offer dual degree PharmD/PhD or PharmD/MS options that combine rigorous research and health professional training. These degrees are particularly well suited to clinical translational and social and administrative sciences, such as clinical pharmacology and dissemination research, that couple research competencies with health professional expertise. Dual degrees provide a solid foundation for academic careers and research careers in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Students who are interested in researching or applying to dual-degree programs should visit the Dual Degree Programs table on the PharmCAS website.