Jobs in pharmaceutical sales are ideal for people who want to combine interests in science and business

There's gold in them there pills. Few areas offer a better opportunity to combine an interest in science and a head for business than the multi-billion pound pharmaceutical industry. If your ideal career also involves working mostly out of the office, a company car, a laptop and a mobile phone, there is only one job that fits the bill - pharmaceutical sales representative.

Pharmaceutical companies are the commercial giants which research, develop and deliver drugs to the National Health Service and private medicine. Medical sales representatives are the men and women who take the products to the marketplace and make sure they are known about, understood and properly used. They promote and sell medicines to doctors and pharmacists.

International drug giants such as GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which invests more than £1bn a year in research in the UK alone, rely on medical representatives to carry their products to the medical world.

Every year, drug companies and agencies seek bright, articulate young men and women with good interpersonal skills to train for the job.

A pharmaceutical sales representative may work for one of the dozens of pharmaceutical companies based in the UK, which is a major centre for pharmaceutical research, or for a specialist sales company. Either way, he or she will normally be a graduate, or perhaps someone with an equivalent qualification, such as nursing. A science degree is not essential - many representatives enter the job with degrees in history, geography or business studies.

It certainly helps to have an analytical mind and an ability to grasp difficult concepts, however, as well as expertise in selling. As sales jobs go, being a pharmaceutical sales representative is a fairly specialist area. Drug sales reps are expected to be able to speak confidently to doctors and pharmacists about the benefits of the product they are promoting, so they will need to have a good grasp of medical matters. They must be able to explain why the drug in their bag is better than similar ones on the market.

"Company representatives spend a lot of effort on a day to day basis advising and educating doctors on what particular drugs can and can't do. That is why in most companies, medical sales are not organised on a purely commercial basis," said Neil McCrae of GSK.

"No drug company wants to promote a drug if it is going to be used inappropriately, so in this case success is never going to be measured on sales alone."

Drug companies and the the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry say busy GPs, hospital doctors, pharmacists and other health professionals welcome the chance to be kept up to date with the latest advances in medical technology and new drug releases.

With ethics so important in such a sensitive area, trainee pharmaceutical representatives are expected, within two years, to pass an examination set by the Prescription Medicine Code of Practice Authority.

With the tools of the salesman's trade - the car, laptop and mobile phone - at his or her disposal, a trainee will start as part of a team, making pre-arranged calls on GPs, hospital doctors, pharmacists and nurses to explain the benefits of a company's medicine.

After training, which usually includes sales techniques as well as the necessary background scientific information, representatives can move to bigger areas, more important products, or team leadership and management, perhaps as an area manager, product manager or marketing manager.

Like all sales staff, pharmaceutical representatives will earn promotion more quickly if they meet targets and demonstrate their ability - at set periods, each team is expected to attend meetings at head office and present their results to managers. But, unlike many representatives, in pharmaceutical sales staff are usually paid a salary rather than strictly on results.

For a graduate with no sales experience a typical starting salary is around £20,000.

Fully trained and with several years experience, sales representatives can command excellent salaries and good promotion prospects.

"The prospects are very good," said Alison Taylor, a member of the GSK human resources department. "Being a medical sales representative is a really good start for any career in the pharmaceutical industry."

Visiting doctors' surgeries and pharmacies with a big black bag clearly did GSK's Andrew Witty no harm. In the early stages of his career he spent time as a medical sales representative. Now he is president of the company's European pharmaceuticals division.