Drug Discovery & Development Career Guide

Few industries have as direct and immediate of an impact on our quality of life as the medical industry. Physicians, nurses, and emergency medical personnel save and improve untold lives worldwide every day, and the tools at their disposal are constantly being redesigned and improved.

In addition to the many individuals and their specialized skill sets, medical drugs, and treatments play a significant role in the improvements in quality of life that we have seen in the last century. According to figures provided by the World Bank, the average life expectancy in the US alone has gone up by over seven years since 1970, so 76 years. In some industrialized countries like Japan, an average life expectancy of over 80 years is now not uncommon.

Pharmaceutical drugs are a key component of this trend, as medical treatments now exist to mitigate or even eliminate many conditions that were fatal not so long ago. From advanced chemotherapy treatments for cancer to the staggering innovations in treating autoimmune disorders like AIDS, many formerly deadly conditions and diseases can now be treated or even healed completely.

While some of these treatments are built on the classic study of pharmaceuticals and naturally occurring compounds, others may utilize lasers and even radioactive materials to treat and heal illnesses of varying severity. But how do these new drugs and treatment courses get developed, and who is responsible for this work?

The answer lies in a broad and highly innovative field known as “drug discovery and development.” Individuals working in this world are responsible for identifying, testing and eventually bringing to market the innovations that form the backbone of the pharmaceutical industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022), the job category of “medical scientists,” into which many of the workers in this field are sorted, projects national job growth of 17 percent between 2021 and 2031, making this an employment field growing faster than average.

While by no means exhaustive, this guide is intended to provide some grounding information for individuals interested in a drug discovery and development career. It will break down some of the steps involved in developing a new pharmaceutical treatment and bringing it to market and offer a selection of educational paths that may lead into this career.

Become a Pharmaceutical Development Technician

Pharmaceutical development technicians are largely employed in the production process and oversee the vital work of producing trial drugs in a laboratory setting. Pharmaceutical development technicians must be familiar with the spectroscopic and physicochemical processes at the heart of drug production.

In the highly specialized world of drug discovery and development, the work of pharmaceutical development technicians can be considered entry-level and may be a perfect fit for an individual who wants to get a taste of this industry before committing to the extensive education required to work at higher levels of this field.

Jobs and Pay

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the current median pay for pharmacy technicians, into which category pharmaceutical development technicians fall at $36,470 a year, with a job growth rate of 5 percent.


Many job openings in this field require a completed high school diploma or its equivalent, and quite a few offer on-the-job training for individuals who meet the initial qualifications. However, many colleges nationwide also offer associate’s degree programs for pharmacy technicians, which may help ground prospective students in the relevant subject matter and better prepare them for a future career in drug discovery and development. A few selected programs can be found below:

American University

American University is located in Salem, Massachusetts and offers interested students the opportunity to attain their associate’s degree as a pharmacy technician. American University offers its degree program online and in person. Individuals interested in pharmaceutical development may be particularly interested in the fact that AU’s program includes two externships of 120 hours each, thus giving its graduates a significant amount of real-world experience upon graduation.

  • Location: Salem, Massachusetts
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 18 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $36,672 total

Seminole State College

Seminole State College is located in the central Florida town of Sanford, and offers an associate’s degree in clinical pharmacy technology. The school emphasizes a hands-on learning experience and a direct pipeline into the pharmaceutical field for its graduate degrees. While Seminole State College’s general education requirements can be attained online, the pharmaceutical technology components of the program require in-person attendance. A practicum is included in the school’s graduation requirements.

  • Location: Sanford, Florida
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 18 months
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state, $104.38 per credit; out-of-state, $381.87 per credit

Penn Foster

While not an associate’s degree, Penn Foster offers a pharmacy technician program that is offered entirely online, making this a good choice for students who are leery of the time and financial requirements required to attain a full associate degree, or who are unable or unwilling to move. With an available fast-track program lasting only three months and a total tuition of $899 if students pay in full before beginning their classes, this is the least expensive and fastest option.

  • Location: Online
  • Accreditation: Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Three to eight months
  • Estimated Tuition: $899 to $1,199 depending on payment plan

Become a Medical Research Assistant

Medical research assistants comprise the middle tier of the drug discovery and development world. These individuals can work in diverse settings and are responsible for a significant amount of the work done in this field. While no two jobs or their required qualifications will be entirely the same, medical research assistants have usually attained a BA or BS in the life sciences, with preference given to graduates with a bachelor’s of science in biology, chemistry or related hard science.

Jobs and Pay

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect information on this specialized subfield, the closely related category of biological assistants can expect a median salary of $48,140.


Most medical research assistant positions currently listed on the jobs portal Indeed ask for a bachelor’s degree as a minimum qualification for applicants. Individuals interested in this particular occupation should look closer at bachelor’s of science degrees in chemistry, biology, molecular science, or a related subfield, especially those with an emphasis on the medical field. Below are a few selected programs that can lead to a career as a medical research assistant.

University of New England

The University of New England offers a bachelor’s of science in medical biology, making this a great fit for students already interested in the medical field. UNE’s program aims for a well-rounded education in human anatomy, physiology, and genetics. It is a popular entry point for students attending its medical and dental schools. UNE has two campus locations in the state of Maine, as well as facilities in Tangiers, Morocco. Online courses are available for some, but not all that make up the required curriculum for students in medical biology.

  • Location: Portland, Maine
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $39,820 total

Arizona State University

With its slew of online programs in various educational fields, ASU is a popular option for distance learners across the country. ASU offers an online bachelor of science degree in biological chemistry with a medical concentration, making this an equally attractive option for students hoping to attend medical school or enter the pharmaceutical research field upon graduation.

  • Location: Tempe, Arizona
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission
  • Expected Time to Completion: 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state, $12,909 per year; out-of-state, $15,113

University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo is located in the city of the same name in New York State, and offers a bachelor of science degree in medicinal chemistry. This program may be particularly attractive to students interested in working in a laboratory setting, as most medical research assistants do, and heavily emphasizes the skill sets required for this work. Additionally, the University at Buffalo’s curriculum plan includes courses that impart research skills, which may be an additional point of interest for prospective medical research assistants.

  • Location: Buffalo, New York
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state, $10,782; out-of-state, $28,702

Medical Scientists

Medical scientists make up many of the individuals employed in the drug discovery and development field. These individuals often lead entire teams of assistants and technicians and are responsible for every step of the discovery and development process.

While some medical scientists may be primarily involved in researching molecules, compounds, or techniques that may lead to eventual breakthroughs, others are deeply involved in the testing and implementing these potential cures. This intellectually rigorous work is performed by highly qualified individuals who oftentimes are in a state of perpetual education as they keep themselves up to date with the newest innovations and discoveries in their respective fields.

Jobs and Pay

Among the job categories listed in this guide, medical scientists command the highest wages, with a median income of $95,310 (BLS 2022). With a rapid growth rate in their respective field and across the spectrum of medical occupations, the job outlook for qualified medical scientists is highly robust. With massive investments in the medical field and a significant portion of the population entering retirement age, the prognosis for medical scientists is expected to remain stable, making this a solid choice for individuals looking for a challenging and interesting career.


Most medical scientists hold an advanced degree, with PhDs making up a sizable portion of this highly qualified workforce. While some job openings may only require applicants to hold a bachelor’s degree, prospective medical scientists should expect to complete a master’s degree to be eligible for most job openings in this field. They may want to consider a PhD program as well. Below are a few selected programs that can provide the qualifications to become a medical scientist.

Drexel University

Drexel University is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and offers students interested in the drug discovery and development process a master’s degree in that particular specialization. Based out of the school’s pharmacology department, it is geared towards recent graduates of the sciences, as well as employees of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors looking to advance their careers. Of particular interest to some students may be that Drexel also offers its master of drug discovery and development through its distance learning program.

  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,382 per credit

University of Cincinnati

The University of Cincinnati in Ohio hosts a master’s of science program with a concentration in drug development, which the university describes as a collaboration between industry, academia, and government. This program may be especially attractive to students interested in distance learning, as it is offered fully online and through synchronous and asynchronous options.

  • Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $7,690 per term

University of Wisconsin-Madison

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is considered one of the premier universities of the Midwest and hosts a master of science degree in applied drug development. This program offers its students an accelerated fast track that allows them to graduate within 12 months. Thirty total graduate credits are needed to attain the degree, and UW allows students to enter the program in the spring and summer semesters.

  • Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 12 to 36 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $1,500 per credit
Johannes Stitz
Johannes Stitz Writer

Johannes Stitz is a freelance writer and researcher based in the Southwest. He’s written about various topics in medical technology careers. Before turning to freelance writing, he spent nearly a decade in the arts as a booker and event manager.